Abstract cinema is a specific branch of cinematograph, a marginal and experimental art in relation to cinema art itself (which is figurative art in its basis). It is regarded as part of cinema art rather due to their common technical equipment than common art means, language and purposes. But abstract cinema uses this equipment (camera - film strip- projector - screen) in a specfic way. Traditional cinematograph is based on "reproduction" technology, when photo images of real objects, recorded on the film, are then reproduced on a screen. On the other hand, in abstract cinema the "productive" technology is used (the artist creates abstract images first in imagination, then transfers them to the film strip by means of animation and multiplication technique).
From historical point of view, the experiments with abstract films were inspired by the search of true features of the cinema art, at it's beginning. This led to a cituation described in Ancient India parable about blind men disputing elephant's nature. Just in the same way, in the absense of reliable knowledge, artists and theorists were giving quite diferent views on the nature of cinema art. Some of them regarded cinema (especially films with actors) as sort of mechanical, electric extension of a theatre, as "recorded" theatre play. Others accenuated attention on the obvious closeness betwen cinema and literature (cinema as "visual literature"). The next group emphasized even more close links between cinema and figurative art (cinema as "moving pictures"). And, at last, a dynamic action and expressiveness of cinema images, an important role of rhythm, plasticity and light, naturally led to one more extreme definition of cinema as "visual music", reflecting its closeness to music and dance (even in the first silent period).
This formed the basis of such concepts as "photogenius" L.Delluke, "music of movement" by W.Lindsney, "visual symphony" by P.Vegener, "music of light" by S.Eisenstein, "integral cinematograph" by J.Dullac, "cinema-eye" by D.Vertov. Most often the practical embodiment of such concepts of "pure", "absolute" art resulted in plotless montage of moving photoimages, that sometimes were deformated intentionally, during either shooting or film strip developing process. The abstract tendency in these experiments is obvious, though, strickly speaking, most of them were of rather surrealistic character (like "Emak Bakia" by M.Ray, "Mechanical ballet" by F.Lege, etc.).
It is more natural to assign term "abstract" to the cinema school that uses multiplication technique for abstract images animation. The leaders of this trend saw the way out of "borderline" crisis in figurative art at the beginning of XX century exactly in assimilation of movement. By the way, W.Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, also dreamed about it. But he saw the possibility for this assimilation only at the stage in "abstract" theatre, and, strangely enough, had overlooked the great chance given by immaterial, ephemeral cinema projection.
Anyway, as early as 1912, the French artist P.Survage began to work on abstract film "Colored Rhythms" (which remained unfinished due to World War beginning). The first real result in this area was obtained by Sweden artist W.Eggeling (silent black-and-white film "Diagonal symphony", 1917). Then a series of short multiplication films had been made in Germany: "Rhythmes" by H.Richter, "Opus" by W.Rootmann, "Etudes" by O.Fishinger. Even the titles of these works show their music genesis and attitude.
But, for all the refined plasticity and dynamics in the "dance" of abstract images, they were received by the common audience as merely "experiments for their own sake". They did not justified the declared merit of "music for eyes", being rather formal abstract pantomime, somewhat resembling the nonsense verses from L.Carrol's book "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There":
Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe...
No wonder that the estimations of these films were usually negative - such as "asocial" (given by W.Rootmann himself later on), "tedious" (Z.Krackauer), "meaningless" (B.Balash, E.Teplitz), "trinkets" (S.Eisenstein), "child's kaleidoscope" (J.Epstein).
The merits and corresponding apreciations of abstract films had changed abruptly, when cinematograph ceased to be "silent". Now the artists began to make films to somebody's music. (In his last "Etudes" O.Fischinger used music of Straus' waltz, "Magician's apprentice" by P.Dukas, "Hungarian dances" by J.Brahms). Such films appeared to be "visual portrait" of music, being enriched with music intonation, content and meaning. (In a similar way, sound and gesture are uniting in dance, which becomes "senseless" and "dull", taken separately from music). Actually, in this case the pioneers of abstract cinema solved problems of not only cinema art, but that of new adjacent art - light-music. (As it is known, light-music is "instrumental" development of dance). Just as Columb, trying to find a new way to India, discovered a new continent instead, the abstract cinema artists in their sometimes inarticulate experiments actually discovered the language of a new arising art, a true "music for eye and ear". They were often unaware of that, resembling well-known personage who did not know that he spoke prose throughout all his life. Anyway, the first sound abstract films by O.Fishinger draw much attention from light-music experimentators, and were demonstrated at International Congresses "Farbe-Ton-Forschungen" (Germany, 1927-1931). O.Fischinger achieved then the results which were even more close to light-music, when he went to USA and got there the oppotunity to make color films. During this period he created such great works as "Optical Poem" (1938) to music of Second Hungarian Rhapsody by F.List, and some other films, ended with "Moving Pictures" (1949) to music of Third Brandenburg Concert by I.S.Bach.
Very far from ordinary cinema and closer to painting and light-music were the films of English-Canadian artist P.McLaren (1914-1987) who deserved a title of "great" cinema multiplicator from his contemporaries. He abandoned the use of cinema-camera completely and had developed original "manual" technique, scratching colored images by hand onto the surface of film strip. It's worth noting that this technique was a further development (to the extreme possible limit) of the previous attempts made by L.Lie (New Zeland) and A.Avraamov. P.McLaren achieved his greatest results in such films as "Dull troubles, go away" (1949) to music by O.Peterson, and "Horizontal Line" (1962) to music by P.Zeeger.
In our country the first experiments with plotless (though object, landscape) visualization of music were made by G.Alexandrov in the film to music of "Sentimental Romance" by A.Archangelsky (1930). Later, in 1931, M.Tzechanovsky made another object film "Pacific" to music by A.Onegger. The first true abstract film , only 50 seconds long, was made by N.Voinov (1931) to music of "Prelude C-sharp minor" by S.Rachmaninov. Although this film was black-and-white, it undoubtedly belongs to light-music genre.
Next attempts of this kind were undertaken in design office "Prometheus" (Kazan). These experimental films from the very beginning were aimed to light-music applications. Some of them were made "to music" (of Scriabin's "Prometheus", 1964-1965; of Sviridov's "Small triptych", 1975). The rest were made using "reverse method". In this method, silent colored abstract film is prepared first; then either newly-made musical accompaniment or appropriate music play is compiled with the visual part ("Eternal Motion", 1969; "Space Sonata", 1981). By the opinion of producer of these films B.Galeyev, "reverse method" allows one to avoid some shortcomings inherent in trivial visualization of music, and to use in more fundamental way the "sight-hearing polyphony".
The elements of abstract cinema (including light-music) can be readily inserted in science-fiction films, especialy those connected with "outer space" theme ('Space Odyssey" by S.Kubric, 1968; "Space-Earth-Space" by B.Travkin, 1970). The active assimilation of video and computer animation technique provides new possibilities for synthesis of abstract images with music. This can be seen from the programs of recent festivals of experimental art ("Imagina", "Siggraph", "Ars Electronica", "Impakt" in Western countries, and "Anigraph", "Third Realm" in Russia).