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 was one of the first female experimental filmmakers, and was the creator of some of the first electronically generated film images.[1] Her specialty was visual music; while working in New York City between 1934 and 1958, 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 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's Drama School in 1925. 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's film-making has two relatively distinct modes. She created a series of abstract films exploring the relationship of sound and image in cinema, and a second body of work focused on the relation of language and cinema through adaptation of literary sources. Bute began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visual representations of music. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940.

Before she began making films, she gave a lecture to the New York Musicological Society in 1932 titled 'Light as an Art Material and its Possible Synchronization with Sound.'[2] In this talk, she discussed major trends in painting turning toward abstraction and dynamism, and that she believed that art should be more kinetic, to which she looked to music as the solution. However, she argued that there was no relationship between music and visual forms, her primary area of study. Thus, she determined that while musical composition could offer useful lessons in creating kinetic art forms with light, it should not be a determinant. She wanted to create new forms of art, rather than expand on pre-existing art forms. This talk can point toward the creation of her first completed film, Rhythm in Light (1934).

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. 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.[3]

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.



  1. ^ "Women Artists Newsletter". Vol. 7, no. 2. Women Artists News. Summer 1981. p. 1. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  2. ^ Moen, Kristian (July 2019). "Expressive Motion in the Early Films of Mary Ellen Bute". Animation. 14 (2): 102–116. doi:10.1177/1746847719859194. ISSN 1746-8477.
  3. ^ "Mary Ellen Bute, Film Maker". The New York Times. October 19, 1983. p. 25. (age given as 79)

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