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Mainstream audiences in 1937 must have been astonished to see An Optical Poem, an abstract animated film by German-born avant-garde artist Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967). The short is eight solid minutes of precision geometric movement in bright, primary Technicolor, with shapes moving beautifully through three-dimensional space to the music of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. A modern audience may be unimpressed by such sights in an age of endless computer-generated, digital imagery; this film is a hand-crafted, analog mood piece that takes the viewer along on an abstract journey that can inspire any number of interpretations. In his book Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, William Moritz takes a stab at it, writing that "the keen sensation of depth becomes a conceptual part of the action, with the circles that rotate around each other revealed as cosmic figures that could be either microscopic cells or stellar configurations."
An Optical Poem was produced for that most mainstream of studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1936 MGM did not have an in-house animation department; the steady slate of traditional character cartoons on their release schedule were supplied by the independent Harmon-Ising studio and their Happy Harmonies series of one-shot animated shorts. The contract that Fischinger signed similarly called for him to deliver a completed negative, and he was to bear all of the production costs out of his agreed upon fee, which was only $11,000. MGM did provide the services of their in-house orchestra, and Fischinger recorded a new rendition of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" with them.
The visuals of An Optical Poem grew out of a short sequence at the end of Fischinger's earlier, independently-produced Composition in Blue (1935), in which a group of circles rise from the background and, in depth, head toward the viewer. Such effects would form the basis for the entirety of the new film. Fischinger built elaborate scaffolding in his studio from which he could suspend various geometric cutouts from extra-fine fishing line. According to Moritz, he also used "...lights hung from various vantage points to create strong shadows that would emphasize depth. The geometric figures in the film circles, triangles, and rectangles were cut from paper and painted in specific hues, then attached to a fish line that could be tied to one of the overhead cross beams. With a painted background behind, each of the paper figures would be moved a millimeter before another film-frame could be shot, then moved a millimeter, etc."
This sort of stop-motion animation work is slow enough, but consider that Fischinger was not moving rigid metal model joints, but lightweight pieces suspended by thin lines and thus prone to sway he had to make sure each piece was steady before making his exposure. The artist used a broomstick with a feather attached at the end as a "steadier." Moritz further pointed out that "as in most of Oskar's films, complex choreography often required a dozen figures to move simultaneously, some in the same direction, but others at a different angle or direction, so each exposure was slow and had to be carefully monitored." The phrase "carefully monitored" is quite an understatement a miscalculation could ruin a shot and lead to the scrapping of many hours of work.
The dazzling short was sent out into the MGM distribution system as a "prestige" item, playing with A-budget features or, as Moritz noted, "for prestige audiences, such as the first-class ocean-liner passengers." It is a shame that MGM didn't feel the average moviegoer would respond to Fischinger's artistic creation. The film received good notices from columnists such as Louella Parsons and Ed Sullivan, who wrote that An Optical Poem was sure to get an Academy Award nomination (it did not). In response to this last item, Fischinger reportedly said, "Why give me an Oscar? I am Oskar!"
Oskar Fischinger's contract with MGM contained an option for the studio to commission the animator for more films, but a financial dispute put a quick end to any such notion. Citing high overhead costs, the studio said that An Optical Poem did not earn a profit at the box-office. Given the low budget that Fischinger was paid to begin with, the lack of profit participation meant that the artist made no money whatsoever from the film. Moritz wrote that Fischinger went to the studio and confronted an accountant, who "...threatened to smash Oskar with a typewriter that he raised above his head. Oskar began to defend himself, and he was arrested and jailed on 'assault and battery' charges." The artist was exonerated, but certainly the incident did little to help him get more mainstream assignments in Hollywood.
The same year that MGM released An Optical Poem, the studio created their own in-house animation unit headed by Fred Quimby, the type of executive that had absolutely no interest in abstraction in his cartoons. Within a few years, Tom & Jerry were the resident cartoon stars at MGM, and their shorts would often become the Oscar®-winners for the year. Following his MGM experience, Fischinger briefly acted as an uncredited consultant on Disney's Fantasia (1940), and he went on to produce five more independent shorts, from 1941 to 1952. He became increasingly frustrated with filmmaking, though, and turned to oil painting in his later years.
Producer: Oskar Fischinger
Director: Oskar Fischinger
Music: Paul Marquardt (orchestrator); Franz Liszt (from "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2")
by John M. Miller