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What are all those paint men digging? - 'Buzz Box'

Every Monday or so, Chris Robinson asks an animator how they made a particular film. This week: David Daniel's classic mindsweeper, Buzz Box (1985)

Bent Image Lab co-founder, David Daniels (Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Peter Gabriel: Big Time) talks about the aches pains and joys of making his ground breaking Cal Arts student film, Buzz Box (1985)

So, how’d you make this?

I went to sleep at Dawn, then got up at Noon.  This went on for the better part of three years.  After food / classes and a random shower it was -- think, build, chop, slice, click.   Stay fascinated, stay focused.  Slice open the next motion-block experiment.  Reveal the embedded time-programming hidden inside.  Send to Lab.  Consider results. Repeat.

My 'living space' was an Orange 68 Chevy Van in the parking lot.  That's where I slept, unconscious until the sun would 'bake me awake.'  The tin box oven went to full broil with the desert sun.  No alarm clock was needed as profuse sweat would force my eyes open.

Roll awake.  Then drop onto the hot pavement, and stumble into Cal Arts.  This is a "hospital-spaceship" looking campus, where I would search to scarf down leftovers from cafeteria plates.  My art studio came equipped with a massive heat-waste exhaust vent.  The phone bank and server room next door would melt without dumping that noise and heat into my room.  With a balmy throbbing distress, the super-sized leaf-blower cranked away 24/7, pushing sweaty anxiety into every corner of my work space.    

That would sauna my ass right up.  Shirtless, I would struggle to think straight.  It's hard to make time-space-art-sculpts inside a turbine jet revving Max-RPM's at the equator. 

This is a picture: of me swimming in molten stress.  I would pour all that strange energy back out.  It was channelled into strokes of clay and knife animation.  The process and environment became fuel to propel this movie.   Everyday, the joy and anger felt both raw and desperate.  Yet also large and epic, even romantic.  My childish psychomorphic punk neo-expressionism comes from my love / hate relationship with the gods, fate and eternity.  I see absurdity joined at the hip with beauty, shuffling in the dance of temporary existence.  Most 7 Billion humans zig and zag with their mortal coil, going from birth to death without rest.  Time to shake a fist at the sky! 

I have found my life strategies are a little crazy.   But how is one to react to this planet of humans?  "First world of problems" become all the worlds problems.  We dump our externalities into the wider terrestrial aquarium.  This creates my cliché of angst.  I would stop-mo all this 'crazy' back into the blinking gaze of an audience.   My own demons were up on screen, but reflected back on all of us. 

Buzz Box was a large physic load shoved back at the audience.  Drew Neumann crafted the best and only soundtrack it could possibly have.  He brought six months of polish and sonic clarity to help organize and amplify all this strange and jumpy visual material   Hey world!  Here is our fun house mirror of psycho-morphic clay, imitating pscyho-spastic TV, folks!   It's a Samuel L. Jackson thing -- "Wake the Fuck Up!'  

Let me pause this Epic Rant.  Now indulge me the rest ...

Brain washing is a ritual of 'think this way' repetition designed to exclude other thoughts.  Fox and Rush have put modern lipstick upon Goebbels corpse.  A growth industry of bombast and stupidity is funded by billionaires.  This insincere and intentional deceit machine has now manufactured full blown victim hood for white people.  It's the browns who are the problem, not the multi-millionaires funded by billionaires at all levels of national government.  The Onion is no longer parody or ironic.  Realty has crossed the rubicon beyond anything sincere or rational, and the much larger pubic is just exhausted.  Many have lost all curiosity to care.  A third have checked out from thinking clearly about any of it.  Who cares?   Trust nothing and understand little.  This effect is both pernicious and powerful as apathy leads us into a dizzy anaemic form of disassociated madness.

Buzz Box mimics how this works.   Billions of people watch serious things interrupted by frivolous things, on a minute to minute and now second to second basis.   Disrupted patterns of logic are like disrupted sleep.  People don't function well mentally.  Advertising (and now Twitter or Social attack and response) injects rapid hyper-doses of aggressively amplified pre-digested thought-chunks into the larger narrative of otherwise difficult and serious things. 

This micro-distraction process chops all meaning into mostly useless pieces of dripping mental shit.  Facts, Science, History and Cultural truth is mostly learned as cliff notes from the snark-trolls who battle it out in one liners, or flame wars.   What puzzle of conclusions could we make about where this long tail is now taking us?   Looking up from your cell phone, you barely even think "No thanks.  Next?  TL;DR."

Buzz box was a giant 'Wargazzm' scream against institutionalized and systematic incoherence.  A cry for mercy against mental abuse on an entire society drifting into mass attention deficit disorder.   A gadget filled population well trained (for seven decades now) to follow the next 'shiny-shiny' with a lot of 'clicky-clicky.'  This addiction to stimulation (over clear thinking) is now the nature of most visual and electronic media.  Amassive seduction and abuse of minds is going on at a truly unrelenting scale.  It's purpose is to create emotional numbness, division, distraction and doubt.  It achieves acceptance and conformity to what the powerful, rich and focused want us to accept, believe and think.   Rinse, repeat. 

Eyeballs nailed with click-bait.  Minds hypnotized with slow tease.  Thoughts tossed into shards are put on pulse-parse.   A void of blender whip deletes all real meaning.  Throw this against digital walls - all over the world.  Splatter.  Drip.  It's like a manic drum machine doing EDM inside a blistering tornado.  A bursting AR-15 of phosphorous toilet paper fireworks.  Pointless, but glowing red hot and deeply visceral. 

Super-charged day-glo feces goes flying at you!  Duck!   Then more sweet talk from that next soft voice.  Screech!  Face pummelled again with an audio/visual fist bringing shock and intensity.  Explicit sex pretending to be character development.  Graphic shoot outs to rivet your flagging attention.  Blood in slow-mo.  Glints of sweat on skin.  Bang.  Crash.  chaotic edits of tight lipped heroes making strong physical decisions.  Shock and Awe is really a meth-amphetamine blitzkrieg of smart bombs blowing up the mind.

Like the salt and sugar in everything we eat, the system pumps up the noise floor, and pushes the volume down.  Since ordinary life is mostly low key, repetitive and banal, people cannot help but come back for more.   It's easy to crave the maximum simulated drama.  Drama against the mass-similarity of houses, jobs, golf courses, liquor stores and daily commutes.   Voyeuristic ultra-significance is attractive.  It thrives to stand out against the bland repetition of vague problems  This 'pain and pleasure' spin cycle -- this 'Twilight Circus' -- is a weaponized adrenaline fix of repeated happy/horror drug injections. 

How does a current fairy tale like mass 'white oppression' even get going?   It's a drama of self-significance.  When your mind just repeats top level slogans, myths and inside-out answers you can free-associate your brain into fears. These fears are backed up by all the alt-right websites funded by the rich who need an army of angry stupid whites.   Open and clear contradictions to facts in all directions no longer even begin to matter.

Strata Cut can capture this boiling cauldron of opposites, and yet not be anything you can put your finger on.  Seductive and hypnotic, as well as raw, jagged and abusive.  I took this weird new medium, and twisted it into the shape of my film.   Why not start out fast, and just go faster with these opposing contrasts?  That would be an audience bet I most would likely lose!  A gauntlet: thrown down hard.  It's on!

So sure, I started fast and yes, went faster.  It begins right in the hot water, and then keeps 'boiling that frog.'  Turn the dial way past 11.  Drew Neumann and I had a 'craftsman's objective in Buzz Box:  It was to find out "how much hypnotic beauty and jarring abuse" can we both throw at an audience?  How can we make them squirm hard in their seat, but STILL NOT WALK OUT?   Where exactly is that tipping point?   Maximalism.

In the mid 80's, some thought this final edit was too choppy and way too fast.  The speed, angst and 'feeling of violence' was planned to get people antsy, yet almost no one left in the middle.  When a few did, we found that gleeful and fun.  This happens when you are young, and 'doing a dare 'on an elaborate gamble.  We braced for a defection of maybe even half the audience to leave.  Yet only  maybe 1 out of 20 would peel off before the end credits. 

Today, 35 years later (to my eye) this film looks normal.  Sometimes slow.  The times have so sped up to meet me. 

The punch line of dark comedy comes with the first day of the week:  TUESDAY.   That one joke, sets the bar.   "I just watched four minutes of madness, and I have ... what?  Six more days?  Holy Shit!"

Stunned after the acceleration of Monday, people move and shift around, restless.  But they don't leave because its a seductive and abusive bizzaro world you have never yet quite seen.  Familiar, but childishly and perversely distorted.  The second day of the week turns out shorter than the first.  You stay seated a bit longer from sheer relief.   Then everything just get's shorter, more violent, faster paced, even darker, and much more frantic.  And it's finally over, only to re-run again.

A burning-fuse accelerating metronome gives the audience a bare bones a structure.  It's both Neo-Punk and Neon-Bolero.

Buzz Box was edited on hand cranked rewinds.  It evolved this way, because I felt 36 frames a second was 'right.'  It made the footage more liquid and flow better.   No editing devices would run this speed.   So I got good at doing micro edits with tape on the re-wind bench.  Then I would hand-wind it at about 36 clicks a second for 15 straight minutes ... to 'see the flow' of what the strata cut was telling me.  During the edit, I let the new animation medium reveal its own pace.  Let it say to me what it wants.

Message in a bottle: Real information is irreversibly polluted and debased.  The signal to noise ratio of most modern communication is just a media sewer firehose.  Noise destroys signal.   This is true almost everywhere in the first world, and even more so in the US.  (The most over entertained and under informed population on earth.)  It's designed this way.

Public decisions are shouting matches between political pro wrestlers in red-tie suits.  They aim staccato catch-phrase megaphone bile at billions of smart phone surfers with Swiss-cheese brain disease.   Many folks marinate day to night in a relentless cesspool of 4K Technicolor overload.  Now draw a straight line from Ronnie Ray-gun in the early 80's -- to the current "Orange Gasbag Anus Mouth Spew Huckster Drama Boy Queen Whiner-in-Chief"  OGAMSHDBQWIC -- !!!

So question -- Who keeps putting so many wretched years of this incoherent narcissistic blow hard loser baby-man onto the world stage?   The Cheeto-Mussolini, who sucks all logic and decency out of every room?   Answer -- We do!   The Public.  The Mass.  But we had to be fully meat-tenderized in the brain to allow this.  Seduction and abuse conditioning is designed.  It is essential to this massively dysfunctional and totally broken condition.  Our system lurches toward epic levels of deceit and corruption, driven by a Mercer-backed Russian Cyber-Ops campaign to use a money-laundering reality TV star to destroy public trust in anything and everything civil, democratic, decent, humane, empathetic, or scientific.   Are we tired of 'winning' yet?  

Information as a random shit-show of adrenaline hits, has created this problem.  I have no practical remedy or answer.  Just one guy trying to understand the disease.

It unfolds, no stopping.  Relentless.  Buzz Box.   Rant over.   

Why this technique?

For much of my childhood, I used oil based plasticine (Van Aken) to sculpt with clay.  This was onward from the age of 5.  My Sister Shelley and I, would create amazing things that would then fall quickly into ugliness.  Our creations would wither from dings, nicks, dust, heat, yellowing, and ordinary life abuse.   Oil-Clay is pathetic looking much like fresh bloom flowers sitting way too long in a vase.  Over many years, it is impossible to keep anything pristine in clay that is worth looking at later.  My childhood love of clay creation, would never hold up to time.   There had to be a different approach.  I sought a way to 're-invent' this medium that would avoid these drawbacks. 

So ... STRATA CUT.

The act of slicing itself is not new.  Many kids with clay have seen this 'magic.'  They slice a wad of junk clay, which gives them an abstract primary-color thunder-egg.  At age 8, I was cutting cakes and hardboiled eggs, but only representations of such made in miniature and with clay.  At age 21, I finally sat down to reverse-engineer what the layers and geometry behaved like when in motion; when under the knife.  I wrote a rule book (in my head) for each action.  While hard at first, there was a clear predictable result.  An occasional cannabis with a whole lot of coffee was involved.  A syntax and language was developed. 

It was 1981.  Once I got the rules all figured out, then it was: 'what film should I make?'

As for slicing clay patterns, well Miafore is a 4000 year old pottery technique.   'Caning' in glass or fimo is a popular art form.  The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger showed the work of Walter Ruttmann, a kind of strata-cut horse shape.  Fischenger did some wax cutting and Closed Mondays had a haywire computer sliced apart with abstractions inside.

Strata Cut to me means at least four things --

  • 1) There is true narrative control over the shapes.  It is like an analog computer program with tubes, ribbons, and sculpture instead of code.  What you put in -- is pretty much what you expect to get out.  There is no real mystery about what is going to happen inside, if you can mentally pre-program Strata Cut behavior. 
  • 2) When done right -- it is really a "designed motion-sculpture" as art form, with flow and world lines happening over time.  A time sculpture.  There is a movement now for 'chrono-morphology' that is born from the Makerbot 3D printing ability.  A whole generation of '3D Muybridge Artists' are pushing motion over time as an art form.   
  • 3) It is simultaneously a 2D and a 3D animation medium, with a built-in 4D metaphor.  Seeing the emergent distorting edge of the block shape is critical to 'getting it.'  The fourth dimension of time, comes from the change emerging out of the sculputed 3D edge, where the strata block surface sand reveals itself in stop motion.  It is the spaghetti noodle edge; the burning fuse shape moving along the tube.  Inside is a 2D art medium with fake 3D images, giving birth to questions of actions=over-time.  Like a moving flat painting with 3D perspective added.  Contradictions are the beauty of it.
  • 4) It is best when combined with physical things around it, or inside it.  Context is all-important, like graffiti-art.  Like Banksy at his best.  Putting a tin can inside a strata cut brain, and cutting around it, is essential to the whole 2D/3D/4D contradiction.  

How long did it take?

Buzz Box took 3 years to build and animate.  Then about a year to edit and do the soundtrack from 1981 to 1985.  Drew Neumann, a great musician and technical artist, was working with the most primitive stone age samplers and created the most perfect manic audio match to the visuals.  He hand crafted a 'maximalist' soundtrack that linked all the purpose and drive from the images, and brought sonic identity to chaos.  It added clarity and structure and a through-line to the onslaught!  Amazing.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

Sheer tenacity and endurance.  Being relentless.  Going in Debt.  It's all consuming. Keeping at it when I felt really ill, tired, worn out, etc.   It's the price.  Most people have to pay something deep.

Was it worth it?

Absa-fuckin-lootly.  How many people say no to that question?   "My artistic effort is recognized, but I feel lousy about that."

I get a lot of satisfaction from those who discover Strata Cut, and Buzz Box particularly.  When eyes light up and jaws drop,  I smile a little inside.  Being able to cross my own boundary and share with another soul -- is amazing.  People often say the film is unlike anything they have ever seen.  Some tell me the moment they first watched it, like a virginity situation in college.  That's all very fun to hear.  To reach out with something so strange, and have others reach back.

Art is necessary and wonderful, but also impractical and useless.  This is precisely its magic.  Human survival was partially made possible because art helped us all pass along meaning.   Art is very useful in a non material way.  A brain that practices creativity, can figure out even more complex things.  It is all weird and wonderful.

I do sometimes regret not having  made a more conventional narrative and gotten a larger more popular audience.  It was a choice at the time.  But those who love it, are hardcore for the same reasons I am, and for that I am very grateful.   

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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