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Biography of Peter Mays

Peter Mays grew up in Los Angeles and attended UCLA where he majored in painting and minored in mathematics. He made his first experimental film while in graduate school, for which he constructed a printer and developing tank. Pat O'Neill was on a similar course in the design division. Mays graduated with an MA in Art in 1963 and taught drawing for two years. After graduation he ran a film society sponsored by the art department for several years, showing classic and underground films.

Mays made several experimental shorts in 16mm in the middle 60's. This was a very exciting period for the avant-garde film. Inspired by the emerging counter-culture, Mays shot a feature film in 1967. For several years he taught photography at Mt. St. Mary's, edited films in the industry, collaborated in a light show, and slowly completed his epic film.

In 1975 Sister Midnight premiered at the Fox Venice, but Mays could not find a distributor. He promoted and opened new films at the Fox, and with the punk movement in brief ascendancy and in association with Ed Pressman and the Doors, he tried to buy North American rights to "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" with the Sex Pistols. This deal fell through and with it the first stage of his film career.

Mays re-invented himself in the early 80s. Seeking a compelling subject which might make money, he began portraying large chapters of history through computer animation of geography. Today he has four "experimental" educational films with Discovery Education. He made several long avant-garde films, which now had a strong emphasis on the track and on meaning.

In 2001 he had a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives. In 2005 "Death of the Gorilla" was in the catalogue of the Pompidou exhibition "Los Angeles: 1955-1985." His recent DV and HD films explore ancient cultures to express spiritual meanings. During this period he produced a history of the United States in ten minutes, portrayed by animated geography, which has 50,000 viewers a month on the web.


1. A longer combined biography and filmography (illustrated) is Film Works .

2. Three DVD sets cover Mays' experimental film work:

  • A SIXTIES TRILOGY is a three DVD set of the entire filmography to 2006. This set has the above booklet.
  • DARK ISLAND is one DVD with seven short films, including the new "Dark Island."
  • SISTER MIDNIGHT/ASTRAL MAN has these two short features on one DVD.

    3. Thirteen films (including recent HD films) are on Vimeo. Some early films are also on YouTube.

    4. The web site animatedatlas.com has description of the four historical tapes, the free ten minute history of the USA titled "Growth of a Nation," and descriptions of an expanded interactive version of American history for sale. This multimedia piece is, in my view, my most experimental work.

    5. A transcript of a two hour interview with Adam Hyman of LA Filmforum is on the Alternative Projections website, which is a detailed history and compendium on Los Angeles avant-garde film, sponsored by the Getty Museum. Alternative Projections manifested as well as a weekend seminar at USC in the fall of 2010, on the experimental film in Los Angeles 1945-1980. The papers read at that seminar, as well as supportive essays, including a biography I wrote on my work and the 60's movement titled "Mouse Enigma," was published in April 2015, edited by David E. James and Adam Hyman and available at Amazon.

    6. "Death of the Gorilla" is on page 144 in the catalogue for "Art in Los Angeles, 1955-1985," Centre Pompidou, Paris.

    7. The same graphic for "Death of the Gorilla" is the cover of Paul Young's book Art Cinema (2009).

    8. My career, with an emphasis on "Sister Midnight" and my relationship with Hollywood, is discussed by David E. James on page 391 of his epic history of the Los Angeles experimental film "The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles." Go to an excerpt here.

    9. The light show, of which I was a founding member, Single Wing Turquoise Bird, is currently active and has a web site at swtb.info.

    10. Gene Youngbood discovered the original light show in "Expanded Cinema," 1970, pp. 392-396. A .pdf version of this incredibly prescient book is on the web.

    11. The most complete history of the SWTB light show is David E. James' "Expanded Cinema in Los Angeles: The Single Wing Turquoise Bird," Millenium Film Journal, Nos 43/44, Summer/Fall 2005, pp. 9-31.

    12.The historic light show was in the "Visual Music" exhibition of 2005 at MOCA in Los Angeles and the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC. It was curated by Kerry Brougher.

    13. The current light show was in the in "West of Center: Art and the Countercultue Experiment in America, 1965-1977," Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. This exhibition opened in Denver in 2011 and subsequently played at three more museums.

    14. In January of 2012 the current light show performed three shows at UCLA for the Getty Museum's Pacific Standard Time two year festival. In April of 2014 we performed three shows at USC, followed by an installation of the show and individual work at Paul Young's west Hollywood galleries, Young Projects.