By Hope Katz Gibbs
Making kids giggle, grown-ups grin — then say “how’d he do that?” — when they look at his scanimation artwork is the goal for Rufus Butler Seder, who credits his parents for helping him become a filmmaker, inventor, toymaker, and author of several moving picture books published by Workman Publishing including Gallop! (2007), Swing! (2008), and his 2009 release, Waddle!
“My mom was a piano teacher, and my father Eugene (Gus) was a journalist and photographer who took me to see Fellini movies, wrote news stories about inventors, and was himself an inventor and a capable electrical and mechanical engineer,” shares Seder, who dedicated Swing! “To Mom, who made things fun, and Dad, who made things work.”
Seder took it all in, and starting in elementary school began turning out work that was sophisticated beyond his years. By the time he hit high school, he’d won numerous art awards including Kodak’s prestigious CINE Golden Eagle award. (He had collaborated on a film with high school friend Tod Gangler, who himself went on to become the world’s leading carbon printing photography expert.)
The Art of Scanimation
“I’m mostly interested in finding ways to make magic,” says Seder, now 56, who has created a small industry around the technique he invented called scanimation.
“It combines the eye’s ability to use parallax perception with moiré-style multiple-line patterns, and a sheet of acetate. Ultimately, the brain thinks that the images on the page are actually moving. But really the only thing that is happening is what is going on between your ears. It’s a wonderful, patented, optical illusion.”
Open the cover of Waddle!, for instance, and the penguin on the page appears to slip, slide and swoop. The frog on the second spread leaps and flips, flops, flops. A pig prances, a snake slithers, and so on until the climax, which (shhh, it’s an alligator) is certain to make a 4-year-old scream with delight.
In the mid 1980s, Seder made his mark on the independent film industry when he founded the Boston Black And White Movie Company. Judges at the Cannes Film Festival Medal recognized his work, and he also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
His films included Phantom Subways, a study of an underground railway station; Sun Run, a pixilated animated short about a sunbather reading Kafka whose attempt at getting a tan is thwarted by the shadows thrown by nearby buildings, and Live in Fear, the story of a giant eyeball living atop a human body who battles a giant cat and an enormous parrot.
“Admittedly, these weren’t big box office smashes, but we were definitely making a contribution to the artistic side of the independent film business,” offers Seder, who during this time attended the American Film Institute as a directing fellow. For nine years, he taught filmmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
In 1990, he was inspired to take the concept of moving pictures to a new dimension. He figured out how to create murals that used no electricity, moving parts or special lighting — but still appeared to move as the viewer walked by. After some experimentation, Seder developed a 3-pound, 8-inch square, lens-ribbed glass tile that appears to move. He calls it LIFETILES.
These “movies for the wall,” as Seder explains it, became a new revenue stream. He continues to design and install these moving works of art, which range in price from $50,000 to $200,000, at Union Station in Washington, DC, the Miami Zoo, museums and other public spaces around the world. In 2010, in fact, he’ll be designing a LIFETILE project in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which will be installed in 2011.
What tickles Seder most, he says, is watching people react to his work. “Some people walk or run back and forth, making the pictures ‘move,’ while others stop, stare, smile to themselves, and sway from side to side. The people can be as fun to watch as the work itself.”
By 1999, Seder was ready for a new adventure. He and his then bride, and business manager Penny Sander, decided it would be fun to marry Seder’s passion for antique toys with his love of moving pictures. They opened Eye Think, Inc. www.eyethinkinc.com and designed Seder’s first toy, the CineSpinner — animated sun-catchers that come to life and animate continuously as they gently rotate in a window: dancers dance, horses gallop and monkeys swing from vine to vine.
He also began designing Smart Move greeting cards — elaborate paper gifts with images of hearts, ballroom dancers, piano hands, penguins, and more, that move when you open the cover.
Then, during a trade show in 2006, a book buyer for Workman Publishing named Raquel Jaramillo happened to walk up to Seder’s booth where he was selling those cards. She spent quite a bit of time examining the drawings and playing with them to see what they’d do. Soon after, she called Seder to ask if he’d like to turn them into a book.
“I was tickled at the offer, although slightly hesitant at first because I didn’t really want to give away the secret to how I make them work,” Seder shares. “But it’s very hard to say no to Raquel.”
Three years later he is working on book number four for Workman Publishing — this one using the Star Wars characters. Although he didn’t get to meet George Lucas, he admits it was a challenge to create R2-D2 and C-3PO in scanimation. Nonetheless, Seder found a way to make it happen. The new book will be out this spring.
Seder’s Advice to Parents
Although he doesn’t have kids of his own, Seder says that all the great parents he knows followed one golden rule.
“Children are sponges,” he says. “The more cool stuff you expose them to, the more you get them thinking and asking questions. I watch kids play with my toys and walk past my LIFETILES and you can almost see the wheels turning. So don’t keep your kids in the house! Get them in front of art, take them to the movies, walk in the forest or around town — and talk about the themes and how things work. You’ll be amazed what they see, and what they can teach you!”
“You just never know,” he adds. “What is turning around in their young heads may come out as a great work of art, a film or book, or the cure for a challenging disease.”