Tusalava

Len Lye (1929)

With the screen split asymmetrically, one part in positive, the other negative, the film documents the evolution of simple celled organic forms into chains of cells then more complex images from tribal cultures and contemporary modernist concepts. The images react, interpenetrate, perhaps attack, absorb and separate, until a final symbiosis is achieved.

All of a sudden it hit me — if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion.  After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?” 

Len Lye

This remarkable animation film was first screened by the London Film Society in 1929. Jack Ellitt’s original piano music for Tusalava has unfortunately been lost. The film imagines the beginnings of life on earth. Single-cell creatures evolve into more complex forms of life. Evolution leads to conflict, and two species fight for supremacy. The title is a Samoan word which suggests that things go full circle.  In this film Lye based his style of animation partly on the ancient Aboriginal art of Australia. Tusalava is unique as a film example of what art critics describe as “modernist primitivism”. In contrast to the Cubist painters (who were influenced by African art), Lye drew upon traditions of indigenous art from his own region of the world (New Zealand, Australia and Samoa).

Despite the interest generated by his first film, Tusalava (1929), the early 1930s were a difficult time for artist and animator Len Lye. A series of projects were abandoned through lack of funding, and he supported himself by designing book jackets. By 1934 he was doing relatively menial work in the Wembley studios of Associated Sound Film Industries, while trying to convince investors to back his latest project with his long-time friend and collaborator, Jack Ellitt, provisionally titled Quicksilver. Lye had already produced dozens of set and costume designs for this ambitious science-fiction musical comedy but, although an American producer eventually expressed interest, the film that emerged bore little relation to the original concept, and neither Lye nor Ellitt benefited financially.

In the meantime, Lye turned his attention to puppet animation. He scraped together enough funding and borrowed equipment to produce a three-minute short featuring his self-made monkey, singing and dancing to ‘Peanut Vendor’, a 1931 jazz hit for Red Nichols. The two foot high monkey had bolted, moveable joints and some 50 interchangeable mouths to convey the singing. To get the movements right, Lye filmed his new wife, Jane, a prize-winning rumba dancer. Ellitt assisted in synchronising the animation with the music.

Lye hoped to use the film to interest advertisers, but again had no success. However, on the strength of the film the head of the newly established Shell Film Unit, Jack Beddington, was later persuaded by Lye’s friend Humphrey Jennings to commission Lye to make a short animated advertising film, The Birth of the Robot (1935).

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