THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE OF BRUCE BICKFORD
(Excerpted from an article in ANIMAC Magazine)
By Brett Ingram
Bruce Bickford is a sixty-four-year-old animator who achieved cult status during his collaboration with Frank Zappa during the 1970s and has labored in virtual obscurity ever since. His two dimensional “line animation” is remarkable. His clay animation has made him legendary.
It is nearly impossible to provide a satisfying synopsis of a Bickford film to the uninitiated. On the surface, it appears to be a stream of consciousness, only one which took place over months or even years in the mind of the animator as he created and photographed each frame. It is an organic montage of vibrant, fluid images which unfold on the screen in a disjointed pseudo-narrative defying logical comprehension. Bickford’s work is purely cinematic. It is to be experienced and wondered upon, not to be understood.
A childhood spent on a ridge overlooking the lush Kent Valley near Seattle, Washington is reflected in Bickford’s films. Exotic plants and greenery figure heavily in his imaginary clay landscapes. The view from the ridge was also formative in terms of perspective and scale. Bickford would eventually inherit the family home when his mother died in 1989 and the view would provide continual inspiration.
Bruce began animating model cars as a teenager and then started putting little clay people in the model cars. Eventually, he animated the clay figures in various scenarios, stumbling upon clay animation completely by accident.
Among his greatest influences, Bickford cites Peter Pan (1953), The Vikings (1958), King Kong (1933), The Wild Bunch (1969), and the films of Ray Harryhausen. Peter Pan’s knife-wielding action scenes enthralled Bickford as a young moviegoer. His films are filled with violence involving knives and swords.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Bickford joined the Marines. He spent three years in the service, eleven months of it in Vietnam. Returning to Seattle in 1969, Bickford began animating again. His work became more sophisticated, with camera moves and morphing figures. Bickford’s first two completed films, Last Battle on Flat Earth and The Start of the Quest, exhibit Bickford’s impenetrable narrative construction and his mastery of animation techniques.
In 1973, a friend introduced Bickford to rock musician Frank Zappa. The following year Zappa called Bickford back and eventually employed him. The resulting collaboration of two great artists is history. For six and a half years, Bruce was paid to do what he loves most – create.
Bickford was prolific in this era. More importantly, he developed the hallucinogenic style of animation that made him a cult icon of underground stop-motion. Using incredibly labor-intensive replacement animation , Bickford made people and objects appear from and disappear to the landscape. He morphed figures relentlessly and unpredictably. A character might suddenly become the landscape and the background might suddenly become the character at any moment.
In 1979, Zappa released a concert film entitled Baby Snakes which included much of the animation Bickford created during this period. The film opened to decidedly poor reviews (mostly pointing out that the film was too long and self-indulgent), but several critics noted the extraordinary animation. In 1980, Bickford’s collaboration with Zappa had run its course and the two parted ways.
Upon his return to Seattle in 1980, Bickford moved back into his mother’s basement (his parents had divorced), and started over from scratch. Eight years later, he completed Prometheus’ Garden, a twenty-eight minute clay animated film inspired by the Greek creation myth. The film opens with a clay version of Bickford entering a garden “where the clay and the earth is alive. He makes figures out of clay and breaths life into them,” he said. “And then those people can make more people that come alive. Pretty soon, they start popping up out of the ground like little sprouts or something.”
For this sequence in the film, Bickford employed what has to be the most complicated replacement series in the history of stop-motion. In the film, there are eight consecutive shots, each lasting no more than a second or two, in which an increasing number of clay figures appear to sprout from the ground in the garden. To achieve this effect, Bickford sculpted each stage of the entire group of figures, from tiny specks of clay into full size people. For each of these eight shots, he created twenty-four or more miniature tableaux including anywhere from sixteen to over one hundred figures in graduated increments of size.
Prometheus’ Garden stands as the only film in the post-Zappa Bickford oeuvre completed with a soundtrack. The rest is one large work in progress, existing as unedited negatives stored in canisters or transferred to videotape. That this significant body of work, including forty-five minutes of clay animation and over eighty thousand frames of line animation, lies invisible to the public is a fact that frustrates his fans and that Bickford himself laments. He insists that he is too busy drawing, sculpting, writing, or animating new material to be bothered with such mundane tasks as editing or coordinating with a film lab to finish his work. In any case, it seems a great shame. But the work goes on.
In some ways, whether by conscious design or not, Bickford’s animated universe reflects metaphysical properties of the larger one which contains it - properties such as the interplay of matter and energy. Everything in a Bickford film is either alive or has the possibility of becoming alive at any moment. By the same token, the average life expectancy seems to be around five seconds. The cycles of birth and death are accelerated as in a time-lapsed nature film.
Relativity of scale is also exaggerated in the Bickford cosmology. What is at one moment enormous becomes microscopic an instant later. The reverse its also true. Scale is also a key to hierarchy in the moral order of the Bickford universe. Scene after scene features little guys who, bullied by larger menaces, somehow triumph in the end by quickness, wit, or magical powers.
Bickford’s films can transport us back to a state of early childhood, where everything is new, and where we are suspended in a state of amused awe. A blade of grass, a tree, a sword, an eerily smiling face are all wonders of great mystery in this state. Things appear and disappear, and events happen inexplicably. Danger and splendor are both just around the corner. Everything is at once beautiful and frightening.
Bruce Bickford is an original thinker, an iconoclast, and a visionary artist of the highest caliber. His work is important and deserves an audience.