JOHN BUTLER: INTERVIEW
If you’ve not heard of John Butler, then I’d encourage you to set aside half an hour of your time to investigate the back catalogue of one of Britain’s most important animation artists.
Based in Glasgow, John has been working with CGI software for almost 20 years and in that time has developed a unique and powerful body of work. His dystopian visions – notably the ongoing episodic masterpiece “Descention” - began life 15 years ago as speculative fiction but increasingly seems like a dark and prescient contemporary satire.
I’m slightly in love with John’s work, so I asked him to answer some questions and he kindly agreed. Here you go.
CGWTF: Hi John. Can I ask a bit more about your background? When and how did you first start making animation? And ‘The Butler Brothers’ - is this you and your actual brother, or a misleading pseudonym?
JB: I used the Amiga early on, but started working in TV facilities as a Quantel paintbox/editbox operator, making lots of TV graphics. I had tapes distributed by Film & Video Umbrella and started to show in video art festivals and the occasional gallery. What I really wanted to do was create my own work for television rather than the gallery. I had a couple of commissions for Channel 4: “B-Creatures” and “Workgroup Alpha” in '99.
“Butler Brothers” is a fictional games company in “Robocop”, so I had to assume that identity.
CGWTF: Ah, OK. Having never seen Robocop that passed me by, but it makes sense that you’d be a fan because of the recurring themes in your work, specifically the overlap between corporations, industry and the military. Where does this interest come from?
JB: My father used to make industrial films for the avionics industry, so the house was always littered with magazines like “Flight International” and “Aviation Week & Space Technology”. The latter has great corporate language, which has seeped deep into my work. I have an ingrained aerospace aesthetic which I am reconciled to. The seepage of military technology/ideology from the military to the civilian sphere is also part of it. “Refusnik” draws a line between military robotics and retail cybernetics, from Darpa to Amazon.
“The Barrier” is along these lines. The building with the nose cone sticking out of it was the view from our living room window.
“The building with the nose cone sticking out of it was the view from our living room window.”
CGWTF: That image from “The Barrier” is so vivid – I’m blown away that it began in real life. That’s fascinating. What was it for?
JB: Glad you asked that… Our house, when we were growing up in Edinburgh, was opposite the Ferranti factory, where my dad worked. Ferranti made avionics, and they had the nose cone of a Buccanear sticking out of a blockhouse for testing. This was the view from our living room window, and I decide to reconstruct it from memory as no photograph exists. Was worried about the radiation in those days.
The first image in that piece is the submarine barrier across the firth of forth, which still stands. That was my take on the cold war archeology sub genre.
CGWTF: Like me, you split your time between commercial and personal work. I find it the commercial side of my work really informs my artistic output and I wondered whether you work in the same way? For example, something like “Responsibililty” looks and feels like a corporate film. Spotting where it diverges is where it gets interesting. Is this stylistic appropriation a response to commercial commissions?
JB: If I did not do commercial work, I might not make anything at all. I used to steal time on systems and recycle real jobs endlessly, just as a way of making work before the days of affordable computing. Things like trade show exhibition loops are an example of a form I can readily use. “The Ethical Governor” is the most obvious example. I love looking at game cinematics as a form of synthetic cinema. VFX breakdowns are fascinating as well. Your “Spherical Harmonics” looks in that direction. I love films but my work has nothing to do with that industry.
“Responsibility” was a demo pitch (the first scene) for an academic animation job that never went ahead. I liked it myself and tried to hint at some latent narrative. “B-Creatures” was a lot like that. The secret life of archviz people. I’m looking for the poetry in the Powerpoint presentation.
CGWTF: Digital humans are very present in your work - for some reason I imagine you look like the guy in “Descention”, who also looks like the guy in “Responsibility”. Is it based on you? Do you use motion capture?
JB: I love using mocap, as my animation abilities are limited, and it has a realism I like. I did some sessions at home with a Kinect (the kicking the horse actions, stacking, crouching). I look nothing like that guy, but I might end up bolted to the floor of a fulfilment centre.
CGWTF: Ha! A lot of digital artists hate this next question but I think it’s really important: what software do you use? What’s your workflow? What interests you about the software you use?
JB: I use 3dsMax 2014 with Vray3, I have the usual plugins like FumeFX, Forest Pro, Bones Pro (a good one, makes skinning almost possible). I use Marvelous designer for clothing, Modo for some modelling, and After Effects and Premier Pro to put things together. Started using Digital Fusion as well. I make most of the sound in Reason and Ableton Live. What I really like is text to speech synthesis. I like the idea of writing a line and putting it directly into the edit. It’s the echo in Uncanny Valley.
"What I really like is text to speech synthesis, It’s the echo in Uncanny Valley.“
JB: My workflow is pretty chaotic. "Zerotime” was the result of me testing out Max’s then-new dynamic system, as well as Reason 2’s orchestral sounds. I also wondered if I could make something with just one mocap clip. I tend to do something, and then try to figure out what it means. Not recommended for anyone working in the industry, I might add. I like Max because it’s familiar to me, and has always had the biped system for easy mocap integration. The plugins around it are where the innovation really is.
CGWTF: Your work has a lot of sheen to it but for me that makes it easier to spot the traces of the software, like in your cloth simulation (the texture of which I love). What’s your tolerance towards noise and error in CGI? Are you a perfectionist or do you let some errors through?
JB: I’m not a perfectionist at all. The overall composition is more important to me than getting hung up on details. Having said that, things that are wrong tend to just look wrong. Happy accidents are less frequent than in other media, I think. I have seen people do the wrong thing in the right way, like Ian Cheng. I like that sort of thing, but it’s a world away from my style, which is very conventional in a way.
The cloth sims look like that because of my system limitations, and my deciding that I like that look. I’ll let errors through so long as they don’t shatter the world. I got a great error in Golem, when he says “They keep any eye on you here, but that’s OK, it’s attention of a kind”. For some reason there is a small laugh in the phrase, which is just a glitch, but I pounced on it as a great discovery.
(skip to 8:50 to hear what John is talking about)
CGWTF: Your work has a lot in common with the films of Ed Atkins, Claudia Mate or Jonathan Monaghan, but somehow it’s exists in a parallel universe. Do you pitch your work in a certain way, and if so, to whom? Is your audience primarily at festivals, in galleries or online?
JB: I suppose I must inhabit a parallel universe. I think the online world is a valid public space, so I utilize it. I seem to exist in between categories, that’s all I can say… I think I’ve shown abroad far more than the UK. Latest screening was at the Philip K. Dick film festival in NY. I think linear narrative and gallery might be a bad match, but film festivals are another thing altogether.
CGWTF: You’ve recently re-edited your films into a new supercut. Was this always the idea? Do you revisit your work or alter it after it’s been published?
JB: “Zerotime” was made in 2003, but I remade it recently for HD and where it had flock of birds, it now has drones.
CGWTF: But you were interested in drones ages ago, right? Way before they were a hot topic in arts circles!
JB: The drone first appeared in “Masque” in 2006, I think. I consider the drone to be the emblem of our age, the concrete manifestation of neoliberal ideology. It eliminates the human, in the interests of efficiency and cost reduction.
“I consider the drone to be the emblem of our age, the concrete manifestation of neoliberal ideology. It eliminates the human, in the interests of efficiency and cost reduction.”
JB: When it comes to revisiting older works, I just wanted to make it match recent work in resolution and look, but would always rather do something new. I made four short anims, but it made sense to join them into a longer one. Pulp SF writers used to join short stories into novels just to fill the longer format. I screened Descention to an audience, and I liked the deeper involvement you can get with a longer piece. I’m working on the next chapters right now.
CGWTF: Thanks for answering my questions, John. I can’t wait to see where “Descention” goes from here. Good luck!