Ed Emshwiller (1925-1990)

Thanatopsis (1962)
George Dumpson's Place (1965)
Sunstone (1979)

Ed Emshwiller Biography
Dr. William Moritz

Ed Emshwiller (1925-1990) studied painting both in the U.S. and Paris. In the 1950s, his abstract expressionist canvases received praise at art galleries, while his hyper-realistic cover illustrations for science-fiction magazines such as Galaxy (signed merely EMSH) delineated the surrealistic landscapes of imaginary planets and exotic creatures in fine detail. He began filmmaking in order to document his paintings, but in 1959 produced Dance Chromatic, in which animation of his abstract painting is superimposed on a dancer. His own skills as a cameraman -- which included a dancer-like ability to move gracefully while carrying a camera, thus allowing him to execute steady, complex pans and "zooms" in limited space -- made him much in demand for films documenting dance performances. In the 1963 Totem, he wholly re-conceptualizes the Alwin Nikolais dance in cinematic terms, superimposing different viewpoints of the dancers, as well as such symbolic counterpoint as rings and fire. The 1962 Thanatopsis, more remarkably, created the dance choreography itself in camera, by superimposing multiple single exposures of the same gesture, causing an eerie blur of the figure representing the angel of Death, whose thrashing wings make a chilling buzz-saw-like noise as she hovers about the dying man. These filmic experiments reached their climax in the 1966 Relativity, which, in 40 minutes, meditates on the place of man in the cosmos, using clever photographic effects to suggest vast interstellar distances in parallel to restlessly-moving closeups of a human body.

In the 1970s, Emshwiller began to experiment with videotape and computer graphics -- although, since the initial results were less than perfect, he also shot a few more dance films, including the two 20-minute pieces Film With Three Dancers (1970) and Chrysalis (1973), both of which were planned for film, and not based on specific stage performances.

Despite a lack of subtlety in video and computer technology, Emshwiller managed to make several highly-praised productions, including the hour-long Pilobolus and Joan, and a multiple-monitor installation Slivers at the New York gallery The Kitchen (1977). His 1979 pioneer 3-D computer animation Sunstone proved a genuine artistic breakthrough, with a technological subtlety of color and shape that gave the 3-minute metamorphosis of a face and a cube real charm, quite aside from its novelty. In the 1980s, he concentrated more on multi-technology interface and live electronic performances, including the 1984 Skin Matrix which consisted of computer modifications of live-action images, and the 1987 interactive opera (composed with Morton Subotnik) Hungers, in which 16 video monitors as well as live singers, musicians and dancers are fed through a computer sensitive to the audience movement and responses, which then alters the images accordingly. Performances of this massive, technologically intricate Hungers at the Los Angeles Festival and Ars Electronica resembled nothing more than Emsh's early science-fiction illustrations of fantastic futures.