Mary Ellen Bute was a pioneer American film animator significant as one of the first female experimental filmmakers. Her specialty was visual music and, while working in New York between 1934 and 1953, 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 later abstract films were categorized as part of her Seeing Sound series.
A native of Houston, Mary Ellen Bute studied painting in Texas and, subsequently, Philadelphia, then stage lighting at Yale University, focusing her primary interest on 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 began her filmmaking career collaborating with Joseph Schillinger on the animation of visuals. Her later films were made in partnership with her cinematographer Ted Nemeth whom she married in 1940. Her final film, inspired by James Joyce, was Passages from Finnegans Wake, a live-action feature made over a nearly three-year period in 1965-67.
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.
An archive with some of Bute’s personal papers is at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. A finding aid describes this collection. Film historian Cecile Starr has an extensive collection of Bute papers; another collection is at Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles. Several of her films are at the Yale Film Study Center, George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Anthology Film Archives, and a number of other institutions and archives; an entire 16mm collection is with Cecile Starr; and a travelling film show of all of her abstract short 16mm films has been presented since 2006 in the US, Australia and Europe by Center for Visual Music in association with Cecile Starr and The Women’s Independent Film Exchange.