An Optical Poem (1938)
In the late 1930s, a few animation companies had cornered the market on one-reel comedies. After making international movie stars out of affable talking animals, some of the biggest names in the cartoon business began to experiment with slightly more serious subject matter. The most famous such endeavour is Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a feature-length series of masterfully animated vignettes (some amusing, some serious) which are synchronized to selection of classical music. Fantasia was the end result of Disney’s collaboration with legendary maestro Leopold Stokowski, whose name and likeness were used to promote the project.
In Fantasia, story takes a back seat to the emotional experience of music and the film is designed as a magical night at the symphony. A full two years before the release of Fantasia, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had produced an animated experiment called An Optical Poem (1938) which similarly used colors and movement to visually interpret a classical piece of music – in this case, Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. An Optical Poem is not at all what you might expect from a major Hollywood studio; it’s abstract, it’s experimental and it has no story aside from a ballet of colorful geometric shapes. MGM’s introductory message describes An Optical Poem as “a novel scientific experiment” intended to convey mental images evoked by music.
The main reason that An Optical Poem is so different from most American-made cartoons of its time is that the experimental short was conceived and directed by animator and visual artist Oskar Fischinger, who had moved to the United States from Germany prior to World War II. One of the first jobs Fischinger in had in the German film industry was creating special effects for Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Moon (1929). Inspired by the early abstract animation of Walter Ruttmann, Fischinger created moving paintings like Komposition in Blau (1935) as well as commercial projects like Muratti Greift Ein (1934) for a tobacco company. After moving to the United States, Fischinger continued to meld the worlds of fine art and animation with brilliant work such as Radio Dynamics (1942), Allegretto (1943) and Motion Painting No. 1 (1947).
Fischinger’s An Optical Poem is an absolute joy to look at but it is all the more impressive once you have learned the unique way in which it was created. During production, Fischinger cut hundreds and hundreds of paper triangles, circles and squares and suspended them from barely-visible string in a three-dimensional space and carefully photographed them to synch up with Liszt’s exuberant Rhapsody.
An Optical Poem must have impressed some people at Disney, because shortly after Fischinger was hired to work on Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). Fischinger designed Fantasia’s first animated segment (set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) which like MGM’s An Optical Poem is introduced as a visual experiment based in the mind’s reaction to music. Fischinger’s sequence is easily the most abstract in the film, but he was apparently unhappy with changes that the studio had made to his designs and soon ended his relationship with Disney. Although the trend of combining classical music with abstract animation was not to last, it was an admirable attempt to explore the artistic possibilities of the animated form which yielded a few truly remarkable visual experiences.