Top Bill-ing: Plympton Headlines the L.A. Animation Festival
The independent animator is the big draw of the L.A. Animation Festival
Through his multiple award-winning shorts and cult-favorite features, Bill Plympton is like a punk-rock star of animation, still doing nearly everything himself, while dealing with topics that might make viewers of more conventional cartoons uncomfortable. At the Los Angeles Animation Festival - which starts today and runs through Sunday - he's scheduled to be honored with both a 20th anniversary screening of his debut feature The Tune and the world premiere of a documentary about him, Adventures in Plymptoons. We caught up with him to do some documenting of our own.
Nerdist News: Do you still draw every frame of your movies yourself?
Bill Plympton: I still do every drawing. In fact, every person who comes to both my shows - Adventures in Plymptoons and The Tune - I'll give every person a free drawing.
NN: How do you do that without getting writer's cramp? Are there special wrist and hand exercises?
BP: As an animator, I do hundreds of drawings a day. So it's fun for me. I enjoy meeting my fans, showing my talents and talking to my fans. The more I draw, the better my hand feels. In fact, whenever I'm depressed, I start to draw and I feel great. I feel so excited and happy - it's actually therapy for me.
NN: Is there a particular reason you tend not to use much dialogue?
BP: Well, I grew up as an illustrator, and I love images, surreal images, images that tell a story. I prefer storytelling without dialogue because I feel it has more of an impact. With words, you're always explaining what's going on, where visuals show you what's going on. As Clint Eastwood said: "Show it, don't tell it."
NN: Why is it that culturally we can't seem to get past the notion that cartoons are just for kids?
BP: It's the hegemony of Disney. And understand, Disney was so great for so long that people just assume that's what animation is for, and it really pisses me off, because for me animation is such a wonderful art form for adult ideas. In fact, when I was an illustrator, I did a lot of cartoons for men's magazines: Playboy, Penthouse, etc. and the humor was so perfect for adult ideas. It really bothers me that distributors and theaters and audiences can't get past that stereotype.
But I think it's changing. I think that America is finally starting to come around to that. In Europe, it's not an issue, but the United States is usually about 20 years behind Europe. Like, graphic novels took a while to be popular here, adult animation is starting to break through. One of my gods is Ralph Bakshi, and he was doing this, what, 40 years ago? People seem to have forgotten about him and the success he had with his films. But now, people are coming around, starting to realize the importance of adult animation. Another thing is Quentin Tarantino, who does these films that are pretty much cartoons. They really have the same sort of storytelling ideas that animation does, but they're for adults.
NN: And there's that whole animated sequence in Kill Bill...
BP: Exactly. In Japan also, they use animation for adult topics. I don't know why American distributors and theater owners have a hard time with that.
NN: Well, we did see Chico and Rita get an Oscar nomination...
BP: Yeah, that's a very beautiful film.
NN: Is it tougher to be a traditional animator now that everybody seems to want CG in the marketplace?
BP: Yeah, that's another roadblock that I'm hitting. I'm not doing kids animation, I'm not doing computer animation, they think there's no audience for my stuff. And I know there is because people who come to my movies freak out, they love this stuff. So there's a lot of stereotyping going on, and they're very much afraid to try something different. It's difficult to get distribution, but once it's on DVD, it's very popular. Hopefully the L.A. festival will bring more attention to my kind of art and my kind of storytelling. They're also showing The Iron Giant, which is a great 2D film; it's an honor to be shown at the same festival.
NN: Where do you stand on the debate about motion-capture? Does it count as animation?
BP: I accept it. I think there's some great stuff in motion-capture, like The Polar Express.
NN: Tell us about the documentary, Adventures in Plymptoons.
BP: It's about how to be an independent animator, and how to make a living doing independent films. Everybody thinks it's impossible, but it is certainly possible, and that's what I talk about.
NN: What's it like having a documentary about you? Is it weird being followed around with cameras and such?
BP: No, I mean that happens a lot, especially when I have a book come out or film come out, I have a lot of people who are interviewing me and documenting my moves. But the reason why I did this and was so excited about it was, one, that I wanted to show people who the artist was behind my iconic style. A lot of people know my work, but they don't know who I am. And two, I wanted to promote indie animation. I wanted to show people that you don't have to work for the big studios to make a good film. That there is another way to go, that it is possible to make your own film.
NN: Do you make a decent living at it, or is it a struggle?
BP: I tell you what, the last two years were really difficult, but recently things have been going very well. I've been getting a lot of jobs. I have a studio of five, six people and they're all happy and we're working away, so I'm making it.
NN: What was it like working for MTV back in the day? That would seem offhand like the most corporate thing you've done.
BP: Back then they were pretty wild and loose. It was a different business, but it was amazing, because everywhere I go around the world now, people know me because of MTV. It was really my breakthrough. MTV still plays my stuff occasionally, especially in foreign countries. Not in the U. S. They gave me all my rights back - it was just a two-year deal for them. I even did a pilot for them back in '95 called Helter Shelter; they didn't end up using it, and they gave me the rights back, even though they paid a lot of money for it. It's on one of my DVDs.
NN: Would you ever consider self-distributing via cheap download, like Louis C.K. did recently?
BP: That's a fabulous idea and I should look into that. I don't have the leverage and the fame and the agents that Louis C.K. has. Louis and I are buddies - I met him about 20 years ago, and I loved his short films. I love his humor, he cracks me up, so I'd definitely like to try and follow his lead. I just need the connections to the cable networks, HBO or Showtime. If I could do that, i could do really well.
NN: What are you working on next?
BP: Well, I'm working on another feature; I'll be showing a clip of it (at the festival) and I've got a TV pilot that I'm selling around, so hopefully I'll sell that. It's called Tiffany the Whale, and it's about a whale who wants to become a high-fashion model, and the troubles and travails she goes through to reach her goal. It's heavy on dialogue, because TV executives don't like films that have no dialogue.
NN: Have you ever been tempted, when times get hard, to work for one of the big studios, or would you not be interested?
BP: If they called me, I would be interested in doing something like that, because the money would be really great. But it would just be temporary - then I'd jump back and do my own work.
NN: You turned down a seven-figure offer for Disney's Aladdin, though, right?
BP: Yeah, I did. I always wonder if that was a good idea or not, but I think it was smart to stay in New York and build up my own independent studio. I think I would have ended up being - I don't wanna say a Hollywood hack - but I probably would have been fired after several months. That Genie section would have been weird. I do love the big studios - I loved How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story, Toy Story 2. I think they do great stuff; it's just not my kinda thing. I don't want to do films for kids, you know, little children singing songs and animals bouncing balls, that's not what I think about every day. I think about love and jealousy and passion and sex and revenge and the seven deadly sins. Those are issues I care about, so it makes sense that I would do films about those topics.
NN: What other animation are you excited by right now?
BP: There's a wonderful animated feature film called Mind Game. It's a Japanese film; to my mind it's the Citizen Kane of animation. It's not your typical anime style - there's no monsters or big-eyed little girls. It's really a western-styled film, but it takes off in so many wild directions, it's sort of like Yellow Submarine for Japan. Masaaki Yuasa is the director. It's about six years old.
Find more Bill Plympton online at Plymptoons.com and his shared blog, Scribble Junkies.