As an avant-garde filmmaker, video artist, painter, cinematographer, multimedia producer, and the comic book illustrator known as EMSH, Emshwiller envisioned fantastic worlds and surreal characters.
He studied art at the University of Michigan, earning his Bachelor's in Design in 1949. After marrying Carol Fried in August 1949, he left for Paris to enroll at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts for one year, later praising the community of artists he found there. Moving to New York City, he studied at the Art Students' League, and soon became an abstract expressionist painter. He began working as a cover artist for pulp magazines, and was the main artist for ACE Books' doublebacks. His science fiction illustrations won him five Hugo awards (in 1953, 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1964).
Emshwiller's involvement in experimental filmmaking began in the '50s with Paintings by Ed Emshwiller (1955-1958) and Dance Chromatic (1959). Emshwiller's fondness for choreographed movements was apparent from this time, and would later lead to several collaborations with modernist choreographer Alwin Nikolas (1963-1973).
During the 1960s, Emshwiller was the cinematographer for several avant-garde directors including the feature-length films by Adolfas Mekas. His own work included Lifelines (1960), the outrageous Thanatopsis (1962) (with a maniac dancer at an insectile tempo buzzing like a power saw in a man's mind), Faces of America (1965), Relativity (1966), Project Apollo (1968), and Flesh and Voice (1969). These films won awards at many international festivals.
The 1970s began with Branches (1970), Choice Chance Woman Dance (1970), The Chalk Line (1972), and Identities (1973), all involving dance movement. From 1972 to 1979, Emshwiller worked as a video artist-in-residence at the WNET (Channel 13) TV Lab in New York City. The video Pilobolus and Joan (1974) was named Best Drama and Most Innovative Program of the Year by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The video Scape-Mates (1972) involved imagery generated by synthesizer modules to create sci-fi-like landscapes, and began Emshwiller's involvement with advanced video technology. In 1979, the innovative three-minute 3-D computer work Sunstone was created at the New York Institute of Technology with Alvy Ray Smith. This same year, Emshwiller was appointed Dean of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts, where he served as provost from 1981 to 1986. Emshwiller produced and collaborated on a number of multimedia presentations at the Lincoln Center, Museum of Modern Art, and Guggenheim Museum. His electronic video opera Hunger, in which interactive computer-controlled devices responded to live performers, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 1987.
Emshwiller's archives currently reside at CalArts where the Ed Emshwiller Memorial Scholarship was established in his memory.