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Toon Zone Interviews Indie Animator Bill Plympton on "Idiots & Angels"

Bill Plympton in front of some of his awardsHis parents relate a story that when he was a boy, Bill Plympton was given the princely sum of $25 to spend whatever he wanted on a trip to Disneyland. However, rather than spend it on candy or toys, Plympton insisted on spending the money on a book on how to do animation instead. It’s lucky for animation fans that he did, because Plympton went on to create some of the most idiosyncratic, distinctive, and flat-out bizarre animation in the history of the medium.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1946, Plympton credits the rainy climate for nurturing his drawing skills and imagination rather than his outdoor sporting skills. He audaciously submitted samples to the Walt Disney Animation Studios at the ripe age of 14, and was told that while his drawings showed promise, he was too young. After going to college at Portland State University, Plympton spent a year at the School of Visual Arts, moving on to become a commercial illustrator and cartoonist whose work appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, House Beautiful, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Screw, and Vanity Fair.

In 1983, he finally broke into the world of animation with Boomtown. Since then, his work has been nominated for multiple awards, and has been seen in animation festivals, television commercials, MTV’s Liquid Television, and in cinemas, where he has the distinction of producing the first feature-length movie to be animated by a single person (The Tune). His latest feature film, Idiots & Angels, is debuting this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Toon Zone News got to sit down with Plympton at his studio in New York City to talk about making Idiots & Angels.

TOON ZONE NEWS: First of all, congratulations on being named one of the 85 Weirdest Storytellers of the Past 85 Years by Weird Tales magazine.

PLYMPTON: Yes! I mean, that’s fantastic. Can’t beat that. There are some great names up there.

TZN: Do you consider yourself weird?

PLYMPTON: Well, no…I’m an extremely boring person. A very normal person. I think I have a talent for taking everyday strange occurrences and turning them into bizarre stories. I think I can make something that is boring interesting, and I think that’s why people think that I’m a strange person. But I’m extremely traditional. I get up at 7:00 AM, I go right to the drawing board, and I work all day long. I work until 7:00 PM, go out and have a dinner, maybe see a movie, and that’s it. That’s my lifestyle. So I wish I could tell you that I had a lot of kinky, weird skeletons in my closet (laughs), but I don’t.

TZN: Have you ever looked at anything you’ve done, and then erased it and went, “Nope, nope, sorry…that’s not weird enough”?

PLYMPTON: Ah…that’s a good question. I’ll tell you what I did do on Idiots & Angels. The first draft of it was much more an adventure story. They went to foreign lands, and I think there were a bunch of cops involved, and there were some spies. It was very dramatic. And I took a look at it and I said, “No, wait, this film is not going to be that kind of movie. This is going to be just a 3 or 4 character film, it’s going to be more psychological, more interior. It’s going to be a mysterious mood thing.” So I took a lot of that action stuff out. There was a lot of action in there, and a lot of crazy, crazy stunts and action set pieces, and I really kind of brought it back to a lot more interior kind of action and suspense, rather than exterior action and suspense. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but it is interesting how the film started out in a whole different direction.

TZN: Who do you think is weird?

PLYMPTON: Hmmmm….well, Hunter Thompson is definitely weird. I met him. He was a very weird guy. Who do I think is weird? Well, I have a lot of weird friends and I like the weird friends because they give me inspiration. They give me a lot of ideas and a lot of character profiles, and I feel inspiration from them. So I do actually like friends who are very outgoing, very provocative, very engaging, whereas I like just to sit and listen, and if I do a sketch of them or write down some ideas, then I’m more of an observer while they’re more of a participant.

TZN: On the Idiots & Angels website, there’s a story that it started as an offhand remark.

The lead of 'Idiots & Angels' misusing his wingsPLYMPTON: Yes, it was. It was in this festival in Lille, which is in northern France, and it’s a very nice festival. People love animation there, and I think I was doing a retrospective. They had an intern walking me back to my hotel, because I get lost after a few drinks, and he asked me what my next film was going to be because he really likes my stuff. And so I said, “Oh, it’s this ******* guy who wakes up one morning with wings.” And he goes, “Yeah! That’s a good idea! I like that.” And so, I said, “Yeah, hey, it is kind of an interesting idea.” (laughs)

TZN: Had you thought of the story before that?

PLYMPTON: No, not that I can recollect. Maybe some morning I woke up and thought about wings or something, but I don’t recall it.

TZN: So it was just this spontaneous answer…

PLYMPTON: Spontaneous, top of the head, you know, “Maybe I’ll do something like this…” And that night, as I was laying in my hotel room, I was thinking about that concept, and I really got inspired. It sort of possessed me, and I started jotting down ideas. I think I had 2 or 3 pages of ideas that first night, and I just went right into it. It really just took hold of me, and was so much fun to do.

This film, actually, is one of the most fun feature films I’ve ever done, and a lot of it is because of this drawing style. It’s just pencil on paper. I don’t have to worry about color. It’s very dark and cartoon noir, and I can just draw these characters with pencil. If I make a mistake, I erase it and redraw it, and it looks even better. There’s no rules. I can just go crazy with it. And no dialogue, which means I don’t have to follow a certain script, and I don’t have to have the lip sync, which is always a problem for me. The lip sync is very difficult. I just like the technique and the matter that there’s no dialogue. It just felt so comfortable, and I could just draw it forever. It was sad, actually, when I finished the film, it was like post-partum depression. I just felt like, “Oh, I just want to keep drawing this guy! He’s such a wacky guy. Don’t stop!”

TZN: How much planning ahead of time do you do with your movies? Do you write a whole script first, or do you go straight to storyboards?

PLYMPTON: Well, for this film, there was no script simply because there was no dialogue. There was, however, a graphic novel or comic book version. That was about 200 pages, I think, with about 6 panels per page, so almost every shot had an image. And that took me about a year to do. First of all, I made an outline of the key plot points — the character arc, as they say — and the other characters, how they sort of fit in with his odyssey and his transformation. So that was the first thing. And as I was doing this outline, I would do little doodles and sketches of the backgrounds and the clothing and the vehicles and what they would look like. And then once I sort of had that outline — I think it was about 3 or 4 pages in outline form — I just started doing the storyboard, and that took me a long time. That was about 3 or 4 months. The storyboard represents character design, it represents the cinematography, the decor, the backgrounds, the movement, the technique…so much of the film is done once you do that storyboard, a lot of the work is done right there. And then I just go and start animating. I put the little story board above my desk, and I say, “OK, here’s panel 1, I’m goign to do that one,” and it’s just following the storyboard. So that’s really the easy part.

TZN: But you board the whole film before you start animating it?

PLYMPTON: Totally board it. And I do make changes. Occasionally, I’ll make changes on the board. Not a lot…not major changes, but, I’ll change 3 or 4 pages. Maybe 5 pages, something like that. It’s pretty close to being done once it’s storyboarded.

TZN: Is that the way you normally work, or did you modify your process for this film because there’s no dialogue in this film?

PLYMPTON: No, it’s pretty much the same. For all the previous films, I Married a Strange Person, Mutant Aliens, and Hair High, I also did graphic novels, and we sold the graphic novel as a money maker and as a sort of…not introduction, but a way to see my films as a progressive work of art, like from print to film. And it’s really nice for young students of animation or art or graphic novels to see how that translates.

TZN: Is the Idiots & Angels graphic novel going to be sold?

PLYMPTON: Yeah, it will be. We’re waiting for some kind of distribution deal for the movie. We’re actually talking to a couple of publishers right now about a graphic novel version, but that will be after the film has been made and picked up for distribution.

TZN: You also mentioned on the movie website that the “Shuteye Hotel” short film was practice for doing Idiots & Angels. What did you bring into the movie that you learned from doing that?

PLYMPTON: Well, first of all, I think that “Shuteye Hotel” was the first film…if not the first, then the second…that was scanned in, and then edited and colored on a computer. Before that, all my films were photographed with film on a big animation stand and painted on cels. So that was a big jump. That was a real big leap for us.

Heck of a way to learn to flyTZN: There’s that special feature on The Tune DVD where they show you cutting out a lot of drawings on paper.

PLYMPTON: Right (laughs), that was so tedious and time-consuming, and I did a lot of that cutting out, too. Thank God I don’t have to do that any more. That was a lot of work.

So “Shuteye Hotel” was, again, just pencil on paper. Backgrounds were composited on the original art. Also “Shuteye Hotel” was a much darker film. A lot of shadows, a lot of dark areas, a lot of film noir, and so that was another way it was really a testing ground for this techinque for this film.

TZN: What did “Shuteye Hotel” teach you as far as what NOT to do?

PLYMPTON: Well, not to use CGI. That was a major mistake. While I like the computer animation on there, and I think it does add a nice touch to the film, it was very slow. It slowed down the production time, and it was very expensive. The hotel was all CGI, and some of the backgrounds, too, and it took the film way over budget. I think it added another $2,000 to $4,000 to the budget, and it also slowed down the production time by about 2 months. So unless Pixar wants to come to me and offer me a lot of money to do a film, I probably won’t be doing CGI in the near future.

TZN: I remember reading a comment where you said that Idiots & Angels was a sort of the diametric opposite of Hair High.

PLYMPTON: Yes. Yes, that’s true. Hair High was a tough film for me. Obviously, it started out with great ambitions, and I still like the film a lot. I think it’s a wonderful film. I think it’s one of my best films. But, it was so expensive to make. I went into debt. I had to leave my studio, I was so in debt. And when we released the film, it wasn’t really ready to be released, but I didn’t have the money to finish the film, so consequently, it didn’t get the kind of press and distributor interest that I had hoped for. So it became kind of a non-performer, which is sad, because I think it’s a great film.

So I just said, “Screw all these big-name actors. Screw all this huge color and computer and lots of action,” and everything. I wanted to do a really small, intimate one-man film. Just me doing the drawings, we’ll add some color on the computer and that’s it. So the budget for Idiots & Angels is about one quarter what it was for Hair High. It’s a lot smaller budget, it’s a lot easier to do, and it’s a lot less personnel. So it was a much more pleasant experience.

TZN: It seems like your short films tend to go without dialogue, more than the features. Did you ever find that going silent made it harder to work through a particular story point?

PLYMPTON: No. There was really only one one or two moments in there where I felt that not having dialogue was inhibiting. I think generally speaking, it gave me a lot of freedom, and so what I would do if I couldn’t get any dialogue was I would put a fantasy in there…a fantasy bubble. And that always worked really well. People loved the fantasies in Idiots & Angels, you know, like the scenes where they thought about the butterfly, or the blonde wanted to be dancing in the flowers with the butterfly. Things like that. I think it actually worked better as a purely fantasy sort of statement about their feelings. Rather than them talking about their feelings, they think about their feelings. I think it went really well.

TZN: Doing it as fantasy also plays up to the strengths of animation.

PLYMPTON: Right. Right. Yes, there’s no rules. You can be as weird as you want.

TZN: In scenes like that, I find a lot of your movies have this real improvisational quality, which is odd because you just mentioned that you storyboard the entire thing at first.

PLYMPTON: You know, other people say the same thing. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult, because there’s very little improvisation in there. Occasionally, I’ll go off on a little tangent and do something weird. I mean, I like the films to be weird. I don’t want them to be Pixar or DreamWorks or Disney. I want them to be special. You know, this is something I’m going to talk about on the premiere. I’m going to say, “What you’re going to watch is a very imperfect film.” There’s a lot of mistakes. Tons of mistakes, but I think that’s what makes this film really interesting to watch. Really special. It’s the mistakes that make it such a cool experience to watch. So, to get back to your question, I don’t improvise that much. Occasionally, I’ll go off on a little joke if I’m drawing it and it comes to my mind, but it’s very definitely storyboarded.

AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!TZN: I don’t know about anyone else, but I do mean it as a compliment, because animation is so deliberate, especially the way you’re doing it because you’re drawing everything.

PLYMPTON: It’s very highly planned. In animation, every little frame has to be planned out ahead of time, and if it’s not, then it goes way over budget and you have to re-plan the whole thing, so you never see that happening. But I do occasionally go off on a weird side-track.

TZN: You’ve mentioned Disney and Pixar a couple of times. There’s one urban legend I’ve seen which I just wanted to clarify that says that Disney offered you a colossal sum of money to work on Aladdin. Is that true?

PLYMPTON: (Laughs) Well, let me tell you the details on that story. This was around 1989 or 1990, and they offered me a million dollars, which back then was a lot of money. I mean, now, it’s still a lot of money, but it was more money back then. And they didn’t say what it was for. They just said, “We want to hire you to come to L.A. and work on our project.” Now right at that time I was trying to do The Tune, my first feature film, so I was pretty much engrossed in that. And then they gave me this contract, and it’s a big contract. People say that negotiating with Disney is not so much Good Cop/Bad Cop, but it’s more like Bad Cop/Anti-Christ (laughs), and I think there’s a little bit of truth to that. For example, if I worked on a film on the weekend, on my free time, they said, “Yeah, you can do that, but we will own it.” I said, “Well, what if I do a funny little sketch or a doodle or something?” “Yeah, we own that.” And what if I had a dream? “We own that.”

So that’s the way that Disney works, and I don’t begrudge them that because a lot of people want to dedicate their lives to Disney, but I don’t. I want to do these quirky little films when I want on the side. And also I felt that they would stick me with some stupid, insipid kids’ show. There was no real plan as to where I would end up at Disney. It was only later, when I’d turned them down, that I learned they did want me for Aladdin. I think I found out through some animator there at Disney Studios that they wanted me to do the genie…the Robin Williams character. So that’s just hearsay, that’s what I heard from some of the animators. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

TZN: The ability to be independent and do whatever seizes your fancy seems to be very important to your work. If a Disney or a Pixar or a DreamWorks or a Sony or whoever did approach you with that…

PLYMPTON: Yes, I would be very tempted. Especially Pixar. I think Pixar does great stuff. Or Blue Sky. I love Blue Sky. If they came to me and said, “Here’s a couple million dollars to direct our next feature film,” I would think very hard about it, and I probably would take it if it sounded like an interesting project. But I think they’re afraid of me. I think a lot of people on the West Coast are afraid of me. They think I’m this sex-addled, violent, rebel maverick guy when I’m actually a very mild-mannered, quiet person. So I think they’re hands-off with me, because after that Disney thing, I’ve never had any kind of offer, or even a hint of an offer.

TZN: It seems that a lot of what you’ve learned about the craft of animation is self-taught. Is that correct?

PLYMPTON: That’s right, yeah. I did take an animation class at SVA (the School for Visual Arts), but the teacher was not very good and I really didn’t learn anything, so that was a waste of time. I had the great, great Preston Blair book since I was 12, I think, and that was my bible. I looked at all those pages on how to do walk cycles and how to draw expressions and faces. So that was a big help, but the whole mechanical process, I did not learn until I was doing my first film Boomtown, and this was in 1983, I believe, and a woman by the name of Connie D’Antuono walked me through the whole process: this is your exposure sheet, these are your animation papers and your pegbars, this is where you get your sound transferred, this is where you shoot the film, and what camera and all that sort of stuff. She was wonderful at getting me acquainted with the whole technology of animation.

TZN: Do you think that lack of formal training has affected the way that you animate, compared to others?

PLYMPTON: No, I don’t think that it’s affected the way I animate, but I do think it’s affected my career and I’ll tell you why. If I had learned how to animate when I was in college…if I had a teacher who had said, “This is how you make a film,” I think I’d be a lot more further along in my career, because then I’d be like a Tim Burton or a John Lasseter, maybe. I started late in my career. I was an illustrator and a caricature artist up until the mid-80s. And so if I’d started in the 70’s, who knows how much work I could have done? But in a way, I think that the reason why I’m so prolific is that I’m trying to make up for all that lost time. You know, in the last 20 years, I’ve done 9 feature films — 6 of them animated — and 30 short films, and numerous commercials and commissioned pieces, so I’m really very fast in the way I work, and I think it’s because I felt like I was making up all that lost time that I had.

TZN: You just mentioned that you started off as a commercial artist and a gag cartoonist. Is that the reason why you do the comics as part of your scripting process?

PLYMPTON: Yeah, I think that’s one reason. I do love to do comics, and I think it’s an important way to tell a story, and I just take the comics and take one more step and add music and sound and movement, so it is definitely an offshoot of that earlier part of my career.

TZN: I loved the story you contributed to the latest Flight anthology, by the way.

PLYMPTON: Oh, thank you, yeah, the cloud thing! That actually had dialogue, and I really was surprised that I used dialogue for that. It’s a funny story. One day, I may turn that into a film. I think it’s a funny idea: the clouds having their own little community, a little world up there.

TZN: You just mentioned music. It seems that music is also a very important part of your work. Is that something you are thinking of while you are producing a film?

PLYMPTON: Yeah, well, for example, when I was drawing Idiots & Angels, I listened to a lot of music. This was such a dark film, and as I was drawing it, I listened to some Tom Waits, and just I realized that his music would be so perfect for this film. It’s really the same kind of feeling of mystery and evil. I don’t know the guy, although I really liked his films. So I called Jim Jarmusch up, who’s a buddy of mine, and I said that I’d love to show this film to Tom Waits and maybe get some songs from him. So Jim said, “Well, send me a copy of the film, or a clip from the film” — I didn’t send him the whole film — and he liked it a lot. He thought it was really good, and so he was happy to pass it on to Tom. Now, I’ve never talked to Tom Waits. I don’t know what he’s like, but I did talk to his people — I think it was his wife — so I negotiated everything with her. But she was very accommodating. I mean, he could have charged me $10,000 or $50,000, and you know, that’s his normal rate, but I got a very good price for his music just because he’s not out to make money and get rich. He wants to support the projects that he believes in. He wants to support projects that he thinks are worthwhile, so I was very happy to have that connection.

Bill Plympton at workTZN: You already mentioned that you liked Pixar and Blue Sky, but who else or what else do you like in animation these days?

PLYMPTON: I don’t know if I mentioned this film, but I saw one film called Mind Game. It’s a Japanese film that came out three or four years ago. It opened in Japan and apparently did not do well, so the producers pulled the film back and they didn’t really promote it that much, but I saw it at the Asian Film Festival, and it blew me away. I think that film is one of the most imaginative, far-out films. To me, it’s the Citizen Kane of animation. I’ve seen it twice now, and the second time, it got even better. So crazy and bizarre. That was one of the films that was a big inspiration for me. Also, you know, Disney of course was a very big influence at a young age, and also Bob Clampett and Tex Avery, were both really wonderful, wonderful inspirations. Today, I think Miyazaki does wonderful stuff. I like Sylvain Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville, I think that’s a wonderful film. I did not like Persepolis all that much. I mean, I thought the story was good, but I thought the animation was very boring and bland and kind of amateurish, actually. I like Marv Newland’s stuff, I think he’s a really talented animator. Those are my favorites. Also Joanna Quinn…I don’t know if you know her or not. She’s a really wonderful animator from England.

TZN: This may end up becoming a story in about four or five years, but what’s next?

PLYMPTON: Ah, yeah, there you go! (laughs) OK, you heard it first here. I’m working on a film now that is pretty much the same kind of style and feel as Idiots & Angels. It’s a love story with a young girl and her cheating husband. Her husband cheats on her, and it’s how they resolve his wandering eyes. It’s sort of influenced by the look and the characters of Touch of Evil. The characters are so rich and cartoony in that film, I’d like to try and match that with animation.

Idiots & Angels premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Visit the Idiots & Angels official website for screening times and more information about the movie.

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