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Art: Film Painter

4 minute read

The career of Walt Disney has given many artists something new to think about. They like to think that movie animation is in its infancy, that Silly Symphonies are preludes to Serious Symphonies which will employ all the resources of painting wedded to music and cinemaction. The obstacle that many of them bleat about: no film company will back anything but popular entertainment. Last week in London an original artist named Len Lye, working on a shoestring, crashed through with an animated movie called Color Flight which previewers hailed as art, as entertainment, and as the freshest stuff of its kind since Disney arrived.

Color Flight is a four-minute visual and musical experience that resembles a roller coaster ride through a kaleidoscope to the accompaniment of a swing band. Actually, it is a 400-foot (half a reel) short, translating into the terms of color and movement a rumba played by the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Honolulu Blues, a swing classic played by Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. Very unobtrusive is the function for which it will be released by Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit— to advertise Imperial Airways. About ten years of experimenting and five previous color productions† helped make Color Flight an intensely exhilarating work of cinemart. It was made entirely by Len Lye himself, took nine weeks of work, cost $2,500.

The stunt on which Color Flight is based —making visual equivalents of sounds— is familiar to art students, who often take sketch pads to concerts and try to “draw” the music. Hollywood has lately caught on, and An Optical Poem by Artist Oskar Fischinger, a visual translation of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, was released last spring by MGM. In Len Lye’s new and slicker film, the hot music not only is heard but appears as a complex, fast-changing pattern of brightly or subtly colored shapes. Simultaneous with the trumpet notes of Red Nichols’ solo a vertical ribbon of cold green light vibrates on the screen, sways against a violet background. Drum beats appear as expanding dark blobs and are wiped away. A piano solo sprinkles the screen with mercurial, pearly beads.

The Disney Silly Symphonies are the product of a big corporation employing 75 animators, 150 copyists and a gang of gagmen, musicians and technicians. They are first drawn on large celluloid sheets, superimposed and then photographed one by one. Len Lye, however, paints or stencils his designs by hand, slowly and methodically, on the thin ribbon of film stock itself. Some of the names Len Lye gave to musical effects: “a splurged woomph” (drum beat), “a zing-a-zing-a-zing-a-zing” (violin), “flutter” (clarinet).

A tall, slim, loose-limbed man of 37, Len Lye lives with his trim, pretty wife, Jane, and baby Bix (after Bix Beiderbecke) in a neat house and garden in London’s suburban Chiswick. Before he went to England in 1926, Len Lye had worked as a farm laborer, carpenters’ mate, quarry laborer, miner, packer, sheep-shearer and scenario writer for an Australian film company. In England he has earned his living as sceneshifter and flyman in a theatre, prop-boy in a film studio, “effect” man with film companies. Last month Poet Laura Riding wrote a pamphlet about him. Said she: “There is a work of purification to be done in the use of camera, and Len Lye’s existing films hint at some of the ways in which it may be done.”

Says Len Lye himself : “I’ll put on a film that will blow the film-world skyhigh. . . .”

† Made as advertisements either for G. P. O. or for commercial companies, hence, like Color Flight, not eligible for trade distribution in the U. S.

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