Opening at MOMA
Art Majors Collaborate With Tim Burton on Robot Boy Sculpture
November 17, 2009
By Paula Selleck
Preston Daniels holds a Tim Burton drawing of the illustrator-turned-filmmaker’s character “Robot Boy,” while fellow graduate art major David Brokaw stands alongside. The drawing served as the pair’s guiding blueprint for the creation of a motorized sculpture included in a retrospective of Burton’s work. The exhibition debuts Sunday in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Graduate art majors David Brokaw and Preston Daniels are headed for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as invited guests at the opening of what is being billed as a major career retrospective of Tim Burton, whose signature films include “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
The Cal State Fullerton pair have been toiling for months in the university’s sculpture studio bringing to life another character of Burton’s that, until now, has existed only in the illustrator-turned-filmmaker’s mind and on the pages of his book “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories.”
In a surrogate sort of way, Brokaw and Daniels are to Robot Boy what Frankenstein was to his monster — without the scary parts.
Burton’s Robot Boy, painstakingly built and fashioned by the students to the artist’s specifications, will be unveiled at MOMA Nov. 22 when the “Tim Burton” exhibition opens there. The show continues through April 26, 2010. Then it’s off to Australia and Canada.
In this period before the show opens and the pair see the reaction of exhibition-goers to their work, the students believe they’ve already had the experience of their own artistic lifetimes to date, collaborating with Burton and two of his assistants, on birthing this whimsical, motorized sculpture.
“Taking inspiration from sources in pop culture, Burton has reinvented Hollywood genre filmmaking as a spiritual experience, influencing a generation of young artists working in film, video and graphics,” reads the text on the MOMA web site announcing the exhibit.
Filmmaker Tim Burton met with David Brokaw (left) and Preston Daniels in October while the two graduate students were wrapping up work on Robot Boy. They examined the sculpture together in the East Gallery of the Visual Arts Building. Photo by Melissa Tremble
For Daniels and Brokaw, when Burton judged the Robot Boy sculpture worthy of inclusion in his exhibition, it made the long weekends and occasional all-nighters they pulled working on the piece over the course of 12 weeks worthwhile.
When asked to describe their roles in the project, Daniels said, “We’re the makers; we’re the fabricators.”
Along the way, they also conceived parts of the mechanized sculpture, an experience that deepened and enriched their notions of collaboration. Combining their talents and experiences in sculpture — Daniels as a fine welder working primarily in metals and Brokaw in kinetic sculpture — made for an inventive team.
“No way either one of us could have done this without the other,” said Daniels.
“This was a collaboration through every step of the way,” added Brokaw.
They had arrived at Cal State Fullerton on similar but separate paths. Each had earned an undergraduate degree in art — Daniels on the East Coast, and Brokaw in Texas. Once accepted into Fullerton’s M.F.A. program, they joined the CSUF art colony at the Grand Central Art Center. Its residents spend their days in the building’s street-level studios and climb the stairs at night to their rooftop apartments in the heart of Santa Ana’s artists village. What a life for a pair of 25-year-olds.
The head of the animatronic sculpture opens and closes; it also contains a brain full of wires that control the robot’s movement. Preston Daniels and David Brokaw credit Joe Cariati, who teaches glass blowing at CSUF, and alumna Solange Led with making the glass eyes, and salute alumnus Ryan Ross for his help with electronics. Photo by Kelly Lacefield
Until Robot Boy, their collaborations with others had never been so intense, or attached to such celebrity. How this once-in-a-student’s-lifetime opportunity dropped into their laps this summer is a story in itself.
In the Beginning
It was a chance meeting at a party between Burton and Greg Escalante, president of the CSUF Grand Central Art Forum, that started the ball rolling. (The forum is a group of arts supporters who provide professional expertise and sponsor exhibitions, programs and events.) Burton’s exhibition at MOMA was in its formative stages, and Escalante sensed an opportunity for young artists.
Eventually, Escalante proposed to Burton “a menu of options” for student involvement, recounted Mike McGee, Cal State Fullerton gallery director, graduate coordinator and founding member of the forum. Burton liked the idea of tapping students to fabricate a piece for his retrospective, and that led to the talent pool at Grand Central.
McGee consulted with Jim Jenkins, professor of art who heads the Art Department’s sculpture program, about which students would be a good fit for the project. Together, they’d be executing a prominent artist’s vision and have to fill in any creative gaps — and meet the deadline for the finished work. With a firm date set for the MOMA exhibit, falling-outs and failure were not options.
The claw, not pictured in the original Tim Burton drawing, received special attention from sculptors David Brokaw and Preston Daniels, visible in the background, who used materials “ we knew would work” in fashioning the robot and its many parts. Photo by Kelly Lacefield
Brokaw and Daniels were selected and when approached, they didn’t hesitate.
Art Patron to the Rescue
Catherine Sutton, described by McGee as a friend to the forum, donated $10,000 to cover materials and stipends for the students so they could devote themselves fully to the project without having to work elsewhere. They took time out to take and teach classes and work on class projects, but their own creations were put on hold for the duration of their Burton project.
It almost didn’t happen. Burton, whose many projects keep him busy in his own studio, only settled on the scope of the sculpture in August, barely enough time for the students to engineer, experiment and build the piece. Still, once they got the green light, they went to work.
Burton purposely offered less-than-precise specifications about how to execute his vision. In the process, the students suggested materials and crafted elements not fully fleshed out in Burton’s sketch. The students employed aluminum, glass, stainless steel, rusted rivets, light bulbs and wiring to fashion the body and its moving parts, inside and out.
“Flickering to life” is the state of being they sought to achieve. Ultimately, they brought an engineer’s sensibilities to the task of lighting up and blinking the glass eyes and rigging the top part of the head to open and close randomly, mimicking the movement of a metal trash can lid.
A garbage can is what Robot Boy turns into in Burton’s poem of the same name about the transformation of a creature made of tin, tubes and wires born to a Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It seems his lineage may stem from a microwave blender.
Robot Boy rests atop a cart in the campus sculpture studio before being shipped to New York for his unveiling at the Museum of Modern Art, where he now greets visitors to the “Tim Burton” exhibition. Photo by Kelly Lacefield
Brokaw, who uses motors in his sculptures, was in his element in Robot Boy’s fictional world, where the creature plugs himself into a light socket as part of the transformation. “Most of what I’m interested in has some life to it,” he explained about his own artistic pursuits.
Too Close a Match
Early on, as they worked, the emerging sculpture closely resembled Burton’s drawing, so much so that the creator balked, much to the students' surprise. Burton wanted the young artists to go beyond his outline.
Both noted that Burton treated them "as equals," and that, of course, prompted them to work harder. “It’s fun to be around people like that; it’s inspirational,” said Brokaw.
“As a director, he knows how to work creatively with people,” offered Daniels.
And Burton’s direction guided them well. “Every change he’s made has been spot on,” Brokaw observed, as the sculpture neared completion.
In the course of the project, the pair met Burton just once — a few days before Halloween, when he slipped quietly onto campus to appraise the almost-finished piece. He’d been seeing it from afar in digital snapshots the students sent almost daily as the sculpture evolved.
Keeping close tabs on the project were a pair of Burton’s assistants — one in Los Angeles and another in London — who relayed Burton’s comments and directions and also weighed in with suggestions and refinements of their own. The students welcomed their input, and consider it another successful aspect of the collaboration.
David Brokaw and Preston Daniels were in New York City for the recent opening of the “Tim Burton” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where the sculpture they built of Burton’s Robot Boy is on display through April 26.
“Although Tim had been managing the production by e-mail photos and reports from his assistants … this was the first time he had seen the sculpture in person,” said McGee of Burton’s brief campus meeting with the students. “He gave it a big thumbs up.”
The students recall their encounter with Burton as an “all-business” session that ended well.
“It was a relief to know that we’d fully achieved his vision,” said Daniels, particularly since executing another artist’s imaginings was a first-time experience for them, Brokaw noted.
Daniels characterized the experience as “an enormous challenge” and indicated that it dovetailed with the reasons why he went to grad school in the first place: “to be changed and challenged.”
Brokaw spoke of a heightened sense of productivity. “It’s gotten me back into a work mode that has … turned up the volume a little bit.” He also discovered that "limitations can be freeing."
In a climax to their efforts, the students were invited to the artist’s studio in Los Angeles, where they showed technicians how to adjust Robot Boy.
“They were walking on air a little bit,” McGee said after hearing about their visit to a studio filled with artifacts from Burton’s many films, which include “Batman Returns,” “Beetlejuice,” “Mars Attacks!” “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
While props and art pieces from Burton’s movies are part of the retrospective, Robot Boy is the only piece in the show that was fabricated just for the MOMA exhibition. As part of the agreement worked out with Burton, the sculpture will return to Cal State Fullerton in 2011 for permanent installation on campus.
Brokaw recalled that during Burton’s visit to the university, the artist said “he enjoyed the feeling of the environment of the campus here.”
Tonight, the MOMA festivities surrounding the New York opening begin with "The Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit: A tribute to Tim Burton,” plus a reception for VIPs, including artists Brokaw and Daniels. Members previews are Nov. 18-21, and a Burton book signing is scheduled at the museum for Wednesday afternoon.