Artist Profile: Electric Otto

Next week, Detroit artist and musician Matthew Ellison the Second will screen three new short films at the Mitten Movie Project’s Zombie Night in Royal Oak. Today, WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to Ellison and takes us deep inside his creation, Electric Otto’s Funk Factory.

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(Electric Otto - Music)

Electric Otto’s Funk Factory is not a physical place… but a creative wellspring deep in the mind of artist and musician Matthew Ellison the Second. And the factory is populated with monsters, pimps, zombies and robots battling for the soul of the City of Detroit.

Ellison, who goes by the stage name Electric Otto, says the moniker is reflexive of his spirituality and the Detroit area.

“The word L means God. Electric is God’s energy. Electricity meaning light… means I’m filled with God’s power. I have his blessing. And, the word Otto is also a play on words. You have two o’s that resemble tires… and you have a t which is the framework of an automobile or a car. And the two o’s represent tires that keep on going, and going, and going. So, the name Electric Otto means I’m full of God’s energy… I’m full of his blessing… and I keep on going. On and on and on.”

And it’s that forward motion which has allowed him be prolific over the past several years. Otto says he’s created more than 100 short animated films, two feature length animated films, more than a thousand hand-drawn cartoons, well over a thousand other drawings and paintings and 13 albums of music with a 14th record scheduled to be released early next year.

The 37-year-old Detroit native is proud to be from the city. So, at his suggestion, I interviewed him at one of the area’s signature restaurants, Zeff’s Coney Island in Eastern Market. And its cultural institutions like Coney islands and other unique aspects of Detroit that play a part in his creations. Within his film work, Ellison has created an entire universe of characters, monsters and robots which inhabit a modern day Detroit and battle for its future. In fact, Electric Otto is more than just a name, he’s a character. Ellison says Otto creates robots in a factory and uses his super powers to protect the people from monsters that seek to destroy the city. Meanwhile, Ellison’s villains are symbolic monsters which represent the ills of Detroit… such as greed and gun violence. He says African and Japanese culture influenced the creation of his characters.

“A lot of African culture they made these creatures up. They had different African masks and different characters up… and told stories. These different characters represented different things in society, personalities, different people’s actions… and you see a lot of that in Japanese science fiction too. You see a lot of these different monsters… like Godzilla for example is a representative for the atomic bomb.”

Ellison says his exposure to 1970s and 80s exploitation film as a child also informs his art. Otto’s animated films consist of photos and hand drawn images which are manipulated in a computer using color and movement.

Mitten Movie Project curator Connie Mangilin says she became aware of Electric Otto a few years ago. She says at the time, he was attending her monthly film festival. Eventually he gave her a DVD featuring several of his pieces.

“When I first saw them I thought I was just getting some type of power point video. Because the editing that he’s doing with them… it’s simple but then… when you look at it a little closer he’s doing a lot of things with colors and plates and music… he’s using music very well to cut to… and… so they do seem a little bit simple on their face but they are pretty deep and complicated and just… they’re really cool.”

Since August 2009, Mangilin says she’s screened 13 Electric Otto shorts… and she plans to screen at least another eight of his films in the coming year. Being a Detroit supporter, Mangilin says she likes the local references in his films. She says she’s also very impressed with a series of animations he’s done with area hip-hop artist, Robo Robb.

“I personally love the work that he’s been doing with Robo Robb on that CD of music that they have together. The animations that he’s created… the music videos that he’s created for that CD have been awesome.”

(Music - Robo Robb)

Otto, who plays 14 different instruments, plays bass on Robo Robb and Moonchild’s recent album “Save the Music”. Robb says he got to know Otto through his MySpace page several years ago. The two became friends, which led to working on music and film ideas together.

“I appreciate everything he’s done for us... in general… as musicians… and as friends in general. He’s working on a complete movie right now for “Save the Music”. He wants to put a cartoon to every single song and make it a full length… 60-minutes… because the album is 60-minutes… he wants to make a full-length movie out of it. So, that’s his next project that he’s working on… so, I’m real excited for it.”

Robb calls Otto a musical mentor. He says he appreciates Otto’s willingness to share his time and energy with other Detroit area artists.

In the end, Otto says his work aims to be a positive showcase for the city he grew up in.

“I want people all over the world to know about Detroit. I want them to know about us. Because, like I said, a lot of time you hear about Detroit in the news… you hear about killings, and crime, and corruption and everything is bad. It really ticks me off personally… it ticks me off because you have a lot of good people here from many different ethnic backgrounds. You have a lot of good people here… a lot of genuine people… hard working talented people but instead of the media and a lot of the people that have the power to showcase these people they chose to focus on a lot of negativity as opposed to focusing on the people that’s making a difference, the people who are working in the community, the kids who are doing good in school.”

Electric Otto says his goals include continuing to learn, grow and refine his art, animation and music… all the while retaining its Detroit flavor.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.