100 Greatest Animated Shorts / A Colour Box / Len Lye


UK / NEW ZEALAND / 1936

There’s a certain type of abstract animated film that really appeals to me, that I can watch over and over again, because they seem to be overflowing with energy, joie de vivre, artistic spirit, lust for life…whatever you want to call it, the result is that they make me feel happy to be alive.

These films often take the form of ‘visual music’ or ‘moving paintings’ and often look similar to a painting, or more accurately a thousand paintings, vaguely of the abstract impressionist genre, from which you feel you could stop the film at random and see something you could hang on your wall. A Colour Box is a prime example of this.

An experimental artist and animation pioneer, Len Lye spent his long career attempting to “compose motion,” a theme he explored through many different media, including film, painting, drawing and sculpture. Born in New Zealand in 1901, Lye had a tremendously varied life. Before moving to London in 1926, he spent much time with Aboriginal and Samoan peoples studying their art, which had a great influence on his later work.

In London he joined the Seven and Five Society, an art group that also contained abstract painters and sculptors like Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth, and exhibited in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition.

Through this He began making experimental films. His first films Tusalava (1929), Kaleidescope (1935), and A Colour Box (1936) were animation landmarks of huge influence. Tusalava, made with cel animation and inspired by the native aborigine art of his homeland (similar to Harry Smiths later films inspired by American Indian Art, one of many other artists who Lye clearly influenced), was funded by the London Film Society and apparently took him 10 hours a day for two years to complete.

With the reaction to Tusalava somewhat underwhelming, Lye found himself without any funding. Unable to afford a camera, he started making a film by drawing, scratching, and painting directly onto some discarded film stock he had found at Ealing Studios. He edited it together and persuaded John Grierson, head of the Greater Post Office Film Unit, to buy the resulting film. Grierson paid for a soundtrack to be added, as well as some totally out-of-context graphics advertising the Post Office’s new parcel service. The result was one of the most beautiful abstract films ever made.

The Colour Box was the first “direct film” (a term for film created with images rendered in any way directly onto the film stock) to be shown to a general cinema audience. Not only a milestone in the popularity of abstract film, A Colour Box has been voted one of the top 10 most significant animation films of all time by a panel of experts at the 2005 Annecy Film Festival. The film also inspired Lye’s contemporary Norman McLaren, who was experimenting with similar techniques at the time, to take up animation as his main work and established the style for which Len Lye would be associated and would return to many times over his long and varied career.

In 1944 Lye left London for New York where he met, and found great similarities with, many of the famous abstract expressionist artists of the day, who would show his films at their parties. Lye also created kinetic sculptures (a lifelong passion that began in 1918 when he was 17 years old) believing them to be closely linked with his animation in creating a new art of motion. Years after his death, the Len Lye Foundation in New Zealand is still building the many huge kinetic sculptures that he left detailed designs for before his death in 1980. Eleven years later Lye was included as one of the 100 great innovators of the twentieth century in a major exhibition in Germany along with artists like Duchamp and Picasso.

Len Lye urged all animators to be “free radicals,” considered that no film was ever great unless it was made in the spirit of the experimental filmmaker and was described as the “least boring person who ever lived” by the Scottish poet and film director Alistair Reid.

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

About the Author

Stephen has two decades experience in the animation, VFX and games industries as an animator/writer/director and is author of the book 'The World History of Animation'. He lives on the delayed 08:13 Brighton to London...


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  • Dennis Sisterson

    One of my favourites – wrong clip though! That looks like someone’s tribute, not the film itself.

    • Ben

      Thanks for flagging! Have amended.