Bruce Bickford

by Annapurna Kumar

In early February, CalArts hosted veteran animator Bruce Bickford for a several-day stay, courtesy of the Experimental Animation Visiting Artist Series (curated by MFA candidates Samantha Gurry and Adele Han Li).

Bickford has been making films for decades, and is perhaps best known for his psychedelic collaborations with Frank Zappa (see especially the 1979 film Baby Snakes, and The Amazing Mr. Bickford (1987)). Bickford holds legendary status in the world of stop-motion thanks to his unique, energetic technique with colored clay. This is on lavish display in films like Prometheus’ Garden (1988) and Cas’l (2015). He is also highly accomplished in drawn animation as exemplified by films such as Boar’s Head (2006), The Comic that Frenches Your Mind (2008), and numerous others. Bruce appears frequently at universities, museums, film festivals, and in animation publications. Bruce recently had a solo show, Sacred and Profane at Seattle’s Flatcolor Gallery in 2016.

During his visit, Bruce screened two films – Cas’l and The Comic that Frenches Your Mind.

Excerpt from Cas’l by Bruce Bickford, 2015

Still from The Comic That Frenches Your Mind by Bruce Bickford, 2008 (5’00)

Bickford’s films depict intricate, improvisational worlds that use a playful logic reminiscent of dreaming, or maybe daydreaming. Objects frequently dissolve and reform into other objects, outlines are fractured, bodies decompose. Bruce’s claymation figures necessarily adhere to things such as gravity, but his line drawings often float, dart, and disperse on their two-dimensional plane as if they were made of air or water rather than solid masses.

Excerpt from Boar’s Head by Bruce Bickford, 2006

During his stay, Bruce also gave an artist talk and Q&A, and hosted two workshops: “Bruce Shows Us How He Draws”, and “Bruce Shows Us the Magic of Claymation”. Both workshops were documented as time-lapse sequences:

Documentation of “Bruce Shows Us How He Draws” workshop, February 2017

Documentation of “Bruce Shows Us the Magic of Claymation” workshop, February 2017

Bruce has recently turned his attention full-time to the creation of his first graphic novel, Vampire Picnic. This was the subject of Bruce’s drawing workshop. He showed us a folder of scanned panels, and described in detail the place where the novel is set, and the backstories of a few of the main characters. Here are some of the highlights, followed by a short transcribed interview with the man himself.

Matchstick Man is the main protagonist, though he has a sinister side. His face has changed a lot over time, and there were a few pages of drawings showing the progression. He rides a magic carpet and carries matchsticks with flaming faces similar to his own.

A map of the land. Exciting things happen in the various buildings, especially the long blue one.

Above the town is a place known as “The Uplands”, where a mysterious magnetic field blocks modern technology from functioning within and also shields the area from being located by GPS from afar. The Uplands resembles the simpler times of a 50’s town, but is also full of uncertainty and magic; a place where anything can happen.

The story is full of monsters, including vampires that spawn in the Uplands, as well as creatures from urban myths such as the Mothman of West Virginia. At one point, the Mothman is chasing a car of people down a highway. As they speed towards the safety of town, the mothman gets distracted by Wasp Woman on a billboard for the 1959 Hollywood movie (which Bruce says is terrible), and veers off course. He is so excited to meet Wasp Woman that he crashes through the billboard. The man with his dogs that has been knocked over at the bottom of the page is Alfred Hitchcock.

Official crests and a perspective landscape filled with crops planted in a grid are signifiers that something evil is about to happen. They overtake the frame when the conquistadors attack.

This is the main villain and head of the conquistadors. He can be easily recognized thanks to his checkerboard-patterned leggings, which unfortunately didn’t make it into the picture.

Bruce Bickford: The main plot is that some ancient vampires who are still living, and a lot of modern ones, want to be able to go out into the sunlight and have a picnic. And some methods are evolved which would allow them to endure sunlight. But only if they do everything right; follow the regimen closely. But they fail, because they don’t have enough discipline, and that is the doom for all of them – or that spelled doom for most of them. But there are myriad other stories going on about related cults and things that are involved with the vampires. Too many different stories going on to mention briefly. But the main story keeps coming back to the vampires planning and having their picnic.

AK: I’ve read that you hope to have Vampire Picnic made into a live-action movie, with the graphic novel functioning as a visual script. Is that still something you’re aiming for, or are you happy to have Vampire Picnic live as a graphic novel?

BB: I have numerous movie plans, but they’re all on paper, they’re all just written stories, most of them. Some are illustrated – but in my story file there must be 200 stories in various stages of development, and other stories in other drawers and things. Many others. So, I would say I would like to pursue all of them, I just don’t – I’m just trying to concentrate on a few of them, like the Vampire story and the Matchstick Man story.

AK: Did you use any clay in the creation of the images for the graphic novel? An image I saw in an interview you did with Seattle Weekly led me to believe that you might have.

BB: Not yet.

AK: How would you characterize the differences between working on paper with pens and pencils vs working with clay three-dimensionally?

BB: Graphic novels are more similar to line animation than they are to clay, because it’s traced on a lightbox. Only, with line animation, you trace one page and then you trace that one and you keep going one page after another. Whereas with a graphic novel, it’s usually just one drawing traced once. You make a rough drawing, and then when you trace it on the lightbox you fill in the details and make it more graphic.

AK: Are the worlds depicted in each medium totally different, or does it all come from the same place?

BB: Oh, there’s crossovers between everything. I would call it versatile reality, except someone stole that name from me and copyrighted it for their own business. I was mouthing off too much when I was in LA ten years ago. Someone – I guess I got in front of an audience that had some real hustlers in it and was talking about versatile reality – and someone swiped my whole idea of having an animation company with that name. And, from what I’ve seen online, their efforts don’t amount to much.

AK: On average, how long do you spend creating each panel, and how does that compare to the time spent on an animation frame?

BB: Well the animation panels are more simpler, many times more simple, and the paper used for the graphic novel is twice as big, it’s 11 by 17 inches. So, it takes considerably more time to do one of the graphic novel. It often takes a day just to do a detailed drawing.

AK: Now that you’ve been working with still images for so long, do you think you’ll return to making animation in the future, or have you switched over for good?

BB: No, nothing’s permanent. I hope to be animating again as soon as this project is done.

If you want to learn more about Bruce’s working process, find a copy of the 2004 documentary Monster Road directed by Brett Ingram, which profiles Bickford in his home studio in Washington state (trailer below). There are also some good interviews with Bickford in Seattle Weekly.

Trailer for Monster Road, directed by Brett Ingram, 2004

Many thanks to Samantha Gurry and Adele Han Li for bringing Bruce to campus, planning so many events with him, and documenting his workshops. Thanks as well to Bruce Bickford and his assistant Nick for emailing and allowing us to share this beautiful work.


©2017 Annapurna Kumar

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