Oskar Fischinger – Optical Poem (1938) from Avant-Garde Cinema on Vimeo.

Before digital animation, the early works of abstract pioneers constructed meticulous sequences of images that transformed music into synchronized visual for the first time.

These works didn’t simply predict computer animation. They helped create it. The works we make now are heavily indebted to the ideas about abstraction and visualization that these works first established.

For just one example, here is Oskar Fischinger’s 1938 “Optical Poem.” Fischinger was one of the most significant early animators and special effects wizards, working with the likes of Fritz Lang and, on Fantasia, Walt Disney. This is one masterpiece among many, though sadly, apart from having to flee Nazi Germany, Fischinger found his work failed to earn him money. He created his own physical light organ, as well, the Lumigraph. Together with abstract animator Walter Ruttmann, Fischinger really represents the origins of modern abstract animation, particularly in regards to music.

An Optical Poem was set to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody for MGM, a tightly-constructed dance of papers hung on invisible wires, shot one frame at a time.

Keep watching: what first appears to be a simple construction of dots melds into beautiful compositions of shapes and textures, the flat giving way to dimensional space.

Fischinger clearly deserves a feature-length write-up here; if anyone would like to assist with research or suggest other resources, let me know. (Ruttmann, as well.)

I’m sure Fischinger would have loved to live to see today’s computer technology – the “imagine what he would have done with a computer” cliché here seems very real. It’d be nice to see some digital creations responding to this work, as well.

Thanks to Forrest Oliphant for the tip.