Remembering John Whitney, Sr.
The film world lost a true pioneer with the passing of John Whitney Sr. on
September 22 at the age of 78. Widely regarded as "the father of computer
graphics," Whitney began exploring the use of computers in film production as
early as the 1950's, establishing the principles of 'motion control' and
'slit scan,' and influencing a generation of filmmakers. The very name of his
company, Motion Graphics, presaged the world of CGI that was to come.
In the 1960's, Whitney's experimental film techniques found applications
among commercial clients, ranging from a collaboration with Saul Bass on the
film titles for Hitchcock's Vertigo, to television graphics for the Dinah
Shore and Bob Hope shows. Whitney's research grants from IBM also supported
his creation of innovative films like Permutations, constructed entirely off
computer monitors. In the 1970's at Cal Tech, Whitney completed the Matrix
series of films and was funded by the National Science Foundation to explore
artistic uses of technology. He capped this creative period with the seminal
computer film Arabesque, created with a grant from the National Endowment for
It was characteristic of John Whitney that he was equally at home in the
world of art and science. In the late 70's and early 80's, he conducted
UCLA's first seminars in computer graphic design, and was a true Renaissance
man whose interests tied art, music and technology together. A friend of
composer John Cage, Whitney was intrigued by the idea of "creating harmonies
in motion," and sought to 'play' the computer "as if it were a new kind of
piano." In 1988, he gathered these ideas in the book Digital Harmony - On The
Complementarity of Music and Visual Art.
Whitney was the recipient of countless honors, including a Guggenheim
Fellowship and the rarely bestowed Medal of Commendation from the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The range of John Whitney's work encompasses remarkable collaborations,
including early experimental films with his brother James, a lifelong
creative partnership with his wife, painter Jacqueline Blum and notable
multi-screen work with designers Charles and Ray Eames. In 1984, a survey of
his legendary career was the subject of the videodisc The World of John
Whitney, part of Pioneer Laserdisc's "Visual Pathfinders" series. In 1993, he
captured his latest thinking in the video documentary A Personal Search,
which demonstrated his continuing spirit of exploration into new ideas.
Whitney possessed a boundless curiosity and continued his pioneering work
right until the end. At the time of his death, he was preparing to leave for
Hokkaido University in Japan, where he had been awarded the position of
Foreign Visiting Fellow. Whitney is survived by his three sons, John Jr.,
Michael and Mark, themselves award-winning filmmakers, and he leaves a legacy
of innovation that is truly unique.
Posted by Pip Chodorov, Light Cone, Paris <[log in to unmask]>
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