When music group Kraftwerk needed a video to match its electronic music in back in 1984, they turned to American researcher and artist Rebecca Allen, a pioneer in the field of computer art. Allen is the creative genius of Kraftwerk’s 1986’s Musique Non Stop, one of the earliest examples of rendered 3D graphics in a music video.
Creating the milestone video, which made Allen a major force behind the German band’s visual aesthetic in the 1980s, was a painstaking process that took nearly two years for Allen and her team at the New York Institute of Technology’s Computer Graphics Laboratory to complete.
In the abstract video, animated heads representing the faces of the group members flash across the screen. This work involved the development of state-of-the-art facial animation software in order to bring the virtual mannequins to life. Allen wanted to create a “visual digital aesthetic” that would capture the personalities of Kraftwerk members and essence of their image, and would complement their digital sound with a new form of art making using computers. Nowadays it might be pretty easy to digitize a 3D object, but at the time it was a very complex, crafted process. Allen would have to put little pieces of tape over the models and put it in a reference cube, to then digitize it point by point. It took hundreds of hours just to get the colors exactly the way Allen wanted them.
”There’s so much involved – not just the color, but then you had to get the lighting … and it’s on some crummy TV, ultimately,” Allen said in an interview. “But that’s the way I am. If you’re an animator, it’s already clear that you’re a fanatic – an obsessive. Anybody who wants to make frames for every second of movement is obviously pretty obsessive about things.”
The Musique Non Stop music video still looks prescient, even today and has not only shaped Kraftwerk’s iconic aesthetic, but also created a new visual approach equally in fine arts and pop-culture.
In 1982, Allen had already worked with choreographer Twyla Tharp on The Catherine Wheel, a feature length dance film with music by David Byrne, in which a computer generated character plays the role of St. Catherine. It was produced by the BBC and was the first time the public had seen a 3D human model moving on TV. This model was also the world’s first 3D computer model of a woman’s body. It was created in 1972 by Ed Catmull (founder of the now world-reknown animation studio Pixar) but it wasn’t until 1981 when Allen started working with it and decided to try to get it to move that it started to come alive really.
In an extended interview from 2020 with Arts Technologies Curator at Serpentine Galleries Kay Watson, Allen explains the background of her career as both a researcher and an artist working with and challenging early computer and advanced technology. Allen’s approach of artistic expression through computer based technology and her vision of 3D animation as an artistic tool are deeply inspiring and seminally influential for animating technologies until this day.
“Artists are inventors too; coming up with new ideas and new forms of expression, so to be in a research lab and to be an artist inventing new things made a lot of sense to me.”
The full interview with Allen and Watson is linked below.