“Grinning Evil Death”: In 1991, Bob Sabiston’s & Mike McKenna’s CGI/2D animated short premiered on MTV’s “Liquid Television”

By on February 1, 2017

The wonderfully surreal Grinning Evil Death — an early CGI/2D cel animation hybrid short film, produced and directed by Bob Sabiston and Mike McKenna when they were both students at MIT Media Lab — originally premiered on the first episode of MTV’s “Liquid Television,” an animated series for viewers with “fluid minds.”


Sabiston has always followed his own instincts, and remained very independent, going all the way back to the first films he made in the late 80s.

Check out this post on Cartoon Brew, from 2015, which talks about Sabiston’s “brief but fascinating talk” where he said “it’s perfectly all right to choose alternate career paths outside of the mainstream and to do what you want to do.”

In the post’s linked video  Sabiston talks about “turning down Steve Jobs three times over the course of two decades as he moved from self-described arrogant young programmer to Austin ‘slacker’ to accomplished filmmaker to bourgeoning app developer, all while maintaining a fierce independence and sense of vision,” according to the description we read at the link.


Bob Sabiston in 2015

Bob Sabiston — who recently and very kindly answered some of our questions via email — was born and raised in North Carolina, and started becoming interested in working with computers while he was still in high school.

He says he was very inspired by the whole Apple II scene – “Richard Garriott’s ‘Ultima II & III,’ especially, and the Infocom text adventures.”

He ventured off to college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked in computer graphics at the MIT Media Lab, and became interested in computer animation, teaching himself hand-drawn animation for his second short film, Grinning Evil Death (1990), which he produced and directed along with fellow MIT Media Lab student Mike McKenna.


McKenna — who Sabiston says “was doing research on autonomous insect locomotion (the space roach)” — wanted to do a film that used it, and Sabiston says that he wanted to do some computer-based hand-drawn animation.

They came up with the story, and Sabiston says he remembers that the 1986 high-profile mega-hit Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic was also an influence on their work.


He also says, “It took a lot longer than either of us anticipated.”


“We decided to work together for a second film rather than compete for the available resources (like the frame-by-frame videotape recorder) again. I want to say some of the more complicated animation frames took up to 24 hours each to render — though it could be less than that. It seemed like a lot.”

“We originally estimated for the production to take 6 months — we were aiming for the 1989 SIGGRAPH show. But we had only finished like a quarter of it by that time, so we ended up just submitting a trailer. I was an undergraduate senior at the time, and my department, the Visible Language Workshop, let me stay on as a graduate student primarily so I could stay and get the thing finished.

We finished in time for the 1990 SIGGRAPH conference and that was the first place it showed. I remember thinking at the time that a year and a half was a ridiculous amount of time to spend on a short film, and that I would never do it again. It doesn’t seem so bad now — although the tedious method of assembling that type of animation was one of the main things that drove me to figure out a faster way to do animation later with rotoscoping, in Waking Life, etc.”

Sabiston submitted Grinning Evil Death to MTV, who then premiered it on their brand new animation show, “Liquid Television,” the first episode airing on November 30, 1991.



“I think we sent it to them just hoping they might be interested, and they happened to be putting together the first ‘Liquid TV’ show. I was a big fan of the little animated interstitials they would run between videos. On ‘Liquid TV’ I think they split it into two parts, one at the beginning of the show and one at the end. I don’t think we knew they were going to do that.”

At the time, Sabiston says he was inspired by MTV’s animated interstitials (by animators like Henry Selick), and their traveling short film festivals — featured work by Mike Judge and Bill Plympton, among others — before getting into the early Pixar short films, like Luxo, Jr., which had inspired a lot of animators from his generation.

“Liquid TV” would become noted for airing non-mainstream animated shorts in a wide range of boldly creative styles, including traditional ink and paint, Claymation and computer graphics.


That first episode also featured Korean animator Peter Chung’s avant-garde sci-fi animated series, Æon Flux, and later episodes would feature an early incarnation of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head.

Grinning Evil Death was also showed at SIGGRAPH, the annual New York-based CG conference (computer graphics) convened by the ACM SIGGRAPH organization, and it was featured in the Spike and Mike traveling theatrical animation festival.

Sabiston received his BA and Masters degrees from MIT, working as a graduate researcher) from the MIT Media Lab, from 1986 to 1991.


Director Richard Linklater (in the backseat) in Slacker

He then moved to Austin, Texas — “I had visions of living like a character in my favorite new movie, Slacker,” he says — where he founded his own animation company, Flat Black Films, in 1993.

At Flat Black, Sabiston and his team of freelance animators have been producing some of the most eye-popping animation around, mostly working with a technique and process called rotoscoping, which is done by tracing over video footage.

In 1997, he developed his interpolating rotoscope program, Rotoshop, for an animation contest sponsored by MTV. The software was used to produce a series of 25 30-second interstitials in New York, collectively entitled Project Incognito.

In addition to Grinning Evil Death, IMDB and other sources online list some of his other short films, which include The Even More Fun Trip (2007); Snack and Drink (1999, with Tommy Pallotta — the short has won several film festival awards); Figures of Speech (animated subjects interviewed in Austin and on the road between there and San Francisco appear in a series of animated short documentaries in the vein of Snack and Drink, made in late 1999 for ITVS; the series now resides in the MOMA video collection); RoadHead (1998, made with the help of local Austin artists); and Beat Dedication (1988, his first film), to name just a few.


Sabiston’s short film, God’s Little Monkey (1994), won him top accolades at Austria’s computer graphics festival Prix Ars Electronica in 1995, with the prize money giving him time to creating the new DSiWare title Inchworm Animation™, a handheld art and animation studio available via download for the Nintendo DSi / 3DS.

Other short film titles include Yard, and Earthlink Sucks, and Sabiston also directed a series of shorts for the PBS show “Life 360.”

Sabiston has also directed some of the “Talk to Chuck” campaign TV ads for Charles Schwab.


Some of their best known feature-length work includes his work with Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater, whose 1991 film Slacker had been a big influence on Sabiston.

For Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), Sabiston hired thirty graphic artists in the Austin area to rotoscope the stunning dream-story, which was shot first as a live-action film, then rotoscoped into animation.

Sabiston was also the lead animator on Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, adapted from the novel by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick, and starring Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. as a trio of drug addicts. The entire film was hand-rotoscoped, giving it an odd and dreamlike quality (Flat Black Films left the project after three months of production).

Sabiston also directed the animation for a segment — called “The Perfect Human: Cartoon” — in directors Lars Van Trier’s and Jørgen Leth’s 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions, which along with Sabiston’s rotoscoped short Grasshopper was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

Sabiston is also known as the creator of the Rotoshop software program for computer animation. The software is proprietary and currently not available for use outside of Sabiston’s production company, Flat Black Films.

In addition to being the creative director at Flat Black Films, Sabiston has written all of the software used in their animated films, and more recently he’s branched out into creating apps for iOS and Nintendo: the 3d mind-mapping app “Headspace,” the modeling/3d-printing app “Voxel,” the videogame “Retroid,” and a drawing keyboard “Jot Keyboard.”

In 2015, Sabiston created “Lowlander,” a tribute to Richard Garriott’s classic videogame “Ultima II.”


We asked Bob what he’s been working on lately, and he told us that last October (2016), he released some animation software for the Nintendo 3DS, “Butterfly: Inchworm Animation II.”

Sabiston: “It is a little handheld animation studio where people can make movies and post them to an online gallery.”

A big thank you to Bob Sabiston for answering our email!


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.