Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Amazing Mr. Bickford

Today I visited one of my all-time animation heroes, legendary animator Bruce Bickford. Turns out, he lives about 5 miles away. His house is exactly as I envisioned it would be: a sedimentation of years and years of obsessive creation manifested in teetering piles of works past and future.

If you are familiar with the auteur, he specializes in a unique variation of surrealist animation, made famous in the Frank Zappa films Baby Snakes, The Dub Room Special and The Amazing Mr.Bickford. After breaking with Zappa, Bruce went on to create his magnum opus, Prometheus' Garden, and then dissolved into obscurity, feverishly working in solitude for some 25 years on perpetually evolving personal projects. He was the subject of the award-winning documentary Monster Road, which I have yet to see. Gazing in awe at the vastness of his unseen work, I can't help but wonder if the majority of it might never see the light of day. He seems more interested in creating than finding an audience, which flies in the face of everything I previously surmised about the artistic impulse. Here was one that seemingly enjoyed the act of creating, more than the result or the accolades of his achievement. Either that, or it's simply compulsion.

Far from being the antisocial recluse I expected, I found Mr. Bickford to be charming and sociable, more than willing to share anything and everything about his process with me. The pictures adorning this blog post were not only permitted, but encouraged; he even invited me back to take more on a day "when the light is better."

Bruce showing his model of the Double-R diner he made for a "Twin Peaks" art show. (Twin Peaks was filmed around here and you still meet the occasional "Peaker" - tourist obsessed with the show.)

Inside the Double-R, a clay recreation of the diner interior.

When I arrived, Bruce was hard at work on an upcoming graphic novel to be published by Fantagraphics. I asked if a publication date was set. He laughed and said that at some point he just had to stop, and that would be when it was finished. I get the feeling he's been noodling with this for far too long.

The madman's desk

He's currently inspired by viking ship prows.

We discussed the possibility of building these hallucinatory images in CG
Bruce went on to show me boxes of files, all overflowing with story ideas waiting to be brought to life. Most of his stories from the past couple decades dealt with the eccentric inhabitants of a fictitious village in the woods above his house. He has an intern from my school doing wire armatures for the village rooftops he's laboriously piecing together, clay tile by clay tile.

Explaining one of his myriad stories

The intricate clay tile rooftops for his village
Bruce will talk with a calm, measured demeanor about a story of a boy that morphs into some kind of demon-monster and eats himself. I realized that much of his seemingly stream-of-conscious work is deliberate and meticulously planned - a trait he picked up from his collaborator Zappa?
I asked Bruce why he started animating. He said he's always wanted to make movies. I asked if he watches many movies. He said the only movie he saw this year was "Drive," which left him disappointed. He said he saw it because he likes cars and expected more action.

Bruce's famous downshooter

The dining room. Every space is completely overtaken by his work. The sticks glued to the carboard are the skeletons of his soon-to-be clay village.

He has boxes of these delicately carved leaves.

Some of the castles you see sitting around are another of his obsessions: he held one up and remarked that a variation on this same castle has been in every one of his major works since the beginning.

Bruce may be notoriously lackadaisical about getting his work out there, but make no mistake; he's been incessantly building a vast library of work for himself outside of the public eye. He seems to have no qualms about exposing it, he's simply waiting for someone to show an interest. If you are someone with the resources to assist Bruce in getting some of his stories out there for public consumption, please message me so I can put you in contact with him. He's a one-of-a-kind, and when he's gone there will never be another Bruce Bickford. It was a great inspiration to spend an afternoon with him.

If you'd like to get a taste of Bruce's extraordinary work, YouTube has many teaser snippets, such as this and this and this.

1 comment:

Ryan Z. said...

Great blog. Glad to see this stuff. People are interested in Bruce, but you really have to dig to truly find him...and the market for his work is sadly just not there. Bruce has never compromised his artistic integrity for the purpose of selling out. He's humble, a true artist, down to the core. He will always be the king of underground psychedelic animation, for without his discovering the morphing qualities of clay, the medium wouldn't be where it is today. He's the best.