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From Small Potatoes to SIGGRAPH Smash: My Odyssey

Mitch Butler was an overnight star with his SIGGRAPH hit, The Smell of Horror. Discover Mitch's rather unusual path from icy Alaska to being the toast of the fest at SIGGRAPH `98 in sunny Florida. Includes a Quicktime movie.

Download a Quicktime movie of The Smell of Horror. 1.2 MB. © Mitch Butler.

You too can make an animated short film like The Smell of Horror. All you need is a lack of formal training and an excess of coffee. You must have coffee. Assisted by an ever-present SIGGRAPH coffee mug, I've animated the first look into the strangeness of Smidgendale County. As we speak, production continues on the first sequel.

The Smell of Horror was my first film. After it screened at SIGGRAPH `98 in Orlando, I was blown away by the amount of e-mail I was getting.This is great because what I really want is for people to like me. I received distribution offers for the film, job offers for me, film festival entry requests, and lots of questions about how The Smell of Horror was produced. Maybe this would make up for all the attention I didn't get in high school.

Here's What To Do How was The Smell of Horror produced? My techniques for animating are mostly based on guesses about how other people animate. (And I'm always left thinking, "There's got to be an easier way!") Like most 3D animators in the world I'm self-taught, so don't take anything I say too seriously. With that disclaimer in place I'll now relay to you my personal recipe for becoming an animator.

1977: I'm in a first grade classroom drawing pictures and telling kids that the hospital didn't have chocolate milk last week when I had my tonsils taken out. (What a racket that was. Everybody used to pay to have their tonsils taken out.) I've got classmates gathered around and I'm taking requests. "Draw me a Darth Vader." "Draw me a C3PO and a TIE Fighter." I was sure that people liked me.

Leon and Flip try to connect.© Mitch Butler.

One dull lunch hour in 1988, I found myself in the high school library wondering if people liked me and reading a Smithsonian magazine. In it was an article about Industrial Light and Magic that described the motion control systems they used for animating space ships. I read the article and became furiously angry! A 17 year-old kid in Palmer, Alaska doesn't have any hope of getting access to that sort of equipment, and I knew that I could make something really great if I only had a chance. Still upset, I stole the magazine from the library anyway. I think I still have it. (My apologies to Mrs. Johnson the librarian if she's reading this.) I spent the next five years of my life in true artistic form: drunk and depressed. Drunk because I was in college and depressed for lack of a purpose in life. I studied video production in Boise, Idaho, and then briefly studied film at California State University Northridge. Today, I think of my college days as a five-year holding pattern; the dark Middle Ages of my personal history in which little progress was made on any front. However college did provide me with one turning point that changed my professional life.

A Ray of Hope In a lonely forgotten closet deep in the Boise State University (BSU) communication building slept a new Amiga Video Toaster. The school had some grant money to spend and bought the Video Toaster largely unaware of its capabilities, and without the right faculty to teach students about it. While putting credits on my video project, I discovered that the Toaster had something called Lightwave 3D, a three-dimensional computer animation program. I started tinkering with it and was soon spending days and nights on the Toaster, devouring the user manuals.

3D animation turned out to be the blending of my two main interests: video production and cartooning. The first 3D model that I made was a likeness of the cassette deck that sat next to the Toaster. I was inexperienced but it took me just minutes and I was hooked. I made an animated opening sequence for my video production, which aired on the local PBS station. Soon clients were coming to the university for 3D animation and I was getting paid just $6 an hour to do the work. With a five-figure student loan and no job, I then quit college halfway through my senior year, and maxed out my credit cards to start an animation business. In retrospect I can't believe I was stupid enough to do that. Somehow it worked out though. There were very few people doing computer animation in those days, so I was offering a unique product, especially for Boise, Idaho. I even became president of the Idaho Film and Video Association where I met a lot of clients. I was now enjoying the thrill that I had longed for since reading about ILM in that Smithsonian magazine. Only now it didn't take a lot of expensive motion control equipment to make things move on the screen, just a relatively cheap computer.

Flip's flippin' out. © Mitch Butler.

Goin' Big

By 1996, Mitch Butler Company, Inc. had three part-time employees and my initial risk had paid off many-fold. (With a company name such as this, people were wondering if maybe I liked myself too much now.) We were doing some video production, as well as animation. For instance, I had animated a lot of advertisements and training videos.

Although I had been a cartoonist since childhood, I had until this point never done any real character animation. This was an uncomfortable realization because in the back of my mind I considered myself a character animator. To remedy this dissonance, I embarked on the production of a story of mine called The Smell of Horror. I had a few goals for this, my first animated short film. There are a lot of zooming logos and flashy explosions in this world of computer animation and I wanted to get as far away from that as I could. I wanted to animate a slow, dramatic conversation between two people and I wanted to do it in black and white. I also wanted to leave a lot of the story in the viewer's mind. I didn't want to answer all of the questions raised. For example, is the Leon character good or evil? I don't know. You decide. The only thing that's for certain is that it's a story about two people trying to connect with each other. Just like in real life though, connecting with another person is a difficult thing, especially if you want it badly.

You don't know anybody like Leon, do you?© Mitch Butler.

I took some time off of work and started making the thing. The script had been percolating in my mind for months, so I finally wrote it down. I had Jim Stoner and Flip Perkins come in for a few hours to read the character voices. Next, I secluded myself for about two months and animated the thing. During the month after that, my friend, the brilliant musician David Alan Earnest, wrote and performed the music between his other jobs. Then I started showing it to audiences, and so far they've mostly liked it. I always remember to thank people for laughing at the jokes, because I'm always scared that they won't laugh. Market Yourself! The next step was one that you should never overlook. Marketing! (No, it's not a dirty word!) I imagine that this article will mostly be read by animators and marketing is something that you won't learn while studying animation. Don't overlook the importance of marketing yourself as an animator.

I suspect that the greatest guitar player in the world is some recluse who sits by himself and plays guitar all day. But then there's this other guy named Eddie Van Halen, who's an excellent guitar player and also has the force of his record label's marketing department promoting him to the masses. Is Eddie the best guitar player in the world? It doesn't matter. What matters is that he is so high profile that people are prompted to say, "Eddie's the best!" Ah yes, if only the world made more sense, but it doesn't. I could animate my heart out but I wouldn't be writing this article if I hadn't done a lot of promotion work for The Smell of Horror. If you think that your animation is great, then you've got to market it. Make T-shirts, a web page, send out videotapes, whatever you can think of, but don't be scared to go tell people how great your work is. There is no justice for the modest when it comes to popular attention.

Leon's dog © Mitch Butler.

But like I said at the start, don't take anything I say too seriously. I'm just figuring it out as I go along. I am now in production on my next animated short, which is something of a sequel to The Smell of Horror. All of my characters live in Smidgendale County and I'll be animating more and more of the scripts that I've written about them. The next story is about a character who finds the strength to reinvent himself, in spite of what others expect from him. It will be released in August of 1999, but you can see the previews now on my web site! Thanks for your attention and I really hope that you like me. Oh, and if you've seen The Smell of Horror, thanks for laughing at the jokes. You can buy Mitch Butler's The Smell of Horror now in the Animation World Store.

Mitch Butler is originally from Palmer, Alaska where he was a cartoonist from a young age. Mitch was president of the Idaho Film and Video Association in 1996, and vice president in 1995. He studied communication at Boise State University where he found a Video Toaster and became a self-taught animator with Lightwave v1.0. Shortly thereafter, he bought his own gear and went into business for himself.