RIP Bill Etra, Video Pioneer


One of the video-art greats passed away recently – RIP Bill Etra, who leaves behind a huge legacy for his work at the intersections of art and technology. Below, Bill Etra demonstrates the functions of the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer. (1974)

New York Times article:

“Bill Etra, an artist and inventor who, with a partner, created a video animation system in the early 1970s that helped make videotape a more protean and accessible medium for many avant-garde artists, died on Aug. 26 near his home in the Bronx. He was 69.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Rozalyn Rouse Etra. Mr. Etra had spinal stenosis for many years and was mostly bedridden when he died.

Mr. Etra and Steve Rutt created the Rutt/Etra video synthesizer, an analog device studded with knobs and dials that let a user mold video footage in real time and helped make video a more expressive art form. Among the artists who used it were Nam June Paik, regarded by many as the father of video art, and Woody and Steina Vasulka, who founded the Kitchen performance space in downtown Manhattan in 1971.”

“The dream was to create a compositional tool that would allow you to prepare visuals like a composer composes music,” Mr. Etra wrote. “I called it then and I call it now the ‘visual piano,’ because with the piano the composer can compose an entire symphony and be sure of what it will sound like. It was my belief then, and it is my belief now after 40 years of working towards this, that this will bring about a great change and great upwelling of creative work once it is accomplished.”

From Rutt’s own page:

“Developed in 1972, the RUTT/ETRA Video Synthesizer was one of the first commercially available computerized video animation systems. It employed proprietary analog computer technology to perform real time three dimensional processing of the video image. In the first use of computer animation in a major Hollywood picture, Steve Rutt, working directly with Sidney Lumet, used the Rutt/Etra to create the animated graphic for the film’s “UBS” Television Network.”

Rutt Etra Audiovisualizers page

Software based tributes to The Rutt / Etra Synthesizer.

The Rutt-Etra mac-based plug-in (using quartz composer) by Vade.
How to Rutt-Etra in Blender ‘like a pro’ (3D software tutorial)

Rutt-Etra-Izer is a WebGL emulation of the classic Rutt-Etra video synthesizer, by Felix Turner, which ‘replicates the Z-displacement, scanned-line look of the original, but does not attempt to replicate it’s full feature set’. The demo allows you to drag and drop your own images, manipulate them and save the output. Images are generated by scanning the pixels of the input image from top to bottom, with scan-line separated by the ‘Line Separation’ amount. For each line generated, the z-position of the vertices is dependent on the brightness of the pixels.

Realtime audio-reactive processing application by Felix Turner. It scans input image pixels and draws scanlines with Z position proportional to the brightness of the pixel. Audio level modifies z-pos from top to bottom.

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