Computers can allow a sense of freedom for film-makers; new aesthetic combinations, in both the construction of film projects using non-linear editing, and new technical possibilities in the use, treatment, and manipulation of imagery.

There is now another route to devising and completing short experimental projects, as realising entire film projects on computer becomes increasingly practical - editing sound, editing image, titles, sophisticated manipulation of imagery, and traditional or new uses of opticals.

This creative process can, in practice, be liberating: the potential speed of a project's completion, its cost, ease of experimentation, and a way of working that gives creative and technical autonomy over complex film projects.

With multimedia computers becoming a domestic standard, keen practitioners don't always have to hire facilities to experiment or make a work. The tools are already in the hands of low-no budget film makers, with packages such as Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, Sound Edit 16 and many others.

For many emerging practitioners, the computer as a film making tool is their starting point. Many people who may have not previously considered themselves "filmmakers" as such, are drawn in by their existing knowledge from fields such as architecture, music, graphic design and web development. This generates a refreshing approach to computer films - from aesthetic considerations, to challenging prejudices or preferences of film-makers rooted in the traditions of celluloid.

The best digital projects are conceived within the medium; playful, inventive, celebrating limitations, and short - ideal for experimental work, where length has never been the issue.

This new genre is a digital medium, with an extended palette, a new aesthetic, and ways of display and distribution which break the constraints of existing cinematic conventions and environments. It paves the way for an era of experimentation that blurs boundaries between film making and what is currently termed multimedia.

The use of the computer in experimental film making has a rich history which reached a peak in the late 1960s, but stemmed from the early approaches and experimental 16mm work by key figures John and James Whitney in the late 1940s.

The Whitney brothers were exploring 16mm experimental film, gaining a reputation for their Film Exercises made between 1941-44. The Whitney's had a formidable background in traditional film making techniques winning first prize at the first Experimental Film Festival in Belgium in 1949.

John Whitney (1917-1995) later became director of animated films at UPA producing, in association with Saul Bass, the stylized and hypnotic opening title sequence for Hitchcock's Vertigo.

By the early 1960s, with his own company Motion Graphics Inc., he was exploring his passion for the realisation of experimental films using hand built technologies. John and James designed and built an "analogue computer" - a machine to realise effects and ideas that had up to that point no technical means of expression.

At the time they said they were "trying to make something and there wasn't a machine available for making it". It allowed infinitely complex rotational camera movement, filters and multiple variations for shutter operations, including slit-scanning; the technique Douglas Trumbull later developed and refined for Stanley Kubrick's experimental sequences in 2001, but which had actually been used by the Whitney family a number of years earlier.

Apart from collaborations with his brother, James Whitney (1921-1982) made two key films during this period - Yantra (1950-55) and Lapis (1963-66) which explore the mandalic possibilities of film. The first Yantra, was made painstakingly by hand using animation techniques and the second Lapis utilised the advantages offered by the analogue computer being able to generate more complex imagery much faster.

By the late 1960s there were a number of pioneers in this emerging field, who all had a common thread; manifesting the previously unseen, exploring the possibilites of complex movement and colour, using emerging technologies and computers as their medium, and often realising new aesthetics that had no previous parallel in the history of cinema.

New descriptions were needed to define artists and ideas which crossed over art, science, technology and research; Cybernetic Cinema referred explicitly to film and computers; the visionary critic and theorist Gene Youngblood used the title Expanded Cinema for his seminal text; and the appearance of the term Intermedia served to describe a new cross boundary art form.

Intermedia described a range of new work that broke the constraints of the traditional cinematic environment but used moving imagery, light and sound; installations, video, sensory music environments, and multiple slide and projector screenings often shown in non-cinema environments.

A number of enlightened corporations had the insight and vision to utilise and collaborate with the cultural producers of the time, supporting experimentation of emerging technologies at a time when the software, hardware and knowledge to produce advanced work was inaccessible to most people.

In 1966, John Whitney was taken on by IBM as an artist in residence to explore the possibilities of computers and animated graphics. Intermedia artists such as Stan VanDerBeek were producing computer films with Kenneth Knowlton from Bell Telephone Laboratories including Poem Fields, a geometric moving digital tapestry conceived and made entirely on computer and John Stehura's Cybernetik 5.3 (1965-1969), four years in the making and realised entirely using programming. The film was recently revived as part of the 1997 Beyond Technology season at the Lux cinema in London.

Underpinning the technological advances of these experimental films of the period was a similar approach - an underlying psychology and spirituality. Rather than become engulfed in the explorations of technology as their subject matter - many ideas embodied in these films were deeply spiritual - influenced by eastern philosophy, experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, Buddhism, Yoga, and the works of Carl Jung...

My own recent digital film Artificial Sentience was a logical progression from previous work on 16mm and 8mm and a sequence of 12 mandalas constructed over the past five years.

Artificial Sentience was a short conceived for computer and made on computer. It explores artificial intelligence and the emotional and spiritual limitations of computers and was deeply influenced by the cybernetic cinema of the 1960s, the ideas and work of Jordan Belson, HAL from Kubrick's 2001, and a long standing interest in the works of Carl Jung.

The film is an intense and spiritual soliloquy, a computer speaking with "emotion", about existence, life and death...

Pete Gomes is an artist and writer and New Technologies Researcher for the ICA from 1996-98.

Full article published in Filmwaves - Issue 3, February 1998. Subscribe now!

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