Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An interview with artist Rufus Butler Seder

Rufus Butler Seder, 56, is the artist behind the New York Times best-selling books Gallop!, Swing!, and Waddle!, which showcase his amazing Scanimation artwork. His books capture the charm and motion of classic flip-art books -- you know, the ones where you fan through the pages in order to see an image move across them -- but without having to actually flip the pages.

Based in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife, Penny, and their cats, Buddy and Scout, Seder started off as a filmmaker before deciding to figure out a way to create pictures that move without using motors or electricity. I was lucky enough to be able to interview him for an article in The Boston Globe Magazine late last year -- click here or on the picture at left read it. The techonology Seder created is complex and fascinating; here's a bit more about it, plus the part of the interview that didn't make it onto the Globe Magazine page:

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get your start, and what led you to where you are today?

In my youth, in Connecticut, I grew up as an artist and junior magician. My Dad, who was a reporter/photographer for the New Haven Register, taught me photography. He also loaned me his 16mm Bolex movie camera, with which I started doing animated cartoons and live action magic movies packed with camera magic. Encouraged by a few student film awards, I embarked on an early career as an independent filmmaker. I studied film at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills and locally at the Boston Museum School, where I ended up teaching film for nine years.

In the mid-1980s my interests turned to inventing methods of creating motion pictures without the use of electricity or motors. First, I came up with a glass-tiled medium I called LIFETILES, which enabled me to create life-sized "movies for the wall;" murals that appear to come to life and move realistically when the observer walks alongside them. That was a success and kept me so busy I finally left teaching film.

I've been creating LIFETILES murals for almost 20 years, and now have dozens of sizeable installations all over the world. A number of years later, using techniques different from, but related to LIFETILES, I invented and patented a number of other nifty things that deliver the illusion of movement without the use of electricity or motors: CineSpinner Animated Suncatchers, Animated rulers, animated pencil toppers -- even animated eyeglass frames. In the year 1999, with Penny, I formed a company, Eye Think, Inc., to manufacture and sell these unique creations worldwide. People seem to like the stuff: Eye Think, Inc. is based in Waltham, MA and growing each year. One of the most successful things I invented was a paper greeting card I called a "Smart Move Card" with a picture that came to life and moved when you opened it. GALLOP!, SWING! and WADDLE! work on this same principle. You can see my LIFETILES murals in motion and all my other stuff at www.eyethinkinc.com.

What's Scanimation?
The simple answer to the question, "How does it work?" is "It's Magic!" But a more detailed answer is that it's similar to one of those flip books every kid knows. A flip book has dozens of different drawings of a subject in different positions, and when you flip the pages the pictures seem to come to life and move -- the ball bounces, the bird flies, etc. Well, to create Scanimation(r), I figured out how to scramble all those flip book pages together and print them onto ONE page. Over that, I lay a sheet of thin clear plastic printed with a black "picket fence" pattern on top of the scrambled image. The picket fence blocks out all of the scrambled image except one of the drawings. When you open the book, the picket fence slides across the face of the scrambled image, showing the first drawing, then the next drawing, then the next... And your brain puts it together and makes motion out of it!

Scientists today still don't know exactly how the heck it works, but that hasn't stopped artists from doing it. Without it, there'd be no television or movies, and then where would we be?
Did you draw a lot of flip-books as a kid?

Like any junior artist, I drew, painted, sculpted, did photography. But rather than playing with flipbooks, I dove straight into creating animated cartoons with my Dad's 16mm Bolex movie camera. My transformation from animated cartoonist to live action film director happened quite suddenly: Once I did hundreds of drawings on paper for an animation, filmed them with the Bolex, then sent the film off to be processed. During the interim, I threw all my drawings away -- after all, they were gonna come back as a movie, right? But when the film came back, it was black-- I'd made a mistake and there was no image on it at all. After that, I decided to do movies using only real people and things as my subjects. You can't throw those away so easily!

Your newest picture book, Waddle! just hit stores; your other books, Gallop! and Swing! are New York Times bestsellers. What was your inspiration for them?

For the past few weeks, Waddle!'s been on the New York Times list as well (number five this
week). Gallop! is now printed in more than 16 languages. My publisher tells me the success of my books is unprecedented and actually kept them from firing people when the recession hit!

My father likes to say that luck is defined as "opportunity meets preparedness." Well, I certainly was prepared when opportunity knocked. Three years ago, I was approached by Workman's newly-hired Children's Books editor Raquel Jaramillo, who had seen my Smart Move Cards at our Eye Think, Inc. booth at the New York Gift Fair. My cards already featured a number of
animals, such as a horse, dog and cat, and Raquel's idea was simply to combine my existing designs into a kids' book. That became Gallop!.
I had also created a number of sports-themed animations that led, in part, to the creation of Swing! which features kids doing sports activities. Interestingly, Waddle!, which features more animals (but this time in color), was originally planned to follow Gallop!, instead of Swing!. But Gallop! was so successful we decided to hold off and let it run its course first.
I consider Raquel an equal partner in the creation of these books: She's really more than an editor to me. She designs the book jackets and the look of the text. Honestly, without her considerable input, there would probably be no text at all!

Where can we see more of your art?
I have permanent LIFETILES installations in two locations in the Boston area: I did an Olympic themed mural for the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center as well as a giant "living scrapbook" featuring moving, changing pictures of Reggie Lewis, the Celtics and his family.
There's another LIFETILES mural on the eighth floor of the Children's Floating Hospital at the entrance to the kid's activity center called "Ace's Place." That mural features Boston Bruin Ace Bailey on an icy pond knocking a puck at you while, nearby, an ice skating girl spins. Other LIFETILES murals are in zoos, aquariums, museums, train and subway stations and other public places around the world.

In Boston, you can also see smaller gallery-sized LIFETILES works at L'Attitude Gallery on Newbury Street. You can also see my other animated gifts and toys at the ICA shop, Harper
and Faye Gallery on State Street and, in Cambridge, at Joie de Vivre. I've licensed one of my patents to American Greetings, which has just come out with a family of animated Greeting Cards using it, and I'm developing a couple of cool, new plastic optical animation toys that I hope to introduce early next year.
Do you have a favorite among your creations?
That may be like asking a parent which of their kids is their favorite. When designing a LIFETILES mural or a Scanimation(r), I work and rework it until the thing finally seems to come to life. It's tough, often heartbreaking work. A lot of failure. There is no easy birth! So, after finally wrestling a successful Scanimation(r) into the world, I have to love it. I feel pretty much the same way about everything I've created.

What are you working on right now?
Star Wars Scanimation(r)! That's right, kids -- a dozen of the most memorable moments from the Star Wars movies! Luke fighting Darth Vader, the Death Star exploding, Yoda twirling his light saber -- all that and more. It was made possible by a collaboration between Workman Publishing and Lucas Licensing; that book should come out in the spring of 2010.

What would you try to do, if time and money were no objects?
Golly, good question. Now that I think about it, hey -- I guess I'm already doing it!

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