David Daniels

By Alan Jennings 

David Daniels shooting Tribal Color (1990)

David Daniels is known as the inventor of stratacut animation, a form of clay animation whereby a log of clay is created that contains different three dimensional shapes that are slowly revealed as the clay is cut away in slices. His film Buzz Box was his first foray into this unique approach. 

In November of 2015, I interviewed David about the development of his process and commercial work, including contributions to Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Big Time, a Peter Gabriel music video, the titles to Freaked and more. 

Journey Through the Melted Brain: The Stratacut of David Daniels (2011)

AJ: Did you always want to make animation? What inspired you to start making it? 

DD: It started with an old tobacco can full of clay. My sisters pulled it out, started playing with it. My mother didn’t make them put it away so I joined in. I was 5 years old. It was called Clay Town. It became more and more elaborate. We were self taught sculptors. We started adding clay and building characters and creatures. My sister Shelly was very, very gifted in how she sculpted. She sculpted Jack Skellington and worked on some early Pixar work. She was older. I was the youngest, I was 5. Shelly was 8. Carrie my older sister was either 10 or 9 when we started. I continued to work off and on, on Clay Town probably all the way through early high school.

Actually the moment stratacut was invented was when I was eight and it was my birthday. My sister made a cake out of clay, which would be little quarter or half dollar size pieces of yellow and blue. She put a yellow flat pancake on a blue flat pancake and another yellow, another blue, she made layers and wrapped it up with icing. When she cut it open, all of the layers existed. I was eight when this happened. There was a pristine-ness to the flat cut patterning. I knew that that was an incredible thing, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It was a time-slows-down moment for me.

David Daniels during production of Buzz Box (1983)

AJ: What were the subjects of your first films? 

DD: I started to animate when I was 11. The first one was called Bonzo. It was about a hijacking. Somebody wanted to take the plane to Cuba and there was a gun to the pilot’s head. This would be 1969.

My first real film was called The Duchy of Frog. I made that when I was 13 in 1972. It was a series of vignettes about a mythical place. It was based off of The Mouse that Roared. It was a Peter Sellars movie. It was also a book. My mom must have read the book to me or something. It goes through different episodic historical vignettes of the duchy of frog.

We did a lot of frogs in Clay Town. Shelley really liked them and I liked them too. Frogs are very strange as personalities. I don’t think of them as Kermit like or muppet like, I think of them as complex amphibians with all of these bulby little fingertips. I think that’s the kind of frog I was having fun with.

There’s this kind of this Bavarian feeling running through this movie and my sister loved to do that stuff. There was a preciousness to the sculpting that she provided and there was the filmmaking and the rest of it that I did. The better sculpting she did and I would animate and build a lot of stuff around it.

It won something called Cine Media 5 which was a film festival put on by an old defunct company called the Broadway. Broadway was a department store like Macy’s at the time and they had a young filmmaker’s competition. I entered it, it won and they sent me to New York. I’m 15 years old, I’m in New York City at the Plaza Hotel. It sort of gets you thinking, making movies can be a way to see the world.

David working on a stratacut film for Amnesty International (1989)

AJ: How did you develop stratacut? 

DD: I ended up at San Francisco State because it was very inexpensive. I made a couple of movies. One of them was an animated film called Demon Dance and that was my entry into CalArts. It was a combination of sculpture and graphic design. All of these sculptures were animating in a kinetic way to music, very rhythmically. It was all sculpted clay, but it was all replacement sculpture. It was an Oskar Fischinger-type thing only with an MTV sensibility where there was a lot more electric visual stuff going on.

I knew that I was going to go to CalArts the next year after finishing at San Francisco State. My girlfriend had an apartment and for 6 weeks after graduation, I finally had nothing to do. It was the first time in my life where I was not obligated to work during the summer or study or do anything. I didn’t have to pay rent.

I’d done some clay animation that got me into CalArts but, I wanted to go back to that cut up piece of cake from when I was 8 years old and figure it out. How does that work? I spent 6 weeks cutting up clay and really scientifically saying, “alright if I go with this angle, what’s the result? It was just chopping up all kinds of designs and literally either making very hard mental notes or paper notes to say “ah, so the animation result will be this” and “If I put the stripes of clay this way, the animation result is this”.

In that 6 weeks I gained enough control to feel like I had a real good idea of what I wanted to do when I went to CalArts. I had at least a technical idea. I could create these gnarly looking tubes with all of this pre-programmed kinetic energy inside of them.

Simple logic is: take a cone, a cone is a piece of stratacut, it’s a dot becoming a circle. Take a cube, if you put the cube on it’s corner, it becomes this strange bizarre rectangle that’s moving through different rectangular places. Every bit of geometry that exists in real life, you can slice that, every object, every seat cushion. MRI’s and X-rays slice through people. There’s all kinds of animation going on inside the human body. That’s stratacut. The key is to know how to control it, how to animate it, how to recreate it.

Buzz Box (1985) by David Daniels

AJ: How did you come up with Buzz Box

DD: I’ve always had an issue with the commercial conversation that passes as civilized logic that’s beholden to a commercial purpose. Specifically television, which chops up news. When I grew up I was watching the Vietnam war and it always shocked me how they could talk about body counts of 300, 350 people dying that week or show images and cut to a home advertisement. The advertisement was as if it dropped in from a different planet. They would create an illogical sequence of narratives, jumbled, chopped to bits.

The theory I have about it is seduction and abuse. I wanted to do an experimental film about seduction and abuse and I wanted to use this new stratacut stuff I had figured out to do it. Because it chops things to pieces, it duplicates things to pieces. I was trying to remanufacture a commercial thinking civilization nightmare through the lens of stratacut.

What I chose to do was sort of make a fun house mirror. I could make something that smelled, and felt like all of that shit. Your mind couldn’t short circuit it because it had to absorb it as this very strange thing. You both understood it and you didn’t understand it. You both knew where this was coming from and you couldn’t understand this warped mirror you were watching it through.

I shot some of it on a 16mm Bolex. Probably more than 50% was shot on the Oxberry. It was all built on multiple levels of glass. The Oxberry was shooting down and I would sort of build this even paramount of strata cut toward it and I would just start to slice away.

At the time I did it, it was seen as incredibly frenetic, incredibly fast paced and almost way to choppy. There was a time in the ’90’s, people started to look at it and say, “you know, that’s kind of at speed. Everything else was slower in 1982 and less frenetic and less crazy. And now it’s just so culturally ordinary that I look at it and I think, I made it too slow. In a sense it was trying to say, it is only going to get faster folks.

David shooting Buzz Box (1983)

AJ: How did you structure the film? 

DD: As I was building the pieces it started to make sense to me. It was an organic evolution. The more I made artistically, the more I started to think about how to organize it. And the more I organized it, the more art I started to make to keep going with that organization. The more creative I became under the camera, the more I thought about the next thing that I could do that was creative. It became more emotional on a daily basis as I got into the rhythm of making it. I became obsessed and committed to it.

4th of July stratacut sequence from Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1988) by David Daniels

AJ: How did you get involved with Pee Wee’s Playhouse

DD: Just about the time I pretty much completed Buzz Box I came back to CalArts. I stayed an extra 6 months after my two years, and then I continued to ad hoc some of the facilities from friends and I was quietly accepted because I was a regular enough that people didn’t mind that I had graduated.

One of these times at CalArts somebody said, probably in April of ’85, “yesterday somebody came through and they’re looking to hire people in New York. I said “What’s it for?” “You know Pee Wee Herman? He had that movie, I think they’re going to do a TV show.” I said, “how do you get in?” I never really got a clear answer, but, I thought well I’ll just show up in New York and pound on the door and see if they have any room.

I showed Buzz Box to the Director of Photography and he said “you know, they’re full up on animators. I can see that you can use a camera. Can you run an Oxberry with motion control?” I am thinking, Jesus, I have never run any motion control in my life. I said “yes.” And he said “well we’re installing it this weekend. If I give you the manual, can you learn it enough to actually come in and run the Oxberry for Pee Wee’s Playhouse as the camera man. So I learned all of these strange two letter commands, which is how computer inputs were at this time. All of these strange, archaic commands. I learned enough of it, in a very short amount of time, that I faked my way through.

Christopher Columbus stratacut sequence from Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1988) by David Daniels

They would have me working on camera stuff and they ran out of animators. I was showing Buzz Box around and everyone was seeing it and going “oh, Jesus, this guy is crazy, right?” People would know who I was because it was a film that didn’t look like every other film. So after about three months of running camera, they had me animate on Penny.

Then they had no opening, so I actually animated much of the opening of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I sculpted the beaver. I sculpted the monkey. The rabbits going up the hill are all made out of sculpey with my own armatures. That was a 24 hour shoot. I just had the stamina to get though that, it’s crazy.

The second season of Pee Wee’s moved from New York to LA. They brought me out and had me do this stratacut piece, The Declaration of Independence and the Christopher Columbus. That was my contribution to that second season. I worked a bit on the third season and I worked a tiny bit on the fourth season, a few days. I worked on all of the seasons of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, just not huge slots of the last two years.

Excerpt from music video to Peter Gabriel’s Big Time with stratacut by David Daniels (1986)

Q: How did you come to work on Peter Gabriel’s music video Big Time?

DD: The director of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Steve Johnson, had done Sledgehammer. Steve had the second Peter Gabriel music video to do and that was Big Time. In a music video, they are always looking for things no one else has seen before and so Steve Johnson said “let’s put stratacut into there.”

Big Time is not just me, the stratacut part obviously. What people don’t know is the whole first section is me as well, the bubbling surface that it starts with that becomes a mountain. In order to get the bubbling stuff, I actually injected slip clay through a syringe a frame at a time. So these bubbles were three dimensionally growing. I put pottery clay on top of plasticine, heated it up so it cracked, just like the dry bed of a lake surface. I created all of these pedals out of big chunks of wood bellow the surface of this stuff that could move the actual terrain to the beat of the song. It took four weeks to do all of that work.

Title sequence for Freaked (1993) by David Daniels

AJ: How did the Freaked titles come about? 

DD: I had done some of the sculpting for Idiot Box, an MTV show with Tom Stern and Alex Winter. I had done the title sequence. One of them got this movie called Freaked and said, “well I want David Daniels to do the titles.” That was a three week job. There were a lot of Buzz Box techniques in it. It’s a combination of stratacut and mixed media under the camera that’s constantly changing. Galen Beals and Michael O’Donnell worked with me. I did almost all of the stratacut. I think Gallen might have done one or two. That was a three week thing, where, we somehow made 3 minutes of title sequence.

The music was awesome and that really helped because there’s a certain kind of driving rhythm to it that glued it together. It wasn’t like it was done in hard sync. I knew there were so many pulses in it, that if you got the general gist of it correct, you could have a lot of flexibility in the editing. It was all done in camera, there was no optical printing, other than the titles themselves, that were burned in over the artwork.

Neon Mud Bucket (1991) by David Daniels

AJ: Do you continue to make personal work? 

DD: In 2011 I was invited to Anima Mundi and in 2012 I was invited to Chilemonos. These are film festivals in Brazil and in Chile. I did master classes so there’s a lot of video of me trying to explain how stratacut works. In the process of doing that education stuff, I built new stuff for myself.

I did build a lot of blocks about two years ago. I have about 30 feet of uncut stratacut in my basement. It’s sitting there, it has potential energy, it is not kinetic yet, it’s locked away.

I’m thinking that I will shoot that work when the medium of reproduction is better. When I have VR worked out so that you can actually see the strata cut as a hallucinatory view master, from multiple angles. When it’s running at 4K or 16K, at this enormously high resolution, the textural density and the handcrafted-ness of it will be self evident. So it’s worth setting up those blocks for that reason then.

David Daniels on production of Buzz Box (1983)

Check out more of David’s stratacut work on his Vimeo page

Alan Jennings is an independent animator living in LA. He is a recent MFA grad of the experimental animation program at California Institute of the Arts. His films have been shown internationally at: The Ottawa International Animation Festival, The Stuttgart Festival of Animated Films and The Holland Animation Festival, among many others. Check out his website here

©2018 Alan Jennings