Who better to make the show open for David Blaine’s new magic special than our industry’s own leading magicians?
At this point, what’s left to be said about Buck? Since 2012, they’ve been an unstoppable force that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Regardless of what type of work you’re into, Buck does it and they do it well: 3D Character animation? How about this, that and these. Traditional 2D-animation? Yep and yep. Abstract 3D? That too. 2D and graphic? Check, check and check. What about Stop-motion and puppets? Brain-bending and psychedelic? Mhmm. How about tonal and heavy? Oh and you can’t forget the variety show approach here, there, and everywhere.
You get the picture…
In the following Q&A, we hear from the two top dogs at Buck NY, Orion Tait and Thomas Schmid, on Buck’s “all hands on deck” approach and making the impossible possible for David Blaine in “Spectacle of the Real”.
Q&A with Orion Tait and Thomas Schmid
Can you tell us what the initial brief for this project looked like?
Orion: There wasn’t a formal brief. David and his director Matthew came to our office to brief us. It was a very free-form conversation followed by some sweet card tricks.
David had seen our Goodbooks piece and loved how visceral and trippy that is. He also brought some of his big gorgeous magic books full of old posters, photographs and broadsheets. Matthew talked a lot about wanting the animation to help establish a mythology, which was a throughline and I think even a working title for the show.
At first, it was meant to be an interlude in the middle of the show, but eventually it turned into the open. David talked about how his heroes were these freaks from the weirder side of magic — people who pushed the limits of what’s possible for humans. Sword swallowers, human aquariums, fire-breathers, stone eaters–that kind of sideshow magic. Forgotten performers that learned to push their bodies to such limits that we question our own reality.
Matthew talked about how we’re all belief engines and pattern seekers and David makes us uncomfortable, creating cognitive dissonance. How science and mysticism are historically linked.
The more we all riffed on this line of thinking in the first couple meetings, our mutual attraction to surrealism and psychedelia started to come into focus and provide a path forward.Then we shared DMT stories.
Who or what were your inspirations?
Orion: It was a super wide-ranging for sure. The was a big pile of books in our conference room, starting with David’s magic books that kept getting added to until it was a pretty weird mix.
Thomas: Yeah, the books were key for me. They ranged from collections of weird alchemy/mysticism drawings, fantastical manuscripts, interstellar comics, to classic psych stuff. As we would sit down for dailies reviews or take breaks from the computer, we’d pilfer through them and allow the styles to seep in.
The way we process large, printed illustration is so different than finding some cool ref online. The brain has to assess different stimuli and try to build a connection to the work by different means. Often, this entails solving illustration problems through a singular image, and I tend to dig into my subconscious more.
We also discussed the psychedelic experience a lot, a DMT experience, for example. There’s good correlation between seeing a magic trick and experiencing a trip.
Surrealism and psychedelics are great mechanisms for presenting imagery that washes over you and resonates because it’s conjured from our unconscious. At the same time, the images are far enough removed from a literal meaning to allow the viewer to question the imagery and form his/her opinion.
This, to me, spoke volumes to how I feel when I see David perform. I don’t really know what to make of what I am seeing I’m trying to attach meaning and fit it into some sort of reality construct but it’s better left nebulous.
During the development phase did you present a range of options or get behind a single direction from the start?
Orion: we started with storyboard, and presented a few different sequence ideas, but once we got into design it was pretty much one direction that evolved as we went on.
It all had to move so fast, it was cool to watch the style evolve organically (even into animation!) as more people jumped in.
Thomas: We started playing with imagery that stemmed from alchemy, mysticism, and tarot. I had just finished “The Incal” (which is Jodo and Moebius’s ode to the tarot) and Umberto Eco’s “In the Name of the Rose.” I had carried over a lot of that energy into our early storyboards.
But as we started to really dig our heels into the surreal/psychedelic angle, a lot of the imagery started to shift and shed its more coded/spiritual side.
As for dialing into a specific look, I think we hit the look pretty damn quick. It was a scary schedule. At first, I thought it was impossible and I wanted to express that to David, but how do you tell a magician that something is “impossible.”
But, we knew that we wanted to get into rendering, being inspired by the painterly pieces in the magic books, and also looking at a lot of that awesome art from the psychedelic era. There’s something to airbrushed or painterly rendering that just immediately places you in the realm of psychedelic art.
A lot of the stuff that really inspired us was Alex Grey, Philippe Caza, Mati Klarwein, Robert Beatty, and Moebius.
What did the production of this film look like and how much time were you working with?
Orion: It was crazy. I think it was about 8 weeks. There were probably more all-nighters than the last couple years of projects combined.
Thomas: So true. But it helps when everyone’s stoked on the job and are willing to put in the time.
The craziest part was that our design team was small, since the look was so specific. So animators were getting their final styleframes right before cleanup started and only had a layout sketch to start animation.
That, for me, was like trying to keep up with a bullet train.
With magic comes some clichéd imagery: top-hats, rabbits, doves, etc. I was pleasantly surprised at how well you avoided many of those tropes and truly created something unexpected. Can you tell us a bit about the thought process that went into this film?
Thomas: Matthew wanted the animation to present David’s mythology and avoid literal representation. David’s approach is very visceral, and messes with your perception in a way that feels very personal.
This is why he performs in close proximity and films his work like a guerrilla documentary crew. He wants you to internalize the imagery and jostle it around your head.
We tossed all that standard magic imagery aside, because as soon as you see those symbols it takes you out of yourself and blocks your ability to relate. We were more interested in creating imagery that was more mysterious but also familiar, so that our viewers could latch onto it want to unpack the experience for themselves.
There is a pretty big celebrity presence in this project, what was it like meeting David Blaine and Christopher Walken!?
Thomas: It was easy as pie. Those two just wanted to work and collaborate. I even remember David being the super nervous one in our kickoff meeting.
What was it like directing Christopher Walken?
Thomas: There’s no such thing. One doesn’t direct Christopher Walken. ;)
But seriously, I was really impressed by his method. We showed up to his house, and immediately he ushered us into his studio and started hashing stuff out.
He was really focused on finding his way into the script and after several reads and many questions, ultimately he kinda just rewrote it for himself (which was a little hair raising for us on the day of the recording, especially considering Paul Auster had written it).
But it was the right call. He needed to find his approach, and the result really surprised us.
We were expecting something really saucy, gritty, dark, and mysterious. But Chris delivered it as if he were workshopping it to himself in the mirror, a more inquisitive and calm read. I think it came out that way cause between reads, we would spend a half hour discussing David’s magic, explaining how uncomfortable it made him feel, and how he was struggling to understand the motivation to David’s work.
It was clear that David’s magic was a conversation to Chris, and that seeped into the way he rewrote the lines and delivered them. His conversational levity really shifted the tone of the animation, and changed our approach to story and visuals.
Technically, can you speak to what the workflow was like? Did you heavily previz each scene or were you working predominantly from pencil tests?
Thomas: We definitely leaned on previs for a few scenes, namely the bullet, cave, and fish performance. But we really wanted this to be a traditionally animated spot as much as possible.
There are so many amazing moments throughout. Can you tell us which moment is your favorite and which was the hardest to pull off?
Orion: For me, it’s probably what we referred to as the anal spore sequence: “He would dazzle us, and then of course we’d think he was a fake.”
This scene was partly meant to conjure that uncomfortable WTF feeling after experiencing one of David’s tricks. Narratively, it’s also the ordeal, death, rebirth scene — our hero expanding his consciousness and pushing through to the other side. Or more literally, it could be seen as David using and abusing his body for our entertainment.
It’s such a sweet sequence of animation, a beautiful mix of concept, abstraction and character performance, and a great example of that Buck alchemy: a bunch of talented artists contributing openly to make gold.
The scene also gets at what I personally love about animation: a means to visualize and externalize something internal, like a feeling or a dream.
Thomas: Yeah, same here. It really nailed an important arc in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” and the visuals are very tuned to the animator’s personality and taste, the one and only Kyle Mowat. We try to keep certain artists while storyboarding and cater to their talents and tastes.
For me, another favorite was the first scene, where the compositing phase really shines. Usually, when we finish clean up (after pencil tie-downs), the comp stage is typically served to put textural flourish and finishing touches.
But our comp team decided that in order to achieve fidelity to the styleframes, they recreated a majority of the shapes using After Effects shape layers and tossed out the cel cleanup (which was a bit of a bummer at first).
But I’m glad they had the courage to do it, cause it definitely looks really crispy and creates an attention to graphic form that I seldom see in cel animation.
As alluded to above, I don’t think that anyone can argue with Buck’s prominence in the industry. You all are obviously doing a lot of things right, but one thing I like to attribute Buck’s success to is your “all hands on deck” approach.
Having witnessed it first hand, once a project is green-lit and the troops are rallied, the impossible tends to become possible. Can you tell us a bit about this phenomenon as well as the culture and views behind the work at Buck?
Thomas: Orion, I totally defer to you on this one cause you’re the Gardener.
Orion: Ha. They tried to bury us, but didn’t realize we were seeds. Shout out to the Buck Massive, as Thomas calls us.
This project was definitely cool to witness, in terms of what’s possible given the right circumstances. Also, a big shout-out to Antfood. There’s a whole other conversation worth having about their creative process for this project, which shares a lot with our own.
But to answer the question: Yeah, I do think we’ve gotten really good at group work. People pay lip service to collaboration, but you really do have to believe in it and respect each other for collaboration to work.
We’ve all seen it go both ways; you can either fan the flames of creativity, letting in oxygen, allowing for new ideas that build off each other, or you can smother it, death by committee. It takes self-confidence, which requires trust and safety.
There are just so many talented people here with the confidence and security to push into new creative territory and allow others to share in their work. That said, it’s more of an art form than a formula.
Thomas: Chauncey Gardner says, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”
Lastly, with this project behind you, what’s next?
ORION: Just waiting for a Depends product demo to award. For real.
THOMAS: Exercise. I ate too many Cheetos and space cookies.
Directed By: Buck
Executive Creative Director: Orion Tait
Creative Director: Thomas Schmid, Daniel Oeffinger
Executive Producer: Anne Skopas
Senior Producer: Kevin Hall
Production Coordinator: Alexi Yeldezian
Storyboard: Justin Fines, Olivia Blanc, Thomas Schmid
Design: Daniel Oeffinger, Jaedoo Lee, Justin Fines, Lucas Brooking, Olivia Blanc, Thomas Schmid, Yeojin Shin, Yker Moreno
Cel Animation: Benjy Brooke, Gonzalo Menevichian, Harry Teitelman, Jake Armstrong, Jaedoo Lee, Kyle Mowat, Olivia Blanc, Thomas Schmid, Tim Beckhardt, William Trebutien, Yeojin Shin
After Effects Animation/Composite: Andreas Bjoern Hansen, Alex Perry, Daniel Oeffinger, Fede Reano, Rasmus Bak, Wei Shen Wang, Yeojin Shin, Jaedoo Lee
3D Animation: Arvid Volz, Bill Burg, Bill Dorais, Chris Phillips, John Karian, Tao Ye
Editor: Chad Colby, Daniel Oeffinger