Last night I wandered over to the Tate Modern to watch a series of short videos on “Early Experiments in Computer Animation” – which rather appealed to my geek-side. Alas, it proved to be a bit of a disappointment.

I was hoping for a lot of mathematical animation – the sort of thing where you plug in some fancy equations and sit back to see what happens, and indeed the first two film shorts were exactly that. I was very happy. However, the remainder of the event was dominated by films where a computer was used more as a canvas to paint on – rather than using the processor inside the computer to create the animations itself.

The first clip, Cibernetik 5.3 (John Stehura, 1965) was a dramatic sequence of very early sine wave animations and geometric shapes set to music which seemed to be a fusion of The Andromeda Strain and Quatermass and the Pit (I hunted and can’t find a copy on the internet to share).

Imagine early 1990s rave music videos – and this is a very early precursor of those.

The second, called “69” by Denys Irving was a silent film which looked like the author had pointed a camera at a computer monitor and recorded what was happening – and was totally silent. A bit boring for most people I expect, but as I used to play with creating geometric patterns on computers back in the 1980s, it was quite exciting to watch someone doing the same thing before I was even born.

Then the rest.

Poemfield was an exploration of fonts – and just flashed words on the screen then played with the colours and sizes. Frankly, boring and nothing which couldn’t have been done with conventional animation techniques anyway.

Around Perception was a Canadian funded film which opened with a lot of text about how the film is deeply emotional – and then proceeded to spend 16 minutes just flashing colours and shapes on the screen to a rather hideous sound track. It could have been made using cardboard cutouts frankly!

The remainder were of a similar genre – they claimed to be computer animations, and while it is quite possible that a computer was involved – there was no evidence of it. These were animations which could be produced quicker and easier using conventional techniques of the time – and doing it on a computer was nothing more than ego boosting showing off.

In a way, they were the opposite of what we have today – where, for example – the cartoon series, South Park is designed to look like just cardboard cutouts, but is in fact entirely created on a computer. It just doesn’t look like it.

Personally, I really wanted to see more mathematical based animations, as I am a huge fan of the early 1980s experiments with fractal graphics which lets the computer generate the image itself based on a series of rules – rather than being simply a canvas on which the animator manually draws each image themselves.

I have lurking around a VHS tape I recorded many years ago of a “rave night” event by Channel 4, where they spent an entire night on programs to do with the early rave culture and the fusion of electronic music and dynamic mathematical models of computer animations. Think Mandelbrot and the evolution of fractal mathematics, and you’ll have an idea of the sort of thing which really excites me.

Oh well – at least the Tate Modern is just down the road from my house, so I didn’t waste too much time.

Links from the event:

John Stehura, Cibernetik 5.3, 1965–69 USA, 8 min

Denys Irving, 69, 1969 UK, silent, 8 min

Stan Vanderbeek and Kenneth Knowlton, Poemfield # 2, 1966 USA, 6 min

Pierre Hébert, Around Perception, Canada 1968, 16 min 27 sec

Malcolm Le Grice, Threshold, 1972 UK, 13 min 47 sec

Lillian Schwartz and Kenneth Knowlton, Googolplex, 1972 USA, 5 min 20 sec

Ed Emshwiller, Sunstone, 1979 USA, 2 min 57 sec

Larry Cuba, Two Space, 1979 USA, 8 min

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