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Stan VanDerBeek

Stan Vanderbeek
(Photo © Amy Drown)

I’m currently fascinated with the work of avant-garde filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek (1927-1984). There seems to be a dearth of information available about him online or in print which is a shame as he was a genius and innovator in so many respects.

In the mid-1950s, he began creating experimental collage animated films with a quick-cutting approach that prefigures the “MTV style” by decades. I’ve posted two of his shorts below–A la Mode (1959) and Science Friction (1960). The moment I saw these, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Terry Gilliam’s animation work, so it’s little surprise that in this interview, Gilliam cites Vanderbeek’s film Breathdeath (1964) as the inspiration for the animation style in Monty Python.

A La Mode (1959)

Science Friction (1960)

VanDerBeek was a relentless experimenter, even going so far as inventing a new type of theater, the MovieDrome, in which people watched films while laying on their backs. The theater used multiple screens to show “collaged projections of slides, film loops, hand-drawn animation, collage animation, live-action footage, and video images.” In other words, he was VJ’ing decades before the term even existed.


Another fascinating experiment of his was Violence Sonata, a public television special which mixed a prerecorded video work combined with a live studio audience’s response and interaction from viewers at home. When the show first aired in 1969, it was presented on two different channels, requring viewers to place two TV sets side-by-side to appreciate the full effect. More info and a short clip from the film can be seen here.

He collaborated frequently with avant-garde artists from other artistic discplines, such as filming the Happenings of Allen Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, or working with John Cage and Merce Cunningham on the multimedia piece below (additional info about this project on its YouTube page):

VanDerBeek was also an early pioneer of computer animation, and worked to find ways of marrying art and technology. Here’s a 1972 video that shows him at work at MIT, followed by a CG short he made using the computer.

And to top it all off, he has a pretty awesome gravesite too.

  • You should look into his projections on steam. This was something that interested him late in life. Lincoln Center included such a demo in their exhibition of his work during one of their NYFilm Festival programs.

    He was, indeed, ahead of his time and absolutely ignored by the animation community. There’s nothing unusual about that, though. He didn’t make a lot of money.

  • Amid, thanks for posting this. Nice introduction to a rare and forgotten film maker.

  • Richard C. Hotelett

    899 cable channels today and still there is nothing as groundbreaking or as informative as the old Camera Three series.

  • Thad Williams

    VanDerBeek probably died broke but he paved the way for the CGI animation industry down the road. It IS amazing how much Terry Gilliam’s stuff owes to early VanDerBeek, but Monty Python used only a small aspect of what VanDerBeek was after. VanDerBeek was a fine artist onto a new technological frontier. The first ones onto such things rarely become the billionaires.

  • Zep

    What an interesting artist.

    His bio on Wikipedia says he was teaching at a college at the time of his death, so I certainly hope he wasn’t “broke”. I’m also pretty sure he never intended to become a billionaire(and last time I looked there are few independent filmmakers of any kind of are, ever become or expect to be billionaires-in fact, none). All of the people who were and are involved in that scene felt that making personal film art was its own reward. They also commanded considerable respect and serious consideration in their noncommercial world, much more respect than conventional animators of the times received.

    That certainly is one of the coolest memorials ever, anywhere; you really should direct link/post the image, Amid.

  • We were both guests at a film festival in Nashville around 1984 and he was very outgoing for such a renowned filmmaker. I think he was better known in the arts community than the general animation community. He spent the entire week of the festival setting up the plumbing for his steam show. It was so cool. He projected his abstract films on sheets of steam, they were a bit like the Stargate sequence of 2001; then he encouraged everyone to walk thru the screen. A very unique experience. He didn’t show any works like the Gilliam-esque ones you posted. Like most artists he didn’t make much money, but I doubt he died in poverty.

  • These VanDerBeek excerpts are from half-hour films that contain a great deal of interesting material by and about Stan.
    We own these films and market them. Send us an inquiry.
    We also have material on many other experimental filmmakers of Stan’s generation.