John Whitney, Sr.

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Full Name:

Hales Whitney, Sr. John

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Date of death:



Pasadena, California, USA


John Whitney attended school at Pomona College, and in 1937, took a year in Paris to study twelve-tone composition under conductor René Leibowitz. Upon returning to America, he and his brother, James, began to make experimental films, initially working in Super-8. These early efforts attracted some critical attention; in 1949, their series “Five Film Exercises” won them first prize at the First International Experimental Film Competition. Whitney pivoted to computer animation in the early-1950s. He initially made animations for commercials, instructional films, and television programs, and, by the late-1950s, had converted an anti-aircraft gun into a computer of his own invention, which he called the Mechanical Analogue Computer. In 1958, he made his big-screen debut by collaborating with graphic designer Saul Bass to create the title and dream sequences in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Whitney founded Motion Graphics Incorporated in 1960, a company dedicated to exploring animation using the Mechanical Analogue Computer. Throughout the 1960s, he continued his work in computer animation, serving as IBM’s first artist-in-residence in 1966. During this time, and into the 1970s, he began to produce more standalone short films, prominently “Catalogue” (1961), “Permutations” (1968), and “Arabesque” (1976). His films frequently have an abstract, experimental quality that draws comparisons to the contemporary interest in psychedelia.

In the 1970s, Whitney abandoned the analogue computer for the newly developed, faster digital computer. He continued his work in computer animation, as well as exploring computer composition and teaching courses at UCLA. His final film, “Moon Drum: Memories of Prehistory” (1991) features a soundtrack composed by in. He passed away in Los Angeles in 1995. Some of his work is housed at the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles.


“John Whitney, Sr.” Database of Digital Art, Accessed 13 April, 2021.

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