Drawn to Cinema: Celebrating the work of Bill Plympton
Bill Plympton isn't your average animator. In fact, he's entirely unaverage. It isn't just that Plympton, self-proclaimed King of the Indie Animators, is one of very few feature filmmakers who still works entirely with hand-drawn animation. It's that his stories are wildly, fascinatingly unconventional.
Take, for instance, Revengeance, his 2016 film, co-directed by Jim Lujan, about Rod Rosse, the One Man Posse, a bounty hunter in '70s-era Los Angeles who is hired by the former leader of a biker gang, an ex-wrestler known as DeathFace. Rosse's job is to locate a young fugitive named Lana who's suspected of an arson attack that decimated the biker gang's digs. Or take Plympton's first animated feature The Tune (1992). Del, a talentless, lovelorn songwriter, is tasked by his boss, a slimy music mogul named Mr. Mega, with delivering a hit song in under 47 minutes, lest he risk losing his job and his girlfriend. In search of inspiration, Del finds himself on a surrealistic odyssey in the musical town of Flooby Nooby with its population of oddball denizens.
Plympton is honored with the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival's lifetime achievement award on Saturday evening, Oct. 20, and the festival is screening two of his films back to back--Revengeance and his newest animated short The Modern Lives--at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. He'll be doing a Q&A with the audience after the screenings, when he tends to give out free drawings of characters from his films to the audience. Earlier that day, SFIFF offers a master class with Plympton at the Center for Contemporary Arts where he does a drawing demonstration, discusses his career as an animator, and shows some of classic shorts, clips from feature films, and music videos he's worked on.
Plympton usually works solo on his animation projects, writing and directing them himself, but Revengeance was a change of pace for the animator. "Jim [Lujan] lives in Los Angeles, and he would come by my table at San Diego Comic-Con every year," Plympton said. "He'd give me DVDs of his short animated films. The artwork on the covers wasn't so snappy, so I just laid them aside. A couple of years later, it was a rainy night, and I said, "Well, let's look at this Jim Lujan guy and see what his films are like," and I was just stunned by the imagination and the wit and the characters that he did." Plympton contacted Lujan with an offer to work on a project together. Over the next several months, Lujan developed a script. "When I got it, I said, 'It's hilarious. Don't change a thing, except do me one favor: Put a sexy woman in there.' His films don't have many sexy women. So he did that. Her name is Ms. Candy, and she was so much fun to draw."
Plympton's animated characters are a pure delight, with their exaggerated features and idiosyncratic quirks. Often, his protagonists resemble himself. His dialogue is always sharp and witty, too. Although Lujan can be credited for the writing in Revengeance, it's no less meant to tickle the funny bone. In the film, Lujan's character Rosse searches through the dark urban underbellies of America for the fugitive teenager. He learns that her hit on the biker den was spurred on by the fact that DeathFace killed her family. Rosse sees his allegiances changing. "So what do you want from DeathFace?" he asks Lana. "Revengeance," she says. Rosse replies, "I'm pretty sure that's not a word," then awkwardly pauses in the midst of hearing Lana's disturbing revelation to answer a call from his mom.
In typical Plympton fashion, the characters feel familiar, like people we all know. In all of his films, Plympton takes some chances. He's not afraid to show a bit of nudity now and again, or violence either, but it's never so over the top as to seem distasteful. Real heart and empathy for the characters are at the center of all his films. Even though the characters in Revengeance were developed by Lujan, who also did the majority of the voices, Plympton's hand-drawn, twitchy style and signature striking psychedelic visuals seem a natural fit.
"Here's how we split up the work," Plympton said. "He did like 80 percent of the voices, the character designs, and the music. I was the producer. I did the storyboards, the layouts, all the animation, and the post-production. So it is really a two-man operation." The film went on to receive awards and nominations at international film festivals and won the Grand Jury Prize for best animated feature at the Nashville Film Festival in 2017. "We're very happy with the response, and we're really excited to bring it to Santa Fe and show it to the people there because I know they'd love it. Remind the people that it's a stoner film, so if that's their inclination, they might enjoy it."
Plympton hails from Portland, Oregon, where, as a kid, he wanted to be an animator. "I watched Walt Disney on TV, the Mickey Mouse Club and, of course, Warner Brothers cartoons on Saturday mornings," he said. "I love to draw and I love to make people laugh, so it just seemed natural. The unfortunate thing is, when I got out of college, around 1968, the animation business was dead or dying. The only thing out there was Hanna-Barbera, and I hated Hanna-Barbera. So I felt there was no future for me in animation." Not knowing how to make an animated film anyway, he moved to New York City and became an illustrator instead. Over a span of 15 years, he made illustrations that ran in The New York Times, Vogue, The Village Voice, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. He also drew cartoons for Penthouse, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, and Glamour. "I did political cartoons and gag cartoons, a lot of caricatures, things like that."
In the mid-1980s, he was offered a chance to work on an animated film for the Jules Feiffer song 'Boomtown.' The producer Connie D'Antuono introduced him to the time-consuming process of making animated movies but he hadn't yet made one on his own. His first solo project, Your Face (1987), was done more as an experiment than as a serious project. "Lo and behold, it became a smash hit," he said. "It was shown all over the world and bought by all the TV stations and got nominated for an Oscar. As soon as this hit, I called up all my magazines and newspapers and said, "I'm leaving print and going into animation." They all laughed at me and said, 'Are you nuts? Animation's a dead art form.' At that point, they were right." But in the wake of the success of 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the influx of popular Japanese animated features like Studio Ghibli's Castle in the Sky (1986) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), animation was big again. Plymptoons Studio, which the animator started in 1987, would go on to make countless shorts and about a dozen features, not to mention animations for music videos by Kanye West, Weird Al Yankovic, and Parson Brown, among others.
Plympton's new film The Modern Lives is also a music-based project. "I have a cousin who lives in Sacramento. His name is Christian. He's a distant cousin, actually. He's been a big fan of mine for a long time. He befriended Jackie Greene, who's from there and plays around there a lot. He hooked us up to do a mega music video together: six films plus a background story to connect all the films together." Already a fan of Greene's blend of folk-rock and blues, Plympton was eager to work with him. Basing his animation on Greene's songs, he worked for six months, completing each of the six segments in sequence before developing the connecting thread: Greene and his band on tour, roving across the American landscape. Easy transitions lead from one segment to the next. For instance, the tour bus speeds by and the music fades as a scene switches to a solitary driver on the road turning up his radio to jam to Greene's infectious 'Modern Lives.' The film runs about a half-hour, and the catchy soundtrack gets you moving throughout. "When he first contacted me to do it, he was living in Brooklyn, and he came by the studio and I got to meet him. I was really impressed by his musicianship--he plays a lot of different instruments--and by his vocalizations and lyric writing. He's a complete package. I asked him, 'What sort of style or image do you want me to portray you as?' and he said, 'Psychedelic.' That's the kind of music he comes from: the Grateful Dead and the Crows, stuff like that. We had a premiere in New York. I invited my fans and his fans came and they were all kind of high and grooving to the imagery and everything. It was a really wonderful meeting of the fans."
Like his previous films, The Modern Lives is all drawn by hand, the animation rendered on paper entirely in pencil and ink. "That's what I think makes it kind of unique, because nobody does that anymore. I'm kind of the last of the traditionalists."
By Michael Abatemarco
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