Artist & Animator Matthias Brown Leans Into the Power of Process

15 Jan, 2024 | Admin | No Comments

Artist & Animator Matthias Brown Leans Into the Power of Process

What makes a great artist? It is a lofty question, no doubt, with many answers, non-answers, and half-answers in between. And while there’s no definitive formula for great art, no silver bullet for creative genius, certain qualities are common denominators. For me, constant experimentation and genuine creative curiosity are core tenets for great artistic minds who continuously explore visual worlds in new ways fueled by an insatiable drive to discover. I recently came upon the work of animator and mixed media artist Matthias Brown, who epitomizes this mentality.

Under the nom de plume TraceLoops, Brown is on a glorious journey of visual experimentation through his animation practice, in which he deploys various tools and techniques that he’s constantly pushing in new and innovative directions. Perusing his body of work is a thrilling experience, as you can chart his evolution as an artist over time, seeing what styles or tools he’s using for a period before morphing in a different direction for a spell. Brown also composes the music accompanying his animations, creating immersive sensory worlds in a bite-sized form.

Captivated by both Brown’s stunning work and the audacious mind behind his creations, I felt compelled to learn more. His thoughtful reflections on his background and ethos as an artist are below.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Why stop motion? How did you first come to this process, and what do you enjoy so much about it?

In, I think, fifth grade, I took a week-long summer class that was generally about using some computer programs—Photoshop, Premier, Macromedia Flash—and I enjoyed making things move. I also made flip books during year-end standardized testing in middle school when we were only allowed a book for when we were done. 

When making animations in Flash, tweening always looked bad, so I would do mostly frame-by-frame animation. I’m not sure what I do now is exactly “stop motion.” I do some work that takes an object, moves it, photographs it, and then moves and photographs it again, but the shift is meant to advance to a preexisting frame. I think of stop motion as progressively repositioning or augmenting an element and not replacing it all at once.

I like things that re-contextualize an understanding of information. Animation constantly jumps from one state to another, and what you perceive is never what you see. It’s flashes of information that compile into a sense of motion. It’s a very time-consuming process that gets crunched down into fractions of seconds that gain new meaning when reformatted. I struggle sometimes to be clear in words. I can talk and talk about an idea that feels very direct and concise, but when the idea is realized, it communicates better than I can. A complex, perhaps bloated, collection of ideas and processes crunched down into fractions of seconds that are understood.

I never want to feel like I can’t share how something is done for fear that it will be the end of my ability to create work…I have learned from people who share and I appreciate that I might be able to do the same for others.

Matthias Brown

Looking at the evolution of your experimentation is such a fun way to experience your process. Is laying out your work sequentially like this on social media intentional, or did you stumble into it? How did this sharing process come about?

I really like process. There’s a quote I think about often that gets attributed to different people: “A joke is like a frog: there are few who want to dissect it, and the frog dies in the process.”

I’m a comedy nerd. In middle and high school, I used to download audio recordings of Comedy Central Presents episodes and burned CDs that I would fall asleep while listening to. I wanted to know why things were and weren’t funny with slight changes. I get the sentiment of the quote, but I wouldn’t say I like to leave things unknown. For me, the joke doesn’t die when dissected; it takes on new meaning while broadening the scope of possibilities.

IIn that same summer course, when learning about the basics of Photoshop, the teacher showed us work from Jerry Uelsmann, who would make surreal photographs in darkrooms, combining imagery from several negatives into one final image. Uelsmann published books on his processes, which felt like a sharing of knowledge, a means of documenting work, and letting go of being too precious about techniques. I never want to feel like I can’t share how I’ve done something for fear that it will end my ability to create work. Some people hold on to techniques and are very successful, but I don’t like that idea. I have learned from people who share and appreciate that I can do the same for others.

What’s your process for composing the music that accompanies each video you’re creating? Do you create the visuals, and then the music is produced in response, or vice versa? Or are they made simultaneously, each informing the other?

I started making music when I started doing more live streams. During early COVID, streaming platforms began cracking down on the use of licensed music; it used to be a lot more lax. I started making simple note patterns with a drum machine— initially, songs were 10 minutes long because I was trying to fill hours from scratch. I got more intentional and better about it as time went on. I bought better equipment and have made hundreds of songs over the last few years.

I use Korg Gadget on my Nintendo Switch now. I record to an old cassette deck I bought on eBay, then digitize the playback of the cassette. I bought a bunch of used blank tapes and recorded most of the runtime but left little clips between my songs. Since first buying used blank tapes, I started seeking out tapes with interesting spoken word content: self-help, comedy radio hours, travel guides, and hypnosis. When I’m in the habit, I’ll make a song every day.

The music comes first, but the animations aren’t made for the music most of the time. I will listen to songs and see which fits well for an animation and then edit videos accordingly. I have done things where I make a tape with a constant BPM, and that will dictate the animation loop length. I’ve done 120 BPM, which works out to four beats every two seconds. Fifteen frame-per-second animation means 30 frames, and the animation will sync up with the audio no matter what.

Where do the ideas for your areas of exploration typically come from? For example, when thinking about tools to harness for animation, I wouldn’t think that using an airbrush would come to mind for most. How did you come to the airbrush as one of your go-to tools?

If I see something interesting, I like to try it. I like tools and less popularly known means of manufacturing and production. I don’t mean secretive things, but when a part of a machine has a name, I like to know the name of the part, if that makes sense. There are so many subcultures and groups of people that are hyper-focused on their subsections of the world and have meaningful ideas and opinions about things I’ve never heard of. Sometimes, those groups are insular and don’t really cross-pollinate with other groups. I think associatively and do my best not to think of a tool as only having its designated purpose. Tools are refined for a purpose, but they aren’t just for that, and so I like to explore those groups in forums and stuff, so I try new approaches.

The airbrush came from trying to make something more automated but still very physical. I got a Cricut machine to cut stuff out of paper after doing simple animations by hand-cutting stuff. I started messing with doing pencil rubbings, painting sticker paper, and then cutting it out. I then started messing with splattering paint using cheap toothbrushes. Certain things are easy to do one to five times and inspire the confidence to jump to doing something 30 times; splattering paint using a cheap toothbrush is one of those.

I made stencils using the Cricut, and it is weirdly tiring to hold a toothbrush and pull your thumb across the bristles repeatedly. My thumb got tired in a way that I didn’t know it could, and I didn’t feel like it was a good idea to do that long-term, so I looked into other methods of getting paint onto a surface through a stencil and bought a small compressor and an airbrush.

There are things about any tool or process that give it a sense of identity. People often try to obscure those identifiers because the idea isn’t informed by the tool, but I like process, so I want the tool to work with the idea. With airbrush and stencils, you’d typically want the stencil flush with the surface and the paint to be evenly applied. I might as well work digitally for that effect, so I lift the stencil off the surface instead, and let things get out of focus in ways inherent to the process.

I work in a variety of mediums, and I forget that not everybody is aware of the techniques and processes I’ve explored. I have a habit of getting into a process for one to four months, producing a lot of work, and then abandoning it for six-12 months until that skill is reintroduced as practical, either for a paid job or a new, different process. I’m only saying that because I don’t feel like the airbrush is my go-to tool, but it is part of a collection of tools. I’ve been working most recently with stacked, cut paper animations, informed by the work I did with the airbrush stencils, which were informed by pencil rubbings that were informed by 3D animation rotoscoping, which came from an attempt to do traditional cel animation, and so on.

I’ll undoubtedly start using the airbrush again in a few months. I took a break because I messed up the fans in my laptop with the aerosolized paint.

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