Optical Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Animator Hated by Hitler, Dissed by Disney

At a time when much of ani­ma­tion was con­sumed with lit­tle anthro­po­mor­phized ani­mals sport­ing white gloves, Oskar Fischinger went in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tion. His work is all about danc­ing geo­met­ric shapes and abstract forms spin­ning around a flat fea­ture­less back­ground. Think of a Mon­dri­an or Male­vich paint­ing that moves, often in time to the music. Fischinger’s movies have a mes­mer­iz­ing ele­gance to them. Check out his 1938 short An Opti­cal Poem above. Cir­cles pop, sway and dart across the screen, all in time to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hun­gar­i­an Rhap­sody. This is, of course, well before the days of dig­i­tal. While it might be rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple to manip­u­late a shape in a com­put­er, Fischinger’s tech­nique was decid­ed­ly more low tech. Using bits of paper and fish­ing line, he indi­vid­u­al­ly pho­tographed each frame, some­how doing it all in sync with Liszt’s com­po­si­tion. Think of the hours of mind-numb­ing work that must have entailed.

Born in 1900 near Frank­furt, Fischinger trained as a musi­cian and an archi­tect before dis­cov­er­ing film. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin and start­ed pro­duc­ing more and more abstract ani­ma­tions that ran before fea­ture films. They proved to be pop­u­lar too, at least until the Nation­al Social­ists came to pow­er. The Nazis were some of the most fanat­i­cal art crit­ics of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, and they hat­ed any­thing non rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al. The likes of Paul Klee, Oskar Kokosch­ka and Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky among oth­ers were writ­ten off as “degen­er­ate.” (By stark con­trast, the CIA report­ed­ly loved Abstract Expres­sion­ism, but that’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry.) Fischinger fled Ger­many in 1936 for the sun and glam­our of Hol­ly­wood.

The prob­lem was that Hol­ly­wood was real­ly not ready for Fischinger. Pro­duc­ers saw the obvi­ous tal­ent in his work, and they feared that it was too ahead of its time for broad audi­ences. “[Fischinger] was going in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tion than any oth­er ani­ma­tor at the time,” said famed graph­ic design­er Chip Kidd in an inter­view with NPR. “He was real­ly explor­ing abstract pat­terns, but with a pur­pose to them — pio­neer­ing what tech­ni­cal­ly is the music video.”

Fischinger’s most wide­ly seen Amer­i­can work was the sec­tion in Walt Dis­ney’s Fan­ta­sia set to Bach’s Toc­ca­ta and Fugue in D Minor. Dis­ney turned his geo­met­ric forms into moun­tain peaks and vio­lin bows. Fischinger was apoplec­tic. “The film is not real­ly my work,” Fischinger lat­er reflect­ed. “Rather, it is the most inartis­tic prod­uct of a fac­to­ry. …One thing I def­i­nite­ly found out: that no true work of art can be made with that pro­ce­dure used in the Dis­ney stu­dio.” Fischinger didn’t work with Dis­ney again and instead retreat­ed into the art world.

There he found admir­ers who were recep­tive to his vision. John Cage, for one, con­sid­ers the Ger­man animator’s exper­i­ments to be a major influ­ence on his own work. Cage recalls his first meet­ing with Fischinger in an inter­view with Daniel Charles in 1968.

One day I was intro­duced to Oscar Fischinger who made abstract films quite pre­cise­ly artic­u­lat­ed on pieces of tra­di­tion­al music. When I was intro­duced to him, he began to talk with me about the spir­it, which is inside each of the objects of this world. So, he told me, all we need to do to lib­er­ate that spir­it is to brush past the object, and to draw forth its sound. That’s the idea which led me to per­cus­sion.

You can find excerpts of oth­er Fischinger films over at Vimeo.

Opti­cal Poems will be added to our list of Ani­ma­tions, part of our col­lec­tion: 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Best Ani­mat­ed Films of All Time, Accord­ing to Ter­ry Gilliam

Watch Dzi­ga Vertov’s Unset­tling Sovi­et Toys: The First Sovi­et Ani­mat­ed Movie Ever (1924)

Watch The Amaz­ing 1912 Ani­ma­tion of Stop-Motion Pio­neer Ladis­las Stare­vich, Star­ring Dead Bugs

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing one new draw­ing of a vice pres­i­dent with an octo­pus on his head dai­ly.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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  • Neighbor says:

    “At a time when much of ani­ma­tion was con­sumed with lit­tle anthro­po­mor­phized ani­mals sport­ing white gloves“nnPlease edu­cate your­self about the his­to­ry of ani­ma­tion before pon­tif­i­cat­ing on the sub­ject. Dis­ney’s tight­ly con­trolled cutesy direc­tion was just as new as Fischinger’s at the time. Tons of exper­i­men­tal ani­ma­tion was going on in the 1930’s, he was not work­ing in iso­la­tion nor the only work­ing total­ly abstract­ly. In the last 100+ years the peri­ods of time that fit your descrip­tion were in the minor­i­ty, yet any­thing that does­n’t fit the descrip­tion above (cutesy film for kids) is con­stant­ly por­trayed as new, rad­i­cal, shock­ing, some­thing peo­ple could­n’t under­stand or appre­ci­ate. It’s ridicu­lous- enough already. While exper­i­men­tal ani­ma­tors may have been forced under the radar for a time, this was not the case in the 1930’s, when abstract offer­ings by peo­ple like Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute reg­u­lar­ly opened for major stu­dio films.nnIt is past time for ani­ma­tion be rec­og­nized as an art form that deserves its own schol­ar­ly tra­di­tion of crit­i­cism.

  • CVM says:

    what hap­pened to our ear­li­er com­ment? feel free to edit out the part about wrong aspect ratio, since that’s been cor­rect­ed. thanks, CVM

  • CVM says:

    Fischinger moved to Berlin in 1927, not 1930. He made a film about that jour­ney.

    Cor­rect link for Fischinger with exten­sive bio, bib­li­og­ra­phy, texts and much more, centerforvisualmusic.org/Fischinger

    That is the archive which owns his films and papers, plus many ani­ma­tion draw­ings.
    The link you are using now is full of erra­ta and hasn’t been updat­ed in years.

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