The Interviews

Stefan Bucher


Retooling his skillset

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
August 08, 2017

Stefan-G-Bucher-by-Bruce-Heavin-1920
Stefan Bucher has never shied away from a challenge. In fact, the guy relishes creative challenges that push him in completely new directions. It started with his Daily Monsters, which quickly grew in popularity and eventually turned into a book and an animated film. The duress of daily creation, while painful at times, gave him great satisfaction and a fair amount of press.

For the past year, he’s been playing with Z Brush digital sculpting software to create a 3D alphabet. Once again, he’s immersed himself in this new media, even hiring a tutor, which he says, is “one of the smartest decisions I ever made.” Bucher loved experimenting with this new tool so much, that he found a publisher to do a book of his alphabet, called Letterheads, due out in November.

Here we talk to him about the idea of experimentation and how it fuels his creativity.

Did you get bored doing the monsters after a while? 

Doing the Monsters has always been fun. I occasionally get sad that I no longer have the time to animate them the way I used to, and that I can’t always reconcile my desire to make more accomplished drawings with the audience’s desire to have them be as strange as possible. With their success, fear started creeping in, too — which is exactly what the Monsters were supposed to cure. “Is this one good enough? Am I?” For the tenth anniversary I did another run of 100 Daily Monsters films, which was fun, because it becomes both an artistic and an athletic challenge. The daily rhythm also guards against the fear, because if there’s a Monster you don’t like, you’ll get a different one tomorrow.

It’s almost paralyzing for many, mid-career, to stop what they’re doing and try something new. How did you overcome that vulnerability to try something new? 

It’s a habit for me. I have so many ideas all the time, and never enough time to make them all real. When one of them really grabs me, I need to go for it. I’ve always practiced Greed Control™ — kept my financial footprint small, chosen projects based on quality over expansion — so I’m in the lucky position that I can change course whenever I like. I don’t think anybody who cares about my work in the first place expects it to flow in a straight line anyway.

And why do this? Why not just stick to what you’re good at?

There’s great comfort in competence, and I’m certainly not abandoning the things that I know how to do. For one thing, I’m still turning this new project into a book. I’m good at books, and I love doing them. But I also get tired of doing the same things over and over, and that can make me sloppy.

I never want to phone it in. Learning to do something new expands my horizon, but also helps me see the old work from new angles, and helps me to do it better.

What were the biggest challenges with learning to design this way?

Right now, I’m polishing all the sculptures for publication, and that’s turning out to be the hardest part for me. Initially, there was just discovery and fun. New software is always tricky, but it’s also a great puzzle. “How can I combine the tools I know to do what I want to do?” My happiest moments, come from working things through in my mind while I’m, say, out on a walk. “Ah, hang on… what if I sculpt it this way, and then use this other tool to chop off half of that bit over here? That’d do it!” And as with the Monsters, it’s all about the moment when the characters come to life and I find out about their personality.

The biggest challenge is looking at them all together, bringing them all to the same level of quality. I’ve been working on this alphabet for a solid year, and inspecting them now with a lot more knowledge.

I have days where I see nothing but errors. But fixing things and overcoming my anxiety is part of the gig.

Why do a book when you’re just getting started in this medium? 

The first 100 Daily Monsters are still the ones most people love best. They enjoy seeing me discover things, and that’s more important to them than polish. It drives me a little crazy now, looking back at those early Monsters, because I’m so attached to technical competence. But I understand what they like: It’s more interesting to see somebody invent a method for themselves than watching them apply it. That’s my rational excuse, the thing I tell myself when I think, “Oh God… I should wait until I’m ten years in and really have mastered all the nuances.” I haven’t been this excited about a new way of working since I discovered Photoshop in college. These characters have been such a joy to bring to life. There was no way I was going to wait to show them off!

Are you nervous about what your peers will think about this new work? 

Of course! I have friends in the movie industry who do this kind of digital sculpture day in and day out, and I can only imagine the mistakes they’ll notice. So that’s scary, and I don’t want to embarrass myself or bring shame to the family. But I’m also not doing what they do. I could never match their finesse or ape their style. I’m borrowing one of their tools and bringing it to my particular little corner of illustration and graphic design.

Another benefit of using a new tool from outside my primary field, is that I get to see the beauty of the defaults and quirks built into the technology. People who are used to the software told me that I could easily color the characters, for example, and make them look more realistic. But I love the gray wax look! And I love that you can see the polygons. I don’t want to hide the digital artifacts. I think they’re beautiful. Things like that are much easier for me to see and value when I’m new to a tool, before I know what’s considered good or bad.

So yeah, I worry that proper 3D sculptors will think I’m a hack and a carpet bagger. I felt the same way when I first got invited to animation and illustration shows with the Daily Monsters.

Being in a room full of people who could draw circles around me was daunting. But a nicer group of people you’d be hard pressed to find. They didn’t mind my technique, they liked the exploration. I couldn’t draw like them, true, but I also didn’t draw like them. And they really seemed to like that part. And of course, as much as I’m new to the tools, I’m still bringing my eye to all of this, so I may stumble, but I’ll stumble in style!

3D sculpting is such a departure from what you’ve been doing your whole career … how do you see this working into client jobs? 

To me it’s an evolution. Over the years I’ve moved more and more into creating little worlds for my clients—be it the Time Travel Mart for 826LA or the Saks Yeti or the Blue Man Theater in Las Vegas or going to Jupiter with JPL. This is just another step in that direction. And of course I’m dying to let this flow into my movie title design work. This may be my gateway into portraiture, too. But I’ve always been bad at anticipating my next opportunity. One of the best things about my zig-zaggy career is that I’m always surprised by what people invite me to do. With this, who knows where it will lead? That’s the best part of it!

Any chance you’ll do a Trump character?

I spend so much time on my characters that I need to love hanging out with them. I might start with Barack Obama.

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