Fischinger: Visual Forms and Structures


Oskar Fischinger was born near Frankfurt in 1900. According to biographer William Moritz, Fischinger’s, “first love was music.” He studied the violin and after leaving school in 1914, became an apprentice to an organ-builder ostensibly to understand the science of sound6. He then began to pursue what Moritz calls his second love, the “graphic arts.” While working as a designer for the Porkorny and Wittekind Machine Manufacturing Factory, he made the acquaintance of theater critic Bernhard Diebold, a man who advocated an idea that intrigued Fischinger: Gesamtkunstwerke.7 Diebold suggested to Fischinger that this total artwork be abstract.8 Both Diebold and Fischinger attended one of the first films to fit the criteria, a film called Lichtspiel opus 1, created by painter and cellist Walther Ruttman. The music for the film was newly composed after the film was completed and the musical accompaniment was live.

Fischinger conducted film experiments with wax figures; he invented a machine that would cut through a wax figure and automatically photograph each cross-section.9 Although it seemed promising to both Fischinger and Ruttman who ordered one, the machine did not perform as expected. He began to experiment with other ways to produce images: clay, cut-outs, colored liquids, silhouettes, and charcoal drawings.10

Some of Fischinger’s most famous works are shorts called “Studies” in which he synchronized animation to the music.
Studies 2, 3, and 4 all featured popular music from the Electrola record label. The label actually used Studie nr. 2 as an advertisement for the music. I will discuss Studie nr. 7 in more detail later. Fischinger synchronized Studie nr. 8 to Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Citing this piece as Fischinger’s favorite of the black and white works, William Moritz describes the animation as a study in contrasts: “shape vs. content, random grouping vs. ordered patterns, simple vs. complex structures.”11 The images set up visual tension that seems to call for resolution, but Fischinger ran into trouble obtaining the rights to the recording he chose for the film. Dukas was still alive which made negotiations more difficult and the rights more expensive. Another recording could not simply be substituted for the one he chose originally; when selecting a piece of pre-existent music, Fischinger often chose a recording with a crisp and quick tempo and calculated the timings for his animation using a complicated algorhythm and a slide rule.12 Fischinger bought the rights to the first side of the recording hoping he would be able to find funding for the second side. Additional funding never materialized so he stopped his animation in the middle. Moritz waxes philosophical about the unfinished work which was nevertheless distributed in its incomplete form:

  Would the ending of the film have been able to provide a resolution to these tensions? We can never know, but as the film now stands, it is, like Goethe’s Faust, a mirror of life itself: no resolution, continuous striving.13

In addition to using classical and popular music in his films, Fischinger tried to create sounds out of images instead of the other way around. In his experimental work, Ornament Ton, he shot images directly onto the optical track and achieved very unconventional sounds. Later, he would share these experiments with American composer John Cage. Fischinger’s “belief that all things have a sound even if we do not always listen or hear it,” was deeply influential on Cage who experimented with sound in similar ways in the decades following their meeting.14

In 1933, the Nazis came to power. Fischinger worked within the system by day while animating short abstract pieces by night. More and more, he thought about making a large-scale, abstract animated film. He said: “I want to make in 1935 the first great feature length color film—an absolute color work, born wholly out of music, comprehensible to all the people on earth—which will bring huge amounts of foreign currency into our country.”15 Although Fischinger’s films had won awards in Venice and Brussels and had received attention from American producers, the German government declared all abstract art “degenerate” and it was fortunate that by 1936 Fischinger was on his way to Hollywood and a job at Paramount Studios.16

Paramount asked Fischinger to produce an animated short for their feature Big Broadcast of 1937. The music would be a newly recorded jazz piece called “Radio Dynamics.” Fischinger began working on a color spectacular, but was soon discouraged to learn that the entire feature, including his short, would be shot in black and white. Fischinger and the studio devised a solution wherein images of products commonly advertised on the radio would be superimposed over the abstract visuals, but there was not enough time to complete the new version and Fischinger missed Paramount’s deadline. The studio terminated his contract.17 Conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom Fischinger had discussed his idea of a full-length, abstract, animated film, appeared in Big Broadcast of 1937 conducting an orchestral arrangement of a Bach fugue. The images that director Mitchell Leisen shot to accompany the music seem to prefigure the live action and animation visuals that would accompany Stokowski’s version of a fugue in Disney’s Fantasia, three years later.18 Stokowski pitched the idea of Fantasia to Disney, who responded enthusiastically.19 Fischinger was hired as a special effects animator for the film. Conflict arose quickly because Fischinger wanted all the art to be abstract in nature, while Disney wanted almost everything to be representational. The studio’s system of collective committees was also at odds with Fischinger’s fierce artistic independence. Disney further ruffled feathers when he asked other animators to alter Fischinger’s designs by adding representational objects like animals.20 In time, Fischinger quit and removed his name from the film and Disney shelved his work.21 In a letter, Fischinger described his experiences while working on Fantasia:

  I worked on this film for nine months; then through some ‘behind the back’ talks and intrigue (something very big at the Disney Studios) I was demoted to an entirely different department, and three months after I left Disney again, agreeing to call off the contract. The film ‘Toccata and Fugue by Bach’ is really not my work, though my work may be present at some points; rather it is the most inartistic product of a factory….[N]o true work of art can be made with that procedure used in the Disney Studio.22

Fischinger struggled for the rest of his life to obtain funding for animated films from benefactors like the curator of the Guggenheim collection and champion for abstract art, Baroness Hilla Rebay.23 Rebay had, at times, been a great supporter of Fischinger’s work. They had many things in common: both were German expatriates and followers of Eastern mysticism, and both were dedicated to creating a center for the development, preservation, and research of what Rebay called “non-objective”24 films. Rebay biographer Joan Lukach says of their relationship: “while Fischinger’s extensive correspondence with Rebay offers proof that he was warm, generous, kind-hearted, and genuinely grateful to her and to the foundation, it also reveals that he possessed little business sense.” Lukach states that Fischinger sometimes asked for funds inadequate to create two prints of a film, and therefore was often unable to send the Guggenheim trustees a copy of a project they had funded.25 When Solomon Guggenheim died in 1949, the foundation shelved its plans for a non-objective film center and Rebay expressed regret that she could not help fund more of Fischinger’s work. Fischinger continued to seek her help, but his persistence annoyed Rebay; friction arose between the two and their relationship became strained.26

Without the money to animate films, Fischinger remained creative through painting.27 He had not studied painting as a student and came to it relatively late in life, but he enjoyed it and painted whenever and on whatever (the war made raw materials scarce) he could. He also began to animate using paint on glass, a technique used in his final complete film, Motion Painting I (1947). In the late 1950s, Fischinger suffered health problems, but kept creating, painting, and inventing. He died in 1967.

Studie nr. 7 (1931) is a good example of an early work by Fischinger that is synchronized to a piece of classical music, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no.5. It is a work of absolute music; it tells no story, features no “characters,” and portrays no explicit emotion. We know from the title of the music only that it is a dance. The aspect of the music that is most important in terms of Fischinger’s animation is form. There are two contrasting musical themes which the animator rendered as two contrasting visual themes. All of the drawings are charcoal, each one done by hand. The first theme is a “sharp and vigorous furiant seen as razor thin planes moving along perspective lines through deep space toward the viewer.”28 Geometrical shapes, most notably, small squares, perform the “action” of the first theme; one might even say that the squares “dance.”29 Softer shapes represent the second theme: gentle arcs that sensuously curve around each other. A repetition in the music means a repetition in the animation. Louder dynamics in the music result in larger shapes in the animation. The crispness of the performance Fischinger chose to animate certainly gave him the opportunity to show what an artist could do with simple charcoal drawings. The strong contrast in the musical sections afforded him the chance to show visual contrast as well. In the softer section, the viewer senses that the gentle arcs are vibrating as would the strings of the violin. This short ran with the German film Ariane (1931) in Berlin and was a big hit for Fischinger.30 Fischinger’s efforts to distinguish musical themes through the use of differing shapes are also apparent in An Optical Poem (1937-1938), set to one of Liszt’s Hungarian dances. Paper cut-outs of circles, squares, and triangles move in response to the music (see Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3). Each musical theme has its own shape. Fischinger made the film at MGM.

Motion Painting I (1947), Fischinger’s last complete film, like Studie nr. 7 is set to a piece of absolute music: the first and third movements of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. Fischinger used the technique of paint on glass to animate this film although unlike the earlier Studies, Motion Painting I is not strictly synchronized to the music. Instead, it seems that he chose this piece because of its constant musical motion and its contrapuntal texture.31 The performance of the piece, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler is lively, as was Fischinger’s taste. Throughout the film, Fischinger adds shapes and colors to the rapidly changing glass “canvas.” Because he photographed the painting after each brushstroke, the amount of activity in the film is startling. Just as the music never rests, the painting never stops. Throughout filming in order to preserve the continuity of the lighting, Fischinger would add a sheet of plexiglass to the surface and continue painting; he did this six times.

The brush strokes that accompany the first movement outline thick, colorful spirals. The only clear shift in painting style occurs when the first movement ends and the third movement begins. (Fischinger cut the second movement of the concerto which is an improvisational passage for harpsichord.) Fischinger began the third movement by covering the spirals with white squares, then adding dotted lines, small squares and rectangles, and triangles of increasing size. The counterpoint of the music becomes denser as does the animation. In the final moments, where the music is at its most active, Fischinger’s brushstrokes become wider, more intense in color, and cover large amounts of the visual field until the whole screen in taken up by what can only be described as blobs of paint. The film is an intense experience of color, shape, and music. Although not strictly synchronized, Motion Painting I was one of Fischinger’s most successful combinations of sight and sound; Fischinger truly captures the spirit of the music and the complexity of Bach's counterpoint.