Story: Experimental film

Page 1. Experimental film, 1920s to 1960s

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‘Experimental’ is a term often applied to films that use innovative strategies to represent time, images and ideas. New Zealand’s earliest experimental works used a mixture of technical and formal strategies to stretch the boundaries of established forms such as home movies or government films. Most of the film-makers did not go on to build a significant body of experimental work.

Len Lye

The most recognised figure in New Zealand experimental film is the earliest: Len Lye. Born in New Zealand in 1901, but spending over half of his life in the United States, Lye was a pioneer of direct-to-film animation, using paint, ink and tools to draw on the surface of 16mm film.

One of his best-known works was Tusalava (1929), an animated black and white film that embodied Lye's unique combination of theory and practice. Showing the dramatic evolution of a cellular creature, Tusalava combined Lye's ideas about the creative subconscious with the painstaking labour of making 4,400 individual drawings for a nine-minute film.

In later works such as Tal Farlow (1980) and Free radicals (1957) soundtracks of modern jazz and African drumming complemented the kinetic physicality and energy of Lye’s dashes, scratches and lines.

The mother of invention

Len Lye was a pioneer of ‘direct’ film-making – painting and scratching the surface of the film itself. Necessity was the mother of invention – Lye did it because he was too broke to hire a camera.

Home-movie makers and film societies

Seldom acknowledged or recognised, a handful of home-movie makers expanded the perimeters of 8-millimetre movie making beyond celebrations of home and family:

  • Ethel Garden's Paratai Drive (1937) documented her home with an atmosphere of eerie psychodrama.
  • Elga Hinton's Sun test 2 (1945) utilised double exposure to obscure images of family in the backyard with a burning image of the sun.
  • Arthur Richardson's Optical jazz (1967) used turntables, marbled glass and primary colours to create a dazzling slice of visual music.
  • Charles Hale's Rendezvous at noon (1966) tackled narrative, presenting a Samuel Beckett short story as a tightly-worked psychodrama.

Experimental interludes

In the post-Second World War decades a few film-makers made notable experimental works as a detour from or preface to a commercial career.

From curves to contrasts – the camera art of Robert Steele (1946) featured a series of Olympian tableaux of naked dancers (Harold Robinson, Freda Stark and an unknown American sailor). Although well known as a producer of industrial films such as The brewery behind to-days great drink (1945) Robert Steele's high-camp film is a local forerunner to the later works of American film-maker Kenneth Anger.

Broadcast on state television, Tony Williams's The sound of seeing (1963) followed a painter and a composer to a jazz concert, an art gallery and nature. Forgoing dialogue and plot, The sound of seeing was a journey led by the senses.

Rodney Charters’s Film exercise (1966) was a similar example of a film-maker favouring a more sensuous approach over narrative.

Unexpected experimentation

Director John King slipped a reference to an avant-garde French film into a government newsreel commissioned by the Romney Sheep Breeders Association. Influenced by Alain Resnais' Last year at Marienbad (1961), King signalled a transition from shearing to wool inspection by cutting from upbeat jazz music to statuesque slow motion. What viewers of Pictorial parade 182: wool gathering (1965) made of it is not known.

National Film Unit

People working for the government-owned National Film Unit were sometimes able to experiment:

  • Interrupting the authoritative voice-over that was then standard in newsreels, John Feeney let natural sound dominate during a flow of images in Pumicelands (1954) and Hot earth (1955).
  • Michael Forlong used a rhythmic editing style in Rhythm and movement (1948).
  • Fred O’Neill introduced plasticine animation to NFU films and television.
How to cite this page:

Mark Williams, 'Experimental film - Experimental film, 1920s to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 March 2018)

Story by Mark Williams, published 22 Oct 2014