Welcome to our series, Hello Denver, My Name is… where we profile people in Denver that you probably don’t know — but should. Get ready to meet painters, dancers, comedians, musicians, designers and just generally fascinating people that help make this city awesome.
With the proliferation of action movies that use CGI and other animation techniques, it can be easy to forget that animation is an art form. But ultimately, animators operate under many different genres. In Denver, digital animation as art is luckily emphasized. This is largely in part due to Denver Digerati and their collective efforts to put digital art in the public sphere by broadcasting clips on the LED screens in downtown as well as organizing the Supernova Outdoor Digital Animation Festival. That festival, which is running this year from September 14 through 23 presents more than a week of programming centered on technology and animation and showcasing some of Denver’s best animators.
One of those animators has been working in the digital realm for over five years and is pushing the technical limits in some interesting ways. Pursuing a Ph.D. in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance at the University of Colorado Boulder, Denver artist Ryan Wurst releases both videos and music under multiple different personas. With the recording label he started in Minneapolis called Always Human Tapes, Wurst creates different music based on various character profiles and also releases music for other musicians in similar genres. But his musical pursuits aren’t separate from his experimenting in animation because the music is paired with videos animated by Wurst. Outside of Always Human Tapes, Wurst is also working on a new form of animation that relies on artificial intelligence combined with improvisation to create infinitely looping TV sitcoms, or video games that play themselves. Pulling inspiration from such disparate systems as video games, jazz, improv theater, philosophical frameworks for emotions and, of course, TV sitcoms Wurst’s animations — though bizarre — are a mesmerizing mixture of dark, existential and humorous vignettes about humanity.
Denver, Meet Ryan… and his cast of personas.–
303 Magazine: Explain your style of animation.
Ryan Wurst: I like stupid things. If I’m having an idea and think “that’s so stupid” those are the moments I get most excited about. ‘Why would you do that with your time? How much time did that take?’ — that’s what people ask me the most. That [first] question I’m always happy about getting.
I like when stupid challenges become existential — just by the very nature of me doing it, it becomes deeper. To me, that’s what art all comes down to. Why did you paint that? — Why not?
303: Why do you have so many different personas that you work under?
RW: It’s world-building. It’s more setting up a frame of mind so that I can then make work in that frame of mind. I don’t have to worry about ‘what is my voice?’ It’s the Mouthbreathers or any of my other personas. Soul Tangler is the deep club guy, Bert Gan is a sensitive ambient composer by night, data analyst by day. Pete Sheridan is Mr. Academic, “I make algorithms that make music.” Steve the Sloth is a result of me thinking “what is the funniest thing I can make a sloth do?” But really, it all comes out of music. My dad — who was my band director in high school — always did a thing called Free Jazz Friday. In jazz band, we would do an open-ended improv session where we would start [playing] and reassess throughout. So a lot of my thinking generally comes from music. Both of my parents are music teachers so I had no chance [laughs]. So that’s very much how I think about things and how I’m trying to frame things, going forward. I think most of my obsession with characters though is actually an obsession with TV. Seinfeld, Simpsons, Friends — I can watch those over-and-over, endlessly.
303: Many people associate animation with humor or silliness, but yours and many others take on a darker tone. Do you think that’s a trend in animation, in general?
RW: There are so many different directions that animation has taken. Animation used to be taught in direct relation to making shooting video games. There’s this whole sector of professional animators who work for years on five-minutes of a Transformers movie. But there’s another side too, and as computers get faster and faster it’s opened up the ability for everybody to do it and to push what the aesthetic possibilities of what animation can be. There’s always been a lot of experimental animation that hasn’t made it mainstream, but there’s also plenty that did, like Beavis and Butt-head. The more information available for aspiring animators, the more possibilities that happen.
303: Do you look at the world through the same lens you animate in?
RW: We [animators] make jokes. We’ll go for a walk and say ‘oh wow, this is a really great render out today.’ There are times when I’m going into a week of a lot of coding and I’ll dream in code. It’s always these dreams where I’m solving problems but then I wake up and think ‘that solved the problem. What was that code?’ So yeah, it messes me up in so many ways. I will look at other things — like dogs — in different ways too. Since I’m involved in so much AI stuff, I’m always wondering why things like dogs behave the way they do.
303: What are you working on with your current degree?
RW: My dissertation work for my Ph.D. is all about making infinite sitcoms, infinite TV shows. The ways I have to go about that is trying to teach the computer how to improvise through drama. Drama improvisation. I’m using a lot of game software, game writing software, to make a video game that plays itself. That video game will be these artificially intelligent human beings improvising a sitcom drama. I’m making it all up as I go along, thinking to myself, I hope this works. And I’m obsessed with endless feedback loops.
303: You said earlier that “much of my obsession with characters is my obsession with TV.” A lot of writers of TV shows will make towns or planets with different names, so I’m wondering if you have any for yours?
RW: It’s more about starting out with the character for me. The characters drive most of everything, the situations come after. None of my things are specific to a certain place and a lot of times I actually prefer using ‘placeless’ places — a generic area that could be anywhere in the world. A conference center or other windowless room. I think it’s because I spend most of my time on the internet, which is the ultimate placeless place. I have the luxury of not needing to go out and shoot on location, I can just make my locations however I want.
303: If you could work with any other animator out there, who would it be and why?
RW: I’m super obsessed with Ian Cheng, he’s really great. [He had a] mini-retrospective at MoMa. It’s hard to answer that question though because I don’t know if I could collaborate with someone. I’m a tricky collaborator. I’ll just be like ‘let me do it!’ I really like collaborating with other musicians to animate things for their stuff… but I don’t know about other animators.
303: If you had to become one of your personas, which one would it be?
RW: Steve the Sloth. That’s the fun character, the one that’s happy. The Mouthbreathers have gone through some darkness. With Steve, I get to be a sloth and everything is a little bit goofy. What I probably end up being in real life is Bert Gan, where I get a day job and then just make ambient music at night by myself. If everything goes wrong, I’ll default to the Bert Gan life. But yeah, the sloth is what I’d want to be.
Going behind the scenes, we decided to ask some of Wurst’s personas direct questions.
303: Steve, do you see yourself as a rugged individualist or a misunderstood loner?
Steve the Sloth: Woah… That is a deep question. I tend to think that I am riding on the wave of life. Sometimes that wave takes me to places that are tough, yet sweet like taffy and sometimes that wave takes me to places that are bitter and cold like a frozen chocolate bar. I never want to think about the wave too often. If I do, I can’t surf life.
303: What’s your favorite cliche from B-reel horror films?
Soul Tangler (deep club DJ): Head explosions.
303: What’s your favorite algorithm or equation?
Pete Sheridan (academic composer): A favorite algorithm is hard, but I like the process of finding new algorithms to work with. In my music, I am always looking for ways to make things sound organically random. Randomness is very difficult to achieve, while also keeping the music listenable. I never want my music to come off as difficult to listen to. Things should feel as if they are flowing, but could take a turn at any moment. I love the process.
303: What movie would you like to compose a soundtrack/score for?
Bert Gan (ambient composer): I would love to re-do the score to The Lion King. I would first take out all of the songs and really dive into the characters mindsets. Then I would take composers like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy’s piano music and slow it down to a glacial pace. I think all of the bright colors of Lion King would compliment the music really well, rather than the music complimenting the images.
303: Do you think you can make a song out of any noise/sound? Aren’t there noises/sounds that just won’t ever work for music?
Yellow Hyper Balls (an experimentally noisy guy): I hope I could. If I can record the sound then I can probably use it, put distortion on it, and make it a massive sonic texture.
303: What is your greatest fear in life?
“[My dad] used to jokingly call the suits who wouldn’t “get” anything “mouthbreathers” so it became this thing in our family.” – Wurst
Alex: I am scared of drowning. I almost drowned in New York, but someone pulled me out of the plastic bag at the last minute.
Charli: It sounds funny, but I am afraid of skipping. You know, like “skip-to-my-lou” kind of things. I am also a little afraid of Lou.
Chris: I get lonely. I am not afraid of it really, but I don’t like the thought of not being around a fellow Mouth Breather. There is comfort in numbers. Terri gets on my nerves, but I’d take Terri over being alone.
Gerri: I am afraid that someone will mistake me for Jerri. I like Jerri, but I am Gerri. Get it! Gerri not Jerri.
Jacki: I was in that plastic bag with Alex. I wasn’t scared. I think I am afraid of sharks. I have never seen one, but I have heard they are scary. The thought of something scary scares me.
Jerri: What was the question? Is my name Gerri? No it’s Jerri. Jerri is my name. Not Gerri.
Kelsey: I am afraid of Kelsey Grammer. He seems very smart and witty. I am probably just as smart but he is able to close his mouth. I can’t. That’s scary.
Liv: Oh… I once tried a piece of candy I found on the ground. It was kinda oily but initially tasted good. After 20 minutes of chewing on it, it kind of lost its taste. Why would a piece of candy lose its taste? Will I lose my taste someday?
Lou: Wait! Is Charli afraid of me? I love Charli to death. Hmmmmm… I might be afraid of my love.
Mel: You know that feeling when you think there is another stair, but there is no stair?
Nat: I always have this fear that I am going to hit my head on a door frame. It happens all the time. It doesn’t hurt, but I always think it might.
Nicki: I just feel happy. And hungry. Mostly happy. Hey Max… Do you have a snack? Some almonds would be great.
Sammi: Sometimes I’m afraid that I am kinda stupid.
Steph: OMG! Sometimes I’m afraid I’m kinda stupid. Samezies!!!
Terri: Can I say something to Chris real quick. Chris, you piss me off, that’s why I don’t like to be around you. Stop being so damn cheery. I’m sick of it. Ok. Sorry. I guess I am afraid of my head being smashed in a pneumatic press.
Vic: I love all of you damn Mouth Breathers.
303: Going back to Ryan — after experiencing all those characters, if you had to choose one TV character that represents the true you, who would that be?
RW: Oh no… [laughs] I’ve always thought of myself as a George Costanza. I identify with all of his angst and I guess that’s also the Larry David character. You want to be normal but you just can’t be.
303: The second part is — do you have a TV character you wished you were?
RW: It’d be great to be Jerry [from Seinfeld] but hopefully [laughs] I get to the point of being Mr. Burns [from The Simpsons]. There are a few times he says ‘I want to be loved’ but then by the end of the episode he’s just like, eh.
303: Last question, this one coming from our last interviewee, Lindee Zimmer: if you were going to die in a month but had unlimited money, what would you do?
RW: I would probably get all of the people I care about, friends and family, together in a single awesome spot and honestly make and share a bunch of art. Basically, I would throw a super exclusive art party for a month [laughs].
Ryan Wurst and at least one of his personas will participate in the Supernova Outdoor Digital Animation Festival this upcoming week. Catch him on Saturday, September 22 at the Museum of Outdoor Arts Cricket Cinema (a pop-up screen) from noon to 8 p.m. or on Sunday, September 23 in Boulder at the ATLAS Center for a Black Box Theatre AV Performance at 5 p.m.
And stop by the LED screen on 16th and California after Supernova to see Wurst’s “Hello Denver, My Name Is” animation created for this series in the rotation of videos until the end of September.