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John Whitney, Sr. died September 22, 1995 in Los Angeles, California, ending a remarkable career that linked music to experimental film and later to computer imaging. John Hales Whitney was born April 8, 1917 in Pasadena, California; he attended Pomona College, Claremont University before spending a year in Paris from 1937 to 1938. While in Paris, he studied Schoenberg's Twelve Tone techniques with Rene Liebowitz and worked on the animation of abstract designs.

Returning to the United States in 1939, he joined with his painter brother, James Whitney, to collaborate on several experimental films. Five Abstract Film Exercises (1940-1945) won first prize at the First International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium in 1949. The early Whitney films earned admiration from artists and filmmakers and led to a Solomon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 that allowed John Whitney to study the composition of music combined with graphics. He was particularly interested in a study of the music of sine waves. John said of this period, "The artist/composer shapes time with his hands." "Time has become visual." John made a mechanical pendulum device, an "audio-visual instrument," that emitted sounds that were combined with a camera apparatus to point and capture light in the production of abstract design films. John said that he and his brother James "were outsiders inside Hollywood."

Married to abstract painter, Jacqueline Helen Blum, they had three sons: John, Jr., Michael and Mark. An exceptional family, all of the Whitneys are interested in filmmaking.

In 1952, Whitney founded the Motion Graphics, Inc., for the production of commercial motion pictures and later in 1955, he directed animation films at UPA Studios where he was involved in the first major network, all-animation television show. From 1957-1959, John Whitney joined the Charles and Ray Eames Studio as a film specialist working on productions including Toccata for Toy Trains and Two Baroque Churches.

By 1959, John began his pioneering work in the development of mechanical analog systems which founded the principles and techniques of "incremental drift" and "slit-scan." Whitney's first analog computer was made from an M-5 Anti-aircraft Gun Director and later with modifications from an M-7 (p. 206, Expanded Cinema). An assemblage of visual effects was produced, Catalog 1961, to demonstrate the commercial potential of the techniques. Several feature film titles were created in collaboration with Whitney.

Permutations was completed in 1966; it was an early artistic film constructed entirely off the black-and-white monitor of a large computer system (IBM 360, IBM 2250 Display, written in GRAF and FORTRAN). Color was added by editing with an optical printer. It is an elegant abstract work composed of architectures of color dots that develop pattern while displaying a kinetic rhythm. This early work has had an immense influence on the later generations of computer animators.

In the early 1970s, John Whitney, Sr. completed the Matrix series and the Osaka series of computer graphic films. They were also colored and edited by optical printer. Arabesque (1975) was his final film using the computer/optical printer. This work was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and Information International.

Whitney lectured at UCLA and at Kyoto University as well as at numerous conferences worldwide. Among his many honors and awards is the Medal of Commendation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1986) for Cinematic Pioneering.

John Whitney wanted to create a dialog between "the voices of light and tone." All of his early experiments in film and the development of sound techniques lead toward this end. He felt that music was an integral part of the visual experience; the combination had a long history in man's primitive development and was part of the essence of life. "Painting and song share the earliest relationship in cave societies." His theories "On the complementarity of Music and Visual Art" were explained in his book, Digital Harmony, published by McGraw-Hill in 1980.

In 1986, John Whitney joined with Jerry Reed to develop a program combining computer graphics and music composing. From 1986-1992, the Whitney-Reed RDTD (Radius-Differential Theta Differential) composing program was refined. The product of this work was the invention of a music/graphic instrument that produces a direct matching of "tonal action with graphic action." Whitney said, "I believe that visual design belongs with musical design." He stated that with the development of computer technology, computers can now create and store images and music in infinite combinations and sequences to experience Complementarity and bring about a richer communication. Whitney believed that strong emotion flows from the combination of Music and Visual elements. "I've struggled to define my vision. The union of color and tone is a very special gift of computer technologies." He said that he would look to future artists to develop the communication further. His paper, discussing a major new audio-visual art medium, was published in the Computer Music Journal, Vol. 18/3, Fall, 1994.

I spoke with him recently at a computer art opening in Pasadena on August 5, 1995. He always had a great curiosity about the use of technology in communications and the arts and was soon to accept the position of Visiting Fellow to the Division of Electronics and Information Engineering, at Hokkaido University, Japan.

Throughout his life, John inspired young artists by showing them alternative means of expression through the use of digital techniques; many of these artists went on to become contributors themselves. John Whitney will be long remembered, as much for his inspiration as for his singular accomplishments in his fields.


  • John Whitney Curriculum Vitae; revised 9-27-95

  • Digital Harmony, On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney, McGraw-Hill, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980.
  • Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1970.
  • Video Culture, A Critical Investigation, John Handhardt, ed., Peregrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah, 1986.
  • A Personal Search for the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art, John Whitney, 1992, 27:10 (video tape).
  • An Afternoon with John Whitney, Em Squared, 1991, 17:56 (video tape).

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