Bruce Bickford – the Animation Wizard

”Bruce Bickford’s special skill must have been mastering every detail in his films simultaneously, and the animator’s incredible patience to fulfill his vision”, writes Antti Laakso, who also had the chance to meet Bickford once.

Bruce Bickford (1947–2019) was the weirdo of animation – an inexplicable figure, who never gained great popularity amidst the masses, but enjoyed a cult-like following among a small circle of animation lovers.

Bickford represents the extremity of non-commercial animation. His films are missing a clear plot, the main characters and the dramatic curve. They are abstruse, but can also be enjoyed as avalanching audiovisual experiences in their own right. And if you’ve ever mixed with animation-making, you’re likely to realise what a huge amount of work has been put into these films.

Bickford’s favorite technique was clay animation. His animation style is very recognizable: some objects are being born; they are growing, transforming and disappearing as an ongoing flow. The screen is full of movement. There are no breaks that would give a rhytmn to that movement, and no focus points to direct the viewer’s look. Everything floats onwards with the same, unrestrained tempo. The films have been called feverish nightmares and psychedelic metamorphoses. It strikes me as if all of the guidelines of classic animation or film were being disobeyed. The viewer is inside Bickford’s mind and can only be astonished by what they are being shown.

“The smaller, the better”

Bickford seemed to be fixated by his small pals made of clay. As he summarized vigorously himself: ’’The smaller, the better’’. In one of Bickford’s most famous films, Prometheus’ Garden (1988), his style matches the topic of the film perfectly. The events are situated in a garden, where, according to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created man out of clay. More and more little figures jump into the picture with an astonishing speed. Soon different groups formed of these figures start fighting with eachother. Typically for Bickford, the film culminates in a brutal slaughter, and the clay figures are being cutted into pieces and halved. Nevertheless, a serene and descriptive atmosphere dominates. A lot of blood is not being shed – the clay only changes its color.

Prometheus’ Garden (2008)

As an animation maker I’m puzzled by how Bickford could pull off his films in practice. Making clay animation is arduous, even when you’re only animating a few figures. Bickford has the whole screenful in movement and there can be dozens of moving figures at the same time. A scene that looks like stream of consciousness, has in reality required strict planning, and the realisation of it has demanded its’ maker his full concentration for dozens of hours. Bickford’s special skill must have been this simultaneous mastery of every detail and the incredible patience to fulfill his vision. He has been living and breathing animation and put it ahead of everything.

I met Bruce Bickford shortly in the year 2012 in Germany, at the Filmfest Dresden. The white-bearded Mister Bickford seemed older than he really was, and had been dressed stylishly in a fair suit and a scarf. He resembled an old wizard, like a wizened Gandalf the Grey. The man was quiet and friendly, but he had a pungent and impish look in his eyes. It’s no wonder the animation career had left its’ mark on him – breathing life into hundreds and hundreds of tiny clay figures must have taken its tolls.

Antti Laakso

Monster Road by Brett Ingram Turun Kirjakahvila, the inner court. Thursday the 27th of August, 9 pm. Free entrance.

Antti Laakso met Bruce Bickford in 2012 at the Filmfest Dresden.