Absolute Film

by Marcel Schwierin, Sandra Naumann

1 Absolute Film

2 Synthetic Sound, Direct Film, and Visual Music

3 Compositional Principles

4 Structurality, Materiality, and Transcendentality

5 Abstract Film in the Digital Age


An abstract film is one that does not contain the depiction of a concrete object. Such films were initially referred to as ‘absolute’ films, as they did not deal with the interpretation of a reality outside the film. There is debate as to the degree of abstraction required to classify a work as abstract. The spectrum ranges from filmed nonrepresentational source materials through semi-abstract real shooting of motifs that are difficult to identify (e.g., shadow plays) to cameraless and imageless direct editing of the film material. The history of abstract film began in 1921 with Lichtspiel Opus 1 (Light-Play Opus 1) by Walter Ruttmann and continues to the present day. A substantial share of abstract films expressly make reference to music or musical principles.

Several phases can be differentiated with respect to the relationship between image and sound. In the 1920s, the focus was on experimenting with the image; sound was considered secondary. Most films were projected – depending on the available possibilities – with or without sound. In the 1930s, the relationship between image and sound was reversed: most abstract films were animated to an existing piece of what was often popular music. In the 1960s and 1970s, the question of the relationship between image and sound was solved in a conceptual or structural way: image and sound comprised a unit of almost equal artistic value; the sound was for the most part designed by the filmmaker him- or herself. Since the 1960s, the medium of video has also been worked with in an abstract way, with the different technology evoking fundamentally different approaches in each case.


1 Absolute Film

Abstract film is thought to have originated in the 1910s, shortly after the culturally revolutionizing innovation of abstract painting, which in view of its non-mimetic treatment of artistic material had oriented itself toward music. In an article with the salient title Abstract Cinema — Chromatic Music, originally published in 1912, the futurist Bruno Corra describes the filmic experiments he carried out with his brother Arnaldo Ginna.[1] However, neither has one of these early experiments survived, nor has the showing of an abstract film from this period been documented.

The beginning of the history of abstract film therefore begins with the work Lichtspiel opus 1 (Light-Play Opus 1) by Walter Ruttmann, which premiered in Berlin in 1921. Lichtspiel opus 1 is a painted, hand-colored animated film whose presentation was accompanied by live music composed by Max Butting. Beginning in 1923, the Rhythmus (Rhythm) films by Hans Richter were shown under different titles,[2] followed in 1925 by Symphonie Diagonale (Diagonal Symphony) by Viking Eggeling. These works already demonstrate essential elements of abstract film: the makers of all three were visual artists and also considered their works as examples of Malerei mit Zeit (‘painting with time’).[3] In their films, they sought to examine the nature of the relationship between forms in their temporal development and clearly indicated this reference to musical principles in the titles of the films. At the same time, there are also considerable differences between these pioneering works: Lichtspiel opus 1 had its own score written specifically for the film — the film therefore works with coordinated auditory and visual rhythms — whereas the Symphonie Diagonale was consciously intended to be silent, developing the rhythm solely by means of the image. Richter’s film, on the other hand, was sometimes shown with, sometimes without musical accompaniment.

However, a break occurred in abstract film very early on: in 1925, within the scope of the matinee Der Absolute Film (The Absolute Film) in Berlin, not only were abstract German films presented, but French works as well, such as Ballet mécanique (FR, 1924) by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, and Entr’acte (FR, 1924) by René Clair. Both Ruttmann and Richter subsequently turned away from abstract film; Eggeling died in 1925. Unlike the German film artists, Léger, Murphy, and Clair did not rely on translating music into abstract forms, rather they used real shots that they assembled according to the principles of collage and montage. They aspired toward a synthesis of the art of sound and the image in close collaboration with contemporary composers such as George Antheil and Erik Satie.

Oskar Fischinger continued the tradition of German abstract film, introducing three significant innovations: R1. Ein Formspiel (R1. A Play on Form) (DE, 1926/1927) is a silent multiprojection whose breathtaking tempo is still surprising even today. It is a precursor to Expanded Cinema developed out of Farblichtspiele (color light-plays).

2 Synthetic Sound, Direct Film, and Visual Music

Fischinger’s Studie Nr. 2 (Study No. 2) (DE, 1930), on the other hand, is probably the first precursor to the music clip, for like his later studies Nos. 3, 4, and 5, it is not only synchronized to a popular song, in this case to Vaya Veronica, but the availability of the recording in stores is also mentioned in the film’s end credits. Fischinger did not consider his works to be illustrations of music, however, but as a means of transporting his abstract art. The direct accessibility achieved in this way made his studies very popular with audiences and therefore, unlike most other experimental films, also commercially successful.

Based on the conviction that there were fundamental relationships between sounds and forms and the conclusion that the abstract figures used in his films were similar to the patterns on an optical soundtrack, in ca. 1931 Fischinger finally began experimenting with Tönende Ornamente (Sounding Ornaments) by exposing painted forms onto the image tracks and soundtracks of the filmstrip. The synthetic wave forms produced in this way were transformed into sounds with the aid of the projector’s photocell so that the viewers could see and hear the respective forms simultaneously.

With the end of the Golden Twenties, the first heyday of experimental and thus abstract film ended on the European continent. In 1929 in London, the New Zealand-born Len Lye produced Tusalava, the first abstract film that did not stand in the tradition of European painting but was based on Samoan motifs. The accompanying original composition for two pianos has unfortunately been lost. In the color film A Colour Box (UK, 1935), Lye painted abstract motifs directly onto the film, dispensing with a camera and the photographic process — a method that is known as handmade, direct, or cameraless film. He used a Cuban melody for the soundtrack that served as the basis for the creation of associative references between certain sounds and forms.

Mary Ellen Bute is one of the pioneers of abstract film in the United States — beginning in 1934 she shot more than twelve abstract films. Because they were often used as supporting movies in commercial movie theaters, besides Oskar Fischinger she was probably the abstract filmmaker with the most audience appeal. Like Fischinger, she synchronized the images to popular music, which was intended to make them accessible to a wide audience. However, her actual goal was to produce visual music by using structural analogies, that is, through the transfer of principles of musical composition to the organization of pictorial elements.

3 Compositional Principles

The painter Dwinell Grant pursued similar ideas with respect to musical structuring in his experiments with film in the 1940s. While in his five Compositions (US, 1940-1949) he devoted himself to the expansion of abstract composition into time and motion as well as to the testing of a visual counterpoint, in 1943 he created one of the most radical abstract films — the silent film Color Sequence — which consists exclusively of solid-color frames that have been assembled so as to rapidly follow one after the other. In doing so, Grant broke new ground in a number of respects. First, Color Sequence is the first film to work with pure, monochromatic frames, thus achieving the highest possible level of abstraction in each individual frame (film image). Second, Color Sequence can therefore be considered the first flicker film, even if this term was not introduced until much later.

The brothers John and James Whitney also tread virgin soil with their Five Film Exercises (US, 1943-1944), with which they strove to expand the concept of visual music. They wanted to create an audiovisual music by not only laying out a comprehensive structure based on fundamental musical forms, but also translating these into image and sound by means of comparable production processes. For this purpose they developed revolutionary techniques for the generation of sound and images.[4] They shot direct light for the first time, which they modulated with the aid of stencils. Based on a limited set of geometric forms, they thereby produced serial permutations. For the production of the sound they constructed an instrument that consisted of a series of individually controllable pendulums that could record the oscillations directly onto the soundtrack. They succeeded in this way in precisely controlling synthetic sounds and assembling them into more complex oscillation patterns, thus not only creating the equivalent to visual design, but also anticipating developments in electronic music.

In the 1950s, a strong interest in mystic and spiritual concepts developed on the west coast of the United States which was reflected in, among others, films by Harry Smith and James Whitney’s later works. Whitney’s examination, begun in the Exercises, of the relationships between elements, their transformation, and their variation was now extended by a cosmic dimension. This becomes evident in Yantra (US, 1955), in which he now no longer submits geometric, but mandala like forms to transformations and variations. Like a number of other works, Yantra was originally planned to be silent and was not supplemented by a soundtrack (extracts from Henk Bading’s Cain and Abel) until later.

4 Structurality, Materiality, and Transcendentality

Because Grant’s film was forgotten for many years, Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka (AT, 1960) was long considered the first flicker film. Arnulf Rainer is comprised of black (black film) and transparent (blank film) frames as well as sound (white noise) and non-sound. Like many abstract filmmakers, Kubelka also makes direct reference to musical methods: the central element for Arnulf Rainer is the rhythm that has been elaborated according to metric principles and recorded in a score and at the same time converted into darkness and light, silence and sound.

Tony Conrad’s film The Flicker (US, 1966), which likewise consists of only black-and-white phases, also makes reference to arithmetic relationships, but concentrates more on the physiological perceptual possibilities of the flicker effect, which is created by means of alternating light and dark.

Because stroboscopic light is one of the few frequency-dependent perceptual modalities besides sounds, the point of departure for Conrad was the question as to whether it was possible to generate harmonic structures in the visual by means of stroboscopic stimuli of different frequency relationships.

Similarly radical is Zen for Film by Nam June Paik (US, 1964, also known as Fluxfilm 1). Paik runs a twenty-minute-long blank strip of film through the projector without sound. What one sees in the white rectangle of light next to the slight flickering of the projection (depending on the projector in use) are the typical projection flaws: the dirty edges of the projector’s film gate, dust and scratches on the film, and the characteristic rhythm of twenty-four images per second with which the film runs through the projector.

Based on Zen for Film, two conceptual historical lines can be drawn.

The structural material films of the 1970s are characterized by an emphasis on the film material, such as those by Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, George Landow (aka Owen Land), Guy Sherwin, and Paul Sharits, who examine the technical features of the medium (such as, for example, single image frame and optical sound) as well as the associated implications of the formal film language and perception in order to render what are normally hidden filmic processes visible and audible. In his series Optical Sound Films (UK, after 1971), Guy Sherwin explored various possibilities for generating synthetic sound by affixing material onto the entire filmstrip or by copying filmed shots even over the soundtrack area. In his Synchronousoundtracks (US, 1973-1974), Paul Sharits placed the visual and auditory focus on the perforation holes for transporting the film through the projector by enlarging the projection aperture and running the perforation over the sound pickup instead of the soundtrack.

As regards references to Eastern religions and practices, mention should be made of works by James Whitney and, above all, Jordan Belson that go back to the 1950s. In films such as Allures (US, 1961) and Samadhi (US, 1967), Belson reproduced the visual and auditory phenomena of transcendental experiences in meditation.

In addition, in the 1960s and 1970s, numerous filmmakers began exploring the possibilities of video and electronic image generation.[5] For Cycles (US, 1974), for example, Belson collaborated with Stephen Beck, who had constructed a video synthesizer he used from 1972 onward to create and perform his Illuminated Music compositions, which he referred to as visual jazz. John Whitney, Larry Cuba, and others experimented with analog computers in order to generate abstract forms. The reference to the composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau in John Whitney’s first computer film, Homage to Rameau, already points to this filmmaker’s interest in principles of harmonic progression, which he continued to pursue in later works such as Permutations (US, 1968), the Matrix trilogy (US, 1971-1972), and Arabesque (US, 1975; programming: Larry Cuba), and the theory of which he also discussed in his book Digital Harmony (1980).

5 Abstract Film in the Digital Age

In the 1980s, John Whitney continued his research on the development of a computerized instrument for simultaneous audiovisual composition and used it for the first time in Spirals (US, 1987). During this period, an important change began in artistic film with the transition to digital technology. While processing film as a carrier material is becoming increasingly rare and thus more and more expensive, digital video technology is not only becoming less costly, but is also improving. Yet even abstract films are still made on celluloid. Thus, Stan Brakhage’s later work remained primarily abstract (and silent) until his death in 2003: Brakhage painted directly onto or scratched the film. In his film performances, the U.S. American Bruce McClure manipulates several projectors and in this way pushes the flicker effect so far that it becomes a form of visual violence against the viewer. As in Tönende Ornamente, the sound is generated with images on the soundtrack and is then manipulated with the aid of numerous audio effect devices. Both works draw directly on the filmic material or the mechanics of the projector and could thus not have been produced using video or digital technology.

The same applies for works by the artist group Schmelzdahin (1979-1989: Jochen Lempert, Jochen Müller, and Jürgen Reble), who further developed the material film in a very unique way: the material was manipulated mechanically, chemically, and biologically — for example, rolls of film were buried unprotected in the garden for long periods. In the case of the audiovisual performance Alchemie by Jürgen Reble and Thomas Köner, the celluloid strips are also subjected to processes of decomposition, that is, during their projection they are drawn through chemical baths. In these works, audiovisuality is on the one hand staged within the scope of a live performance by using microphones to amplify and edit the hissing and steaming of the chemicals and the operating noises being emitted by the projectors; on the other hand, the editing and montage of different noises caused by dust on the optical soundtrack led to Köner’s soundtrack for Reble’s film Chicago from 1996.

Against this background, it can be assumed that in the future, above all those abstract works will be created on celluloid that for conceptual reasons implicitly require the material; otherwise, however, video and digital technology will be used. The presentation of projection situations in the exhibition space (projector and projection surface in the same room so that the projector becomes an explicit, often even dominant part of the work) is a very new phenomenon and it remains to be seen whether it will endure in an exhibition context. Thus, the abstract film may return to its origins — visual art.

all footnotes

[1] Bruno Corra, “Abstract Cinema — Chromatic Music,” in The Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 66-69. The article is also available online without reference to its source: http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/abstract.html.

[2] Today, the Rhythmus films are distributed under the titles Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, which were put together in this form by Richter in the 1950s on the basis of the Rhythmus film material and consciously predated. None of the original versions of the first Rhythmus films that were shown have survived.

[3] Cf. Walter Ruttmann, Untitled [Malerei mit Zeit], probably ca. 1919/1920(cited in Birgit Hein and Wulf Herzogenrath, eds., Film als Film, 1910 bis heute: Vom Animationsfilm der zwanziger bis zum Filmenvironment der siebziger Jahre, Kölnischer Kunstverein exhibition catalog [Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 1977], 63-64).

[4] Cf. “Audio-Visual Music: Color Music — Abstract Film,” Arts and Architecture 61 (December 1944): 28-29 and 42, reprinted in John Whitney, Digital Harmony: On the Complementary of Music and Visual Art (Peterborough, NH: Byte Books/McGraw-Hill, 1980), 138-143.

[5] Precursors here were Mary Ellen Bute, Hy Hirsh, and Norman McLaren, who generated electronic images with the aid of oscilloscopes as early as in the 1950s.

List of books in this text

Abstract Cinema - Chromatic Music
1973, Author: Corra, Bruno Publisher: Viking Press

Audio-Visual Music: Color Music – Abstract Film
1980, Author: Whitney, John Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art
1980, Author: Whitney, John Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Film als Film: 1910 bis heute
1977, Publisher: Hatje

Ohne Titel [Malerei mit Zeit]: Aus dem Nachlass, vermutl. 1919/20
1977, Author: Ruttmann, Walter Publisher: Hatje

see aswell

  • George Antheil
  • Henk Badings
  • Stephen Beck
  • Jordan Belson
  • Stan Brakhage
  • Mary Ellen Bute
  • Max Butting
  • René Clair
  • Tony Conrad
  • Bruno Corra
  • Larry Cuba
  • Viking Eggeling
  • Oskar Fischinger
  • Arnaldo Ginna
  • Dwinell Grant
  • Hy Hirsh
  • Thomas Köner
  • Peter Kubelka
  • Owen Land
  • George Landow
  • Fernand Léger
  • Jochen Lempert
  • Len Lye
  • Bruce McClure
  • Norman McLaren
  • Jochen Müller
  • Dudley Murphy
  • Nam June Paik
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau
  • Jürgen Reble
  • Hans Richter
  • Walter Ruttmann
  • Erik Satie
  • Paul Sharits
  • Guy Sherwin
  • Harry Smith
  • James Whitney
  • John Whitney
  • Works
  • A Colour Box
  • Alchemy
  • Allures
  • Arabesque
  • Arnulf Rainer
  • Ballet mécanique
  • Cain and Abel
  • Chicago
  • Color Sequence
  • Compositions
  • Cycles
  • Entr’acte
  • Five Film Exercises
  • Homage to Rameau
  • Illuminated Music
  • Lichtspiel opus 1
  • Matrix Trilogy
  • Optical Sound Films
  • Ornament Sound
  • Permutations
  • R1. Ein Formspiel
  • Rhythm 21
  • Rhythm 23
  • Rhythm
  • Samadhi
  • Spirals
  • Study No. 2
  • Study No. 3
  • Study No. 4
  • Study No. 5
  • Symphonie Diagonale
  • Synchronousoundtracks
  • The Flicker
  • Tusalava
  • Vaya Veronica
  • Yantra
  • Zen for Film

  • Timelines
    1910 until today

    All Keywords
  • Intermodale Analogie (Chap. 2)
  • Materialität (Chap. 3, 4, 5)
  • Proportionstheorie (Chap. 4)
  • Pythagoreismus / Universelle Harmonie (Chap. 4)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 1)
  • collage (Chap. 1)
  • counterpoint (Chap. 3)
  • montage (Chap. 1, 5)
  • notation (Chap. 4)
  • rhythm (Chap. 1, 4)
  • synthesis (Chap. 2)

  • Socialbodies
  • Birgit and Wilhelm Hein
  • Der absolute Film
  • John and James Whitney
  • Schmelzdahin
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