Best known for the clay animation work he did for avant-garde musician Frank Zappa in the 1970s, underground animator Bruce Bickford is the subject of Monster Road, an enthralling 2004 documentary that has just been released on DVD. Clay’s answer to R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar, Bickford bares his soul and reveals the driving forces behind his unique creations in this Bright Eye Pictures release, which features never-before-seen animation.
Bickford’s work is not as technically smooth as what we’ve come to expect from the likes of Tim Burton or Aardman. His characters tend to skate around rather than exhibiting well-executed walk cycles, and there’s a certain jumpiness to his technique that would seem amateurish if it weren’t for the amazing and mesmerizing pictures he is able to paint with plasticine.
At one point in the film, Bickford looks into the camera and says that what Hollywood lacks is energy. ‘It’s all about energy,’ he reiterates. His own work is all about energy. Nothing on the screen is static. He uses the clay medium to its fullest potential as characters and other objects routinely morph into other things in his surreal, absurd and metaphorical scenes that often focus on the violent nature of man and the world at large.
The reclusive animator works alone in the basement of the home he grew up in, still shooting on 16mm film with an old Bolex camera. His studio is filled with countless clay figures, including tiny ‘little guys,’ with which he feels a kinship since he himself was often picked on for being slight of stature. In his films, he’s able to give the little guy the upper hand to strike back against his larger oppressors. We see this theme begin to emerge early in clips of animation experiments he conducted as a kid.
Equally as engaging as Bickford’s creations and his thoughts on animation is his dysfunctional family life, which has greatly influenced his work over the years. The documentary spends a good deal of time on Bickford’s father, George, a retired aerospace engineer whose mind is slowly being ravished by Alzheimer’s Disease. Through interviews, family photos and home movies, first-time filmmaker Brett Ingram tells an often tragic and disturbing story of a family destroyed by depression, divorce, untimely death and suicide. Those moments are then balanced out by whimsical shots of the shaggy-haired and skinny Bruce spryly climbing trees and swinging a chain with a fiery ball at the end of it.
In 2004, Monster Road won Best Documentary at a number of major film festivals, including Slamdance, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Indie Memphis Film Festival and the Red Bank Independent Film Festival. The DVD features more than 30 minutes of bonus materials, including rare animation and deleted scenes. More information can be found at www.brighteyepictures.com.