Animated Life

ae3 cubaLarry Cuba’s algorithmic graphics blend the world of mathematics into cutting-edge digital art

High-tech recluse, animation innovator, ergonomic inventor. Larry Cuba is all that and more. An acknowledged pioneer of computer animation, Cuba was among the 1970s avant-garde of artist-mathematicians with the computer chops to program pretty much anything they wanted. Inspired by film visionaries like Oskar Fischinger and Jordan Belson, what Cuba wanted was to create computer-generated image patterns set to music, much like digital light shows.

“The goal was to create a visual temporal art that was purely abstract, the way music is,” he says.

Adjoining rooms in his Santa Cruz studio are filled with vintage model toys, a Smithsonian of antique computers, and a sci-fi bank of computers running code. Atop a wall of shelves sit the original models Cuba digitized for Star Wars. “Special effects and commercials are the day jobs of experimental filmmakers,” Cuba jokes, noting that his hero, German animator Oskar Fischinger had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon. “Star Wars was actually grueling work,” he admits. “And it didn’t pay as well as you’d think,” he says with a grin. After architecture school in St. Louis, the Atlanta-born Cuba studied at CalArts, where he saw the animated abstract shorts that changed everything. “John Whitney at UCLA was doing computer graphics as an art form, and I wanted to learn from him,” says Cuba, who knew that algorithmically generated abstract films, “were never, ever going to be prime time. But I accepted that going in. I wanted to be part of Oskar Fischinger’s tradition.”

While still a grad student at CalArts, Cuba gained access to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab mainframes and worked with Whitney on his first film Arabesque, a mesmerizing flow of visual undulations set to psychedelic music. More films followed, including Cuba’s award-winning Two Space and Calculated Movements. “The joy of working on these animations is that you can see things you can’t even imagine. Using algorithms, it’s always fresh and new.” Cuba admits he spends a lot of time “sitting in the studio by myself.”

In 1995, after a residency at Germany’s innovative ZKM design think tank, Cuba set up a nonprofit foundation called Iota, dedicated to promoting visual music. Cuba and Iota sourced libraries for rare animations, created a study center, and went on the film festival circuit. Ultimately, he packaged these esoteric films into a program called Kinetica. “We shopped it to museums, galleries, the Tate, National Gallery, MOMA, and it was wildly successful,” says Cuba. “People responded to the early works as well as the newer generation of visualists.”

In his twin studios—a fabrication shop and the computer lab—Cuba lives a schizophrenic life. “I look at the screen for a long time, then go to the shop to touch something tangible,” he says. “If I hit the wall with one project, then I go to the other. The solution to one often occurs when I’m doing the other. A nice way to get balance.”

Cuba freely admits that he’s been working on “the next film”—that’s its working title—for the past 10 years. Even he won’t know when it’s done. “Now there’s a new language that makes algorithmic graphics available,” he says. “Very few people are doing it. Mostly they use Photoshop. But I’m interested in the math side of the brain—visuals that no one’s ever seen before.”

Generated by the code Cuba writes day after day like a 21st-century alchemist, the most recent 3D projects generate spinning shapes that seem to dance, morph and cascade in repeating and evolving sequences. Choreographed to raga and gamelan musical soundtracks, Cuba’s animations are nothing short of trance-inducing. With today’s powerful computers and the Internet as the ultimate distribution network, Cuba thinks now is absolutely the right time for digital artwork. Even if it isn’t exactly commercially viable. Yet.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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