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Bruce Bickford's Prometheus' Garden

Wars of clay

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The mighty fingers of Bruce Bickford, at work in his world - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIGHT EYE PICTURES

"I don't have any realistic goals—at least right now I don't." So said the eccentric, endearing animator Bruce Bickford in Monster Road, the acclaimed 2005 documentary about him directed by Greensboro filmmaker Brett Ingram.

Bickford's tone was urgent, as though he's half-explaining and half-pleading to the man with the video camera, especially as he continued. "If I got to where I was self-sufficient, maybe then I would have some realistic goals. Right now, I'm just trying to keep busy, to keep animating, to keep putting things together and try and get some of my stories out there and get people interested in them."

Apparently, Ingram took the cue: Bright Eye Pictures, Ingram's one-man company that produced Monster Road, has released Bickford's Prometheus' Garden, a quixotic 28-minute stop-motion animation film that the Seattle artist made two decades ago. Part creation story and part battle lore, Bickford's colorful clay figures spill into one another, morphing into unlikely shapes and forms: Humans become a meat lover's pizza; soil becomes human.

The newly released Prometheus' Garden features a freshly commissioned score from Laird Dixon, the Carrboro musician who scored Monster Road with his instrumental atmospheric band Shark Quest. The DVD also includes a documentary featurette, Luck of a Foghorn, which is a 28-minute condensation of Monster Road that focuses on Bickford's creation of Garden.

Ingram hopes this is just the first in a series of releases for Bickford, an artist always more concerned with constructing his self-made universes than selling them. Bickford has more than two hours of animation that's also ready for release, but those films just need scores. As he did with Prometheus' Garden, Ingram's considering goading those projects to completion as well.

"I'm not really satisfied at this point because Bruce desperately needs some income, and he has all of these films that are on the brink of completion," says Ingram, who says he will take a "small cut" from sales of Prometheus' Garden. "He can't quite finish it himself, so I feel the need to help him get that stuff out there."

Ingram's been fascinated with Bickford's work for nearly two decades. While attending UNC-Greensboro, he organized a workshop for Bickford, a guest of the school's film festival that year. So inspired by the workshop, Ingram stopped doing documentary work for several years, turning his attention to stop-motion animation instead. In 1994, he filmed his first interview with Bickford in Seattle for Monster Road, but it was six years before he could devote his attention to the project completely. Monster Road won 16 awards from film festivals, including five jury selections as "Best Documentary." The Sundance Channel aired the film six times between 2005 and 2007. Monster Road introduced Bickford's work, used by Frank Zappa for a short time in the '70s, to a new generation.

The choice of Dixon as composer was natural, given that the musician has long been taken by Bickford's work. Dixon composed the score for Monster Road in 2004. He's now also composed the score for Luck of a Foghorn, and that score also serves as the new score for Prometheus' Garden on the new DVD. Dixon's parents gave him and his brother, Kevin, blocks of clay in lieu of conventional toys when they were growing up in California.

"Our clay games were massive, and they would last for over a year, just the whole set-up of a whole world in the basement." Dixon says their worlds looked a lot like Bickford's. "I'm familiar with a lot of those guys ... I maybe even know some of their names," he explains as Ingram laughs. "Clay guys with clay swords? I had to score that, almost as if it was some kind of born, given right."

Because the figures he saw onscreen felt so close to him, Dixon labored over the score for three months. He points at pieces of Scotch tape on the monitor of his Apple laptop, sitting atop a small desk in his Carrboro bedroom. As the film played, he would make notes on the tape about the onscreen action, so that he could segment the sounds in his mind for each scene. With the exception of a few guitar passes, Dixon generated all of the sounds—64 distinct tracks of audio, layered—with his laptop and a Korg keyboard. Like a self-made classical piece, Dixon's score introduces and reintroduces tiny themes and motifs, matching the music's mood to the action onscreen. Incidentally, the original score for Prometheus' Garden was composed by Bill Bagley in 1988 using only electronics, as well. Now together on one disc, the two scores for the same film create an intriguing time capsule effect: Though the images have stayed the same, the music—and the circuits used to make it—have improved greatly.

"Maybe in 20 years there will be a whole 'nother level [of a new score]," Ingram says.

In the meantime, it seems, Bickford will go right on "trying to keep busy, to keep animating, to keep putting things together." Ingram reports that Bickford just finished his first comic book and is currently working on paintings and line animations. Bickford recently purchased an Apple computer and a digital camera.

When Dixon hears this, his eyes get wide with the possibility of seeing more clay figures he knows by name soon: "God, that's going to make it, time-wise, four times as fast."

Luck of a Foghorn plays at Orange County Social Club in Carrboro at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, followed by screenings of Prometheus' Garden at 10 and 11 p.m. Dixon and Ingram will answer questions about Bickford and the films at 10:30 p.m.

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