Sunday, January 9, 2011

Films #139 and #140: Catalog (1961) AND per-mu-ta-tion (1966)

Animator John Whitney Sr., one of the fathers of modern computer animation, built a one-of-a-kind animation contraption in the late 50s after messing around with parts from a World War II anti-aircraft plane's gun director. After a bit of tweaking, the machine stood at twelve feet and could produce dazzling images, if operated correctly. According to Wikipedia, "Design templates were placed on three different layers of rotating tables and photographed by multiple-axis rotating cameras. Color was added during optical printing." So this film Catalog is merely that: a stunning demo reel designed to test the limits of this massive device (and imagine the additional effort put into optically coloring the original black-and-white footage!!).

John Whitney Jr., now also a filmmaker (along with his two brothers), offers here a technical explanation of how his father's machine worked:

I don't know how many simultaneous motions can be happening at once. There must be at least five ways just to operate the shutter. The input shaft on the camera rotates at 180 rpm, which results in a photographing speed of 8 fps. [normal speed is 24 frames per second--JDT] That cycle time is constant, not variable, but we never shoot that fast. It takes about nine seconds to make one revolution. During this nine-second cycle the tables are spinning on their own axes while simultaneously revolving around another axis while moving horizontally across the range of the camera, which may itself be turning or zooming up and down. During this operation we can have the shutter open all the time, or just at the end for a second or two, or at the beginning, or for half of the time if we want to do slit-scanning.

Slit-scan is the special effect used by Douglas Trumbull to arrive at the famed Stargate sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trumbull and Kubrick both were inspired greatly by the effects Whitney came up with in Catalog. In fact, as you watch the piece, you'll be aware of yourself falling into the same sort of abstracting trance the Stargate sequence produces for Kubrick. Like many of Whitney's subsequent works (which you can locate on You Tube if you search for this film), it's a magical, meditative movie, backed by Gyorgy Ligeti-like music (which furthers the 2001 connection), and produces purely color-, musical- and geometry-based emotions (the film is an early version of John Whitney Sr.'s 1966 film per-mu-ta-tion). Both movies are landmarks not only of animated and experimental cinema, but also of television (where would 70s TV graphics be without it?), abstract art, and the merging of technology and human expression. Whitney was a genius of bold feelings and of knowing how things work. Check it out. PS: Trivia note: Whitney also produced the spiragraph-like drawings adorning Saul Bass's credits sequence for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo).

REMEMBER, VIEWERS: this is 1961 and 1966 here. My recommendation: start both movies at the same time and watch them both on one screen. The violin score on Catalog and the percussion score on per-mu-ta-tion work together absolutely perfectly--enough to make me think that both movies were designed to be seen simultaneously. I will never, now, see either without the other.

and in 1966, now start...: per-mu-ta-tion

NOTE, ONCE AGAIN: For a REALLY unique viewing experience, run both films concurrently, on top of each other. That's my steadfast recommendation. The neat thing is: it makes every viewing experience different, because (now, at least) we have control over which movie stops and starts and when each movie does so. This could potentially make for an infinite number of versions for simultaneous viewings of Catalog and per-mu-ta-tion.

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