In 2001, Channel 4 television, in the UK, broadcast a 20-part sci-fi short animation series called ‘Workgroup Alpha’. It starred Ed Bishop and dealt with a team of inter-dimensional consultants, lost on an intergalactic space mission. Bishop, with his association as Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s cult TV hit ‘UFO’, was ideally cast as Aquarius, the Enterprise Class Visionary, who with his fellow travellers explored “a whole new dimension in universal solutions”.
Though there is the passing hint of Frederick Pohl’s satirical sci-fi classic ‘The Space Merchants’, which imagined a world run by ad agencies, ‘Workgroup Alpha’ offered an intelligent and witty critique of the growing cultural obsession with corporate speak, focus groups, PR consultants, and all those other anemic constructs that have depersonalized our world.
The end credit to the series was attributed to the Butler Brothers, the name by which John and Paul Butler operate. Paul is the co-producer, writer and conceptual consultant. John is writer, designer, animator, composer, co-producer, and director.
I first heard about the Butler Brothers through friends, though it was always John Butler who attracted the most attention. His name was mentioned with that hushed reverential tone and nodding head of respect that said we had touched on some sacred matter. It made Butler seem almost mythical – a great creative artist who lived somewhere (no one seemed quite sure where, or if they did, didn’t say), a garret most likely, where he created, with help from his brother, these incredible digital animations, of such intelligence and imagination.
I thought at the time, this is how the locals of Montmartre and Montparnasse must have behaved, when they whispered to each other about the artists creating works of art in their Parisian, attic studios, at the turn of the last century.
When I speak with John, the analogy chimes closely, as he states his ambition is “To paint a picture of the world.” And then adds his fear is, “Running out of paint.”
It’s a statement that best sums Butler up – he’s artistic, ambitious, intense, honest, imaginative, genuine, creative and witty. He’s a real talent, which in these cloned days is a rare and precious thing – something John is aware.
“As an artist, I suppose my philosophy is composed of what interests me. I’m interested in what happens in the world and why. I’m not really interested in making art from or about art.
“I’m interested in human utility in the drone age. Human redundancy in the unmanned economy. I’m interested in the war between Finance and Humans.
“I’m interested in the Universal Transaction Space we all now inhabit.”
Hearing these clipped, bold, statements, it comes as no surprise that John’s favoured tomes are J. K. Galbraith’s ‘New Industrial State’ and Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle – that brutal novel of life in the meat packing industry.
John also has a penchant for French Literature and Michael Hudson, the economic historian, who he regards as: “one of the best guides to the way things are” while from the French, he claims, Balzac “tells you how much it costs.”
The Butler Brothers’ work is speculative science fiction that deals with the here and now. It is like a video of the horrors of Guantanamo Bay filmed in a shopping mall.
“Speculative fiction is important because the future seems to be behind us, and nothing lies ahead. We’re just waiting for the next upgrade.
“That is the essence of contemporary culture. It’s designed to disable the imagination.”
He describes himself as an “electronic artist” – someone who makes sound and vision using computers. Butler is like the John Carpenter of the Digital Animation World – writing, producing, directing, designing, animating, and composing the music for all of the Brothers’ computer graphic videos.
“I do these things all at once, as I tend to feel my way through a project. This is a typical writer / painter mode of working. I only figure out where it’s going half way through. This approach is not much use if you are commanding resources and directing people, so I prefer to do it myself.
“The advantage is that doing the wrong thing leads to discovery.”
“I make computer graphic videos rather than animations. They are narrative but are more like Power Point writ large than CGI films. I’m trying to make something like the Chamber of Commerce propaganda cartoons John Sutherland made in the fifties. It’s about pushing CGI sideways rather than forward.”
John originally studied drawing and painting at Art College, but he always wanted to move into something that could include music and, later on, narrative. It seemed inevitable that he would move towards animation.
The subject of his college thesis was Edgard Varèse, the pioneering composer who used a tape recorder as a compositional tool. He also made what was probably the first multimedia installation, the ‘Poem Electronique’ in 1958, the seminal collaboration with Le Corbusier and Philips Electric (they supplied the 225 loudspeakers).
This idea of synthesis between form and medium is key to Butler’s work, something he was introduced to in childhood. His father was an industrial cameraman and film-maker for Ferranti, the electrical engineering and avionics firm that had factories in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Through his father, John had access to magazines such as ‘Aviation Week’, ‘Space Technology’ and ‘American Cinematographer’, which has given him a language that has seeped into his work. It is akin to J. G. Ballard’s “invisible literature” – those scientific and medical journals that informed Ballard’s writing, or the way Thomas Pynchon wrote manuals for the BOMARC anti-aircraft missile that later shaped ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.
More recently, Butler has used the language of commerce and economics, in particular ‘Forbes Magazine’. He cites a recent example:
“Delcath’s chief executive, Eamonn Hobbs, and chief medical officer, Krishna Kandarpa, said in an interview that the study was designed around a written agreement with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of New Drugs, and that the lack of a survival benefit occurred because patients who failed in the control group got Delcath’s therapy.”
“I like the term ‘lack of a survival benefit’. It means they died.”
“Can you really believe there’s a company called Delcath? It’s pure Philip K. Dick.
“It’s those euphemisms that create the secret language of business, which I like so much. That’s why my dialogue is so stylised, I’m not trying to show how people really talk, I’m trying to channel the argot of commerce through them.
“I think that in about twenty years, we will all talk presentational English.”
His other childhood influences include Don Lawrence’s illustrations for Mike Butterworth’s ‘Trigan Empire’, which he read when it was first serialized in Look and Learn’ – the weekly educational magazine for kids. And understandably, for someone growing up in the sixties, the early Dr. Who, Star Trek and all of Gerry Anderson’s work, from ‘Stingray’ via ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet’ through to ‘UFO’. It was as much the originality of these programmes as their subject matter that appealed, “There was no such thing as remakes or postmodernism. It was all brand new.”
Splice in a little Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and Frederick Pohl, John Carpenter, ‘This Island Earth’ and Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass’, and you’ll start to see the genetic material of John’s DNA.
However, it was a more recent work of science fiction that had an epihanic effect on Butler, namely Ed Neumeier’s work with Paul Verhoeven on the films ‘Robocop’ and the ‘Starship Troopers’.
“‘Robocop’ showed me that art could include everything. Politics, humour, experiment, excitement, beauty. That’s where the Butler Brothers brand comes from, they were a games company in that film.”
John works with seven computers on two desks in the spare room of his West End flat.
“It’s more of a render allotment than render farm,” he says.
“I always thought that was the point of having personal computer systems and home studios. You can create your own work independently rather than seek authorization to command resources. You can also improvise and explore freely.
“The disadvantage is that you’ll never achieve the production values that are so important today, but I’m happy to do without.
“I’ve never really been one to draw up a detailed plan / storyboard and then execute it exactly, though I do script things like motion capture and voice recording sessions.
“I don’t use live video at all, which I would compare to sampling. I prefer 3D, which I think of as synthesis.”
The Butler Brothers’ most recent work is a sequel to their excellent, yet disturbing, ‘Darkness Seed’. Called ‘Children of the Null’ it limns uncanny parallels between our current obsessions with technology and social networks, and their hidden costs on individual freedom. In the Butler Brothers’ world our modern technology has a more sinister purpose, it is used to “reaggregate” children as food for an alien parasite.
John describes the outcome as “quite horrific”, but though his view may be dystopian, he thinks it a fair assessment of our world.
“I was thinking of the way that, after 30 years of desocialisation, social media is reaggregating us into a more useful form via Facebook and its ilk. I’m convinced social media has been designed to kill off the peer to peer movement.”
For John the need to critically examine the world we live in is a given, and it is one way to tell the truth of what is really going on.
It was the same for those artists of Montmartre and Montparnasse, for once they had shown the world ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, it would never be the same. Similarly, once you have watched a Butler Brothers film, you will never view the world in the same way again.
Images copyright © Butler Brothers 2010, used with kind permission