Full Name:

Mary Ellen Bute

Occupation / Title:

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Date of birth:


Date of death:



Houston, Texas, USA.


Mary Ellen Bute was born in Houston, Texas on November 21, 1906.

Bute moved to New York in the 1920s and began her filmmaking career making experimental shorts that combined light and painting techniques.

She collaborated with Joseph Schillinger, who wanted to make a film to demonstrate that his system could illustrate music with visual images. Bute took on the task to create the visuals for Schillinger’s film, which was known as Experimental Cinema No. 5 (1934), but the film was left unfinished due to the immense complexity of the animation which made it evidently impossible for a single animator to complete by hand.

Bute died of heart failure in New York on October 17, 1983.

Family and early life

Bute had a sister, Claire Torter, and a brother, John Bute. She was married to Ted Nemeth, who was her cameraman for all of her films after Rhythm in Light, and she had two sons: Theodore Jr. and James, and had five grandchildren.

Career outline

Mary Ellen’s first film was Rhythm In Light in collaboration with Melville Webber and Theodore “Ted” Nemeth in 1934. It was an experimental film that shot everyday objects and materials such as cardboard, ping-pong balls, and bracelets through prisms to create abstract shapes with light and shadow.

After making two more films in the same vein, Synchromy No. 2 (1936) and Parabola (1938), she began to use more traditional animation techniques in her films as she also began working in colour. However, she continued to experiment with light and early special effects.

She worked with Canadian animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren to make the film Spook Sounds in 1940. They drew directly on film in time with the music it served as a visual accompaniment, Camille Saint Saëns’ Danse Macabre. She reused some of McLaren’s drawings in her other films, most notably Tantarella (1941), which similarly used the concept of visual imagery complimenting a musical track composed by Edwin Gerchefski.


She was drawn to pursue filmmaking after working with Joseph Schillinger, who was a pioneer in music composition using mathematical processes known as the Schillinger System of Music Composition, and she continued to use the Schillinger system in her subsequent films. Although she moved away from black-and-white light-based experimental films in the switch to colour in the 1940s, Schillinger’s work remained a prominent influence in her filmography, and she eventually went back to experimenting with light in the 1950s.


Davis, Josh. “A Houston-Born Artist Created Some of the Earliest (and Trippiest) Forms of Visual Music.” Houstonia, 2018.

“MARY ELLEN BUTE, FILM MAKER.” The New York Times, 1983, p. 25.

Moritz, William. “Mary Ellen Bute: Seeing Sound.” Animation World Network, 1996.

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