Above: Kate Brown at her magical Oxberry animation stand.
VISIT KATE BROWN’S studio at the Mimbres Hot Springs Ranch, a commune 30 miles east of Silver City, and you encounter an array of pottery in earthy hues of sand and salmon, green and blue. These are the late and lovely fruits of a half-century spent working with clay. But off in a corner of the room, beneath a black drape, sits hulking evidence of an artistic reinvention: an Oxberry animation machine. It took a Craigslist ad, two stevedores, ten hippies, a van with a nickname, and a timely connection at New Mexico State University to park it there and make it run.
Brown began to play with animation after going back to art school in the early 2000s. She bought a small capture stand with an 8 1⁄2-by-11-inch screen and used it to make animated shorts, including a music video for the Be Good Tanyas, a Vancouver-based folk trio. Wanting a bigger canvas on which to make complex films from paintings, found objects, small sculptures, and transparencies, she came across the fateful ad. It listed, free to anyone willing to move it from its home in Newport, Rhode Island, an Oxberry Master Series: one ton in bulk, with a hundred-pound camera counterweighted by solid lead cylinders, mounted on a half-inch plate-steel base. It was the kind of tool computers have made exotic, a marvel of postwar American engineering, the size of a modest bathroom—and, Brown notes, the same sort of machine used for decades by Hollywood animators, including the makers of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The stand’s owner had suffered a stroke; if it didn’t find a new home, it was headed for the scrap heap. Brown felt a call to be its savior. She flew east and enlisted a friend to help her dismantle it. When they did, one of the counterweights plunged, and the camera shot up its carriage like a reverse guillotine. “That’s when I understood the responsibility of this thing,” Brown says. “It could literally kill you.”
With the help of two stevedores she met on the streets of Newport, she moved the machine to a high school in New York City, where she’d committed to teach an art class with it. The teaching gig fell through at the last minute, as gigs sometimes do, so there the Oxberry sat, marooned in the Bronx—until one day when Brown, back in New Mexico, saw a one-ton crew van for sale. She bought it for $1,600 and named it Oxy: It was an ox, on a mission to rescue the Oxberry. Once she got the machine home, she threw a work party to install it in her studio at the ranch. “It took ten hippies to do what two stevedores had done in Newport, ”Brown says,“but we did it, and no one got hurt.”
Bringing it home was a coup, but bringing it to life required more. The giant film camera was outdated. The motors and controllers were no longer supported by the manufacturer. Although in love with the idea of the machine, Brown was overwhelmed by its complexities. During a tile-making class one week-end at her studio, one of her students noticed the machine and said, “What’s that?” As luck would have it, the student was also a professor. Anthony Hyde taught engineering at NMSU and served as director of the Manufacturing Technology & Engineering Center there. In his downtime he had a thing for ceramics, but at his day job he guided M-TEC’s efforts to assist New Mexico entrepreneurs.
Hyde immediately saw an opportunity to help Brown upgrade the Oxberry, kicking off what she describes as a “totally joyous, wonderful experience” that was “like a fairy tale.” Back in Las Cruces, Hyde contacted Griselda Martínez of the Arrowhead Center, an economic development hub housed at NMSU. In addition to boosting start-ups run by the university’s students, faculty, and staff, Arrowhead subcontracts with the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories to bring technical expertise to businesses all across the state. In lieu of paying state gross receipts taxes, the labs provide in-kind funding to hire the sort of expert attention Brown needed to make her animation machine hum.
Martinez, Hyde, one of his students, and other interested engineers from NMSU visited Brown in the Mimbres Valley. They came away satisfied with the potential economic benefit of a functioning production studio. Brown named it Fundamentalist Flowerchild Productions, a wink to her milieu. (“The potter in the commune at the hot springs: If ever there was someone out of central casting, I’m it, right?” she jokes.)
Engineers at M-TEC researched and sourced new motors, drivers, and controllers, transforming the Oxberry with newer, more lightweight parts. Arrowhead contracted for their time, with money from Sandia Labs. Brown launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to buy a new camera and software. Students in the NMSU engineering school helped design and fabricate retrofitted brackets for the new parts; one of them, Caleb Sokoll, wrote a manual for the machine’s updated programming. He finished first in his class at NMSU and now works at Sandia himself. “The challenge wasn’t so much in the materials,” Hyde says. “It was more understanding how the machine worked. We were so impressed, how sophisticated and technically advanced it was for its time.” Vintage parts would have cost $100,000 or more. The engineers found replacements for less than four grand, using the same technologies that have enabled 3-D printing. “The brainwork of three stepper motors can be contained on one chip now,” Hyde notes.
The assistance allowed Brown to embark on a new creative path at a time when others might contemplate retirement. Now 68, she runs animation workshops in her studio for students at Western New Mexico University; she envisions a residency program for animators and visual artists intrigued by what she calls “moving painting.” She’s busy contributing animation for a film called “Johnny’s Cactus,” about the first Las Cruces soldier to die in the Vietnam War, and researching another of her own creations, about the lost town of Santa Rita, swallowed by an open-pit copper mine five decades ago.
It’s all thanks to what she calls her “Frankenstein machine”—part analog, part digital, a one-of-a-kind hybrid made possible by serendipity and collaboration. “I can create whole universes under the camera,” she says, sweeping her arm to evoke the movement generated by “persistence of vision,” that trick our eye plays to create seamless movement from a flip-book of 2-D images. “It’s the capturing of the light that intrigues me. You just can’t get that on a computer screen.”