Hummingbird is one of the earliest computer-animated films by the artist and programmer Charles Csuri. Aside from creating pioneering computer graphics systems, Csuri is recognized for introducing figuration into the language of computer graphics, which was often seen, even by artists, as a tool for visualizing abstract mathematical formulations. While Hummingbird creates a picture of its titular animal, the hummingbird’s ultimate, abstract annihilation also points to the compatibility between abstraction and figuration allowed by computer animation.
To make the film, over 30,000 individual images generated by a computer were drawn directly on film using a microfilm plotter. Each frame was programmed using one punch card, an example of the complex and labor-intensive operations required by early computer animation. The prelude to Hummingbird provides an overview of the way in which the film was made—a useful primer for much computer-generated art of the time.
In 1968, The Museum of Modern Art organized a program of computer-generated films with programmer Ken Knowlton, who is well known for his work at Bell Labs with filmmakers including Stan VanDerBeek. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, the film program included Csuri’s Hummingbird alongside films by John Whitney. Not long after its screening, Hummingbird was purchased by the Museum, becoming one of the first computer-generated works to enter MoMA’s collection.
Hummingbird. 1967. 16mm (black and white, silent) transferred to video, 12 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2017 Charles Csuri
This is part of an ongoing series that makes film and video works from MoMA’s collection available online.