Mar 31, 2010

Mary Ellen Bute & Seeing Sound

Kool Kat Mary Ellen!

Being the only female animator on the list of people we could pick to write about, I thought Mary Ellen Bute would be a really great and fascinating person to look into. Born in 1906, Bute was a pioneer of "visual music" and abstract animation, making a series of films which she referred to as "Seeing Sound." Earlier on, she studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, where she realized that although she enjoyed painting, it was too restricting for the kind of art she wanted to make. She later started to embrace the potential of light, which compelled her to travel to Europe and assist the color-organ inventor Thomas Wilfred. This led her to study the electronic transformation of acoustic into optical signals with Leon Theremin in 1931, along with the mathematical concepts of composition with Joseph Schillinger. She then realized that film was the right medium for her, which led her to create "Rhythm in Light," which was screened at the Radio City Music Hall and is believed to have most likely been the first abstract film to have been shown publicly. Unfortunately, "Rhythm in Light" has not been uploaded onto the internet for me to post here.

Mary Ellen Bute embraced classical music in particular by juxtaposing famous compositions with entrancing "lights and shadows, growing lines and forms, [and] deepening colors and tones," creating intense and wonderful visual experiences that were synchronized to feel as though you could see the music (

An interesting piece I found on her work was this short documentary about her, which notably describes her films as "unjustly ignored." Along with talking about her work and her life, it additionally shows clips of her films, including live action work with a young Christopher Walken, ha.

The thing this documentary lacks, though, is a discussion on how Bute approached and created her work. She first refined her black and white film technique in which she would sometimes take drawn images with filmed pictures and multiply them to distort their appearance and enhance the light and shadow. Later, with her husband Ted Nemeth, she started creating her visual music films to synchronize musical compositions with animated imagery. She used early color film systems and quickly began utilizing hand drawn animation and superimposition. Bute, along with Norman McLaren and Hy Hirsh Bute were some of the first filmmakers to truly explore electronic imagery, as early as the beginning of the 1950s. By using oscilloscope patterns, she felt as though she had become the closest to visually representing music onto film.

Collaboration with Norman McLaren:

Later film, "Finnegan's Wake," which combined live action with animated techniques. It won the "best debut" award at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival:


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