Mary Ellen Bute 

(1906-1983) was a pioneer American film animator significant as one of the first female experimental filmmakers. Her specialty was Visual Music.

© Center for Visual Music

Mary Ellen Bute's specialty was Visual Music and, while working in New York between 1934 and 1953, made fourteen short, abstract musical films. Many of these were seen in regular movie theaters, such as Radio City Music Hall, usually preceding a prestigious film. Several of her later abstract films were categorized as part of her Seeing Sound series.


A native of Houston, Mary Ellen Bute studied painting in Texas and, subsequently, Philadelphia, then stage lighting at Yale University, focusing her primary interest on the tradition of color organs, as a means of painting with light. She worked with Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred and was also influenced by the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger.


Bute began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visuals. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940. Her final film, inspired by James Joyce, was Passages from Finnegans Wake, a live-action feature made over a nearly three-year period in 1965-1967.


In the 1960s and 1970s Bute worked on two films which were never completed: an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, and a film about Walt Whitman with the working title Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.


Bute was a founding member of the Women's Independent Film Exchange.


Mary Ellen Bute died of heart failure at New York City's Cabrini Medical Center. She was five weeks short of her 77th birthday. Six months earlier, on April 4, she received a special tribute and a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art.


An archive with some of Bute's personal papers is at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. A finding aid describes this collection. Film historian Cecile Starr has an extensive collection of Bute papers; another collection is at Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles. Several of her films are at the Yale Film Study Center, George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Anthology Film Archives, and a number of other institutions and archives; an entire 16mm collection is with Cecile Starr; and a travelling film show of all of her abstract short 16mm films has been presented since 2006 in the US, Australia and Europe by Center for Visual Music in association with Cecile Starr and The Women's Independent Film Exchange.


There has been discrepancies over the dating of Mary Ellen Bute's films, primarily due to inaccuracies published in online articles and websites. The dates below are verified by documents from her distributor and the Center for Visual Music.


Source: Wikipedia



Mary Ellen Bute, 1st generation, female


Sons et Lumières (2004) – A History of Sound in the Art of the 20th Century (in French) by Marcella Lista and Sophie Duplaix published by the Centre Pompidou for the excellent Paris exhibition in September 2004 until January 2005.

Curated by the Pompidou’s Sophie Duplaix with the Louvre’s Marcella Lista, the show required a good three or four hours to absorb, with its bombardment of sensory and intellectual input, including painting, sound sculpture, sound/light automata, film and video, and room-size installations. (Frieze Magazine)

Optical Poetry (2004) by Dr. William Moritz is the long-awaited, definitive biography of Oskar Fischinger. The result of over 30 years of research on this visionary abstract filmmaker and painter. In addition to Moritz's comprehensive biography, it includes numerous photographs in colour and black and white (many never before published), statements by Oskar Fischinger about his films, a newly created extensive filmography, and a selected bibliography. (John Libbey Publishing)



Audio.Visual - On Visual Music and Related Media (2009) by Cornelia Lund and Holger Lund (Eds.) is divided into two sections: the first deals with the academic discussion on the subject of visual music; the second introduces contemporary paradigms of audio-visual praxis in brief presentations and contextualises them. Apart from being a guide in the historical sense, this new volume provides theoretical approaches to understanding and making visual music. (Fluctuating Images)

Vibeke Sorensen is an artist and professor working in digital multimedia and animation, interactive architectural installation, and networked visual-music performance. Her work in experimental new media spans more than three decades, and has been published and exhibited worldwide, including in books, galleries, museums, conferences, performances, film festivals, on cable and broadcast television, and the internet. (Vibeke Sorensen)

Bärbel Neubauer (*1959) was born in Austria, studied film and stage design in Vienna at the Academy of Arts, diploma in 1983. She has been making about 30 animation films and experimental films since 1980 and composing music and filmmusic since 1991. (independent exposure)

Black (2010) by Susi Sie is focused on fear of the uncontrollable and its close relationship to fascination with the unfamiliar. All of its scenes were filmed with a Canon 5D Mark II, 100mm macro, and have been edited with no additional computer animation and effects. The original score for this short was created by Clemens Haas (1968, Germany), who studied Audio and Video Engineering as well as classical piano in Düsseldorf. (Susi Sie)

Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900 (2005) traces the history of a revolutionary idea: that fine art should attain the abstract purity of music. Over the past one hundred years some of the most adventurous modern and contemporary artists have explored unorthodox means to invent a kinetic, non-representational art modeled upon pure instrumental music. (Amazon)