The Amazing Bruce Bickford and Monster Road – Run, Don’t Walk

Great news! Bruce Bickford, one the most gifted and beautifully demented animators in the history of the universe, may finally get his due with the imminent DVD release of Monster Road (Bright Eye Pictures, 2004), the award winning documentary about him. You can watch a trailer for it here (embedded Quicktime, 3.3 mb), and apparently it will be playing on the Sundance Channel real soon now.

You can also listen to a September 2004 NPR interview with Bruce Bickford.

I confess, to my shame, that I missed the film when it did the festival circuit (I vaguely recall it played at SIFF…woe betide my hermitish nature!), which could explain my utter astonishment to learn that Bickford lives near Seattle. Had I known this, I would have tracked him down and camped out at a respectful distance and thrown any money I had at him, begging him to please, please please just pursue his wildest animation dreams. Hmmm…maybe it’s not too late?

Who is Bruce Bickford? Well…think Will Vinton on a heroic dose of peyote doing jigs with Schrödinger’s cat. (Who’s Will Vinton? sigh. Well, he’s best known for the California Raisons, but is far better represented by films like the justifiably Oscar-winning Closed Mondays [1974].)

Bruce Bickford is a self-taught clay animator (though he does line and paper cut-out animation as well). His first animation efforts were in 1964, but he first gained artistic focus in 1969 with what he describes as his “first attempt[s] at morphing and free form psychedelic movement.” This marked the beginning of a productive period that over the next five years resulted in 28 minutes (give or take) of animation that he’ll now own up to. During this period he worked mostly in clay, though he also dabbled in some animation with line drawings and hot wax on glass, the latter an experimental technique first used some 40 years earlier by Oskar Fischinger…but pretty much by no one else since.

Bickford is best known for work that appeared (extensively) in the Frank Zappa mostly-concert film, Baby Snakes (1979), and this is how I first came to know his brilliant work. Superlatives fail to describe the astonishing, jaw-droppingly visionary fever dream of metamorphic stream of consciousness of the animation. The feeling of raw awe only explodes upon witnessing footage of Bruce at work: the scale he was working in was absolutely miniscule, an utter paradox when compared to the scope and detail of the images unspooling before you. Zappa conducts his ensemble at the time in musical improvisations to accompany the animation, with the film periodically dissolving back and forth between the animation and the group performing in the studio.

The animation in Baby Snakes was the product of a then five-year-old relationship with Zappa, who had managed to convince Bickford to move to Los Angeles to work for him in 1974 (according to the official bio). At that time, he turned over to Zappa most of the films he produced in the early ’70s. The fate of those films is unclear to me — a question likely addressed in the Monster Road doc. No doubt they still reside somewhere in the vast Zappa archives. In any event, Zappa deserves enormous credit for fostering a brilliant but fringe talent (not unlike himself) — though I say that without knowing how Mr. Bickford himself might feel about that relationship (or the fate his early films).

In 1987, Bickford completed Prometheus Garden, a 27 minute film with a line animation intro. Circa April 2005, according to BruceBickford.com, there were “discussions with a couple people” toward releasing a DVD of Prometheus Garden and some additional newer work. The current status of that is not made clear.

In 1990, Zappa’s Honker Home Video imprint released the VHS tape, The Amazing Mr. Bickford — 60 glorious and almost overwhelming minutes devoted entirely to Bruce’s animation. Musical accompaniment included works by Zappa and company, as well as (appropriately) compositions by Pierre Boulez as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Oh hell yeah. It is AN UNFORGIVABLE CRIME that this has never been released on DVD. Seriously: sort it out, guys. Make it happen. Dweezil, Bruce — I’m beggin’ you. (As I write this, it occurs to me I may well be transposing some/most/all of my memories of the Bruce-working and Frank-conducting footage from The Amazing Mr. Bickford to Baby Snakes. Guess I better re-watch ‘em and figure it out — apologies if I’m in error.)

During the 1990s, Bickford managed to get some more material into circulation, primarily for MTV station IDs, a commercial or two, and a segment in a music video for a group called Carnival Arts. Hardly the sorts of things worthy for such a giant talent. Were he living and working in Europe, I suspect Bruce Bickford would be a revered household name, at least among film folk, instead of the mere “underground” (albeit still revered) figure he is here in the Da States.

In the meantime, keep an eagle eye out for the Monster Road DVD, which is currently slated to be back from the factory circa March 24. You may also want to subscribe to the official Bruce Bickford email list, which will only send announcements when Monster Road or other Bickford-related products are released.

All hail Bruce Bickford.

3 thoughts on “The Amazing Bruce Bickford and Monster Road – Run, Don’t Walk

  1. The Bickford doc is amazing, I’ve seen it a couple times now and it’s definitely “run, don’t walk” viewing. Perhaps surprisingly the film has, in addition to the mind-blowing animation, some emotional heft as well, delving into Bruce’s relationship with his father, as well as some surprises I won’t spoil for you.

    Regarding hope for more of Bruce’s work on home video — one of the filmmakers once said that they were hoping to include some more uncut pieces on the DVD, but weren’t sure if the legalities could be worked out. And as for the Zappa Family Trust, it ain’t Dweezil who you need to worry about, it’s a certain batshit crazy ex-groupie widow (who shall go unnamed) (*cough*) who’s most likely the culprit. But I’ll save stories about her for another time…

  2. The DVD is now out and available for purchase direct from the filmmakers at $20 a pop. (Retailers should email them to learn about bulk discounts.)

    Extras include six deleted scenes and four “previously unreleased animations.” Yummm…

    Now then…how to sway Mr. Zappa’s widow into re-releasing The Amazing Mr. Bickford…?

  3. Hi,

    I was Bruce Bickford’s animator’s assistant on the film he was working on in either 1994 or 1996 (sorry, I can’t remember). It’s great to see that he’s finally getting the recognition his work deserves. I might go up to Seattle and help out on his current project in August.