Animator Biographies
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Mary Ellen Bute
Houston, Texas USA

Mary Ellen Bute is a pioneer experimental filmmaker and one of the first women to work with experimental film styles. Most of her animation work consists of visual music, showing shapes and movements that represent what goes on in a person's mind while listening to music. She said that she wanted to "bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with the thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music." She created all of her fourteen abstract visual music pieces between 1934 and 1954, and many of her pieces were screened regularly in movie theaters such as Radio City Music Hall. Most of her animations were part of the Seeing Sound series. This allowed her to have a lot of exposure and a wide audience.

Mary Ellen Bute grew up in Houston, Texas, and this is where she began her career as an artist. She started out studying painting in Texas and then in Philadelphia, but she then went on to study stage lighting at Yale University. She wanted to learn techniques of "painting with light". Throughout her collegiate career she worked with Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred, and she was also greatly influenced by the abstract animation of Oskar Fischinger. Mary Ellen Bute began her filmmaking career through collaboration with musician Joseph Schillinger. Schillinger developed an elaborate theory about the structure of music that reduced all music into a series of mathematical formulas. After developing this theory, he wanted to prove that his synchronization worked in illustrating music with visuals through the use of film. Mary Ellen Bute decided to work on animating the visuals of the project. It turns out that the images that were created by this theory were so intricate that they would have taken a single animator years to redraw thousands of times, and because of this, the film project was never completed. Later on in her career she also worked with her cinematographer, Ted Nemeth, whom she married in 1940.

Her first animations were shot only in black and white because the technology for color film was not yet available. She began working in color with the film, Escape. She also started using more conventional animation for the main themes in the music, combining her special effects and lighting techniques in the backgrounds. Later, in 1954, she began using more scientific ways of creating her animations. She started using oscilloscope patterns to create the main visuals in her films. She claimed to be the first person to combine "science and art" in this way, even though Norman McLaren and Hy Hirsch had used oscilloscope patterns in their animations previously. Mary Ellen Bute was very successful and was able to gain a widespread audience during her career as an animator and filmmaker all on her own.

Animations Produced:
  • Synchronization, 1933, collaboration with Joseph Schillinger and Lewis Jacobs [unfinished]
  • Rhythm in Light, 1934 (b&w, 5 min.) in collaboration with Melville Webber and Ted Nemeth
  • Synchromy No. 2, 1935 (b&w, 5.5 min.) Music: Evening Star from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
  • Dada, 1936 (b&w), 3-minute short for Universal Newsreel.
  • Parabola, 1937 (b&w, 9 min.) Music: Création du monde by Darius Milhaud.
  • Escape, 1937 (color, 4.5 min.) Music: Toccata in D Minor by J.S. Bach.
  • Spook Sport, 1939, (color, 8 min.) Music: Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns. Animation by Norman McLaren.
  • Tarantella, 1940, color, 5 mins.
  • Polka Graph, 1947, color, 4.5 mins. Dmitri Shostakovich's Polka from The Age of Gold
  • Color Rhapsody (aka Color Rhapsodie), 1948, color, 6 mins.
  • Imagination, 1948, color
  • New Sensations in Sound, 1949, color, 3 mins. [advertising film for RCA]
  • Pastorale, 1950, color, 9 mins. Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze
  • Abstronic, 1952, color, 7 mins. Aaron Copland's Hoe Down and Don Gillis's Ranch House Party
  • Mood Contrasts, 1953, color, 7 mins.
  • The Boy Who Saw Through, 1956 (producer), b&w, 25 mins. [not abstract]
  • Passages from Finnegan's Wake, 1965-67, b&w, 97 mins. (director and co-writer) [not abstract] Screened at the Cannes Film Festival


Rhythm in Light

Submitted by: Andi Terhune and Anne Miller
as part of ARTC 400, Principles of Animation
Bowling Green State University
Prof. Bonnie Mitchell