The Strange Magic of Automata with Master Craftsman Thomas Kuntz

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Kuntz uses old-school techniques and a touch of magic to build surreal automata.

You’ve likely heard that machines will one day take over the world. Don’t fret: it will only give humanity more time to create art. Automata are the predecessors of robots, and their artistic creation dates back centuries. In the 1500s astrologer and mathematician John Dee made a wooden beetle that could fly. During the Age of Enlightenment Jacques Vaucason crafted a flute player that actually played the instrument. And in the modern era Thomas Kuntz, whose work has appeared in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, dominates the automata art scene with fantastical things of nightmares.

Thomas Kuntz’s Automata

A devil blowing smoke. A vampire drinking blood. A skeletal Prussian conjuror tapping his foot and raising his hat. The devil lurking inside a merry couple. A seductive ghost playing a sonata. A widow finding company with skeletons. These are just some of the scenarios found in Kuntz’s automata. The tone is dark and mysterious, peppered with surrealism and tinged with gallows humor, just as the multimedia artist enjoys. “I think, honestly, making people laugh is even more fun than scaring them, but if you can do both of those things, that’s the best,” Kuntz told Crixeo.

Kuntz has spent his career acquiring the skills to create otherworldly automata. He’s a self-taught, do-it-all-yourself alchemical artist — from sketch to sculpture to finished automaton. When he started he could not afford to hire skilled labor, such as a machinist. His solution was to purchase the equipment and learn how to make the mechanical parts needed for automata.

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Courtesy of Thomas Kuntz

At his home, Kuntz has a full-size machine shop and a micro-machine shop. “I can pretty much make anything up to life size… It looks like a clock shop in there and I’ve made custom gear-cutting machines, cam-cutting machines. There’s a lot of special equipment,” Kuntz said. Having everything he needs at the ready means never having to wait. “I just want to go and do things, and if an immediate environment isn’t there, I go crazy,” he said. It’s understandable, given a Kuntz creation can take months or years to complete.

And Kuntz adheres to the old-school style of automation, like a clockmaker, in most of his pieces because they withstand obsolescence, unlike computer-based technology. “All these fantastic, super-realistic-looking figures — in 100 years or not even 100 years, in 10 years, they’ll be junk and I have seen birds from 100 years ago that are still singing,” he said. Kuntz’s preference for the centuries-old automation techniques doesn’t mean he hasn’t dabbled in modern-day technology. “I had one project, the Alchemyst’s Clocktower, that took four years of work. That was probably the most complicated thing I’ve ever built to date, because it did have modern technology in it. That’s where I learned how frustrating it can be with things becoming obsolete, because when you work on a project for four years, you find that, just during the time you were working on it, everything has changed four times,” he said, adding that it gives him a sense of impermanence and he wants his work to still function when he’s gone.

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The Alchemyst’s Clocktower by Thomas Kuntz. Courtesy of Safari Graphics

One of his first automata is still going strong: the Berlin Couple. With it he “wanted to make something that operated on a very simple basis that was influenced by some of the artwork that was happening between the wars in Germany” by social commentary artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix. “They had these incredible images of really debauched sorts of themes,” Kuntz said. The debauchery element is evident in the Berlin Couple, as is delightful trickery: the man turns into a devil.

The Babylon Vampire uses illusion to the fullest, and it was influenced by an old drinking bear automation. “[The bear is] pouring the water, and it looks like it’s drinking it but it’s actually [an illusion]. The water drains back down into the vessel when its arm goes up, and I thought, ‘This is great. Could be a great starting point for a different idea,’” Kuntz explained. During development, though, he learned why drinking figures are usually fat — something his vampire was clearly not going to be: “The reason they sculpted them fat is because that hose can be restricted, for example… And so making a figure that’s thin like the Babylon Vampire, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get that thing to do what it did.”

The trial and error paid off, as the vampire pouring blood from his victim’s head and then drinking it looks as real as possible — for a mythical creature skimming the Uncanny Valley line. It’s also part of one of Kuntz’s favorite themes: decapitation. He frequently returns to decapitation, because seeing a skeleton run off with a man’s head and the headless body chasing after it is his “kind of comedy.”

Horror and the Occult

Horror themes and the occult — with all its mysticism, supernatural elements and magical beliefs — are clearly a main focus for Kuntz when creating automata. He credits his fondness for oral themes in old TV shows and silent movies, the monster magazines he used to hide in his Catholic school flip-top desk, film star Lon Cheney (with whom he was obsessed as a child) and Walt Disney and the Imagineers who built Disneyland. He’s also always enjoyed fossils and aircraft. “Basically I pretty much still love all the things I loved when I was a kid,” Kuntz said.

Disneyland, one could argue, was a success because of its groundbreaking automation. Examples include the Abraham Lincoln figure, the It’s a Small World ride, and the Haunted Mansion, which Kuntz sees as a “holy place.” Kuntz has a deep fondness and fascination with Disney and the Imagineers who worked for him creating the original Disneyland attractions, especially Rolly Crump, who was tasked with making the Haunted Mansion “spooky.” “[Disney’s] obsession and his vision — the original guys were, you know, this was uncharted territory. I mean, there had been moving figures before, but this was like a new level. It was a whole different thing,” Kuntz said.

And for Disney, it was all about adding realism to automata, something you can see in Kuntz’s work — albeit with a theatric, darker flair — and magic.

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‘Une Saison En Enfer,’ a ghost illusion automaton. Courtesy of Thomas Kuntz

Secrets Revealed

Kuntz used to keep the details of his work hidden from outsiders, but he’s now ready to share the techniques. “I used to be very secretive. I wouldn’t show any videos,” he said. “I didn’t really show how things were done, and I’m still secretive when it comes to magic-related things, because I still try to adhere to that magician’s code of not giving things away.”

However, Kuntz believes that at his age he has to share the techniques with others, “because if I don’t, it’s lost,” he said. He currently has an apprentice and is open to the possibility of working with a group of like-minded people.

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‘The Widow’s Jar’ sketch and final automaton. Courtesy of Thomas Kuntz.

Just don’t expect him to post a YouTube video divulging any secrets. “I don’t want to disenchant people by showing them too much of everything,” he said. That could ruin all the fun.

Keep up with Kuntz’s latest creations on Instagramend

 

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