Jazz in Animation – Experimental

I was manipulating cut-outs and working with fluids, very much as they are used in the light shows. I had an oil bath on a level tray with the light below. I put dye into the oil until it was deep red, and then used red-blind film in the camera. With my finger or with a stylus, I could draw on this thin bath of oil; and then would push the oil away and the light would shine through so I could draw linear sequences very freely; and by selecting the weight and thickness of the oil, I could control the rate at which the line would erase itself, so that it was constantly erasing with a constantly fresh surface to draw on. I was doing that and manipulating paper cutouts and then doing a lot of direct etching on film as McLaren had done. I made, during that time, half a dozen little films to classic jazz such as Will Bradley.”

Whitney was initially influenced by Norman McLaren and McLaren himself was one of the very first to combine jazz and abstract form, with the exception of Luigi Veronesi who combined abstract animation with the music ‘Mood Indigo’ in 1941 and Oscar Fischinger who experimented with jazz in 1936 when he made Allegretto. This film was set to a symphonic jazz piece composed by the Paramount studio musician, Ralph Rainger, and it has been described as “a monument to Hollywood vulgarity”. It seems fair to point out that the studio chose the musician but that Fischinger style was never richer than when making this film. It is a glorious celebration of the American dream, with kaleidoscopes of stars, sky-scrapers and glowing Californian colours.

Norman McLaren was interested in jazz from his earliest years and in one of his first films, Camera Makes Whoopee, made in 1935 for the Christmas Ball of the Glasgow School of Art, he includes many jazz instruments and has specified since that the silent track should be accompanied by dance music of the period.

His first film to use a jazz track was Boogie Doodle. In this film, using pen and ink drawings directly on to film, McLaren creates dancing forms and colours which counterpoint the honky-tonk piano of Albert Ammons. There is more honky-tonk in ‘Five for Four’, a film made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1942 and which has never previously been shown in this country. The film, sponsored by the War Savings Committee, was ostensibly to promote wartime savings although to modern eyes the rate of increase does not seem excessive. However, the lively animation, again drawn directly on to film and Albert Ammons’ glorious rendition of ‘Pinetops Boogie’, makes this a very special film.

Begone Dull Care

One of Norman McLaren’s most famous films is ‘Be Gone Dull Care’ and in this film McLaren broke away from all frame limitations drawing fluent lines and colours down the centre of a piece of film. The film interprets three contrasting jazz pieces composed by Oscar Peterson and played by the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Another film in which McLaren interprets a jazz score was ‘Short and Suite’ where scratched abstract shapes suggest the mood and movement of the music, composed by Eldon Rathburn for Jazz Ensemble.

Another experimental animator working at the National Film Board of Canada is Pierre Hebert and, in 1967, he made a somewhat complicated animated film on the world’s demographic problems, Population Explosion, but enlightened it with a splendid jazz track with music by Ornette Coleman.

While today, many experimental animators also make their own experimental music – frequently using computers for both – it seems fair to say that the happy marriage of experimental animation and jazz will continue to produce such exciting films as those in this article.

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Printed in Animator’s newsletter Issue 5 (Summer 1983)