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Original Creators: Visionary Computer Animator John Whitney Sr

The grandaddy of computer animation.

Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: John Whitney Sr.

Way before After Effects, before the annual Siggraph conference, before Pixar even, computer animation was around in its infant form. There were no feature films rendered entirely on a computer, no animated deconstructions of historic artworks. But there was someone who made all this possible and that man was John Whitney Sr. If you jumped in a time machine and kidnapped him from history to help you with a homework assignment and never returned him, the fate of computer animation may well go the way of the McFly clan in that disappearing photo from Back to the Future.


Anyway, enough with the time-travel film metaphors. Whitney’s work stands out because not only was he an early, bold experimenter in the field of computer graphics, he was also explicitly using computers to create works of art. He also realized the connection between generated imagery and music, using jazz as inspiration to create compositions in real-time.

But perhaps his most famous and recognized work was his collaboration with Saul Bass on the title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958. The mechanical animation technique that he used for this was the product of his experimentations with his self-built mechanical analogue computers, which he built with his brother, James.

Mechanical Analogue Computers

John Whitney Sr. and his brother James

Whitney built his first analogue computer in the late 1950s when he converted a World War II M-5 anti-aircraft gun director to create a complex drawing machine. This instrument gave him the ability to explore the world of motion and movement in a new kind of abstract space powered by computers.

The customized gun was able to control cameras that would maneuver above the artwork and, astoundingly, perform the kinds of functions that would later be common on digital computers. With these bespoke machines Whitney could create a peerless type of art while keeping ahead of the computing technology of the time. And, while his machines were mechanical, they anticipated the applications of computer software which we now take for granted.


Catalog (1961)

This was a demo reel which showcased the visual effects Whitney was able to create with his analogue machinery. The film demonstrates techniques like the slit-scan effect and the manipulation of light that Whitney, along with his brother, had been using to create motion graphics and earn themselves a living in the advertising world.

While these graphics may not have been created using digital technology, they were certainly influential in computer art. Their twisting forms and spirals, along with their bold use of color, were very different from the early graphics found on computers, which were far more conservative in their animation style. In this respect, Whitney was a visionary in what he thought possible in the world of motion graphics and computer imaging, paving the way for today’s computer animation industry and the complex abstract animations that can be seen in the works of artists like Scott Draves.

Arabesque (1975)

In 1966, Whitney became the first artist-in-residence at IBM and, with their technology at his disposal, began to experiment with digital effects. By the 1970s he’d stopped using his analogue machinery and instead primarily used digital computers, which were used to create Arabesque. Arabesque explores the notion of “harmonic progression” and Islamic architecture and was created using a vector display. Set to the music of Manoochehr Sadeghi, the graphics show the perfect union of image and sound. This sane audiovisual synthesis is something that can still be seen in modern animations like Beeple’s IV.10, among many others.

While Whitney’s technical accomplishments were remarkable, it was also his adoption of the computer as an artistic tool that makes him an antecedent to many of today’s digital artists working in the fields of animation and beyond.