John Whitney Memorial

Date: Fri, 17 Nov 1995 14:47:01 -0800
From: Ken Nolley
Subject: John Whitney memorial

This message is cross-posted from SCREEN-L.
Ken Nolley

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 of 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 the Arts.

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

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John Whitney Biography