Len Lye, an artist from New Zealand, endeavored to treat motion as a foundational element of art, much like color or sound. With this idea in focus, he created works in a number of mediums, including kinetic sculpture, poetry, painting, and film. In many of his films, he employed direct animation: manually scratching or painting the film. While he wasn't the first to use this technique, he was largely responsible for its rise out of complete obscurity following his release of A Colour Box in 1935.
In the four-minute short Free Radicals, which Lye first released in 1958 and then finished in 1979, white etchings in black film leader throb to a drum and vocal solo performed by the Bagirmi tribe of Chad. Free radicals are unstable and reactive chemical species. Of course, the title can also be read as radicals who are free, and Lye's attempt to realize a new movement-based medium is certainly non-traditional. Lye's frames are bonded to the tradition and regularity of the music, but, at the same time, such a rhythmically-focused art form may also have been different and new to many in his audiences. As the title might suggest, the forms Lye creates are incessantly unstable. They writhe and contort until blinking into blackness, lasting between several seconds and a single frame.
Lye complements the tones and timbres of the music with his animation. The vocals are accompanied by long, swaying lines which reach from the bottom to top of the screen, reflecting the rich, full tones of the vocalist. The more staccato drumbeats receive smaller jagged lines. Lye uses many different instruments to scratch the film, and the resultant textures also tie in to the associated music, with vocal lines being smoother than drum lines.
The most striking element of the film is the hypnotically convincing animation of the forms. Curved lines are projected into space through the emulation of rotation: narrowing sections become more and more foreshortened until they disappear and appear again, reversed, on the other side of the form. Even without the rigid constraints of perspective drawing, simple lines are given shape and mass. The lines bulge and twist around one another, responding and reacting to the beat of the music. Shortly after the halfway point in the film, the only line currently on screen grows and explodes into dozens of tiny strokes, which give way to yet more lines, these sinuous and fat.
In the last minute of the film, events begin to pass more hurriedly. Lines rush towards each other from either side of the screen and meld into one, asterisk-like constructs warp from location to location and then disintegrate into toothy lines, and brushy textures coalesce into dots. There's a sensation of ritualistic intensity and the indeterminate scope of the forms becomes evident: are these forms subatomic particles, bolts of lightning, or galaxies? Foremost, they are motion and light, and anything else is more suggestion than symbolism.
For the most part, Lye's other films employ a greater variety of colors and shades. There is a particular rawness and power to his approach in Free Radicals, though. The dichromatic, spare style strips away everything but the sensation of movement and sound, yet the film is far from the austere perfectionism of many minimalists. It's a primeval, kinesthetic minimalism, closer to cave paintings than to Piet Mondrian. The gritty, imperfect scratches reinforce the idea that this film represents the first few stumblings into a new artform, or rather, one which had always been hiding in film, waiting for Len Lye to recognize, extract, and purify it.