Len Lye - Writer

Animator. Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Christchurch, 5 July 1901; became citizen of the United States, 1950. Education: Attended Wellington Technical College; Canterbury College of Fine Arts. Career: 1921—assistant for Australian film company; made first hand-painted film; 1926—came to England, worked as stage hand, Lyric Theatre, London; 1927—began first animated film with support of the London Film Society; 1931—property boy at Wembley Studio; 1933—resumed experiments with "direct film": drawing and painting on celluloid; 1935—began sporadic association with G.P.O. Film Unit under John Grierson; 1940–44—worked on wartime propaganda films; 1944—went to U.S. to work on March of Time series; 1958—devoted attention to kinetic sculpture. Died: In Warwick, Rhode Island, 15 May 1980.

Films as Director, Writer and Animator (Shorts):


Untitled handmade films, Australia


Tusalava (begun 1927)


Experimental Animation: Peanut Vendor (not completed)


A Color Box ( Colour Box ); Kaleidoscope


The Birth of a Robot (puppet animation); Rainbow Dance


Trade Tattoo ( In Time with Industry )


N or NW ( N. or N.W. North or North West ) (live action); Colour Flight


Swinging the Lambeth Walk


Musical Poster No.1 ; Profile of Britain ( March of Time Series) (live action)


When the Pie Was Opened (live action); Newspaper Train (live action)


Work Party (live action); Kill or Be Killed (live action); German Calling (live action)


Planned Crops (live action)


Cameramen at War (live action)


March of Time (Series: 7 films)


Fox Chase (live action)


Color Cry (handmade); Rhythm (handmade)


Free Radicals (handmade)


Particles in Space (handmade)


Tal Farlow (handmade)


By LYE: books—

No Trouble , Majorca, 1930.

Figures of Motion , Auckland, New Zealand, 1982.

By LYE: articles—

"Colour and the Box Office," in Life and Letters Today , September 1935.

"Experiment in Colour," in World Film News , December 1936.

"Television: New Axes to Grind," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1939.

"The Man Who Was Colour Blind," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1940.

"On the End of Audiences," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

"Is Film Art?," in Film Culture (New York), no.29, 1963.

"Len Lye Speaks at the Film Makers Cinematheque," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1967.

"Len Lye—Composer of Motion," interview with J. Kennedy, in Millimeter (New York), February 1977.

Cinemanews (San Francisco), no. 2–4, 1979.

"Len Lye: Some Unpublished Writings," in Film Library Quarterly (New York), 1981.

On LYE: book—

Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr, Experimental Animation , New York, 1976.

On LYE: articles—

Blakeston, Oswell, "Len Lye Visuals," in Architectural Review (London), July 1932.

Cavalcanti, Alberto, "Presenting Len Lye," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1947–48.

Breslin, James, "My Best Films Will Never Be Made," in The Village Voice (New York), 28 May 1958.

"Forms in Air: Tangibles," in Time (New York), 24 August 1959.

Dandignac, P., "Visionary Art of Len Lye," in Craft Horizons (New York), May 1961.

"Timehenge," in Newsweek (New York), 22 March 1965.

Mancis, A., and W. Van Dyke, "Artist as Filmmaker," in Art in America (New York), July 1966.

Curnow, W., "Len Lye and Tusalava ," in Cantrill's Filmnotes (Melbourne), February 1979.

Horrocks, R., "Len Lye's Figures of Motion," in Cantrill's Filmnotes (Melbourne), November 1979.

Obituary in New York Times , 16 May 1980.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 21 May 1980.

"The Len Lye Lists," in Bulletin of New Zealand Art History , 1980.

"Len Lye, 1901–1980," in Cantrill's Filmnotes (Melbourne), August 1980.

Obituary in Plateau , vol. 2, no. 2, 1981.

Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1987–88.

O'Pray, Michael, "Mixes," in Sight & Sound (London), July 1991.

* * *

Until fairly recently, it was no exaggeration to state that Len Lye was all that New Zealand had contributed to international cinema. An artist—equally at home with painting or sculpture—Lye was the progenitor of experimental cinema, yet, at the same time, was willing to work within a more mainstream cinema unlike so many of his successors. Lye's closest equivalent in contemporary cinema was Norman McLaren, who continued the technique of drawing directly on film which was created by Lye in the early 1930s.

Lye came to London in the 1920s and there made his first attempt at experimental filmmaking with Tusalava , which tried to merge elements of European modern art with the primitive art which he had experienced in the South Sea Islands. It was not until 1935 that Lye was able to complete another film, and that was his revolutionary Colour Box , for which he painted directly on the film. John Grierson's G.P.O. Film Unit sponsored the production, and Grierson hired Lye to work for his organization. Here Lye experimented with the use of color—in this instance, Gasparcolor—and with puppet animation, creating the highly praised The Birth of a Robot . What is perhaps most extraordinary about Lye's work at this time is that he took mundane subjects handed to him by the Unit, which was established to create short propaganda films for the British mail service, and transformed them into surrealistic exercises. Nowhere is this more apparent than in N. or N.W. , which warns its audience of the danger in incorrectly addressing envelopes through a series of bizarre close-ups and superimpositions.

During the Second World War, Lye's films were more realistic in content, as he worked for the British Ministry of Information. Most were live action, although in When the Pie Was Opened , he combines live action and animation to present a wartime recipe for vegetable pie. All those films support Cavalcanti's claim that "Len Lye could be described in the history of British cinema by one word—Experiment."

Coming to the United States in 1944, Lye put his experimental filmmaking behind him and settled down to creating live-action documentaries, initially for March of Time . He returned briefly to experimental filmmaking in the 1950s with Color Cry , based on a method of "shadow casting" created by Man Ray, and Free Radicals and Particles in Space , in both of which the images were scratched on the film. Lye eventually seemed to lose interest in film, becoming more involved in movable and kinetic sculpture. In the New York Times , Grace Glueck described him thus, "Bald as an egg, with a pointed goatee, Len Lye was a sprightly man who, despite his fascination with technology, referred to himself as 'an old-brain guy who can't even drive a car'."

The most important period in Len Lye's filmmaking career was when he worked in Britain for the G.P.O. and the Ministry of Information. As Dave Curtis has written in Experimental Cinema , "Len Lye is one of the few significant figures in British cinema between the wars. He is as important to personal (informal) animation as Griffith is to the traditional narrative film."

—Anthony Slide

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