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The Italians Who Invented the Drawn-On Film Technique

Giannalberto Bendazzi

Although the work of Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra in the field of abstract animation has been mentioned in several texts, it has never really been dealt with in depth, as I propose to do now.
The brothers Arnaldo Ginanni Corradini (1890-1982) and Bruno Ginanni Corradini (1892-1976) were born in Ravenna, from an aristocratic [they were Earls] and educated family. At a very early age, they started cultivating poetry, writing and painting. They also took an active rôle in the debate between "Tradition" and "Modernism" that agitated the realms of Literature, Art and Music in Italy, from the turn of the century until the outbreak of World War I. Arnaldo mainly involved himself with painting, while Bruno focused more on literature. After 1914, the brothers joined the Futurist movement, where they used pseudonyms, Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, to distinguish their separate identities. For convenience we will refer to them by their pseudonyms in this article, even though some statements were actually published under their true names.
Fascinated by the possible correspondence between sound and color, the brothers created around 1909 a "chromatic piano" whose keys corresponded to a parallel number of colored light bulbs. Subsequently they carried out several experiments with what we now call direct painting on film, abstract cinema, or colored abstract animation.
At first they made a number of tests-- including removing the projection shutter, and projecting alternating frames of different colors to get an optical mixture of another color. Then they composed four films, painted directly on the surface of clear filmstrips, which explored four different aspects of synaesthesia or correspondences between the arts: a "Thematic Development of a Harmony of Colors" based on a divisionist painting by Segantini [which was 180 meters long, or 10 minutes running time], a "Study of Effects between Four Colors, Two Complementary Pairs", a "Translation and adaptation of Mendelssohn's Spring Song intertwined with a Theme from a Chopin Waltz", and a "Translation of Mallarmé's poem Flowers into Colors". The longest of these films was more than 200 meters-- around 12 minutes in projection.
They subsequently "sketched" three more experiments on film strips (it is not clear whether they fully completed the films in a rough form or just made sample frames like a "storyboard"). These three works explored abstract visual phenomena. One begins with a pure green screen, then a tiny red star appears in the middle, grows until the screen is all red, and then green spots burst out and reclaim the whole screen, making it all green again "for a whole minute". A second developes a white and a yellow line moving over a solid blue background. The third shows seven cubes, each a color of the rainbow, moving, layering and warping against a black background.
The last two films, again about 11 minutes in length, bear formal titles. The Rainbow is a "symphony" in which the spectrum of colors "throb", "bubble", "drown", and "explode" against a grey background. In The Dance, the dominant colors crimson, violet and yellow continuously separate, unite and "whirl upwards as the most agile pirouettes of spinning tops".
Scholars have often doubted the existence of these six (or maybe nine) films, especially because up to the present (and very likely forever) actual prints of the films have never been found. The only original source we can relate to is a chapter in a volume called The Shepherd, the Flock and the Bagpipe (Digressions on Thovez's Book), written by Bruno Corra and Emilio Settimelli, published in 1912 in Bologna by Libreria L. Beltrami. I will try to prove that this source is totally reliable, and thus that these films really existed, with all the theoretical and historical ramifications that implies.
The Shepherd, the Flock and the Bagpipe is a peculiar volume, and its description is necessary to understand the significance and assumptions of the particular chapter we will scrutinize. In fact, Shepherd is not a book in the strictest sense, but rather a "monograph" in a magazine which Corra and Settimelli began to publish after their literary weekly A Defense of Art, published in Florence for the two previous years, had failed. Their intention was to proceed, through this new format, with their line of thought that had been interrupted. They also wanted to start a series of volumes/magazines with the collaboration of the members of their original artistic coterie (see the introduction "What Is This Publication?", pages 7-9).
The language employed in the volume is journalistic, colloquial, and, at times, like that of an open letter. Corra and Settimelli are not compiling closed essays, but rather passionately pursuing a dialogue with an ideal reader that they feel close to them and involved.
In Bruno Corra's chapter "Chromatic Music", he describes in minute detail the experiments that he carried out together with his brother Arnaldo. He offers a vast array of technical details, describing both successes and failures of the various tests. At the end, he also addresses himself directly to anyone interested in these experiments, inviting them to write to him, offering him the chance to give more details.
Two questions arise about this source: 1) Is it reliable? and 2) If it is reliable, what exactly are the correct dates for these films?
The answer to the first question must be positive. Corra's essay presents the tone and language of a recent discovery, which he announces to friends and colleagues, inviting them all to follow this new and certain path. At one point in the essay, Corra even says where he keeps the films: in the drawer of the desk where he is writing. Furthermore, the text is supported by a variety of "technical" information that would be unknown, except through direct, practical experience. Finally, he calls for other people to join in and share his experience-- a call that no imposter would make, since he would run the risk of a competitor coming to inspect his studio and find out the truth-- something particularly dangerous in the climate of personal and ideological conflicts such as existed at that time in Italy. Therefore, since Corra's text appears reliable, the films must have existed.
When the films were made, we can only deduce from reasoning. Bruno Corra literally tells us that the first four films were painted "from last June to October". He then says that the subsequent films were "done during the last few months". Now, the book bears the date of 1912, without mentioning the month of publication. Does Corra refer, then, to the summer/autumn/winter of 1911 (with the book being published in the first three months of 1912)? Or does he mean the summer/autumn of 1912, with the book being published in December 1912?
Other passages from different chapters let us know that the two authors finished writing and assembling their texts during a winter, e.g., on page 14 Corra says, "It has been snowing for two days", and on page 26 Corra refers to "one of my love affairs of two months ago-- it was warmer then, it was autumn..." At least a few weeks would have been necessary for publication in that era, when each lead letter would have been "composed" (picked up with tweezers and placed into a form) by hand, the pages printed once for proofs, which had to be corrected, then the pages printed, folded, sewn and bound-- all by hand. It seems highly unlikely, then, that all this work could have been accomplished in the last days of December 1912 (which also contain family Christmas festivities...). Even stronger evidence appears in the chapter "The Future Great Writer" (pp. 125-156). In these pages, Settimelli reviews books by "young" writers, recently published, i.e., 126 titles "listed from October 1910 to December 1911, according to the Bulletin of the National Library in Florence" (p. 127). Since these reviews were openly biased, pertaining to the current ideological debate, it seems reasonable to assume that the author would want to express his opinion about the latest titles so that his arguments would be relevant, up to date. Therefore The Shepherd, the Flock and the Bagpipe must have been published soon after December 1911. Otherwise, had it been December 1912, Settimelli would have selected books from summer and autumn 1912.
A final clinching piece of evidence for an early 1912 publication date comes from the chapter on Gabriele D'Annunzio, in which Corra refers to "Song for Tripoli" as something very recent (p. 36). These ten poems, inspired by the Italian/Turkish war for the conquest of Lybia, were published in the leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera between October 1911 and January 1912. Thus it seems most likely that Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra produced their first four films ("Segantini", "Complementary Colors", "Mendelssohn", "Mallarmé") between June and October 1911, and their last two films, The Rainbow and The Dance, would have been finished a few months later. They painted all of these films directly on celluloid film strips (after the emulsion had been removed), using the special kind of ink/paint used to tint photographs and slides.
The most important ramifications to arise from our study of Corra's text come from the dating of the films of Ginna and Corra. We now know that an abstract cinema was born at almost the same time as abstract painting, since Wassily Kandinsky's first experiments with abstracting landscapes began in his watercolors around 1910. Therefore, we must overturn what has been considered common knowledge: that abstract cinema had started (around 1921) as an imitation and derivation of abstract painting-- that Painting, the "higher" form of Art, had opened the way and inspired the "lower" art of cinema. In fact, abstract cinema was born from its own roots independent of painting; it pursued and accomplished the aspiration for a synaesthesia between sound and color that had been prefigured in the 18th century by the French scientist Father Louis-Bertrand Castel (who built an Ocular Harpsichord), carried on by various artists and scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most famous, perhaps, the Russian composer Aleksandr Skrjabin (whose Prometheus symphony, with color projections written into the score, dates from 1910, the same year as Ginna and Corra's experiments with the Chromatic Piano and probably their first film tests).
It is also important to remark that in Ginna and Corra's films we are dealing precisely with animation cinema, the same type that decades later would be produced by Len Lye and Norman McLaren

Bendazzi, Gianalberto. "The Italians Who Invented the Drawn-On Film Technique"
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