For our latest feature we’re slowing down the perception of time to make a tribute to the roots of our ever-changing present. This time we’re celebrating the works of John Whitney Sr. a.k.a one of the forefathers of computer animation. During his lifetime he pioneered the world of computer animation by experimenting with both analogue and digital computers to create amazing animations that would impress and catch the attention from fellow artists, such as Alfred Hitchcock, as well as mogul companies like IBM. His distinctive style, which consisted of a whole mix of repetitive abstract patterns dressed up in psychedelic colored costumes, is considered a standard in today’s industry and has been in use from even before our lovely parents first saw similar animations during their hippie years while dancing to the sounds of the Grateful Dead.
Born and raised in Pasadena, California, John attended Pomona College, the same institution where many notorious personalities received their education, including Roy E. Disney (Walt Disney’s nephew), New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, and six-time Grammy Winning conductor Robert Shaw, among others. During this period he spent time experimenting and creating 8 mm movies of lunar eclipses using a home-made telescope. After a year spent in France studying 12-tone and contemporary composition, John returned to the States to collaborate with his brother in a series of abstract films that would lead them to win a Guggenheim Fellowship (1948) and the First International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium (1949).
The 1950s were a golden decade for Mr. Whitney. Apart from directing engineering films on guided missile projects (1952), he had the privilege of collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock by creating the animated title sequence of his 1958 film ‘Vertigo’ (above). During the 60s Whitney invented his own mechanical analogue computer which led him to the foundation of Motion Graphics Incorporated, a production company for creating motion picture and television title sequences and commercials. The short film ‘Catalog’ (1966) compiles most of the visuals he created using the new device and would establish him as one of the pioneers of computer animation.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s John Whitney innovated his work by the abandonment of analogue computers and the introduction of digital technologies to his films. Famous digital compositions from this era include Arabesque (1975) and Moondrum (1989-1995) which benefited from faster computers and his invention of an audio-visual composition program called the Whitney-Reed RDTD (Radius-Differential Theta-Differential). John Whitney died on 22nd September 1995, aged 78.
Whitney’s sheer brilliance lies in the fact that during his time no techniques in the field had already been developed, so it’s safe to assume his journey started with pen & paper and a lot of imagination. It would have been a honor for us to have met such a big artist and innovator, a genius mind who helped shape the future of visual media with the use of the precarious technologies available. Which leads us to ask, do we live in an easier world today, where all the necessary tools are at our disposal, making our creative processes easier or have these inventions led society to dry the fountain of ideas and made our brains lazier than ever? Well, that probably depends on every person’s perspective…