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Bill Moritz, 1941-2004

Bill Moritz, one of the most respected animation scholars in the world, recently died. Here is a brief personal tribute to a real friend of animation and all those who shared his passion for the art he so dearly loved.

Bill Moritz at his CalArts office
Bill Moritz at his office at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he taught film studies for many years. (Photo courtesy of CalArts.)

Optical Poety: The Life and Works of Oskar Fischinger coverWilliam Moritz, one of the world's leading animation scholars, died at age 63 after a long bout of cancer on March 12. His death coincided with the publication of Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger by John Libbey & & Co. and Indiana University Press; the first critical biography of the pioneering German-American abstract animator, it was the culmination his lifelong commitment to the films and paintings of Fischinger.

His interest in Fischinger mirrored his passionate interest and advocacy of experimental and especially abstract animation, which in turn led to his becoming an expert in the related field of visual music. Beyond the experimental realm, he wrote with considerable expertise on a wide range of filmmakers and styles of filmmaking;; and although he was something of a specialist in German animation, including such figures as Walter Ruttman, Lotte Reiniger and Hans Fischerkosen, he was also an advocate of the films of Max Fleischer.

In addition to his scholarly activities, he was a prolific independent filmmaker, with 34 titles to his credit. I must admit to not always being fully aware of the breadth of his interests; for instance, I recall reacting with some surprise, after I commented favorably on his extensive CD collection of Handel operas, when he casually mentioned he had written a play about the composer.
However, it is much too easy to get caught up reciting his many accomplishments as a teacher, writer and scholar. What I would like to do, instead, is to recall some of my memories of Bill through the years.

Crossing Paths
Though we both assumed our paths crossed when we attended the University of Southern California (USC) in the 1960s; however, neither of us had any memory of each other at the time. Among other things, at different times we both served as teaching assistants to Arthur Knight in the Cinema Department. However, by the time I arrived to pursue a PhD in film history at USC, he probably had left the department to get his doctorate in comparative literature. (I don't blame him, as the Cinema Department really did not develop a credible Cinema Studies program until the 1980s.)

My first memory of Bill was when he gave a presentation at New York's Museum of Modern Art on the films of Oskar Fischinger, probably in the 1970s. However, I only got to to know him after I returned to Los Angeles in 1979. Bill was a fixture in local animation circles and was often seen in the company of Elfriede Fischinger, Oskar's widow. (For her part, Elfriede essentially conducted the closest thing to a salon the Hollywood animation community had, and Bill certainly played a key part in it.)

I really started to know Bill well after I founded the Society for Animation Studies in 1987. And when I asked him to participate the following year in a planning meeting for the Society's first conference, all he seemed to want to know is where and when he should show up. I'm delighted he did, because his contribution to the first conference at UCLA in 1989 was invaluable to say the least; and the screening he organized of Los Angeles-based independent animators was one of the highlights of an amazing conference.

During my presidency, he almost never refused a request to assist the Society in any way he could. After he helped organize an SAS conference in 1992 at CalArts, where he was on the faculty, he volunteered to run for president after I resigned. His tenure as SAS president was less than successful, and he stepped down after one year, but I remain grateful that he was able to take over what was sometimes a thankless job.

Subsequently, I used Bill's skills as both a contributor and translator in my capacity as Editor of Animation World Magazine. In its early days, the magazine was very aggressive about soliciting writers from around the world whose articles needed expert translations, and I would almost always turn to Bill, whose linguistic skills were almost as amazing as his knowledge of animation. It was during this period that he developed the cancer that would plague his later years; he visibly lost weight, but he never lost his sunny disposition or his willingness to help.

My last encounters with Bill were when I was organizing the 2002 SAS conference in Glendale, when he supported my (ultimately failed) effort to stage a screening of Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed with an orchestra playing the Wolfgang Zeller's original score, agreeing to write the program notes if necessary. He was unable to present a paper at the conference, but did show up to listen to a paper he was interested in. Although his physical appearance had obviously deteriorated, he still had that twinkle in his eye that was his hallmark. And it is that twinkle and all it represents that I will always remember about Bill.

— Harvey Deneroff
April 2, 2004

2004 by Harvey Deneroff







Oskar Fischinger's Allegretto
Oskar Fischinger's Allegreto. Bill Moritz was not only a passionate advocate of Fischinger, but other abstract filmmakers, such as Walter Ruttman, the Whitney brothers, Jordan Belson, Mary Ellen Bute and many others. He was a great supporter of the Iota Center, which in many ways carries out his legacy

Bill Moritz and Elfriede Fischinger
Bill Moritz and Elfriede Fischinger. For more on Elfriede and Oskar Fischinger, check out the Fischinger Archives website.