Len Lye. Free Radicals (1958)

Free Radicals. Directed by Len Lye
US 1958, revised 1979, 16mm, b/w, 4 min.

With a reputation as being one of the most avant-garde filmmakers of his time, from the 1930s through to the late-50s, New Zealand artist LEN LYE (1901–1980) created incredibly vibrant animations.

LYE’s distinct style and experimental technique of “direct” film-making saw him paint colour directly onto celluloid film. For Free Radicals created in 1958, LEN LYE reduces the medium to its most basic elements by scratching designs on black film. He used a variety of scribers ranging from dental tools to an ancient Native American arrowhead, and synchronized the images to traditional African music (a field tape of the Bagirmi tribe).

The film won second prize in the International Experimental Film Competition, which was judged by MAN RAY, NORMAN MCLAREN, ALEXANDER ALEXEIFF among others at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. In 1979 he further condensed the film by dropping a minute of footage. Filmmaker STAN BRAKHAGE described the final version as “an almost unbelievably immense masterpiece (a brief epic).”

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