Mention indie animation and Bill Plympton’s name is the first to pop to mind. Since the mid-1980s, the New York-based animator has entertained audiences with his unique and quirky take on human (and canine) foibles, without having to conform to any particular formula, genre or studio mentality. In fact, you’d have to be a total hermit not to have seen or been entertained by some of his amazing shorts, music videos and movies. Two of his short films (Your Face, Guard Dog) have been nominated for Oscars and many of his other work—the movies Hair High, Mutant Aliens and I Married a Strange Person and the shorts 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, Your Face, The Fan and the Flower, Shuteye Hotel, Santa: The Fascist Years and Guard Dog—have been huge festival hits all over the world.
This month, Plympton is back in the limelight again with a new animated feature titled Idiots and Angels, which is getting a rolling theatrical release around the country (Los Angeles: Oct. 29), as well as a charming short titled The Cow That Wanted to Be a Hamburger, which is getting raves on the festival circuit. We caught up with the talented animator to find out more about his work, inspirations and how new technologies are changing the way he works and creates:
Animag: First of all, congratulations on your new film’s theatrical release this month. Can you tell us a little about the movie and how you came up with the concept behind Idiots and Angels?
Bill Plympton: I guess I first started to think about the movie back in 2005. I had wrapped my last movie, Hair High, and was ready to jump into a new project. I was attending a festival in northern France and one evening I was walking back to my hotel with one of the volunteers. He asked me what my next project was going to be, and off the top of my head this idea sprang from the depths of my brain. So I said, ‘It’s about this asshole guy who wakes up one morning with wings on his back. He doesn’t like this development, so begins a battle for his soul.’ Well, the volunteer told me that it was a great idea and he wanted to know where it would lead. That night, I started jotting down ideas for the film—the humor, the plot, the character—and it just came together very well.
How does the movie compare to your previous work? Are we seeing a new kind of a Plympton film here?
Plympton: You know, it’s a different kind of a story for me. It’s a morality tale, and it’s very adult. There’s something deep and spiritual about it. A lot of people think I’m growing up, that I’m finally maturing. Well, I hope not. I don’t want to lose my sense of humor and my fondness for surreal subjects. I would say that this is a more character-driven film. There’s also no dialog. I’ve explored this no-dialog approach in my shorts, but this is the first long-form project that I’ve done relying solely on music. A lot of people don’t realize that, because the story is basic, but the characters’ appearances and emotion reveal everything you need to know. I think music carries the story.
Music has always played a big role in your work. Can you tell us a bit about the music you used in Idiots and Angels?
Plympton: I always love to listen to music that fits the mood of my films when I am working on them. For some reason, Idiots and Angels has a lot of sequences set in a bar, so naturally, I was listening to a lot of music by Tom Waits. That’s how I started to think that it would be wonderful to have a Tom Waits song in the movie. Now, I don’t know him personally, but [director] Jim Jarmusch is a good friend of mine, so I sent him a rough cut of the film and asked him if he would pass it on to Tom. I didn’t hear from anyone for three weeks and I started to get worried. But then I got an e-mail from Tom’s wife, who told me that he loves the film and that I could have any song I wanted. We only had to pay a small publishing fee for the song. He is very supportive of projects he believes in. Pink Martini also let us use one of their songs. L.A. musician Corey Jackson, who does the music for a lot of my projects, also contributed to the film.
Idiots and Angels was the first time you used computers to handle the coloring aspects of the production. Can you discuss the process?
Plympton: I had always been hesitant to work on computers because of the cost: transferring digital to 34mm used to cost about five dollars a frame, and I simply don’t have that budget. Now the cost has come down to 20 cents a frame. That freed me up to make the drawings. I still do all the drawings with No. 2 pencil on bond paper. For this film, I did over 35,000 drawings, which came down to a hundred drawings a day.
The producer of the film, Biljana Labovic, is from Serbia and she has a dark sense of humor. She would scan the drawings and would go back and shade them in with dark backgrounds—it was very Jan Svankmajer-ish. The shading is done with digital paintbrush. It still looks very handmade—and has a homemade feel.
Did the movie cost a lot less to make because of the new tools you were using?
Plympton: We didn’t use any painted cel, so that made the costs about one-third of the previous movies; around $130,000 dollars. I took no money out of that: I work for free, and I am the producer, director, writer, character designer, storyboard artist, layout artist, background artist and animator. Overall, I spent about three years on the film—one for storyboarding and character design, one for the actual animation and about half a year for post-production.
In addition to Idiots and Angels, your new short The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger also looks different from your previous work. How did that come about?
Plympton: The idea for that short came to me as I was driving around Oregon, which is where I am from. I saw this cow pasture and what struck me as strange was how obsessed these cows were about eating grass. The cars, the traffic, nothing seemed to bother them. If was as if the just wanted to make themselves become the perfect steak. So I thought that would be a funny idea for a film, especially a children’s fairy tale like Ferdinand the Bull.
I wanted the colors to be very vivid, like a children’s book. I was inspired by a Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, and we made the short using magic markers with black, bold outlines. It went very fast. I think the drawings took only two or three weeks. I was teaching at the Bill Plympton School of Animation at the time, and I used it as a project that we could do in three months. It was a wonderful way for the students to follow a project from the concept stage through storyboard and layout. They were amazed that I was using a Sharpie to create the film. In fact, at the time, the ending really didn’t make sense, so I went to the class and asked them to give me ideas for alternative endings. They gave me a lot of good feedback, and now, as a result of that collaboration, we have a much better ending—one that involves the cow’s mother. We also used Nicole Renaud’s music for the film, which is also quite wonderful. It makes much more sense now, and audiences are responding very well to the film. It has won 10 awards at various festivals and it’s only been out a few months. The short will play with Idiots and Angels in theaters.
Which aspects of the animation process do you enjoy and which ones do you dread?
Plympton: The parts that I find really enjoyable are creating the story, doing the animation and matching the music to the animation. The downside is doing the contracts and negotiations. That’s extremely boring and scary to me. I also have to do the promotion for the film, which is very repetitive and time-consuming. I want the film to be a success so I have to get the word out myself because I don’t have the money for it like DreamWorks and Pixar. I’m blogging. I’m even using Twitter. It’s all a lot of work, and frankly, I’d rather be drawing my next film!
Can you talk a little about the health of the animation industry in 2010? What’s your take on the phenomenal popularity of the art form?
Plympton: In all modesty, I feel that I had something to do with the resurgence of animated indie films. Within the last few years, there has been an explosion of these kind of projects. It’s very exciting to see films like The Triplets of Belleville, Sita Gets the Blues and My Dog Tulip are examples of people outside the Hollywood arena who are making low-budget movies that do well business-wise. It’s even going to get better in the future as programs like Flash bring the cost down and allow many of the younger filmmakers to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need Disney or DreamWorks to make a movie, I can do a feature myself.’ When you look back at the old golden age of animation, we were lucky if we got one good animated film every two or three years. Now we have 15 to 20 titles each year.
What do you tell your students when they ask for advice about making it in the animation world?
Plympton: I have a lot of advice! First, I tell them to try and retain ownership and copyright of their material. I know people need money to make a film, and investors want to own the property, but it’s really important to try and hang on to it. Another important thing is to remember to always use humor in your films. There are lots of filmmakers out there that take themselves too seriously. Even if your film is serious and depressing, don’t be afraid to put some elements of humor in it. Humor travels well and is appreciated by audiences all over the world. Another important piece of advice: You don’t have to use computer animation. There’s a wonderful spectrum of styles available to you, from claymation in the style of Wallace and Gromit to Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation, and hand-drawn films like Miyazaki’s work. Or you can use Flash or similar programs—What I recommend is to find the style that you feel most comfortable with. Last point: Make animation because you’re loving the process and because it’s fun to do. Don’t do it because you want to be a super-rich, famous rock star, because it’s not going to happen. The process has to be enjoyable for you.
You are also working on a book, right?
Plympton: Yes, it’s going to be a coffee table book published by Rizzoli New York, and it’s called Independently Animated, Bill Plympton. The release date is spring of 2011. It will feature art from all my shorts and features and some created especially for the book and will include all kinds of anecdotes and adventures about my life, career and filmmaking. Terry Gillian, who has been a great supporter, did the introduction for the book. I saw him at a festival in Dubai and he liked some of my drawings for Idiots and Angels, and he said, would you like me to present the film? Of course, I was thrilled. There’s also a documentary in the works called Adventures in Plymptoons, created by Alexia Anastasio, which should also be ready this spring. I believe next year is going to be my year. My dream is to have my short and my animated feature be nominated for Oscars in the same year—which I don’t believe has ever been done before. But it’s probably bad luck to talk about it!
Idiots and Angels opens in Los Angeles on October 26. For more info, visit www.plymptoons.com.