Bill Plympton: The Art of Independence

Growing up, Bill Plympton dreamed of someday working for Disney. After his animated film, Your Face, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1987, Disney offered him a million dollars to animate the genie in Aladdin. Plympton said no. Disney wanted ownership of all his work and Plympton wasn't willing to give that up. Plympton has remained independent ever since.

His films include: I Married A Strange Person (1997), Guard Dog (2004) and Angels and Idiots (2008).

He has also animated music videos, including Heard 'Em Say for Kanye West in 2005, and Don't Download This Song for "Weird Al" Yankovic in 2006.

Bill is the subject of the documentary, Adventures in Plymptoons! directed by Alexia Anastasio, and released in September 2012.

We met Bill in his studio to discuss his career in animation, and his newest feature film, Cheatin', which is currently thriving on Kickstarter and is expected to be released in the summer of 2013.



Which television shows influenced you as a kid?

Bill Plympton: I liked Rocky and Bullwinkle. I especially loved the Walt Disney cartoons. They had a TV show called The Wonderful World of Disney. I watched that religiously because they introduced the animators and that's what I wanted to do. They showed great animation too, especially all the stuff that was coming out like Sleeping Beauty and Ichabod. Then of course I loved Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I loved that kind of humor – very wild, very surreal – not so much dialogue but very physical. That was what I loved. You'll notice a lot of my films don't have dialogue. It's pretty much just motions, movements, expressions and things like that. It's a lot more visceral.

Bill Plympton Reel


Which animators most inspired you?

There are a lot of them. Disney was certainly the biggest influence, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, who were the Warner Bros. guys. There are illustrators and animators like Saul Steinberg, Roland Topor who is a French artist, Charles Adams, R. Crumb, Richard Williams who did Roger Rabbit, Marv Newland who did Bambi Meets Godzilla, Peter Chung who did Aeon Flux, Milton Glazer and N.C. Wyeth who is a turn-of-the-century illustrator. Then there's Winsor McCay who I did a documentary about. He was the first guy who used animation as a short form storytelling device. He did Gertie the Dinosaur and The Sinking of Lusitania which are in my mind some of the best animated films ever and these were done in 1914, so he's a major influence too.



Can you talk about the experience of being published for the first time? How does the work differ depending on the size of the audience?

I've been in very small publications like Cineast magazine, which is a film magazine for a very small audience, but also the New York Times, The National Lampoon, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. It's a great feeling to know that millions of people are seeing my illustrations but to be honest that really wasn't what I wanted to be when I grew up. I liked doing illustrations, gag cartoons and humor cartoons for Playboy and Penthouse, but the movement was the magic. To hear people make noises and move and tell stories – to me that was the epitome of being a cartoonist. It wasn't until 1985 that I did my first animated film and it was really successful. It was nominated for an Oscar and all of a sudden, I was this big name in the animation world from one little film. It was an amazing event and the next day I called up my magazines and newspapers and said, I'm stopping print; I'm going into animation. This was in 1985 when a lot of the animation studios were closing down. It was not a good time for animation. They said, you're crazy, don't you know animation is dead, there's no career in animation, you're going to come crawling back on your hands and knees looking for work. I said, no, I think I can do it. And I did a whole string of short films that were very successful. They were on MTV, on Spike and Mike Tournee of Animation and they were on TV stations all over Europe. I started making money and found out later that that was really rare. You're supposed to make short films for festivals but also teach or write to survive. So I was able to make money on my short films immediately. It was a very amazing time.



When you come up with new animations do you see them in your head as a finished piece or do you invent it as you go along?

I see parts of it finished. That's what really excites me about working on the new film. I was doing some sketches and I thought, this would be really fun to make a film about. That really inspires me. I see a few drawings and think they would be fun to make a film about. So I see parts of it as a finished film. Whether it's for a feature or a short film, I get inspired by certain images and ideas. Then I start to do sketches that I think would be interesting or inspirational to help me draw the characters. The story comes in as I do the sketches so it's kind of in tandem. The visuals plus the story come together and oftentimes the ending of the film isn't the way I want it. I'll make changes and that's normal - it happens in all the films I do. I'm going to test my new feature in February. It's unfinished and there are no sound effects but I want to get peoples' feedback. I've been working on this film for almost four years so I've lost perspective. I don't know how people will react to it, so I think it's important that I test the film before it's really finished.


How much has your style changed since you first started drawing?

That's an interesting question because I just did a book and when I was looking at some of my earlier drawings I noticed that my style is kind of the same. It's still cross-etching and sketchy with lots of blacks. I keep coming back to that style. It still excites me; I feel comfortable with it; I feel like it's a really good storytelling style and even though now I use pencil, it still looks similar. Having said that, I do think I'm getting better. I'm a better draftsman. I still go to drawing classes and I think that life drawing is really important. I'm trying to get my draftsmanship better and better.



How do you decide on the music that you use in your films and do you have a favorite style of music?

I've had really great musicians to work with. Originally I worked with Maureen McElheron. I met her when I first moved to New York. She had a duo that was playing all around New York. They had really good songs, great voices and beautiful melodies and so I used her for my first film Your Face. That was a big hit. I love country music, which I grew up with. I'm from Oregon and we listened to a lot of country music like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline. I used Maureen and Hank Bones for three or four features – I Married A Strange Person, Meeting Aliens, Hair High and The Tune. I wanted to try something else so when I did Idiots and Angels I wanted to try a bunch of different musicians. Tom Waits was a big fan so he donated a song. I go to clubs occasionally and if I hear a band that I like, I'll ask them for a CD. I don't listen to the radio that much. Generally I like to use friends' music. Nicole Renaud is a new person I found. She's a French Chanteuse but she lives in New York. She has a very spiritual, mystical voice kind of like Enya – very heavenly. Her melodies are really good. I've hired her to score the new film Cheatin' and she's doing all the music for the film. It's great to work with a musician who really understands the kind of film you're making. You work so hard for two or three years animating, then when you put music on it, all of a sudden it becomes another art form. It transcends just animation. That's one of the fun parts of making films.

Trailer for Idiots & Angels


Did you collaborate with any other artists in Oregon or did you meet them all in New York?

There were some in Oregon – Three-legged Torso and Pink Martini. I know Thomas Lauderdale who is the head of the band and he's been very supportive of my career. He lets me use their music for a very cheap price so I love Pink Martini.


What distinguishes an animation meant for children versus one meant for mature audiences?

I've done a few animations for kids. I think the Guard Dog series is a good children's film and The Fan and the Flower was a good children's film. Kids also love The Cow That Wanted to be a Hamburger. But generally, even though I have a child now, I don't think about the kids' world that much. I think about adult ideas – romance, infidelity, lust, anger and violence. I don't find it my philosophy to make kids' films. If I made kids' films, I'd be competing with Pixar and Dreamworks and I just don't have that kind of studio. I prefer to make films for an adult audience. I think that America is ready for a film that speaks to people our age – people who have adult feelings and thoughts. I don't know why America has been so slow to recognize that. The problem I have with distributing my films is getting a distributor who is interested in trying something different. They all have these blinders on that animation is only for kids and that adults can't enjoy it. I'm fighting this stereotype and also the stereotype that all animation must be computer animated. Distributors think that if you don't have a computer animated film then it's not a commercial film. That's what I'm trying to do, break down those barriers. I think Europe is about ten years ahead of the US. For example, the graphic novel started in Europe in the 1970s. I think now that America accepts graphic novels as a serious medium, they're ready to accept animated films. Japan and Korea are also ahead. That's what makes Cheatin' so interesting. It's kind of like a James M. Cain novel – very cynical, dark relationship stories. If James M. Cain was an animator, this is the kind of film that he would make. It really is a different kind of film for cartoon animation. It's going to be revolutionary when it comes out.



Photo (c) Alexia Anastacio

Do you have an opinion on how technology has impacted your field?

The film I did before Idiots and Angels was called Hair High. That was a painted-cell, which is very traditional, like Disney did back in the 1930s. Snow White was all painted cell. When computers came out in the 1990s I was slow to adapt. They were way out of my budget. Idiots and Angels was the first film I did that was colored on the computer. All my films are hand drawn but to color them is very tedious and time consuming. Now, with digital scanning and coloring, you've got every nuance of the drawing. Every little detail, every smudge and every fingerprint shows up, which I love. That really was a breakthrough for me because the price went down and the quality went way up. It was a nice changeover. However, I don't know if I really like computer animation – a lot of it looks the same and the colors are kind of wonky. I still like hand drawn films. I like films that have the human hand in them. You can see the mistakes and the creativity behind them. It's very unique.



How were you approached to do the couch gag for The Simpsons? What was the creative process like for coming up with something unique for such a well-known segment?

First of all, I knew Matt Groening when he was just doing print cartoons. I knew his father even before then. He was a wonderful filmmaker. He did "industrials" which were long 20-30 minute commercials for Johnson Motors or things like that. I was a big fan of his father. So I've known Matt for a long time and we hang out occasionally. We were at Annecy, a festival in France, and he said, you should do something for The Simpsons. I said, yeah I'd love to do it, are you kidding me? He said, why don't you give us a storyboard and we'll see if we can do it. I had two ideas and they bought both. The first one was where Homer literally falls in love with the couch and they have a baby, which is pretty racy for network television but I'm glad they did that. They had a lot of positive feedback on that one. In fact, more people saw that Simpsons couch gag than have seen all my work since I've been doing films! I'm working on the second one now.

Opening Sequence from "Beware My Cheating Bart"

Can you talk about your collaboration with Kanye West?

I got a phone call late at night. A guy came on the phone and said, "Is this Bill Plympton? This is Kanye West, I need a music video." I knew who he was. I'm not a big hip-hop fan but I actually liked his music. He really has something to say. So we met and he played me the song. I had a week to do it because they were supposed to premiere on MTV. So we worked for five days drawing this thing. He thought it was really good and we premiered it. It was a big success. I remember being in Finland and I turned on the TV and there was my music video! It was pretty bizarre. It was fun working with Kanye and we did a book together, Through the Wire. That was a lot of fun. That's sort of a backstory with all his songs and art to illustrate the music. It's a pretty cool book.

Heard 'Em Say by Kanye West

How do you feel about censorship in animation and in the creative media?

I've only been censored a couple of times and generally I don't mind it because I want the audience to like it – I'm not here to freak people out. I just want them to laugh. The three times I've been censored were when I did I Married a Strange Person. Blockbuster wanted us to cut four sexual sequences out and I said okay. I couldn't say anything anyway because the distributor had made the deal. Then I did a commercial for the Oregon lottery "Blackjack". There was a winning lottery ticket flying around space with a guy is chasing and grabbing it. It went underneath a lawnmower and the kid puts his hand underneath to pull out the winning ticket and his hand gets sliced up. They thought kids would start sticking their hands up lawnmowers so they cut that. Again, those were out of my hands because the client really takes care of that stuff and it's a commercial so I just want to do something good. As an independent filmmaker I can pretty much do whatever I want. So it's not an issue I have to deal with that much.


How much input do you give when you're working with the other people who are helping bring your work to life?

A lot. The visions, the style and the storytelling are all in my head so it's their job to look inside my brain and pull out the final result. I'll walk around occasionally, look over their shoulders and say, that colors not right or move the camera over a little bit or lets speed it up – that kind of thing. I don't have the time to really micro-manage the film, I have to let it go and give some freedom to the artist. One of the problems I've had with the new film is the artist wanted a lot of purple in it. I like purple but it looks really bad in animation. It has to be used very sparingly – if you use too much purple it blows your eyes out. I know that sounds strange but when you see a kids' cartoon and there's a lot of purple on it, it drives me bats. I just can't take it.



Where do you come up with your ideas?

I think the streets of New York are a really big help. There's so much weirdness going on in the street – so many diverse personalities, characters and clothing, languages and food. New York is such a hodgepodge of culture that I just walk down one block and I get two or three great ideas. It's total stimulation.



You're raising money for your seventh animated feature Cheatin'. Do you find Kickstarter a good way to raise money for an independent film?

Yeah, it's amazing. I've done it before two other times. I had a project about Winsor McCay, the artist. I wanted to take one of his old films from 1921 and update it - in other words, put color and sound on it, have voices and clean up the dirty film scratches. We raised $20,000 on Kickstarter for that. That was fun. There was a documentary made about me by Alexia Anastasio and she used Kickstarter for that too. We decided to do a Kickstarter so we could finish Cheatin'. We put it at $70,000 and we surpassed it so we've boosted the goal to $90,000 now.


What made you want to try this new digital watercolor technique?

When you look at my early artwork, you can see that's the style I used when I was an illustrator. Nobody does that in animation now. I don't know if its too retro or too expensive or slow or no one has the talent to do it – I don't know what the reason is. So I thought it would be really fun to make a film using that style. They are like seeing a watercolor painting in a museum – really luscious and just so warm and friendly.


You mentioned that you collect pictures to inspire you. How many people contributed to the development of each character in the new film?

Yes. They're a really important part of the research process. I'll look through magazines and do sketches. I love old Hollywood movie posters so I'll use stuff like that as inspiration to design the characters. I'll just flip through a magazine and say, this would be perfect for the film, and I'll tear it out. When I do my sketches I'll hang them up on the wall and use them for a resource.


What is the significance of the shadows on "Ella"?

Something that really bugs me about Disney animation is that you don't see a lot of shadows. The CG has shadows but the 2D is very flat. I really think it's important to have shadows on the characters and in the backgrounds, like in Miyazaki's films. They really get into the shadows and the characters are so beautifully colored and shaded. My favorite of his films is Porco Rosso.



What is the story of your animation Drunk?

That was based on a poem by Walt Curtis called "The Time the Drunk Came Into Town". I loved that poem because it was so typically western. I love drawing cowboys – they are so much fun to draw. It'll be done in 3 weeks, we're just coloring it now. It's basically him reading this poem, it's three minutes long, and it's about this drunk that comes into town. Everybody hates him because he's a drunk, so I guess its kind of an anti-alcoholic film. It's a comedy. The artwork is very similar to my early stuff but the drawing is better.



What advice would you give to young animators?

There are a lot of things to think about. You really must love to draw, that's very important. You should like to tell stories. I think you have to be curious, like a child and see the world like no one else has seen it. Be curious as to why things happen or why people act in certain ways, how people move and why. You discover a lot of great ideas that way. Carry a drawing pad with you to write down ideas for stories. Do sketches of people at the bus stop or watching TV or in the movie theater. Also look at a lot of animation. Watch a lot of films. Look at the old films. A lot of people have forgotten who Winsor McCay is. He's a genius animator. I think a lot of the young artists now don't really have the knowledge of what went before them.


What do you know now that you wish you had known in your twenties?

I wish I'd been more aggressive. I'm a very shy guy. For example, Ralph Bakshi was making his first feature film Fritz the Cat here in New York and I should have just gone through the door and said, I'll do anything to work here. If I had started animating when I first moved here, I'd be much farther along in my career. I got into animation when I was about 36. I spent the other fifteen years doing illustration but I was more attuned to being an animator than an illustrator. If I was a little more aggressive, I think I could have gotten into the business earlier. I should have called up all the animation studios and asked for work.


Do you have anything else to say about your upcoming film?

Cheatin' will really rock the animation world! It shows that an independent filmmaker can do something very different and unique. I think this will be my breakthrough film because everybody I show it to goes nuts when I see it. I hope I can finish the film in June. That's my goal.


Adventures in Plymptoons! is available on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu in the US and streaming Worldwide.


You can find Bill's book of artwork: Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation on Amazon as well as Through The Wire, his collaboration with Kanye West!



You can help Bill reach his goal for Cheatin' on Kickstarter!




Kickstarter Promo for Cheatin'

Bill's animators Desiree Stavracos and Lindsay Woods showed us a bit of the digital watercolor process and spoke about the procedure for Cheatin':

Desiree: Bill wanted a watercolor scene so he wanted something that I consider to seem very impressionistic. It's not super defined, it's almost blotchy in a way. You can kind of see the lines and things spilling over. There's a richness to it that's essentially trying to sell the mood of the film by using the colors. It's a dialogue-less film and a very emotionally intense film. So a lot of attention is being paid to the camera angles and extreme perspectives. Lindsey is pouring a lot of heart and soul into the color palette to try and move the audience through the mood of the film. The last layers will be the sound. What we use to color the film is a program called Photoshop.

Lindsay: For the backgrounds, I usually put down color once and then I test it with the animation on top to see if it looks okay compositionally and tweak things from there. It really depends on the background. Sometimes I have a really clear idea of what I want it to look like and sometimes I don't. We decided as a studio to go with a painterly style and then it was experimentation from there.

Desiree: We watch a lot of pencil tests which are Bill's rough animations to figure out what's going on in the scene like where the action is, what point in the plot we're at, what kind of mood we're trying to set and what we're trying to illicit from the audience. We scanned in some old paper from Bill's sketchbooks and overlayed it on top to make the scene look like it was painted on paper. It really sells that watercolor look. At its simplest, the process goes sky, the buildings, the color and then drawings and paper texture. The animation then gets its drawing layer and gets a solid under-painting and a shadow. We use Bill's cross-etching as a guide. It might then get a highlight and if it's a close-up, they'll get some blush on their cheeks. We have so many more colors in this film than have ever been done in a Bill Plympton feature. There are so many background characters, all wearing different things. Unlike on Idiots and Angels, which was overcast, this is bright day with carnivals and bumper cars, sunset chase scenes with trains – this film goes all over the place. We have around twenty to twenty-five different environments in this film. That all had to be re-tooled as we go so that everything works. This process is where the artist's sensibilities really come in because we have Bill's drawing layer but making this work consistently from frame to frame and understanding light sources and the way things move is why we hired artists who spend their days blushing, highlighting and shading all of this stuff. This four to five step process happens for every single drawing and there are about 40,000 drawings. At our best we can color up to fifteen scenes in a day. There are 1,100 scenes in the film. But then we have to go back and assemble all of it in the computer to actually make it move and we do all the camera movements and the finessing in the computer. Then you have to get the music, sound effects and edit it. It's a very long process but very inspiring.

Trailer for Adventures in Plymptoons! A Documentary by Alexia Anastasio


Bonus: A short discussion with filmmaker Alexia Anastasio:

672595_300How long have you been a fan of Bill's work and why was it special to you?

I have been a fan of Bill Plympton's work since about 2001 when I saw Mutant Aliens. It was special to me because I was a production assistant for the Golden Trailer Awards at the time and they were doing a promotion at Sundance, where they brought a gold air stream trailer that they transformed into a mini movie theater. It was my job to fill it and show trailers to the audience. The Mutant Aliens trailer was one of the selected trailers that I showed and every time it got the biggest laugh. I think the reaction and the amount of times I watched it might have had an effect on how Bill's films entered my life.


How did you get involved with Plymptoons, and how much convincing did you have to do for Bill to agree to do the documentary?

I had met Bill a number of times over the years at film festivals and at pretty much every NYC film party with an open bar. I saw a show where Bill did a master class and showed his short films, shared his story and behind-the-scenes of what he does. He inspired the audience. I helped him with his table afterwards where everybody got a free drawing and bought merchandise. The audience was eating it up. They especially loved his original art. This is when the light bulb went off. I was looking for a topic for my first documentary feature at the time and I knew that if I did a documentary on Bill I could inspire others that wanted to be full time artists. I asked if I could do the documentary on him and he agreed after looking at my proposal. I am glad he did.

How would you describe Bill's work to someone who isn't familiar with it?

Surreal, weird, wacky, filled with sex, violence and funny gags.

Can you describe Bill's personality?

Introspective, curious, workaholic, ambiguous, anxious and talented.

How much of Bill comes out in his animations? What did you appreciate most about his creative process?

Everything comes out in his animation. He keeps his jokes for the page. I appreciated his openness to learn about new marketing ideas and work together in that respect.

Your next project is about the secret life of ginger girls! What's the closest thing you can tell me about the film that won't reveal a ginger secret?

My next film, Ginger Girls: The Secret Lives of Redheads dives into the lives of girls with red hair and focuses on identity, friendship and those who use their red hair as a positive force in their life.

Alexia Anastasio