Mary Ellen Bute

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Mary Ellen Bute (November 21, 1906 – October 17, 1983) was a pioneer American film animator, producer, and director. She is significant as one of the first female experimental filmmakers, and was the creator of the first electronically generated film images.[1] Her specialty was visual music; while working in New York City between 1934 and 1953, Bute made fourteen short abstract musical films. Many of these were seen in regular movie theaters, such as Radio City Music Hall, usually preceding a prestigious film. Several of her abstract films were categorized as part of her Seeing Sound series.


A native of Houston, Mary Ellen Bute studied painting in Texas and, subsequently, Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then stage lighting at Yale University. She studied the tradition of color organs, as a means of painting with light. She worked with Leon Theremin and Thomas Wilfred and was also influenced by the abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger.

Bute began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visuals. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940. Her final film, inspired by James Joyce, was Passages from Finnegans Wake, a live-action feature produced and directed by Bute, made over a nearly three-year period in 1965-67, and recipient of a Cannes Film Festival award.[2]

In the 1960s and 1970s Bute worked on two films which were never completed: an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, and a film about Walt Whitman with the working title Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.

Bute was a founding member of the Women's Independent Film Exchange. She chose film historian Cecile Starr to distribute her short films.

Mary Ellen Bute died of heart failure at New York City's Cabrini Medical Center. She was five weeks short of her 77th birthday. Six months earlier, on April 4, she received a special tribute and a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art.


There have been discrepancies over the dating of Mary Ellen Bute's films, primarily due to inaccuracies in published in online articles and websites. The dates below are verified by documents from her former distributor Cecile Starr and Bute's publicity materials and programs in the collection of the Center for Visual Music (from Cecile Starr).


  1. ^ "Women Artists Newsletter". 7 (2). Women Artists News. Summer 1981. p. 1. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  2. ^ "Mary Ellen Bute, Film Maker". The New York Times. October 19, 1983. p. 25. (age given as 79)

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