Tango (1980, 8 mins) is an animated film that was completed at the Se-ma-for studio (Studio Małych Form Filmowych – Studio of Small Film Forms) in Łódź by Zbigniew Rybczyński. It was the first Polish Oscar winner in the animation category in 1982 and catapulted Rybczyński on a successful journey into the frontier of emerging technologies of new media in both the United States and Germany. Rybczyński produced numerous films and music videos in the 1980s and 90s in the new emerging media and developed innovative electronic imaging technologies used in film and television for which he holds a number of patents. Media theorists Marshall McLuhan, Lev Manovich, Vilem Flusser and Peter Weibel have been enlisted here to frame the technological changes envisioned in Tango. Tango sits at a historic fulcrum in the shift from analog to digital media, which Flusser mapped on to the rise to the technical image and McLuhan described as a shift from visual to acoustic space. This shift privileges post-Euclidean geometry, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This paper puts forward the innovative Tango as a case study in a paradigm shift from analog to digital short filmmaking.
For McLuhan “it is the artist’s job to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new” (Cavell 2002 p. 93), which Rybczyński achieved with Tango. The film predicts the digital future of loops, automation and modularity, which are all core characteristics at the heart of the emerging computer graphics field. Rybczyński envisioned this emerging field more clearly in the 1990s than the initial parting of the curtains that Tango signifies:
What we are seeing today, in this time of the ‘information superhighway’, is a move away from the photographic concept of ‘realism’ towards something much closer to what the image is at its origins. Although we can only catch glimpses of the ‘next’ version awaiting us, it has an – awful or beautiful? – name: digital computer graphics. (Rybczyński 1997, p.183)
What Rybczyński describes here is Flusser’s ‘technical image,’ which preferences concepts ahead of phenomena, the purview of analog photographic practice.
In Tango a series of 26 characters dance/move around each other in the confined space of a small room, as “Rybczynski orchestrates his entrances and exits with great precision” (Noake, 1988). The room has a single bed, cupboard, table and chairs, a window and three doors. The characters are introduced one after the other, entering and leaving by one of the doors or windows. These movements repeat and accumulate, ascending to a crescendo of organized chaos. At the end of this climax of movement through the room, each character loop is withdrawn until the room is emptied. Each of the 26 character’s trajectories, of various short durations, loop through the room. They are introduced in the following order: 1. Boy with a ball, 2. Nursing mother, 3. Infant, 4. Thief, 5. Man with a parcel, 6. Girl doing her homework, 7. Woman carrying soup, 8. Man eating soup, 9. Young man doing exercises, 10. Woman with shopping, 11. Man changing a light bulb, 12. Woman cleaning a fish, 13. Girl dressing herself, 14, Man taking out the litter, 15. Man in a uniform, 16. Woman cleaning, 17. Slightly intoxicated man, 18, 19. Man and woman – guests, 20, 21. Kissing couple, 22. Mother changing a baby’s nappies, 23. Crawling infant, 24. Man with a newspaper, 25. Older man with a dog, 26. Old woman.
Tango was constructed on an optical printer, an instrument of flexible and variable re-photography and duplication, and an indispensable tool for optical effects in high-end cinema projects. An optical printer consists of a camera and a projector, both of which can be moved in relation to one another. Both the camera and the projector are also open to forward and reverse frame-by-frame manipulation. These mechanical movements were increasingly controlled by computer from the printer’s introduction in the 1920s and onwards. Prior to digital technology, the optical printer was used for special effects in the film industry, for re-filming, multiple exposures, matting, zooming, panning, stretch printing, masking and titling. It was only after the optical printing was complete and the film chemically processed that any images could be seen, whereas with digital construction the image is constantly available for adjustment and tweaking. Often, in analog practice, numerous tests were undertaken to attain this required result. Like all photographic film every time a new generation print is made, there is a de-generation of the original image. Digital copying does not degrade the image, it clones it. Not long after Tango’s impact in the late 1980s digital compositing began to replace optical effects produced on the optical printer due to the exponential increase in computing power.
Rybczyński mobilized the optical printer beyond its conventional cinematic usage. To print Tango, Rybczyński executed long complex sets of instructions onto a strip of 35mm light sensitive photochemical celluloid in the dark. His technical account of Tango logs the mathematical nature of his production process. Rybczyński pressed this technology and his body to its extremes in self-imposed sweatshop conditions:
My first thirteen years of filmmaking resulted in a short film, Tango (1980). Twenty-six characters from different stages of life – representations of different times – interact in one room, moving in loops, observed by a static camera. I had to draw and paint about 16,000 cell-mattes, and make several hundred thousand exposures on an optical printer. It took a full seven months, sixteen hours per day, to make the piece. The miracle is that the negative got through the process with only minor damage, and I made less than one hundred mathematical mistakes out of several hundred thousand possibilities. 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 colour caused by the fluctuation in colour temperature of the projector bulb and, inevitably, dirt, grain and scratches. (Rybczyński 1997 p.184)
Rybczyński’s thousands of lines of hand-drawn instructions renders the type of code that Flusser had placed at the core of the technical image and predicts the programming logic at the base of digital technology. Digital compositing could erase the kind of technical flaws Rybczyński identified in Tango. We need to remind ourselves of these flaws when we view what appear to be substandard copies of Tango online on YouTube or Vimeo.
By intermingling characters from different stages of life looping in a room together, Rybczyński reconstitutes the lifecycle as a field, or archive, where all stages are available simultaneously and in relation to each other. To read this type of ‘Rubix Cube’ imagery requires a form of pattern recognition, an approach that McLuhan understood as a productive and necessary responsive to the acceleration of contemporary daily life:
In our time we are reliving at high speed the whole of the human past. As in a speeded-up film, we are traversing all ages, all experience, including the experience of prehistoric man. Our experience is not exclusive of other people’s experience but inclusive symphonic and orchestral, rather than linear or melodic. (McLuhan 1969, p. 115)
The repetitive and serial structure of Tango has its precedents in experimental film. Maya Deren’s seminal experimental Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, 14 mins) uses a similar spiralling structure, wherein the same event is repeated several times to reveal more information and other points of view and culminates in a final image (vortex) that suggests all of these views simultaneously. Deren was influenced by the British 1920s avant-garde Vorticists: ‘The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living in the future, is pregnant in the VORTEX now.’ (Pound 1914 p.153) Dziga Vertov’s feature-length Man with a Movie Camera (1923, 80 mins), a City Symphony reflexively featured numerous camera effects, often invented by Vertov, such as multiple exposure, fast and slow motion, freeze frames, split screens, extreme close-ups and stop motion animation. Vertov used these techniques to decode the world under the banner of what he called the Kino-eye. As he notes, “Kino-eye makes use of every possible kind of shooting technique: acceleration, microscopy, reverse action, animation, camera movement, the use of the most unexpected foreshortenings – all these we consider to be not trick effects but normal methods to be fully used” (Vertov 1985 p. 88). These visual effects were executed as part of the original recording of events and increasingly enabled by the optical printer.
Manovich uses Vertov to introduce and structure his book on new media: “Man with a Movie Camera is perhaps the most important example of a database imagination in modern media art” (Manovich 2002, p. 9). Manovich refers to Tango as an ontological montage: the co-existence of ontologically incompatible elements within the same time and space (p. 70); it is an idea that is being communicated, rather than a documentary recording of a real event.
Tango expanded the field of animation when it won the 1982 Oscar for Best Animated Film. In 1982 it also won an experimental film award at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. When Tango won the prize for best animation at Annecy in 1981, there was a furor. For some this was not considered an animation, and for these critics the more traditional Crac Crac! By Frederic Back should have won the main prize. However, unlike traditional animation up until that point, Tango’s storytelling emerges from the technical language of its construction.
A contemporary work to Tango, Takashi Ito’s experimental film Spacy (1981, 10 mins), can now be retrospectively considered an animation in this expanded field, as can the earlier British structuralist film Berlin Horse (1970, 9 mins) by Malcolm Le Grice, for example, or Pat O’Neill’s Californian optical printer works such as Down Wind (1973, 15 mins). Interestingly O’Neill also applied optical printer skills to such mainstream cinema works as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Ito’s Spacy consists of 700 photographs that map the individual points or locations of an empty basketball court. These photos are arranged and re-arranged according to meticulous rules reminiscent of Rybczyński’s programming to simulate rectilinear, circular, parabolic, horizontal and vertical movement. The speed of the auto-machine introduced an envisioned computer logic taken up by succeeding generations, such as Laura Kraning’s constructed machine-vision of an alien landscape in Meridian Plain (2016, 18 mins), which was sampled from hundreds of thousands of photographs returned to earth by the Mars rover.
Seriality and repetition have become the staple strategies for innovative contemporary animated storytelling. There are now numerous contemporary examples of such films winning prizes at animation festivals. The Brothers McLeod diaristic seriality in 365 – One Year, One Film, One Second a Day (2014, 7 mins) is self-evident. Yumi Joung’s serial Love Games (2013, 15 mins) performs a series of gestures between two lovers that reclaims – in modular and drawn form – the 1960s minimalist relational performances between Marina Abramović & Ulay. In Pia Borg, Anna Benner and Gemma Burditt’s Through the Hawthorn (2014, 8 mins) the relational absurdities of schizophrenia and the circular, looping poetry of Scottish psychiatrist R.D Laing’s Knots (1971) returns as multi-screen dialogue. Boris Labbe’s La Chute (The Fall) (2018, 14 mins) multiplies the number of protagonists that Rybczyński deployed into a looping vista of movement reminiscent of a Bosch or Bruegel painting. La Chute seamlessly combines 2D animation with hand-drawn India ink and watercolour techniques. Faiyaz Jafri’s Sway (2016, 9 mins) is a contemporary ontological montage. Sway is a 3D animated film that imagines dancing female bodies completely covered with body hair and using gestures that originated from the style of dance often depicted in music videos.
Although Tango is the best known, the most historically important and the most compelling of Rybczyński’s short films, his preceding and later works are also reflexive works of the media used and envision structures that came to prominence with the rise of computer graphics. Before Tango Rybczyński made The Square (Kwadrat) (1972, 35mm, 3.30 mins), Media (1980, 35mm, 1.36 mins), Take 5 (1972, 4.10 mins), Nowa Ksiazka (New Book) (1975, 35mm, 10.26 mins) and Mein Fenster (1979, 2.27 mins). Imagine (1987, HDTV, 4.20 mins) was made after Tango. Nowa Ksiazka and Mein Fenster impose disorienting special effects on live cinema; The Square explores the nature of detail and definition in pixel-oriented images; and Imagine extends the modular looping techniques of Tango into electronic video form.
In Mein Fenster, the camera is attached to the filmed set. Both the camera and set can be rotated at the same time, which allows gravity to perform disorienting effects on the actors and objects in the frame. This effect is also used by Phillip Baker in Regarding (2002, 4 mins), the heaving of the two-room set in Michael Snow’s Presents (1981, 99 mins) and in Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance to “You’re All The World to Me’ in Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding (1951). Jean Cocteau also uses this technique in the surrealist avant-garde film The Blood of a Poet (1930) wherein the actors traverse the doors and ceilings in angled or upside-down sets. In these films, the physical relation between the camera and the filmed objects remains constant, while gravity – isolated – performs its tricks on the actors. Cocteau also performed a similar trick in Orpheus (1950), in which the camera looked down on a pool of water masquerading as a full body mirror in a hallway. The actor falls into the water as if he is moving through the mirror into the underworld.
Imagine (1987) is a video clip Rybczyński constructed for the eponymous John Lennon song. It reproduces electronically in modular and serial form what Tango presents in layered form. The seven months required to ‘shoot’ Tango was reduced to five days for Imagine. A set involving a series of rooms was built and was used in the fashion reminiscent of the serial carriages of a train. In the short clip, the camera is moved on a track, starting from the left of the first room and rolling to the right at a constant speed. In the first room, the characters enter from the left side of the set through two pairs of identical doors and exit on the right side of the room and into the next. The walls are all white. The end of one panned shot is merged seamlessly with the beginning of the next shot, resulting in an apparently seamless movement of the actors from one room to another. The repetitive matching is executed electronically while the set, the performances within it, and the pan itself are executed physically. In this way, not only are the images montaged together in time, but the spaces themselves are constructed to produce an imaginary modular carriageway. As Rybczyński describes it,
The set I built consisted of one room with two blue walls, stage left and stage right. I made the piece ‘live’, pushing my camera by hand, recording the same room over and over and over again, matching the far edge (stage left) to the new near edge (stage right) of the frame in sequence, starting each take in the middle at the last exposure. (1997, p.185)
In Nowa Ksiazka, a bank of nine screens surveils nine different spaces in the city. The actions in each frame occur in real and parallel time. A book is passed between different individuals and links the recorded actions The audience’s task is thus to learn how to unpack this story as the book ‘travels’ from one monitor to another. Nowa Ksiazka predicts the contemporary saturation of public spaces with surveillance cameras. Astonishingly, in 2012 London saw a rise in the operation of 400,000 CCTV cameras. The film rehearses for the viewer the kind of perceptual processes that are required to unpack the available information for those employed to inspect the banks of monitors linked to these cameras in the modern workplace, looking at traffic flow or locating crime suspects as they move through public spaces.
A Digital Horizon
Rybczynski’s international renown is built on the mathematical precision of his knotted jigsaw puzzle, Tango. “This is Rybczynski’s sui generis masterpiece, capable of coordinating all those activities in time with the precision of a fraction of a second, so that they overlap in the manner of a clockwork mechanism” (Giżycki 1993, p. 28). The mechanical clock is the instrument par excellence of the industrial revolution; it tells time. Like any dance, Tango maps the space of the crowd, preferencing space over time. Manovich understands the shift to the digital domain of post-cinema predicted here as a shift from a time-based to a space-based notion of work: “As the examples of digital composing for film and Virtual Sets applications for television demonstrate, the computer era introduces a different paradigm. This paradigm is concerned not with time but with space” (Manovich 2002, p.154).
McLuhan frames the shift in the post-industrial media landscape that Tango, Media, Mein Fenster and New Book envisage as a shift from visual to acoustic space. “When all information moves at the speed of light it literally translates itself into the auditory mode” (in Cavell 2002, p. 138) This shift privileges the concepts of non-Euclidean geometry, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. As McLuhan notes, the “more one says about acoustic space the more one realizes that it’s the thing that mathematicians and physics of the past fifty years have been calling space time, relativity and non-Euclidean geometry” (McLuhan 1969, p. 114).
Peter Weibel identifies in Rybczyński’s shift from visual to acoustic space that same relation to Non-Euclidian geometry that McLuhan identifies. “Einstein pronounced the doom of continuous or ‘rational’ space, and the way was made clear for Picasso and the Marx Brothers and MAD” (1964, p. 163). This technical image is no longer only a photographic record of a real phenomenon. As Weibel puts it, the “image is a field, which can be changed at any time by pixels” (2012, p. 21). Flusser makes the same point: ‘”he world in which they find themselves can no longer be counted and explained: it has disintegrated into particles—photons, quanta, electromagnetic particles” (2011, p. 30). Weibel relates eighteenth-century physicist R. J. Bošković’s imagination to that of Rybczyński: “Like the work of Croatian R. J. Bošković’s mathematics and physics, ZR demonstrates this in all his work: space and time dependent on the connected relativity” ( 2012, p. 22). For Werner Heisenberg, Bošković’s “main work, ‘Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis,’ contains numerous ideas which have reached full expression only in modern physics of the past fifty years” (in Dadić 1987, p. 126).
Zbigniew Benedyktowicz questioned the meaning of Tango (2014, pp. 370-8). He quotes Marcin Giżycki, who states, “Familiarity with Rybczyński almost guarantees that Tango interested him predominantly as a technical problem” (Benedyktowicz 2014, p. 371). Giżycki’s view is supported by the successful Polish animator Daniel Szczechura, who similarly argues that Rybczyński’s
approach to cinema is primarily that of a cameraman and technician. Tape and its anatomy, the camera and its possibilities, and, especially, the laboratory, have no mysteries for Rybczyński, and what’s more, he achieves effects nobody would expect, as no one else never studied these issues in so much depth. (1993, p.35)
Moreover, Tango’s loops engage the kind of perceptual effects which Abraham Moles identifies in the emerging Information Theory: ‘All behavior, present and future of the individual may be described with a degree of precision equal to that of a physicochemical system’ (Moles, 1968, p.3)
Critics have interpreted Tango in multiple ways. Giżycki offers that “it is in such a room that the Polish post-war intelligentsia queued up to the bathroom together with members of the working class” (Benedyktowicz 2014, p. 371). In the West, after Tango’s Oscar success, many critics queried whether we were dealing with “a housing crisis or a crisis of the cinema?” (Benedyktowic, 2014, p. 371). A parallel can be made with the slapstick comedy of the crowded ship cabin scene in the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera (1935). Other analysts saw the crowd as the presentation of the phases of an ordinary man’s life all at once, perhaps prompted by the arrangement of such a procession in Rybczyński’s later clip for Imagine; other critics viewed the dynamic cluster as composed of the ‘ghosts’ of past tenants. Rybczyński’s ‘dances’ kick up a field of meanings and readings that all remain possible, alive and open. The suffocating proximity and simultaneity of the actor’s gestures invite such dots to be joined. For the viewer, the conflicting interpretations are gleaned swiftly, almost instantaneously. “Not only are we tempted to hook one story into another, however briefly, but the shifting patterns of action invite a narrative reading of the piece as an abstract whole” (Slowik 2014, p. 288). As with popular songs, the film unravels through multiple viewings.
Tango’s abstract whole layers public space over private space. The private room from which the animation is staged is inscribed with the kind of serial intermingling most often encountered in busy streets in a metropolis. From gesture to a cacophony, the individual gesture morphs into the stupefying behavior of the crowd. In contrast to the comedic claustrophobia of the room scene in A Night at the Opera or the busy street here the actor’s choreographed grooves hardly touch, bump or move through one another.
The core characteristics of Manovich’s “new media” are all identifiable in Rybczyński’s films: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and cultural transcoding. For Manovich, as all new media objects are composed of digital codes, they are essentially numerical representations. Rybczyński’s codes are pre-digital but are constructed as logical lines of operation and are executed using the optical printer. The architecture of all digital moving image editing applications is modular. The digital computer interface is a hierarchy of modules. Each dancing character in Tango is thus a module that is serially woven tightly together into its comprehensive whole. There is a variability present in both the critical readings of Tango’s meaning and story, and as Rybczyński assembles his dance, the various permutations are imagined by the viewer.
The optical printer requires a greater level of automation for its operations , but Tango predicts the future levels of greater automation that would eliminate the superhuman effort required to physically push the optical printer to its limits through thousands of passes and thousands of mattes over the course of seven months. Within the framework of cultural transcoding, “cultural categories or concepts are substituted, on the level of meaning and/or language, by new ones that derive from a computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics” (Manovich 2001, p. 47) For Manovich, Tango and its techniques mark the historic fulcrum points at which cinema flips into its malleable digital future. As he notes further, “marginalised by the twentieth century institution of live action narrative cinema, which relegated them to the realms of animation and special effects, these techniques re-emerge as the foundation of digital filmmaking” (2000, p. 192).
The characteristics of ‘new media’ as defined by Manovich illuminate Rybczyński’s ability to envision the digital future. McLuhan’s four laws of media outline Tango’s impact. These laws are encapsulated in the following four questions: What does a medium enhance? What does a medium obsolesce? What does a medium retrieve from that which has been previously made obsolescent? What type of new thing does a medium ﬂip into when it has been pushed to the limits of its potential? By pushing the optical printer to its limits Rybczyński flipped moving image practice into digital compositing and retrieving the techniques of pre-cinema animation to become – as Manovich asserts – the foundation of digital filmmaking. The malleability of image construction, or what Flusser refers to as the technical image is enhanced. As the technical image no longer documents phenomena or events, but instead communicates concepts, the inherent truth of the photograph is obsolesced. “In the case of Tango the depicted scene could have occurred physically, but the probability of such an occurrence is close to zero” (Manovich 2005, p. 70).
When Rybczyński pushed the optical printer to its material limits he envisioned a digital future where the techniques of moving image production shifted into different registers. In the digital, the type of actions that the optical printer performed have migrated from pre- and into post- production. Collage metamorphosed into compositing. Collage did not have to be pre-designed inside the camera’s black photographic box. In a digital form, images are more malleable. Moving images can be endlessly re-composed after their initial recording. Now, images are layered and masked in post-production inside every kind of computer editing application. Animations are endlessly speeded up, modularized, re-sequenced. What is unwieldy in analog practice becomes seamless in the digital realm. Tango stands at this fulcrum point between digital and analog media and predicted this digital future.
Not unlike the typewriter, the optical printer has been made redundant. Rather than the highly constructed, pre-planned and pre-programmed technical list of interventions that Rybczyński compiled, wherein every human miscalculation remains visible in the end product, these flawed constructions can now be considered merely the first iteration in machine learning. Moving image puzzles like Tango are now constructed on the fly, so to speak, where every mistake is recalculated and eliminated as an afterthought.
I will close with an enigmatic quote from Rybczyński in one of the numerous press conferences he had about Tango in the 1980s, after the notoriety he received after his Academy Award. He uses the Eiffel Tower as a metaphor:
The construction of this enormous steel structure gave rise to protests. It was claimed that it was ugly. Now it has become the sentimental symbol of Paris. First there comes construction and technology, and only later do they become surrounded with meanings and produce an ambiance. The content is eternal and common for all people. (in Benedyktowicz 2014, p. 376)
Dirk de Bruyn is currently Associate Professor of Screen and Design at Deakin University in Melbourne, Victoria (Burwood Campus). He has been practicing, writing and curating in the area of experimental film and animation for over 40 years. His book The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art was published in 2014 by Cambridge Scholars.
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© Dirk De Bruyn
Edited by Amy Ratelle