Feature by: Teddy Blanks
Posted on: 17 June 2007
Features: What is Animation?
Zbig Rybczynski’s Tango is comprised of a single static shot of a simple room with wood floors, blue patterned wallpaper, and four points of entry (or exit): three doors and an open window. This backdrop stays perfectly still for eight minutes as cut-out images are animated on top of it, and it all looks flat and faded, like it’s been run through a copy machine five or six times. Over a slow and inquisitive piano’s tango, accompanied by tense strings, we see the film’s first bit of movement: a basketball flying into the room through the window. A child climbs in to retrieve it, then jumps back outside out of our view. Immediately, this motion is repeated, and as it loops, an old woman enters the room with a baby, briefly breast-feeds it, places it in a crib, and leaves from the door she came into, only to enter again with a new baby and repeat the entire routine.
As soon as each new character has entered and left the room for the first time, the next one comes in with his own repetitious behavior. The film peaks with 36 people occupying its claustrophobic set. We get caught up in the combined texture of these erratic movements; characters pause randomly during their loops, sometimes passing through others in their attempts to occupy the same narrow space.
Tango won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1983, and is perhaps Rybczynski’s best-known work. It represents a turning point in his career, a summation of a decade of work, and was the last film he made using techniques typically associated with animation. Creating the dense choreography of Tango required hand-painting each frame of his original footage, and countless hours compositing that footage on an optical printer. His use of this now-antiquated device used to re-photograph film — basically a movie camera and projector pointed at one another — lends this film its washed-out, jittery quality, and accounts for the wonderful skips and bumps that give Tango its texture. Zbig doesn’t think they are as wonderful, and he states as much on his website:
In the final result, there are plenty of flaws. Black lines are visible around humans, jitters caused by the instability of film material resulting from film perforation and elasticity of celluloid, changes of color caused by the fluctuation in color temperature of the projector bulb and, inevitably, dirt, grain, and scratches.
In a TV documentary on his work, he said that Tango “would be [sic] much better technical quality and much faster” if he had done it using high-definition blue-screen technology. Sure, but why would he want to? The question, apparently, has never occurred to him. He sees himself as half artist, half special-effects man, as obsessed with the visual concepts he explores — repetitive gestures, the choreographed population of the film frame — as he is with the method by which they are achieved. His company, Zbig Vision, is devoted to the research and development of these methods, which, after Tango, were invariably linked to blue-screen compositing, HDTV, and other effects developed since the early days of video.
The 1980s were, of course, the perfect time to become fascinated and involved with these techniques. Without skipping a beat, Rybczynski transformed himself from an experimental animator in Poland to a high-profile music video director in Hollywood. Seeing just one of his music videos out of context might lead you to underestimate them: many are hilariously dated, and their bright, throwaway look blends seamlessly with the bulk of VH1 Classic’s other offerings. But watch a few in a row (with some digging, most of them can be found online), and you begin to realize that his videos constitute a body of imaginative, technologically brilliant work as worthy of canonization as his short films. How about a “Director’s Collection” from Palm Pictures for this guy? His influence on the much-celebrated video mavericks Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze is immeasurable.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, Rybczynski used blue-screens to freely explore the possibilities of crowding, motion, and juxtaposition he hinted at in Tango. The video for Nona Hendryx’s ‘Why Should I Cry?’ features the singer floating around next to a clone of herself, imposed on interior shots of Grand Central Station, as various fish and musical instruments swim by. Also exhilarating is his video for Cameo’s ‘Candy,’ which features the mustached, bright-red-cod-pieced frontman Larry Blackmon jumping in front of himself, other band members, and layers of brightly-dressed women and guitar soloists, mouthing each sassy line of the song as the camera continuously revolves, with a hazy Times Square in the background. It’s ironic, of course, that the technique Zbig thought would push him into the future is now just as antiquated as the one he abandoned in favor of it. Part of the charm of these videos comes from their artifice. The crisp, flat sheen on their surface is as much of an aesthetic conceit as Tango’s grainy pop and jitter.
In 1990, Zbig directed a feature for PBS called The Orchestra. Basically a long-form music video, it features six classical pieces and a lot of post-Soviet angst. One sequence has Zbig’s camera panning down a neverending set of piano keys, as the rich and beautiful take turns with beggars rising from the floor to hit single chords from Chopin’s funeral march. I had to watch it twice just to quit thinking about how he must have pulled it off, and start taking in the images. This is often the initial response his films elicit: every time I become sure I know how he constructed whatever visual joke is driving the piece, I see something in it that makes me re-think his methods. Zbigniew composes with his actors. Only after we get lost in the form of his composition do we get a good look at the actors themselves, their outfits, their surroundings. We are pulled in by virtuosity and sustained by quirk and idiosyncrasy.
A composer, yes. A magician, yes. An eccentric, a genius, a sell-out, yes, yes, yes. But an animator? In his later career, he balked at the term—whatever else he was doing was much more important than “animation.” But lets take a look at his pre-Tango work.
His first film, Kwadrat, opens on a white square, which divides quickly into a grid of four white squares, each of which blinks on and off. As the grid expands to 16 and 64 square units, the blinking squares start to look like dancing human silhouettes, which they eventually turn into. Soon there are four figures — red, green, orange, and blue — which blink in and out of different poses, looking not unlike those perpetually giddy and nimble hipsters from iPod commercials. (Okay, maybe Zbig’s figures are more Doug Varone than Daft Punk, but I still say he designed the ubiquitous ad campaign 35 years before the fact.) After these silhouettes bounce around the screen for a while, they are gradually reduced back to four white squares in a grid. Then, down to one. Kwadrat is strangely prophetic for a first film, containing all the elements that would become Zbig’s obsessions: its narrative is quasi-palindromic, it features overlapping human figures, and it has an inextricable relationship with the music that accompanies it.
Made in 1974, two years after Kwadrat, Zupa (Soup) utilizes an optical printer to overlay bold colors on surrealistic imagery. Its look and structure are somewhat uncharacteristic of Zbig, but his thematic hand shows in a number of repeated gestures: a man reaching over in bed to touch his wife’s breast, a hand lighting a cigarette, a woman pulling up and unrolling her stocking. Everything is culled from live-action sources, but Zupa’s collage style and bold, dark colors make it clearly read as an animated film. Rybczynski utilized similar deep tinting in Swieto, another of his early experimental films. Less surreal (and less compelling) than Zupa, Swieto is comprised of a series of innocent, banal daily events in rural Polish life, where the people and animals glow radioactive reds and violets. Suddenly, rather unremarkable scenes of a couple making love in the grass, or a man washing his car (with a neon green liquid) evoke nuclear terror. These shots, once simple, have been re-shot and tinted, frame-by-frame, with large, gyrating shapes drawn in to represent car exhaust and water. And though it may have started off as simple live-action, Swieto is clearly best classified as animation.
In turning his nose up at animation, Rybczynski turned his back on his own nature. If he had access to the technology he helped to develop in his later career when he was starting out, would he have used it instead of the time-consuming, flawed, but tactile method he was used to? It’s impossible to know, especially given the prominence that technique has taken over content as the driving force of his work. But, of course, the digitally composited films are animation in their own way, too, whether Zbig likes it or not. The corny, early video quality they inevitably share has its own strange charm. He is an animator whose tools are people and backdrops, rather than clay, or cut paper, or computers. He is an animator who rejects the title.
The Fourth Dimension, made in 1988, is his most striking, mesmerizing film and the one that most strongly supports the idea of Rybczynski as animator-with-video. He uses the make-up of video — the 480 lines that create the full screen resolution — to create one dazzling effect that he repeats over and over. On a table, a wine glass sits beside a bottle, and slowly begins to turn to taffy, stretching and spiraling around the bottle. In a sparsely lit room, with bright blue sky beaming out of the window, a nude woman stands next to a large, floating rock, and, like the wine glass, loses all skeletal structure and becomes a helix, wrapped around the rock. You see, he’s taken these shots of the actors and objects simply shifting around one another, rested on various horizontally moving surfaces, and then re-loaded the video, delaying each line by one frame, so we see the beginnings of the motion at the top of the screen while the bottom stands in the same position. The concept itself, manipulating the pixel-based nature of video to achieve a slick, jaw-dropping special effect, clearly comes from the mind of an animator.
Rybczynski made his last film in 1992. According to his website, he has spent the last 15 years developing advanced compositing technologies with his company, Zbig Vision. His own idea of his career must have been altered greatly by the transition from experimental animation, and aged techniques like painting on film and compositing with the optical printer, to the high-tech world of high-definition video. Now that anyone with a moderate amount of skill and money can achieve a seemingly endless array of screen illusions with cheap digital video and computer programs like AfterEffects, Zbig’s marriage to the technology he employed and subsequent abandonment of any creative output seems very sad. Like Vito Acconci, who one day abandoned conceptual and performance art in favor of shiny, garish theoretical architecture, Zbigniew Rybczynski has ceased not only animation, but filmmaking altogether, in favor of “developing new production techniques,” even when creation, not research, is what we want from him.