#519) Free Radicals (1958/1979)

#519) Free Radicals (1958/1979)

OR “Len’s Lens”

Directed by Len Lye

Class of 2008

The Plot: Set to percussive music from the Bagirmi tribe of central Africa, “Free Radicals” is an experimental piece of animation consisting of scratches on the film creating “figures in motion”. 

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of Len Lye and this film, but no superlatives or reasoning behind its NFR inclusion. Come on, NFR, back up your picks!

But Does It Really?: “Free Radicals” hits my trifecta for NFR experimental entries: It’s engaging, it’s representative of an important artist (Len Lye), and above all, it’s short. An easy viewing experience and worthy of its NFR status.

Everybody Gets One: Born in New Zealand, Len Lye was a bit of a renaissance man. In addition to being a kinetic sculptor, photographer and poet, Len’s primary medium was direct film: animation that is drawn directly onto the film stock. For “Free Radicals”, Lye used “various kinds of needles” to create the film scratches, as well as “arrowheads for romanticism”. Despite much of his early work being made in New Zealand (and later England), Len Lye moved to America in 1944, becoming a naturalized citizen six years later.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar attention for any of Len Lye’s films. For the record, 1958’s Best Animated Short winner was “Knighty Knight Bugs“, the first (and so far only) Bugs Bunny cartoon to win this award.

As always, it’s futile of me to try and overanalyze the images in this film, so it’s time for another round of Things I Thought I Saw During “Free Radicals”:

  • A seismograph reading
  • The opening of “The Outer Limits
  • Mt. Fuji. Oops, wrong movie.
  • My stocks? Sell! Sell!
  • The Line from “The Dot and the Line
  • Someone’s heart rate. We’re losing him, Doctor!
  • A bendy straw
  • My signature
  • The Phoenician alphabet
  • A couple of real film scratches posing as art. Nice try, general film wear.
  • An asterisk. Does this movie have footnotes?
  • The poster for the original Off-Broadway production of “Assassins“.
  • One of those Chinese characters that Americans get tattooed on their lower back without knowing what it means.
  • A credit for the New Zealand Film Commission? Excuse me?


  • “Free Radicals” was completed in 1958, but Len Lye revisited the film in 1979, shortening the runtime from five minutes to four. This was one of Lye’s last projects, as he died in 1980 at the age of 78.
  • Most of Len Lye’s filmography has been preserved by the New Zealand Film Archive, and you can learn more about the man himself at The Len Lye Foundation’s website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: