On Monday, September 5, 1983, legendary Pacific Northwest animation-art savant/pioneer Bruce Bickford (1947-2019) premieres a preliminary cut of his years-in-the-making Prometheus' Garden at the Bumbershoot Film Festival held in the Seattle Center Playhouse. Bickford has been making animated films for nearly two decades, but upon this stunning Clay Animation masterpiece's completion (and formal release in 1988) he will be hailed by numerous critics, film historians, and fans around the world as nothing less than an artistic genius, and even "the world's greatest animator."
Bumbershoot Film Fests
Seattle's annual late-summer music and arts festival began in 1971 as Festival '71, a project of the mayor's office that reappeared in 1972 as Festival '72. By the following year, though, the multi-day event's name had been changed to the "Bumbershoot" festival (a name whimsically referencing Seattle's reputation for frequent rainstorms and a then-obscure British term for an umbrella).
That year its five-day span drew an incredible 250,000 people to the Seattle Center grounds to see daily programming that included concert performances, art installations, and film/video presentations. Among the latter were a "Film Showing for Young People" at the Flag Plaza Pavilion; an "Invitational Videotape Showing" at the Snoqualmie Room; "Videotapes by Robert Hutchinson" at the Art Museum Pavilion; a "Video Mix" presentation of experimental videotape pieces produced by the Artists Television Workshop and KCTS-TV staff held at KCTS's headquarters on the Seattle Center campus; and a screening of Northwest-made films at the Eames Theatre in the Pacific Science Center.
Years went by, the crowds increased, and the programming evolved to the point that an actual Bumbershoot Film Festival was established. Among the innovative films selected for screening on the September 5, 1983, "Northwest Program" at the Seattle Center Playhouse (today's Intiman Theatre) were Bob Hutchinson's three-minute chalkboard animation Doubter's Passage, Joanna Priestly's The Rubber Stamp Film (whose imagery was comprised solely of rubber ink-stamps), David Schulman's satirical history film, History of Tillicum, Washington, and an unfinished piece by SeaTac -based animation master Bruce Bickford. Those folks lucky enough to attend witnessed the world premiere of an initial short-edit of Bickford's years-in-the-making 16-mm masterwork Prometheus' Garden.
Six months after Bumbershoot, filmmaker/curator Bob Hutchinson included a 13.5-minute edit of Prometheus' Garden in the Trickfilm-84 show at Seattle's Focal Point Media Center (913 E Pine Street). The Seattle-born Bickford was a self-taught pioneer of the stop-motion filmmaking technique known as "Clay Animation" in which an artist "creates the illusion of life by moving or reshaping the clay figures in tiny increments and recording it a frame at a time on movie film" (Boss). This is the same process other filmmakers have used to produce such well-known animated motion picture icons as the 1950's Gumby and Pokey kiddie-show characters and those 1980s dried-fruit industry mascots, the California Raisins. But no one had ever before done Clay Animation anything like the incredibly detail-obsessed Bickford -- and Trickfilm-84 offered Seattle attendees the world premiere of a sneak preview of what would, years later, take form as his grand opus: Prometheus' Garden.
As it happened, Seattle Times film critic John Hartl had seen the film's debut in 1983 at Bumbershoot and, quite impressed, he now enthused that Bickford's film was "dazzling ... a clay-animation spectacular in which people sprout from the ground and everything seems to go through a cycle of flowering and rotting" (Hartl, "Trickfilm …"). All true, but that's actually understating things considerably.
In fact, when Bickford finally released his completed 28-minute-long Prometheus' Garden in 1988 the film simply blew people's minds. Movie critics, film historians, and fans alike were agog over Bickford's maniacal artistry and morbid genius. Utilizing clay figures and crazily elaborate sets, cutouts, replacement series, aluminum foil, "strato-cut" slices, molten wax, and other techniques, Bickford had "made people and objects appear from and disappear to the landscape. He morphed figures relentlessly and unpredictably. A character might suddenly become the landscape and the background might suddenly become the character at any moment" (Ingram, "Prometheus' Garden"). Jon Beinart wrote:
"The dark and magical images of this haunting film unfold in a dreamlike stream of consciousness revealing an unlikely cast of clay characters engaged in a violent struggle for survival. Enchanted forests, animated torture chambers, hamburgers that morph into mythical monsters, and epic battles between giants, fairies, and anachronistic historical figures populate just a small corner of Bickford's animated universe. Like all Bickford films, Prometheus' Garden defies description and simply must be experienced" (Beinart).
Bickford "offers us a visionary landscape, a hallucinogenic retreat into magical settings," according to film scholar Michael Frierson, "where figure and ground may transform that into the other at any moment, enchanted settings in which modern technocrats are easy villains and nature is under siege" (Frierson). Mark Fulton noted that the film depicts:
"a hallucinatory-fueled paradise corrupted by machine-gunning gringo cowboys who morph into mythical beasts while naked women frolic and eviscerations are lovingly detailed … The story is loose, to say the least, and swims with intuitive dreamy logic. The titular garden is invaded by the aforementioned cowboys and Norse pirates who want to enslave the inhabitants. Rebellion and fights erupt … Metamorphosis is a chief motif/theme. Almost everything stretches, flows, and reforms. The camera tracks into a man's head that fluidly molds into several things before becoming a blue sea. It's one of the few instances in cinema I know where the elasticity of the mind and flowing thoughts are seemingly illustrated. One could argue that the cyclic transformation from death to life and perhaps beyond is the underlying foundation for all that transpires. Plants immediately grow where people are slaughtered. Myth parades with the everyday" (Fulton).
No Gumby, California Raisin Funland
In The Seattle Times, Kit Boss wrote that "the film rushes past like a stream of consciousness gushing from a fire hose. People spring from the ground and then mutate into grotesque giants, or werewolves, or plants, or a fortress. A paint palette evolves into a pizza. Always, there is more action than the eye can absorb." Boss also explained that Bickford's work utilized "the same basic technique [that] made Gumby and Pokey poke along, and the California Raisins sing and dance. [But his] animation characters are neither so famous nor so aggressively adorable, nor have they ever been exposed to a mass audience" (Boss).
Similar references to mainstream America's cultural icons were used by many other critics to contrast with Bickford's far-more-unsettling imagery. "Animation is a word usually associated with whimsy and humor" but Bickford's work "is no Gumby-and-Pokey, California Raisin funland. It's a nightmarish world of malleable madness" (Wickstrom). Film Threat wrote, "For those of you who think the California Raisins should be flushed down the toilet here is some clay animation for you. ... Expect to be shocked, amazed, and grossed out ... Highly recommended" while High Times magazine said "Imagine if Sam Peckinpah directed your favorite episode of Gumby and you'll have an idea of what Bruce Bickford can do with lumps of clay. ... I'd like to see Bickford get his hands on the California Raisins just once. The guy is amazing," and the L.A. Weekly enthused that Bickford's work is "simply the best claymation I've ever seen! Incredibly complex, twisted sequences of Gumby Goes to Hell-type animation" (Clippings).
Additional critics at various publications -- including the San Francisco Chronicle, Animation Magazine, and Animation World Journal -- also heaped praise upon Bickford's work.
An Award Winner
Prometheus' Garden went on to be named the "Best Short Subject of 1988" by John Hartl and was Festival Winner at the Portland, Oregon, Northwest Film and Video Festival that year. In fact, the undeniably bizarre film "is now regarded as not just one of the greatest Claymation films ever made, but a masterpiece in its own right. Without a traditional plot or central characters, Prometheus' Garden is the bastard child of surrealism, while at the same time anticipating the highly subjective work now being celebrated within contemporary art circles today" ("Slated!").
In time Bickford was lauded by animation experts as a pioneer, a genius -- indeed, even as "the world's greatest animator" ("Endless Summer ..."). But of all the accolades offered up to Prometheus' Garden -- which was released commercially on DVD by Bright Eye Pictures in early 2008 -- it was perhaps Kit Boss of The Seattle Times who nailed the crux of the matter with this insight: "Like Prometheus, the mythical god who took earth and water and made man, Bickford breathes life into lumps of clay" (Boss).