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Bill Plympton, Animator - Profile Interview Series Vol. #6

Jason Whyte and Bill Plympton during the 2004 Victoria Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

When I met Bill Plympton at this year’s Victoria Independent Film Festival, I didn’t know what to expect. A few weeks prior, Mr. Plympton was kind enough to send me a care package with VHS tapes of the three films that were playing during the festival: his short “Guard Dog” which is a nominee for Best Animated Short at the 2004 Academy Awards, his latest feature film “Hair High” which crosses “Grease” and “Carrie” for a wicked, description-defying look at 1950’s high school through Plympton’s eyes, and “Mondo Plympton” is a recently produced documentary about the master’s work.

I’ve been a fan of animation for many years, and getting a glimpse into the career of a man whose base has been off-kilter animation in the form of various animated features, animated shorts and commercials has been nothing short of mesmerizing.

Plympton, 58, has been a force on the indie-animation scene for decades. A native of Portland, Oregon where he was born in a large family of three girls and three boys, he believed that his upbringing to the realm of animation was because of Oregon’s rainy climate (trust me, I’ve been there and I know exactly what he means). In his teenage years, he sent various cartoons of his to Disney with his animation services, but was responded with the “it shows promise, but you’re too young” response. He graduated Oregon City high school in 1964 which led to Portland State University, where he got his first crack at animation, by way of editing the yearbook and becoming a part of the film society. (His first creation was a yearbook promo that was rendered upside-down, which became useless.) He eventually landed a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design.

In 1968, he moved to New York City and took up with the School of Visual Arts. He had no money at this point, resorting to selling belts on the street. (“It was January, about 25 degrees outside. I couldn’t sell a one!” he once commented in an interview.) He did many illustrations and cartoon work, designing the magazines Cineaste, Filmmakers Newletter and Film Society Review. In 1975, he began a political cartoon strip known as “Plympton”, which eventually found its way to over twenty papers by Universal press by 1981.

Since then, Bill Plympton has been involved in the production and direction of animated shorts and features. “Boomtown” (1983) was his first foray into the animated short world, and “The Tune” (1992) marked his first feature debut. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1987 for “Your Face” (which lost to the Canadian short “L Homme qui plantait des arbres”) and whose work has been seen in various film festivals, animation festivals (most notably the wonderful Spike and Mike (www.spikeandmike.com) film festivals) and various other special screenings around the world.

I don’t think Mr. Plympton could be any happier right now. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Mr. Plympton from his hotel suite at Laurel Point Inn during the closing weekend of this year’s Victoria Film Festival, where he was being paid tribute with presentations of “Guard Dog” and “Hair High” along with his “Mondo Plympton” documentary. I finally got a glimpse at the man I have been curious to meet for a while now.

Jason Whyte: Is this your first time visiting Victoria?
Bill Plympton: It is, I like it very much. Today we were driving around the coastal area and it was just beautiful. There’s a great quality to this city.

JW: I was unable to attend your screening of the “Mondo Plympton” documentary during the festival. How did that screening go? Were there any crazy, rabid fans or reactions?
BP: Very good; The crowd was good, the response was good, but I have to be honest with you, I didn’t like the projection of it. The print was lost around Russia where it was playing another screening, so they had to substitute it with a video. This is unfortunate, because the print had such a great clarity and brightness which is just lost with video. The screenings of “Hair High” and “Guard Dog” I have 35mm prints for, and they look amazing. (Looking at tape recorder) Is this on?

JW: *laughs* Yeah, it’s on, it’s going. We’re in your quiet hotel room, we’re not picking any outside noise, it’s great.
BP: Ah, good. Yeah, this is great.

JW: Have you had any rabid or crazy fans show up in Victoria to support your work?
BP: Not here, not yet anyway, although a few people have wanted me to sign rather curious items. I just came from France, and the French are just maniacs about films and animation. We had huge, multiple screenings of my work there. I was nearly mobbed at the screening of “Mondo Plympton” and they had to turn away large groups of people. I also had adoring fans waiting for me outside the hotel, which is something I’m not used to being an animator.

JW: All of that attention and nothing here just yet?
BP: Not yet. France and Spain are the two places that are just bananas about animation and they love my stuff. In the [United] States, it takes a while to build up that kind of audience.

JW: Would you say that you have a personal style to your work; something that would define Bill Plympton?
BP: Yes. I think that first of all, the subject matter is very adult, a lot of sex and violence. (Laughs) I think the technique is very raw and very, what’s the word, rough, almost like a garage band, kind of rude and crude. I think the drawing is good, with good craftsmanship, but its not polished and clean and anti-septic. It’s rugged.

JW: But that’s the way you want it, it’s what you like.
BP: Yes. Absolutely.

JW: Let’s say that a big studio approached you. Would you ever change your style for a larger studio?
BP: If the money was there, I would certainly work with them, if Dreamworks or Disney or Pixar came to me. I have no real issue with that, it’s not a problem for me.

JW: You’ve had such a career putting together all sorts of different kinds of work. Would you say that you had a dream project that you haven’t done yet? What movie would you want to make?
BP: Well there is a project that I’d like to do. One that I’ve been thinking about for a long time but I don’t think is going to happen is to do a “Fantasia” sort of feature film, but set to Beatles music. I always thought that would be a very cool idea. Group together a bunch of top animators from around the world to choose a Beatles song they like and make an animated short from the music.

JW: I think that would be a lot of fun! I hope that someone would come and say “Here’s an unlimited budget, you just come out and surprise us.”
BP: Yeah. Of course the difficult part would be to get the rights to the music and getting the support of Paul McCartney and such.

JW: With “Hair High”, you had a very eclectic soundtrack. Did you have a lot of trouble getting the rights to the music for that film?
BP: We did. At one point, we had a Link Ray song that I LOVED, it was a beautiful song. And we had negotiations with his lawyer and it just went nowhere. And then I finally had to cut it loose. I couldn’t afford it; I just didn’t have the money. The same thing happened with the Cramps; we were negotiating with them, but too much money. We eventually did put together a great soundtrack featuring music that I really liked.

JW: How about the voice actors? You have Dermot Mulroney, Beverly D’Angelo and Keith Carradine in here.
BP: That was through the help of Martha Plimpton, who is a distant relative of mine…

JW: Martha Plimpton, the actress? She was from “The Goonies”..
BP: She WAS from “The Goonies”! (Laughs) She was able to get a really good deal from these people as a “Favor”. We paid them money, of course, and from my mind it was good money but I’m sure to them it was very little. But they were all big fans of my work, they were excited about working on the project, and we only used them for an hour anyway so it wasn’t like it was a big strain on their schedule. (Laughs)

JW: It was basically an in-and-out kind of thing.
BP: They had about five pages of dialogue and they did it an hour.

JW: Did you do the voices first before you did the animation? It’s different with a lot of animated films.
BP: Yes, we did it first. The voices were before, because we had to lip synch the mouth to match the dialogue.

JW: In the future, are there any actors, be it regular actors or voice actors, that you would want to work with?
BP: Oh yeah! There’s a lot of them. Angelina Jolie, I’d like to work with her. Christopher Walken has a great voice, and I’d like to work with them. Oh there’s so many that I just can’t think of right now.

JW: Angelina Jolie just did the voice of one of the fish in “Shark Tale”, and it’s also interesting to note that these days a lot of bigger actors are doing voice work and their names get plastered over the credits. Ten years ago it was mostly the same small group of connected people doing the voice work for everything.
BP: That’s the unfortunate thing, because the films are really created by the animators, and they get no credit at all. And the voice actors come in for an hour or two, and certainly they are big stars, but they do the quick work and get all the credit for it. That’s backwards, I think. The people, like Brad Bird, who did “The Incredibles”; that has been the man’s passion for over eight years and when they talk about the movie they normally focus on the voice talent. The name “Brad Bird” isn’t mentioned much when talking about that movie.

JW: Would you ever consider doing a feature with computer graphics?
BP: If they did offer me a good fee and the resources I would definitely consider it and work with it, yes. I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s work; they really do make some interesting movies.

JW: Who would you say are your biggest influences, either animator or live action filmmakers?
BP: Oh, there’s many; Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Walt Disney, Art Crumb, Jaques Tati, Richard Lester, Frank Capra, Quentin Tarantino…there’s hundreds of them out there but those are my definite influences.

JW: Have you ever just sat back and said “I’ve made it?”
BP: Well, it’s funny. When I did “Mutant Alien”, the feature film before “Hair High”, I really felt that it would be my breakthrough film. And it didn’t get a big release; it got a very small one in the major cities. And I sort of looked at my career and thought to myself “Well maybe I’ll never be a Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam, but there are enough fans out there who like my stuff. There are the films that will continue to make money, but I’ll never be a giant in the industry.” So I sort of felt that for a while, and then all of a sudden “Guard Dog” and “Hair High” came out and now all of a sudden I’m thinking “Well maybe now I can leap into that next plateau along the lines Gilliam and Burton, who knows.” So we’ll see; I sort of gave up on that before, but I’m continuing to do a feature every two to three years, going to film festivals and make a decent amount of money. But I don’t know, it seems that all of a sudden that I’m “hot” with these new projects coming out, so maybe Dreamworks or Disney will come to me, who knows. (Laughs)

JW: If you did win the Oscar for “Guard Dog” this year…what would you say? I’ve always been curious to ask that of an Oscar nominee.
BP: They lectured us at the Oscars luncheon that I went to recently about not bringing a list. “Say something interesting,” they tell me, “Don’t thank a lot of people nobody knows about” and so forth, but the thing is that you HAVE to thank these people, because they helped put the film together. I’m making a list of ten or so people, and of course I want to put a plug out there for “Hair High” and that’s about it. It’s probably about twenty seconds anyway.

JW: What would you say is your animated film of all time?
BP: “Dumbo” is one of my favourites, “Bambi” is as well. “Song of the South”, although it isn’t pure animation, is wonderful. Some of the Tex Avery stuff. Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso” is one of my favourites as well. I’m also watching “Spongebob Squarepants” these days. (Laughs)

Special thanks to Bill Plympton for a great interview (as well for a quick drawing and signature on a “Guard Dog” postcard for me). Also thanks to Nora Arajs of the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival for assistance with this article. For more information on Bill Plympton’s work, point your browser to Plymptoons.com. – Jason Whyte; jasonwhyte@efilmcritic.com.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1387
originally posted: 02/28/05 08:49:35
last updated: 03/01/05 16:35:13
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