An Interview With the Claymation Master Who Helped Melt MTV, Michael Jackson and Pee Wee Herman

Anthology Film Archives is hosting veteran filmmaker, animator, designer, engineer and time-sculptor David Daniels for a one-time-only presentation as part of their “Show & Tell” series on Saturday night. Daniels invented the technique known as “Strata cut,” wherein logs of material are built of clay, then sliced down and photographed one frame at a time — entire animations done in-camera. For the uninitiated, Daniels worked on Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking “Big Time” video, animation for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker movie, as well as those iconic stop animation bumpers on MTV, and much much more. Mass Appeal was give the opportunity to catch up with him in advance of the Anthology show.

Story of Strata Cut

How do we even classify your early work, then? “The clay years”?
Well, it’s oil-based plasticine, so it will stay malleable almost forever. Clay has two or three meanings: it’s not pottery clay, it’s not ceramics, it’s not clay that dries in the sun. Plasticine can dry out and become hard if you put it on a backing surface; the impulse to do Stratacut came, partially, from clay sculptures getting so dusty and so ragged so quickly, so it’s not hard-fired pottery clay, Sculpee or Fimo, or millefiore – that’s an Italian slice term. It’s difficult-to-impossible to present that work without it getting damaged, old. This is what I found out as a young kid sculpting: this is a problem! This doesn’t work for me! This is gonna be really difficult! So the cut clay was an attempt to reinvent it as clean.

Did you always call it Stratacut? Was there a lightbulb moment?
The phrase coined itself; I think I called it slice-art before I had begun really animating it. 1980, I graduated San Francisco State. I had a girlfriend who let me live at her apartment rent-free, and she was off to work everyday. I had already been accepted to CalArts and I knew I was going, so I had eight weeks and I sat there, drank coffee, smoked a little pot, and I said, Okay, if I cut the clay that way, what does it do? If I twirl it this way, what does it do?” And I would either make notes or make hard memorization of the results. During those eight weeks I began to understand, if I do it this way, this happens. If I do it this way, that happens. I actually managed to lose myself, in a childish way – you don’t get many eight-week blocks of time where you don’t have obligations or work. So that’s the rare moment when Stratacut was invented – it was such an exciting discovery to say, oh, this is predictable – this can be made into something! By the time I was at CalArts, I knew this was the medium by which I could make something interesting, something different. At that moment it was still “slice art.” The germanic-sounding Stratacut, the idea of a hard consonant, like Kodak, or Leica – you put a K in something and that’s a well-known, branded consonant…(laughs). “Slice art” is just a description of a knife going through something.

Buzz Box (1985)

When you go back and look at those Stratacut animations, do they feel less sophisticated than they did at the time? Do you wince?

Well, it’s standard-def, there’s too much contrast in some places, there’s too little fidelity, you’re limited. When you look at Buzz Box, there was no optical printing; everything is in-camera. And when you understand that, it’s mind-blowing. You look at it now, and think ehh, it could be a little more polished. There’s an enormous slickness to modern film and media-making that are not present in my earlier work. My first theme was to speak to a funhouse mirror of both happiness and horror: how consumer media puts images of complete banality and optimism next to others, of desolation and horror. Between the commercials and the newscasters, I tried to create the illusion that a brain-dump-download had just happened. To get through people’s filter, I couldn’t have just taken TV and edited it; I needed to find a way to break through that filter, and so many people would respond saying, “That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen!” But if you take any one image, you wouldn’t even be able to say “Oh, that’s somebody getting shot.” It’s an exercise in seduction and abuse, trying to just speak to the aesthetic overload.

Even in Donald Trump it’s relevant: the lack of informational continuity, his ability to go – in the middle of a sentence! – from belligerent to a nice guy who “uses the best words;” to jump back and forth so quickly, because society has been so massaged by images… between entertainment and hard news, Trump exists. That was the message of the 80s to me; as much as there are some technical flaws or shapes around the edges, I feel that’s still very relevant.

The sound, too, is in this kind of perma-flux
Big shout out to Drew Neumann. He spent six months to actually find a way of describing a soundtrack neither of us had ever done. Samplers had barely even existed at that moment, so we were doing massive arrays of very very tiny samples; the aesthetic was an inside joke against what our teachers at CalArts were steeped in. They had been born into modernism, adopted minimalism as a rejection of modernism, so Drew and I were trying to reject them with maximalism.

Can you talk a little bit more about this moment? There’s a consistency there, I feel – but it seems very punk to me, of a piece with Gary Panter, maybe Lynda Barry, very L.A., your work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. If it is a CalArts connection, I’m not sure
I think that’s a good thing to point out. You’d call it post-expressionism, right? The reinvention of Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, works from the 1920s which were leading up to fascism, Hitler and World War II. In a way, yes, punk was a rejection of the glossy and prepackaged – the thing about minimalism is, there’s something beautiful about it, at the time I just felt like, okay, everybody’s done it. Yes, in a way, you had Mark Pauline and Survival Research Labs, Henry Rollins, whose music was selected for Alex Winter’s Freaked, which I did the opening credits for…

I think punk (at it’s best – when artfully juggling noise, and not just bad music) expresses the post-expressionist, maximal frustration and physical visceral anger that cutting clay and throwing knives back into it to destroy and melt-smear it afterwards. Making huge complex clay time-woven blocks for weeks, and then cutting them under hot lights in a noisy room with constant hum…is very physical, sweaty and exhausting — performance work with no audience. Much more so than art forms like drawing animation, working at a computer or painting — these are contemplative, and generally do not break any kind of sweat.

There’s also a Cold War nightmare in the background, through the 1960s and 70s. It comes into its own in the 80s, with the Strategic Defense Initiative; oddly, I think I’m always waffling between those two poles, of seduction and abuse. Sadly, it might be Nirvana that fits best – it’s loud/soft, with beautiful melodies and grinding hard things at the same time, even though I know I was before them. With the animated flow cutaways, I’m trying to seduce, and then going to the staccato, strobing, hard things, where everything melts, is destroyed, and comes back again, it sort of fits in the self-irony of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” — it’s all a big put-on. You could allow yourself to go glitzy, and in Stratacut, things are popping all over the place in very fluid and beautiful ways. As well as kind of a nasty, dirty, edge-filled way; clay has a dark-corner-of-the-world funk on its edges you don’t wanna get rid of. I’m juggling fireworks when I do these animations: I’m asking how much information and chaos I can throw at something, as well as how structured and coherent I can make it, so people know I haven’t lost them. If I don’t ride the chaos and embrace it, it becomes kinda boring. I could use the time to perfect a Stratacut block so well it looked like still animation, but you make these artistic decisions as to where you want the fireworks, how controlled you want them.

To me, punk was too pure, and I couldn’t pretend to be that – New Wave was too synthy, so really, Nirvana hit it for me, although I was quite proud to be a part of the Peter Gabriel video. I did an ABC piece which was pure gloss, but I did it in reverse – when you know everything was done in reverse, there’s no character animation and there are no optical effects – that’s sort of going back in time. The amount we assume and know, from the 1990s on, that everything has been post-touched and post-produced, layered on after the primary image… Part of the time machine is to think, “Wow, how did you put that all into camera without any of those tricks that are so common now?” It worked, oddly, because I was using so much primary color – when you use so much clay, you’re using a lot of primary material, throwing in hundreds and hundreds of pounds of this stuff. It’s really hard to pre-color them. To go to pastels and subtle colors takes a lot of time: you gotta boil it, double-boil it, mix it up, it’s a huge set of pallette questions. I tended to do what I could with what I call “Oaxacan colors” – bled primaries, black and whites, offsetting yellows, bright yellows and dark blues. And pixellate ’em.

They took me as an artist and said, “We like what you do – can you do something for us?” I couldn’t go too far with certain things; you look at Idiot Box, the MTV show open I did for Alex Winter: I got to make this crazy alien creature blow out of the TV set, and inside his brain is a can, and inside the can is a little creature. Those kinds of things are hilarious to me. Like Buzz Box, I’d take you as far as I could take you without you dropping off. The joke between Drew and I in making it was, “How much can we throw at an audience, and how long will they sit, without walking out? Let’s take it to wherever that fine borderline is, force them to be uncomfortable in their seats, but without actually walking out.” (Laughs) Our side bet was 1 out of 20, and it wasn’t far off in the early screenings.

Acid Trip (Gary and Mike BEHIND THE SCENES (BTS) Docu footage)

It occurs to me that Stratacut is 2-and-3 dimensional at the same time

I actually don’t say it that way enough, but I’m glad you pointed that out.

Whether you’re shooting on film or with one of these super-duper HD cams, though, you’re gonna need to know your framerate ahead of time – right?
Yes. I would have a more precise understanding of what result I wanted; it’s something of a formula, where the thickness of your slice determines how the speed with which you want it to move. Smaller blocks, like 3″ by 4″, I can slice thinner. Larger ones, like the Gary and Mike Acid Trip, in 2000 – which, by the way, I think is the best thing I ever did – I needed a guillotine – it was so thick, so difficult, so heavy. You have to go thicker when you get bigger because of the sort of surface tension, the control – it doesn’t respond the same way. I had to think through the effect I wanted so I put in the slant of the speed because of that.

I’m thinking high definition is 16K. They’re barely thinking about 8K right now, but 16 is not that far off – when you realize what’s behind the curve of all these crazy resolutions it sounds like it’s a long way away, but it really isn’t; I’m talking to the people building this stuff. It’s all compression and parallel processing and graphics processing units. I would think ultimately VR, at 64K, will probably be a resolution limit where it really just won’t matter anymore. In “baked” VR, which is narrative film VR, I’m telling you an experience – as opposed to gaming VR, where you’re finding that experience, with options. You’re going from A to Z. I’m coming at it as a cinema storyteller so I’ll probably bake it, but current VR is taking all its cues from the same node right now: the center-pivot. It’s boring because you can only morph to another pivot – you can’t actually move your head around it. That’s the second revolutionary piece coming to VR. So you’ll get to see Meryl Streep eventually, not as a 2D thing – you’ll be able to look around the edges of her, so she’s actually popping out. The high resolution plus the depth will allow veracity, so you’ll be truly transported as opposed to crudely. I believe that’s a fundamental “oh fuck, what am I watching?” So much more interesting, again.

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