Cinzia Bottini – The Orchestration of Emotions in Jerzy Kucia’s Animation

“A film is about feeling.”
Jerzy Kucia

A lifelong “emotional animated documentary” on the Polish landscape

Polish animator Jerzy Kucia’s films are about journeys – ordinary men and women travel from one place to another by different means of transport, such as a train as in Return (Powrót, 1972), a bicycle as in The Barrier (Szlaban, 1976), a chariot as in The Ring (Krag, 1978), or a motorcar as in Tuning the Instruments (Strojenie instrumentów, 2000). During these journeys, ordinary objects, animals and people are visually and aurally recollected; memories and imagery connected via stream of consciousness. Non-diegetic sounds are combined with images in a synesthetic fashion, giving the animation an evocative metaphorical power. As the memories unfold, we are exposed to the intimate feelings of these travelers, to the point of becoming part of what they have experienced. Their emotions are evoked through the animation, and we become engaged with them.

It is for this reason that Kucia’s films have been defined “emotional documentaries” both by film theorists such as Gillian Lacey (2002), and Kucia himself (2013a). Although his films lack linear narratives and defy conventional explanations of the events they portray, they can be considered “documentaries,” as they evoke the subjective experiences that marked the lives of Polish people and the sociological changes occurring in Poland over the second half of the twentieth century; and “emotional,” because Kucia aims to move us.  Accordingly, Kucia’s works can be considered animated documentary, as defined by Annabelle Honess Roe (2013). According to Honess Roe,

an audiovisual work (produced digitally, filmed, or scratched directly on celluloid) could be considered an animated documentary if it: (i) has been recorded or created frame by frame; (ii) is about the world rather than a world wholly imagined by its creator; (iii) has been presented as a documentary by its producers and/or received as a documentary by audiences, festivals or critics. (p. 4)

She asserts further that both conventional documentary and animated documentary can represent reality. For Honess Roe, questions of which “aspects of reality are being conveyed” by animated documentary, and “how that is being done” (p. 22) are more productive than asking whether or not animation can reflect realistic events. In other words, “what is the animation doing that the conventional alternative cannot?” (p. 22). She then identifies three ways according to which animation functions in animated documentary: “mimetic substitution,” “non-mimetic substitution,” and “evocation” (p. 23). It is the latter, evocative element that is most relevant to my examination of Kucia’s films. Where “certain concepts, emotions, feelings and states of mind are particularly difficult to represent through live-action imagery,” animation is employed to evoke emotional states (p. 25). Correspondingly, Kucia’s animated documentaries evoke such states, visualizing subjective states of mind, memories, feelings and emotions.

At the beginning of In the Shadow (W Cieniu, 1975), for example, a girl plays on a swing. As she swings, her body is only partially visible – she is half in shadow, as the title suggests. At the same time, the diegetic sound of the swing in motion reinforces her physical action, locating the event on a hypothetical timeline: this is moment A, the beginning, the point from which we are guided through the girl’s past history. From moment A, additional aural and visual personal memories are blended with one another in different temporal dimensions. Silhouettes of a younger boy and a younger girl are seen first in the foreground, but moments later seen instead from behind, with the boy walking away. The same girl is similarly seen from behind, as she quickly rides a bicycle, framed by an intense blue sky. A few seconds later, the girl rides her bicycle with her friend, a clearly different temporal occurrence than her rapid retreat. In this film, sound is similarly used to create temporal disruptions and foreground the emotional nature of the subject material. A mournful melody is interrupted by the disturbing sound of a creaking wooden door, which is then followed by a different elegiac melody, which accelerates in tempo until it ends abruptly in conjunction with a cut to a close-up of the face of the girl on the swing.  A shrill noise accompanies apples falling to the ground from a tree, and faces of other people are partially framed and “surrounded” by silence, as the music ends. The original melody starts again with a return to the boy walking away. This time, however, the girl from the swing is not with him. Along with a group of people, she watches him leave, and questions arise – has he been forced to leave the village? If so, why? The film’s end circles back the girl on the swing, but her movement is now increasingly slower, the shadows overtaking her body in a final fade to black.

Kucia’s other films, such as Return, The Elevator (Winda, 1973), The Barrier, and Reflections (Refleksy, 1979) similarly start from a grim reality and depart into emotional journeys by means of individual and collective memories, evocations of ordinary objects, animals and people, and fragments of experiences. The Polish landscape, with its peasants and workers, forests and animals, train stations and rural villages, is the main subject of Kucia’s animation. The features of the landscape are not purely used as a geographic framework, but as elements of dramaturgy in order to create emotional multi-sensorial experiences that reconnect us with a forgotten Polish past and, ultimately, with our forgotten past. Kucia’s interest in animation thus derives from the desire to create a “personal conception of films” based on what he calls “a personal film language” (2013b), in which images and sounds are associated to evoke poetic atmospheres.  Kucia’s imagery does not necessarily illustrate or represent the sounds, nor does sound correspond to the images. In composing and arranging the visual and aural components, Kucia follows animator John Whitney’s approach to sound design. According to Whitney,

You would not ask if a musical composition is driven by a piano or by a violin – I think of [the aural and the visual] as two voices, so at one moment a sound pattern inspires a graphics pattern and at the next moment it’s vice versa. (quoted in Furniss 1998, p. 255-56)

In Kucia’s works, then, the audio and visual elements work as well as two voices, combined in a synesthetic way, provoking a multi-sensorial stimulation that provides synesthetic experiences. These elements are also used as poetic devices, as they often carry metaphorical meanings that evoke poetic atmospheres. These aural and visual motifs are memories of Poland and recur in many of his films over the course of his 40-year career.[1]

As animated documentary, Kucia’s memories allow us to experience the world he evokes by means of synesthetic audiovisual associations of both personal and collective memories of the Polish landscape. His films are thus poetic synesthetic experiences and, when taken collectively, become an entire cohesive emotional animated documentary on the Polish landscape. The emotional response of the audience is of primary importance for Kucia and, moreover, determines both his film language and the animation techniques used in each of his films. He experiments with a great variety of techniques, such as drawing and painting on paper, celluloid or glass, documentary film material, and cut-outs, often all mixed together. To achieve the desired visual effect, he will expose single frames multiple times. Kucia has suggested that his techniques have been researched and developed in order to get the dynamic participation of the public. According to Kucia, the “dramaturgy” of his films

requires believable situations; they cannot have a drawing, painting or sculpture in the foreground. Awareness of technique disrupts the viewer’s engagement in the action, and stifles the emotional response. For this reason, I try to make the technique used in the creation of the film unrecognizable to the viewer, and subordinate it to the narrative.” (Bendazzi 2016, p. 213)

Accordingly, in this paper I focus on how Kucia structures his films in order to both document historical events (albeit often on the domestic or personal level) and evoke particular emotional responses. I explore the elements from which he takes inspiration, and what he desires to communicate through his filmic language. I then analyze the films using the language of Western music as an interpretative tool. My central claim is that Kucia’s films are audiovisual synesthetic counterpoints on the Polish landscape, as they are arranged as audiovisual “counterpoints” in which images and sounds are intertwined as two different voices, but perceived harmoniously. Finally, I will articulate the means by which Kucia’s skillful orchestration of visual and aural elements provokes an overwhelming stream of emotions.

On reality: observation and memory

Kucia’s films are rooted in reality, albeit subjective experiences – states of mind, feelings and perceptions. Yet, his animation is not necessarily designed to resemble the real world; instead, it expresses the mental meanderings and streams of consciousness that arise in the mind of his films’ protagonists as they experience and remember. Although Kucia sometimes mixes animation with live-action footage – for example, in The Barrier, The Ring, Splinters (Odpryski, 1984) and Parade (Parada, 1986) – his style of animation is neither photorealistic nor oneiric. Nor does Kucia’s animation intentionally depict dreams as in the surrealist tradition. Nevertheless, they portray dreamlike experiences, since they evoke aural and visual memories in a non-linear narrative. These subjective experiences are not purely imagined by the director, but instead refer to real or historical events that have happened Kucia himself, his friends, family or the Polish people. For Kucia, inspiration stems from observation. He notes that “at the beginning, [he] was only looking for interesting problems” (2013b). In his personal journey as a filmmaker, Kucia has observed sociological changes occurring in his country that he wanted to document by making art based on his personal or the collective Polish experience.

Jerzy Kucia was born in Sołtysy, a village located in the south-western part of the country, in 1942. Poland’s history is marked by oppression, suffering and a lack of freedom. In 1939, the country was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and was subsequently disintegrated and annexed by the two powers. After the Second World War, Poland was part of the Eastern European Bloc until it became independent in 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall ended communist regimes in Eastern European countries, which opened them to capitalism, thus accelerating the transformation of Poland from being a rural economy to an industrial one. In this context, Kucia consciously decided to avoid telling conventional narratives, informing or making statements on the conditions of the Polish people (2013a). Instead, he has preferred to engage with Poland’s history and people through evocative poetic experiences. Inspiration comes also from personal memories, as well as the memories of others; peasants and wheat fields, family and friends, trips away and homecomings – literally and figuratively. The experiences from which he takes inspiration originate in real-world events. His images and soundtracks depict familiar everyday objects, animals, and people: trains, apples and pears, violins and pianos keyboards, birds, clouds in the sky, birds flying in the sky, balls, balloons, roosters, ducks, horses, frogs, dogs, cats, swans, butterflies, fishes, human figures, peasants and peasant’s tools, chariots and charioteers, chairs, shoes, hats, motorcycles, wooden toys, and so on. All these visual and aural motifs are consistent across all of Kucia’s eleven (to date) animated films.

As I argue above, all of Kucia’s films are journeys; as animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi (2016) suggests, some are structured horizontally from right to left, such as Return and Tuning the Instruments, or left to right, such as The Ring; others are organized ‘square-on,’ from a fixed camera position, such as The Barrier, or vertically, such as The Elevator. In Return, a man embarks on a train at night and disembarks in the early morning. The train station is dark and desolate; men are walking from left to right to reach their various means of transportation. The film pays close attention to one man in particular: he gets on a train, sits down in a compartment and, after the train departs, passes his time watching from the window.  As he travels, a recollection of objects, people, places and situations is evoked: birds flying in a sequence from right to left; the man waiting alone at a stop for the train to arrive in the countryside, but instead it passes by; a silhouette of the man combing his hair; a noisy gathering of laughing people with, few frames later, some balloons and the man removing his hat in greeting to the crowd of people. Is he remembering a playful event in his life? In the meantime, these memories are interposed with images of the present: the man’s body is partially in the dark and partially illuminated by beams of sunlight from the window inside the compartment while the train is moving; he observes the sun rising over the horizon. Finally, the train stops, and a rooster’s call announces the beginning of the day. The man exits the train and cuts through a grass field towards a building. He then opens a small wooden gate and arrives at his destination. It might be a farm or a house in the countryside, and in the context of the film’s title, we wonder whether he is coming back home, perhaps after a shift, or if he is starting a new day on the farm where he had lived before, maybe during his childhood. Kucia, however, leaves the exact context ambiguous and open to interpretation.

Similarly, The Elevator presents a man on an elevator, in medias res. The man is not seen entering the elevator, but instead from behind, already going up floor after floor. The main background sound is that of the elevator mechanics, interspersed with other, different types of sound effects for few seconds: a noisy crowd of people, a car or a motorcycle passing by, a man saying something, another man shouting out something else, a melody and voices of talking people as though they were coming from a television. Then, as is characteristic of Kucia’s work, the man’s face becomes visible, partially in the dark and partially illuminated, as the light is interruptedly entering the elevator. Visual recollections also appear: grass moving in the wind, circles on the water, a bird flattering its wings and, few frames later, all three sets of images superimposed and then alternating with one another other. After the elevator stops and the man exits, we see him walking from right to left in profile, until he reaches the rooftop. He stops, turns his backs and enjoys the panorama: the city seen from above with its thousand lights, while on the horizon is just going to sunrise, or maybe to sunset. The Barrier also originates from an everyday event: several unassociated people wait at a train barrier for a train to pass: an old woman with possibly her young granddaughter; a man covered with a hood on a bicycle (possibly a teenager); a middle-aged man with a coat and a hat; two men with briefcases; two children with schoolbags; another man carrying a big package on his shoulders; and lastly, another man on a motorcycle. Then, the train finally passes through. As the film ends, it is revealed that the scene has been observed by yet another person located in the interior of her/his house. The last frames of the film are of hands closing a window from the inside.

The Ring, on the other hand, is a circular journey in which the point of observation is situated in camera movement around the vertical axis, combined with a return to the same scenes. Recurrent motifs are animated and consequently perceived as if we, the spectators, are moving in a circle: a charioteer with its chariot moving slowly, jumping fishes and frogs, flying butterflies, women and men relaxing on a field and enjoying nature in the countryside, playing kids, a rooster and the act of chopping, among many other images. This animated documentary resembles a bucolic portrait of rural life; however, Kucia undermines this nostalgic interpretation by contrasting disturbing melodies and non-diegetic sound effects at the film’s climax: the rooster’s head is chopped off, and immediately thereafter, the film cuts to the charioteer, hitting his horse and forcing it to run faster and faster.

Looking at Kucia’s entire body of work, it is clear that each film’s subject is situated in or anticipated by the previous one. Not only are the same visual and aural recollections used in all the films, but there are also specific elements that are then further developed in the following film. Among the many images of The Ring, for example, we see a beetle struggling to exit its cocoon, which is later eaten by a jumping frog, and (likely) the same frog is in its turn eaten by a swan. This thread is further explored in Reflections, as Kucia has explained:

I’m interested by those screenplays, which are somehow linked to or derived from the prior movies. For instance “Reflexes” originated from “The Ring.” I already knew that I will create “Reflexes,” when I was making “The Ring.” Moreover, I knew that the two films shall be similar, because they shall have at least one theme in common. (qtd. in Strękowski 2005)

Splinters also originates from The Ring, revolving around men and women enjoying their time in the countryside. Kucia employs specific images and sounds that come directly from The Ring: a boy playing on the grass, concentric circles forming on a watery surface, with the sound of splashing, for example. The last two elements are also present in Reflections. Moreover, Polish folk dance music is incorporated into all the three films as part of the non-linear narratives. Splinters does differ from The Ring, however. It begins with a hand playing with a moth, in partial darkness. This also echoes the lighting Kucia employs in Return and The Elevator. Moments later, we see some written pages, possibly a diary, or letters. Then a paper is held in two hands, suggesting that it is being read by an off-screen character, underscored by the sound of a train passing. Splinters also combines retouched live-action footage with the animated segments to present a man’s train of thought as he remembers mundane events of his past domestic life. His personal memories are intertwined with everyday life actions and common gestures such as turning on the gas stove, boiling water, peeling a potato, sewing a button and cracking an egg. These tasks are alternated with scenes of a family consisting of a man, a woman, a baby and a child, enjoying their free time near a lake or a river. Towards the end of the film, we see retouched photographs of the man and the woman on the wall. The man looks at them as though he is looking at himself in the mirror. His face too is partially obscured by darkness. In the background a half-seen moon rises in the sky, visible from a closed window. Kucia encourages us to believe we are in the man’s house, that intimate place full of memories where he has lived with the family that he is longing for, but this straightforward interpretation is subverted. Suddenly, the man wakes up, opens a train door and, from above the moving train, observes people and landscapes passing by.

Another cluster of films arise from one another and explore similar themes. Across the Field (Przez pole, 1992), can be considered a continuation of Parade, which is then expanded in Tuning the Instruments. Parade focuses on the type rural life that was disappearing from Poland, while Across the Field focuses on the people who have lost these traditions and customs. In Tuning the Instruments, a man wakes up, performs physical exercises, puts on a tuxedo and starts a motorcycle journey in which personal and collective memories are evoked, objects are recalled and images are used in association or in contrast with the musical score. As the man travels geographically and temporally, we become engaged with and implicated in his evocations of a personal and collective Polish forgotten past. And as the title suggests, the musical score and the sound effects recalls the process of an orchestra tuning their instruments prior to a concert.

My analysis of the films, foregrounding the connections between one work and the other, in conjunction the recurrent themes throughout Kucia’s whole filmic production demonstrate that all the films are thus linked together as an entire and continuous autobiographical artwork. As Bendazzi (2016) points out:

The common man who gets up in the early morning and leaves to meet his day is a guiding thread in Kucia’s work. ‘Tuning the Instruments’ (2000) follows the template of ‘The Return’ (1972), only it is much more skilled, profound and poetic. Kucia’s long quest finishes where it had started. All in this world of ordinary people, of ordinary other living beings, are trying to tune their instruments, all have unanswered questions. Is the conductor of the year 2000 the same person limping on the train platform in 1972? He probably is. (p. 156)

Thus the “guiding thread” of continuity characterizes Kucia’s lifelong emotional animated documentary on the Polish landscape and its people. Recollections (aural and visual) are drawn from personal and collective experiences and then freely associated through the animation.

On content: subjective meanings and universal feelings

In Kucia’s animated documentary, animation works as an evocative tool. Everyday objects and ordinary sound effects can be perceived as symbols and metaphors. According to Kucia, in animated films wherein motion unveils the passing of time, it is possible to work “on a boundary line: a hat or a pair of shoes stop being ordinary objects and start to be fragments of experiences, they turn into part of recollections” (Strękowski 2005). Personal and collective recollections, we might say, make it easy to recognize ourselves. Moreover, we can ascribe connotations to each of them according to our personality, sensibility and individual history.

Among his sources of inspiration, Kucia (2013a) includes Polish writer Leopold Buczkowski, and animators Walerian Borowczyk and Norman McLaren. Buczkowski’s prose has been compared to that of James Joyce. Similarly, for Kucia, the “logic of associations, experiences and emotions is […] in my movies more important than the logic of facts” (Strękowski 2005).  We can thus interpret his films as a continuous audiovisual stream of consciousness, a documentary of human memory. And as he freely arranges sounds and images in a non-linear narration, we are as well not bound to “read” his animations as conventional stories; instead, we are encouraged to construct our narration by freely associating meanings to these visual and aural recollections.

The personal and collective memories evoked by Kucia are resonant with the human condition – even as they evoke a particular nation’s history, the films transcend their historical and geographic specificity. The unnamed and often partially-seen characters serve as mirrors to reflect both cultural and personal histories, and the ordinary, near-universal experiences common to human experience. In The Barrier, for example, Kucia aligns his audience with film’s own spectator, observing the people waiting at the barriers. All humanity is represented there, together with the human cycle of life, from childhood to seniority. There are children, teenagers, middle-aged workers and business men, and an old woman. Death itself is present – as the train passes, pigeons are flying about, searching for food. Then, one of the pigeons dies; its body, tilted to one side, falls down lifeless, out of the frame.

In Reflections, the bugs’ struggle for life similarly functions as a metaphor for the precariousness of human life. The audience is again aligned with the film’s internal observer – a man watches two beetles fighting in a puddle, and can see ourselves reflected in this mortal battle. Life is a precarious journey and, like for all living creatures, it can end at any moment. The beetle/human metaphor is enhanced by the film’s musical score. As the two beetles battle, their movements generate circles on the watery surface, until they fly away, out of the frame. Kucia here focuses on the water and what it reflects in a larger context. The wavelets formed by the insects’ struggle metamorphose into the shadow of the man, mirrored by the water. In the background, the country melody becomes louder, more noticeable. Previously, it was alternated with the sounds of the beetles fighting. But even as the beetles are dying, the film suggests, the country festival goes on, as does the man’s own journey. He walks away from the pool to reveal beetles dead on the ground, together with the tracks left on the street by the man’s wet feet. He has stepped on their bodies and walked further.

Similarly in Splinters, we empathize with the man missing his family. His personal recollections (joyful moments in the countryside), are also collective recollections (domestic everyday actions), but the feelings expressed are often considered universal: the melancholy associated with the loss of someone beloved. Moreover, the aesthetic of the animation enhances the feeling of nostalgia. The sequence in which the couple is enjoying their time in the countryside consists of black-and-white archival material, as well as the family photographs in which the man’s face is mirrored are rendered in grainy black-and-white. The film abruptly brings us back to the present, it becomes evident that the man is recalling his family life while travelling alone on a train and that the memories were likely raised by that letter he was reading at the beginning of the film. However, as soon as he opens the train door and sees people passing by, we also realize that the past is gone and life goes on. He is one person among many others and what he has experienced has been also experienced by many other men and women.

In Splinters, the man’s personal memories constitute his personal identity and the animation functions as a way of accessing his past. In Parade, instead, the peasants’ collective memories address the social and historical Polish now-absent context. Honess Roe (2013) points out the effectiveness of autobiographical media in reconstructing history through personal and collective memories, affirming that by

inserting the self into the social and the personal into the public, autobiographical filmmaking and animation are ways of refiguring the past from a locally situated perspective, one that tells history from the bottom up instead of receiving it from the top down. As such, autobiographical media has the potential to be a powerful tool for (re-/de-) constructing our picture of the social, historical world. (p. 145)

She continues, noting that animation “by nature of its construction and creation, can present a subjective intervention into the discourses of autobiography, memory and history. In this way, animation as strategy for the re-presentation of personal history is a tool by which self-identity can be explored and understood” (p. 145).

In Honess Roe’s framework then, Parade can be understood as procession of interrelated images and sounds, combined together and associated in an audiovisual stream of consciousness to display the loss of traditional manual labor and agricultural tools. In the film, the actions of peasants working in a wheat field are associated with the sounds produced by their gestures, such as frictions and rubbings, as well as melodies of a violin, an accordion and some drums.  The film combines archival documentary materials with animation drawn on celluloid.[2] The aesthetic of the live-action footage, rendered in grainy sepia tones with some occasional coloured elements, situates the narrative in the past. Great attention is paid to the physicality of the portrayed labour. Men carry clusters of wheat on their shoulders, cultivate the land, their hands cast off the ears of corn. Other labourers use mechanical tools, including a plow, a threshing machine, a lawnmower and a rake, among others. In a sequence, the peasants parade across the screen. Each of them enters the frame from the left carrying a different mechanical tool and exits on the right. Additional visual agricultural references such as cows and horses, wheat carts and wheat fields, and a rooster being plucked are interspersed with the peasant parade. These collective memories constitute the past social identity of Polish people and memory play a relevant role in accessing Polish people’s personal and collective identities. Toward the end of the film, the mechanical tools lie on the grass, as if they have been abandoned there. Moments later, the sun sets on the horizon, as night comes, together with the film’s closing titles. Using Honess Roe’s conclusions on the interrelation between autobiographical media, personal and collective memories and self-identity, we can say that the celebration of the now abandoned Polish manual labors allows Kucia to reconnect himself “to a collective history that is identity specific” (p. 168). Moreover, it reconnects with the shared history of rural societies that characterized Poland’s common past. The film thus suggests a notion of universality, in that not only Poland’s past can be accessed, but also rural history elsewhere.  Kucia makes this possible by structuring his animated films in an effective manner.

On film language: poetic synesthetic experiences

Film historian William Moritz (1988) has argued that no “animation film that is not non-objective and/or non-linear can really qualify as true animation, since the conventional linear representational story film has long since been far better done in live-action” (p. 21). In all of Kucia’s films, the recollections derive from personal and collective memories and, at the same time, function as “elements of  dramaturgy” (Kucia 2013a). However, as I ask in my introduction and echoing Honess Roe, what does the animation convey in Kucia’s films that live-action cannot?

Kucia sees something special in the ordinary. His storylines are quite minimal, and on a superficial interpretative level, deal mainly with journeys. Still, the free association of visual and aural motifs through the animation generates emotional engagement. Honess Roe points out that in animated documentary, “animation expands the range and depth of what documentary can represent and how it can do it” (p. 170). Considering the ontological differences between live-action film and animation, she finds that animation “by nature of its processes of production and aesthetic realization is at one and the same time less and more than the photographic” (p. 170) and that, for this reason, it might have an evocative metaphorical power that “encourages us to use our imagination to empathize with an unfamiliar brain state or mental health issue” (p. 171). The same can be said about Kucia’s works, apart from the fact that, in watching his films, imagination becomes a tool by which to empathize with universal emotional issues as the meanings are not given, but left open to any interpretation.

The evocative metaphorical power of Kucia’s animations is given by the non-diegetic inconsistency between images and sounds, as they often do not match. The score of The Elevator is made of disturbing metallic sounds, repeated in loops. As the man goes up, the sounds become more and more annoying and non-diegetic, in association with images of a watery surface, a flying bird or some grass. When the man reaches the rooftop, the score is even more distressful, although the panorama he is observing is peaceful. In Tuning the Instruments, this tendency is more pronounced. A violin is depicted while a piano is played, or the violin being tuned is superimposed to a piano melody, while falling apples are animated in reverse. Images and sounds are used in a synesthetic way also at the beginning of Parade and Tuning the Instruments, where the musical score is triggered, respectively, by images and sound effects of a wheel’s cart and a motorcycle.

Kucia considers his films as “personal communications […] with surrounding areas, with people” (2013b). During his early years, when he was a promising painter, he became increasingly interested in movement and time. He discovered that in films, time provides spaces both for the director and audience. An animator who extensively explored the relationship between animation, movement and time throughout his works was Norman McLaren, whom Kucia cites as an influence. For McLaren, animation “is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn; what happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame; animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between the frames” (qtd. in Furniss 1998, p. 5). Kucia similarly refers to the spaces between the frames as “film spaces” (2013a) that allow an opportunity for audience interpretation. Kucia intentionally combines images and sounds in a non-linear narrative, in order to create a connection with us. As media theorist Gene Youngblood (1970) argues, “in expositional narrative, a story is being told; in evocative synesthesia an experience is being created” (p. 92). I have argued in this paper that Kucia’s emotional journeys can be considered animated documentaries, yet due to the way he both relies on film spaces, and how he choreographs his aural and visual elements, his films can thus also be considered to be poetic synesthetic experiences. The inconsistency between images and sounds stimulate two sensory channels (sight and hearing), the impressions of which are then recombined into a completely new sensorial experience.  This multi-sensorial stimulation can nudge us to experience or re-experience a forgotten past by means of both imagination and empathy.

According to Moritz (1988), abstract and non-objective films are comparable to lyric poetry and non-programmatic music. In this fashion, non-linear animated films can function akin to poetry, most notably when the animation is used as an evocative metaphorical tool. In Kucia’s films, the aural and visual motifs work as symbols and metaphors, as much as in poetry it is used a figurative language, and sounds and images create poetic atmospheres. His animated films thus also function as audiovisual poetic expressions, whether the animated documentary depicts general historical and sociological events, such as in Parade, or more specific personal events, such as in Splinters.

Reflections, for example, begins with rain pouring down on a desolate environment. We can glimpse in the background some houses and what might be either an industrial park or a large farm, guarded by a barbed wire fence. The camera then moves horizontally and into the bushes, where a bug is struggling to exit its cocoon. A leg comes out, then the head, and then the bug’s entire body. Once out of the cocoon and ready to fly for the first time, it is attacked by another beetle, suddenly and unexpectedly. The attacking bug comes from the left and the other one does not even have the time to realize it, as does the audience. The two bugs fall on a body of water together and the very last moments of this mortal battle are not shown. Instead, the two beetles fly out of the frame, still attached to one another. We then see circles generated on the water after they fly away yet can still hear the noise of their fighting. As is characteristic of Kucia’s work, sound and visuals work together in such a way that the audience takes on responsibility for filling in the gaps, thus becoming part of the evoked experience. In other words, the animation becomes a multi-sensorial synesthetic experience only through the dynamic participation of the spectator – we experience something because we participate in the construction of its meaning.

On music and animation: the orchestration of emotions

Kucia has been a highly-skilled piano player since childhood, and incorporates music into the vocabulary of his films.[3] His training and background explains how he sees animation as a synesthetic medium, as well as his mastery in choreographing visual and aural rhythmic patterns to arouse emotional responses. He believes that “music is much more emotional than image, [it is] much faster; […] [it] is creating emotion” (2013b). As a musician, he knows the syntax of Western musical language and applies it to animation using both images and sounds in form of syncopation, refrains, tonal consonances and dissonances.

Music is similar to animation – it unfolds in time. Skillful composers organize the basic elements of music (tones, pitches, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness, spatial location and reverberation) in a way that a unity is granted and emotions are engendered. In order to engage us, the music has to be neither too simple nor too complex; it has to be enough familiar enough to be recognized by our brain, yet unfamiliar enough to trigger the need for interpretation (Levitin 2006). The same is true of animation, especially for films reliant on metaphor. The aural and visual motifs are selected, animated and organized in a structured and coherent unity in order to be recognizable (familiar), but also trigger curiosity and emotionally move us (unfamiliar).

In music, the progression of tones is perceived as a stream of sounds. As tones unfold sequentially, our mind tracks chord sequences and try to make predictions as to what will come next. When these expectations are violated, an emotional response is triggered, together with ambiguity.  The violations of the expectations can happen in any domain of music – tones, pitches, rhythm, tempo, timbre, and so on, but they need to occur; otherwise the music is predictable and becomes boring (Levitin 2006). In other words, skillful composers play a game of expectations; they “imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are, and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won’t” (p. 109). Kucia does the same with his animation, emotionally communicating via the systematic violations of our aural and visual expectations.

In his films, aural and visual motifs work as tones in music. Within a melody, the anticipation or the delaying of a tone can create tension. Levitin explains that notes (tones) are heard within a flux, a tune – as much as in animation images and sounds are perceived in a flux, a film. The melody (the main musical theme) emerges when the regular flow of rhythm is played or sung. Every time that something unpredictable happens, such as anticipation (syncopation) or the delaying of a tone, or tonal dissonances, tension is built. Therefore, melody has been used by composers to violate our expectations.[4] As Levitin puts it, music theorists

have identified a principle called gap fill; in a sequence of tones, if a melody makes a large leap, either up or down, the next note should change direction. A typical melody includes a lot of stepwise motion, that is, adjacent tones in the scale. If the melody makes a big leap, theorists describe a tendency for the melody to “want” to return to the jumping-off point; this is another way to say that our brains expect that the leap was only temporary, and tones that follow need to bring us closer and closer to our starting point, or harmonic “home” (Levitin 2006, p. 115).

The “gap fill” principle theorized by musicians is similar to the “film space” principle theorized (and experimented with) by McLaren, and practiced by Kucia. How a musician plays with the gaps between the tones in a melody is similar to how a director/animator plays with the spaces between the frames in an animation. Moments of tension and resolution can be similarly built and the purpose of provoking an emotional response can be similarly accomplished. More simply, the more our brain is tricked, the more we are amused. Kucia achieves this goal by playing with the anticipation or the delaying of recurrent visual and aural motifs, thus balancing moments of tension and resolution, most notably in Tuning the Instruments.

 This film is predicated on the violation of aural and visual expectations, while maintaining a balance between moments of tension and relaxation. The common thread throughout the film is the tuning of musical instruments. The main aural theme of “tuning” is embedded into the beginning of the film. An alarm clock rings and a man awakens. As he moves, we hear the sounds of a radio or possibly a television, its frequencies being tuned, which then turns into a piano being tuned. Another anticipation of the audio-visual motifs is while man is on his way to take a shower. We hear the sound of breaking glass and few seconds later, we see the man’s face reflected in the broken mirror. The sound of a train passing by anticipates beams of light that we are going to see later. Another example of anticipation between images and sounds occurs when the sound of marching soldiers precedes the morphing of a row of trees into soldiers few seconds later. [5] The sounds of water splashing will be visually recalled in one of the last scenes, in which there is the sea, with an origami boat floating on the horizon.

More visual motifs are evoked during the man’s motorcycle journey. The noise of the engine is combined with a melancholy melody, while the man remembers items from his past – apples and pears lying on the ground, a hat, a wooden small horse, a violin, a pair of shoes, the shadows of two hands playing the piano, a keyboard piano and a jumping cat, whose design and actions echo the hands at the piano. All these visual motifs are recollected while the man is travelling on his motorcycle. The viewer is aligned with the man as he travels. We see what he sees and we experience what he re-experiences by means of his memories: the shapes of these recollected objects are drawn and animated as if perceived among sheaves of wheat. The temporal shift between past memory and present vision becomes clear as he travels on his motorcycle, surrounded by wheat fields. Kucia achieves this layering of imagery with multi-depth and multiple exposure. He explains further that in Tuning the Instruments,

some fragments had over a dozen exposures on a single frame of film. All the visual material was manually done on celluloid and paper (around 15,000 drawings and many decorations), but the final visual effect was achieved in bringing them together via photography. The photographing stage was precisely mapped out and not improvised. (Bendazzi 2016, p. 213)

A similar thing happens at the auditory level. Not does the motorcycle’s inform us that we are in the present, the sweet melancholic melody simultaneously refers back to the past. Similarly, the sound of a swing (a memory from the past) is contrasted with that of crickets in the grass (the present moment). These aural threads all work as different intertwined voices, as do the images.

As the melody reaches its conclusion, bird fly across a blue and cloudy sky, and perch on wires that resemble violin strings. The appearance of the birds was anticipated at the beginning of the film, overheard while the man was in the shower. However, as the melody reaches a point of tension, all the birds flock away from the forest. It seems to be the same forest that metamorphosizes into the marching soldiers – are the flocking birds associated with the tension in the melody symbolizing the arrival of a menace, such as a war? This interpretation seems likely, as war has already been referenced in the images of the marching soldiers. The same birds recur towards the end of the film as they fly peacefully over the sea, in association with both new and already-seen memories, including a chair, two wooden small horses, the hat and a dog.

The film’s ending loops back to its beginning. When the alarm clock rings, the frame turned from total black to blinding white; the man walks in a blinding light, the light of the awakening. At the end of the film, we return to a black frame. The origami boat is fluctuating on the waves and disappears exiting from the left upper side of the frame. The total darkness symbolizes the end of the man’s journey – a coming to night, the time of sleep. The final part of the film works as a symbolic return to the harmonic “home,” expressed by the man’s childhood memories. This final resolution of visual and aural motifs bring us back to the starting point. Nevertheless, the peace of the resolution is also deceptive, as the concluding melody is both sinister and clashing.

According to Levitin (2006), this type of deceptive cadence is, in fact, an illusory resolution; “the composer repeats the chord sequence again and again until he has finally convinced the listeners that we’re going to get what we expect, but then at the last minute, he gives us an unexpected chord—not outside the key, but a chord that tells us that it’s not over, a chord that doesn’t completely resolve” (p. 110). In this way, the end of Parade, for example, suggests that an “audiovisual deceptive cadence” has been choreographed by Kucia. The film starts with live-action footage of peasants going to work in wheat fields, and ends with a violin animated floating on the water, passing through the tuning of some musical instruments.  Alternately, other films are “resolved” and express a symbolic return to the harmonic “home,” after the emotional journeys. Not by coincidence, in Return (Kucia’s first film), the theme of returning home is explicit. In the Shadow’s ending also echoes its beginning – the girl plays on the swings, although by the end, she moves ever more slowly as the film draws to a close. As I have argued above, The Ring is organized as a specifically circular parade of audiovisual motifs that brings us back to its beginning, opening with a charioteer moving slowly on his chariot and ending with the charioteer trotting quickly away with his horse. In Splinters, the journey starts on a train but is slowly brought into a different dimension. It is the sound of trivial objects that triggers the protagonist’s memories – he travels back in time through his memories to his family home.

In Kucia’s animated documentaries, the different aural and visual motifs work as intertwined contrapuntal voices. In musical counterpoint, lines (or voices) may sound very different and move independently from one another, but still sound harmonious when played simultaneously. A counterpoint is a polyphonic work; it is like listening to different and several songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a harmonic whole piece. Kucia’s animated films are polyphonic audiovisual works, in that images and sounds function as two different “voices” that have exactly the same importance in achieving the final desired audiovisual effect. Moreover, these two voices internally consist of many contrapuntal lines, which, in filmic terms, are the assorted sound and visual components, harmoniously organized in each film and throughout the entire animated documentary consisting of Kucia’s entire body of work. Just as the final visual effect is achieved by means of multiple exposures and the superimposition of many layers, all precisely orchestrated during the early stages of the film’s production and brought together during the photographing stage, the final auditory effects are well-researched and planned in advance. Kucia explains,

I usually start the work on the audio layer at the film’s concept stage. The dramaturgical, narrative function of the sound is worked out in the script and the screenplay. Then I begin working with the composer. Often, some fragments of music are recorded before the realisation of the animation and photography. (qtd. in Bendazzi 2016, p. 213)

The final effect is an animated film in which all the audiovisual elements are perceived as a harmonious whole.

Kucia’s last film synthetizes his approach to animation and possibly his entire cinematic production: Fugue for Cello, Trumpet and Landscape expresses a fugue between images and sounds, using visual and aural elements of Polish landscape. Merriam-Webster’s defines fugue as “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.” Kucia (2013a) has said that he is not interested in the fugue as it is defined by Western music, but the concept of the fugue best expresses his practice of interweaving images and sounds. Kucia thus applies the syntax of a fugue to this film by considering the images and the sounds two interweaving “voices.” Similarly, all of his previous films are audiovisual synesthetic counterpoints on Polish landscape, in which images and sounds are masterly structured in order to raise feelings via anticipations, consonances, repetitions, delays and resolutions of the many visual and aural motifs that compose his lifelong emotional animated documentary.

As a skillful artist and musician, Kucia successfully achieves his purpose to move us by means of his evocative metaphorical animation. In his emotional animated documentary, the orchestration of visual and aural elements in the film spaces/gap fills is experienced then, as a stream of emotions.

Cinzia Bottini is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. She graduated in Philosophy (2004) and received a Master degree in Philosophical Studies with an emphasis on arts and cinema from the University of Milan, in Italy (2010). She has worked as copywriter and journalist, and collaborated in researching and writing for an ongoing publication on the history of animation (Animation – A World History, written by Giannalberto Bendazzi). Her current research focuses on the animation studio UPA and combines a historical and a theoretical approach.


Bendazzi, G. (2016). Animation: A World History, vol. 3,Tayolor & Francis Group – Focal Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Furniss, M. (1998). Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, John Libbey Publishing, New Barnet, Herts, UK.

Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated Documentary, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK.

Kucia, J. (2013a). unpublished lecture held at the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, attended 23 October.

Kucia, J. (2013b). unpublished interview conducted at the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, 23 October. Interview with Juan Camilo Gonzalez.

Lacey, G. (2002). ‘The Emotional Documentaries of Jerzy Kucia’, Vertigo, vol. 2, no. 2, viewed 16 November 2015,

Levitin, D.J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Dutton, New York, NY.

Moritz, W. (1988). ‘Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-Linear Animation’, Storytelling in Animation: the Art of the Animated Image, vol 2, pp. 21-31, ed. John Canemaker, Los Angeles: American Film Institute.

Strękowski, J. (2005). ‘Artists in the film category: Jerzy Kucia’,, trans. M. Kępa 2013, viewed 16 November 2015,

Youngblood, G. (1970). Expanded Cinema, P. Dutton & Co., New York, NY.

Zatorre, R.J. & Salimpoor, V.N. (2013). ‘Why Music Makes Our Brain Sings’, The New York Times, 7 June 7, viewed 16 November 2015,



[1] Kucia made his first animated film in 1972 (Return). As of June 2016, his most recent animated film is Fugue for Cello, Trumpet and Landscape (Fuga na wiolonczele, trabke i pejzaz), released in 2014.

[2] Regarding his technique, Kucia affirms that “For Parade I mixed drawing on celluloid with documentary film material. I selected certain frames from that material, setting them in loops and cycles, submitting them to repeated photographing with the use of laser light. Colour was introduced in forthcoming exposures in masks and reverse-masks” (Bendazzi 2016, p. 213).

[3] He was selected the best piano performer among the students of his school and offered an annual stipend to pursue a career as a musician. Loving both painting and playing the piano, he wondered what he wanted to become: “[the] best player in this painting community or the best painter in musical community” (Kucia 2013b).

[4] To better understand the concept of “harmonic home”, Levitin (2006) brings Ludwig van Beethoven as an example of how much the expectations with the melody can be manipulated by delaying the resolution: in Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Symphony No. 9), the entire motif is run again and again on different degree of the scale but closer to the root , which is reached only at the of the piece. The melody keeps on delaying the resolution, but when finally resolved, it causes a sweet abandonment. According to Levitin, then, the root is “the most stable tone” (p. 117).

[5] In music, anticipation might be the key to understand why some musical passages are more touching than others. What moves human beings while listening to music are usually the “peak emotional moments,” which are associated with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain and the consequent feeling of pleasure. Neuroscientists have discovered that dopamine is released not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment but also some seconds before, during the phase of anticipation (Zatorre & Salimpoor 2013). The same could be valid for animation.

© Cinzia Bottini

Edited by Amy Ratelle