Bill Plympton's giddy, rubber-faced characters and the weird, inspired world flowing from his colored pencils leave an indelible impression. Influenced as much by music - being a former and, in his words, "not very good" musician, but one with great taste - as by animators, his "Plymptoons" are bouncy, rhythmic satires full of punched faces and elongated hair with everchanging, wavering backgrounds. It was his absurdist short films, such as Your Face and 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, which screened at animation festivals and on MTV, that first earned Plympton notoriety. Plympton has more recently turned his attention to ambitious feature films that, he's quick to point out, he's drawn himself (the most recent being Hair High). But a DVD compiling recent Plymptoons of naughtier variety has recently arrived - Bill's Dirty Shorts - and in honor of that, we revisit Craig Phillips' interview with Plympton, who was probably doodling throughout the conversation.
I watched Spongebob Squarepants the other day and was wondering if their artists were influenced by you? Just certain moments of facial distortions, exaggerated anatomy, surreality...
Funny because I'm a big fan of that show; I think it's one of the wittiest shows on TV. I watch it a lot.
Maybe it was just remembering the Hamburger and French Fry love story in The Tune that made me think Spongebob.
I never thought about that. Maybe they were influenced by me. Who knows, but it'd be flattering.
What's the status of Hair High these days? Is there a distribution plan in place?
We just got the 35mm print finished last week, and it looks really nice. We're starting to get it out to festivals. It's opening at the Deauxville Festival next week in France, and then it does a tour of Switzerland. But I don't know when it's going to be released in the States. Looks like late Winter/early Spring 2005 for a theatrical release, and then DVD and TV some time next year.
How was it having so many name actors doing voices for Hair High? I noticed you had a lot of great people involved in that.
Yeah it was really exciting. Martha Plimpton's an old friend of mine; I've known her since she was a little girl through family relations.
Are you two related? I was wondering about that, even though the names are spelled differently.
We are, very distantly. It goes way back to the 1800's. So anyway, we were hanging out together, having drinks one night, and I mentioned to her that I'd been having a lot of trouble getting distribution for the film simply because there was no big star power. And so she suggested that she could call a few friends, to see if we could get some more "names" in there. She started making calls and everyone responded very positively. Apparently they were all familiar with my work and were excited to work on it. It was like a dream team for me, I mean, Beverly D'Angelo and Sarah Silverman, David and Keith Carradine, Ed Begley Jr. And then I brought in [Simpsons and Futurama creator] Matt Groening and [animator] Don Hertzfeldt.
I love Don Hertzfeldt!
Yeah, it was fun to get those guys involved and the whole thing was a delightful experience for me. At one point, Matthew Perry wanted to be involved, and was very excited about it. Then two days before the session his agent calls and says, "Sorry, Matthew's too big a star to be in an independent film." So that part was played by Dermot Mulroney, who was perfect.
A review I read online described Hair High as "Grease meets Carrie with more zombies."
That's a very good description. Carrie was definitely an influence on the film. [Another influence was] those paintings from medieval times, where they had skeletons with snakes crawling out of the skeleton's eye sockets and lizards and all sorts of creepy-crawly things. It's a very gothic film. I wanted to fuse the gothic horror factor with the 50s drive-in movie genre and some urban myth kind of stuff. There's a little bit of Rebel Without a Cause in there, too.
Since you mentioned Groening and Hertzfeldt, what other cartoonists and animators were you, or are you, still influenced by?
Well, obviously Tex Avery was a big influence. Bob Clampett was, too. Disney certainly influenced everybody. Miyazaki. Peter Chung. Otomo, the guy who did Akira. A lot of illustrators, too. People like [Poland-born, French artist] Roland Topor [more], Robert Crumb. And then early Peter Jackson, like Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, was an influence.
Since you mentioned some anime: Mutant Aliens sort of reminded me of anime, as if you'd taken Japanese animation and subverted it in your style.
That's exactly correct. What I like about anime is its total freedom, the over-the-top violence and sex, the freedom and spirit in the animation. The problem I have with it is there's no sense of humor, or very little in what I've seen. I always thought if I could take the surreal sex and violence of Japanese anime and meld it with Bill Plympton kind of humor, you could have something really original and something people might want to see. So that was my concept for that.
The mutant aliens themselves looked sort of like anime critters gone askew.
Absolutely. Well, actually, the little cutesy character was a take-off on that little Pikachu character from Pokemon.
Mutant Aliens did have a slightly different look from your previous films - or, it seems like each successive film has a different look than the previous one, while still Plymptoonish.
And Hair High is a much flatter, more decorative, more design-y kind of look, whereas I Married a Strange Person and Mutant Aliens are a little more realistic with a pen-and-ink sketchy kind of look.
I have to say the astronaut urination scene in that movie is one of my favorite moments in a Plymptoon.
Yeah, right. I always wondered how those astronauts defecated in outer space.
Did you really draw I Married a Strange Person all by yourself? How long did that take?
I did all the films by myself, actually. I drew The Tune - colored most of The Tune by myself, which really bogged me down. A lot of it had to be hand-colored. But I Married a Strange Person, Mutant Aliens and Hair High were all drawn, every drawing done by me.
So how long does that take for each one?
About a year to draw, but the whole process takes between two and a half and three years to make a film.
A year to draw actually sounds like less than I would've guessed.
It does go fast. Well, as you know, my stuff is not full animation, a la Disney. There's not a drawing for every frame of film. And I do cycles and zooms. The Japanese do a lot of that, too; they use a lot of shortcuts. I'm able to do maybe 25,000 or 30,000 drawings, whereas a Disney film will have 100,000 or 200,000. So I can cut some corners there.
Still, you must have the patience of a saint.
No, it's very delightful. It's one of the most relaxing things. I put some nice music on and just start creating these characters. It's a very therapeutic exercise.
Since you mentioned music, I was wondering how conscious are you of particular pieces while you're sketching out a scene.
I'm not, really. I kind of have a genre in mind, especially with Hair High, which is all late 1950s, early 60s. I listened to a lot of surfing music, rockabilly and do wop, and those kind of genres. That was sort of the inspiration. And as I was doing a scene, I'd put on a song that I felt was the correct tempo, so I'd get a feeling for the timing of the animation. But other than that, sometimes the songs change drastically once I start the editing process, because you never know what the feeling you want to portray on film will be.
I know you had a musical background way back when. Do you still play guitar?
I don't play anymore. I don't have time, and quite frankly, I wasn't very good. I used to play pedal steel guitar, with Maureen McElheron, who does a lot of my music - we'd play in clubs and bars in New York. It was a lot of fun, but there was absolutely no chance of me having a career in music. I just did it for fun. Cartoons were my big love.
Well, there's a good marriage of music and animation in your work.
Yeah, there's something about animation with music that's really the perfect couple. I mean, you look at Fantasia, or some of the old Merry Melodies from Warner Brothers. The synching up of music and animation just sends it to another level. If you ask me, it's just sublime.
Do you have a favorite old Warner Brothers cartoon?
Well a lot of the Tex Avery classics, like "Red Hot Riding Hood" - although that was at MGM - but it had great music and great action. And then some of Bob Clampett's stuff, "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," some of the stuff he did was really amazing.
What's your next project?
I have a new short called "Guard Dog," which is actually winning a lot of prizes. We're going to try to get it nominated for an Oscar, and people are responding really well to it, so I may do a series. Maybe he'll become my Mickey Mouse. And then I'm just taking notes on a new feature I want to do about an alternate civilization similar to the Marx Brothers' Freedonia in Duck Soup, which was a take-off on a dictatorship. Mine won't be an overtly political film but it will touch on politics a little bit.
And then I'm trying to do a book, not a graphic novel but an illustrated book with drawings, about flying, taking an airplane from New York to Paris, and what happens on that flight, all the people they meet and all the weird stories they hear from other passengers. Just kind of wacky, surreal stuff. But it's based on real anecdotes. When I travel, I bring a sketchbook, and if I'm bored, I'll sketch some of the other passengers, making up little fantasy stories about what their lives are like. I've been collecting these things for about ten years, so I thought I'd put them all together in a novel of sorts. It should be fun, or at least something different.
Is it hard to raise funds for your films?
No, believe it or not, my films do fairly well. The shorts are quite successful in Europe and in America - I made a sale to the Cartoon Network and one to Sundance, and my stuff plays on HBO. And the DVDs and the artwork sell well. And I do commercials every so often. So the money I get from all of these sources finances my feature films. And then when I sell the feature films, obviously I get more money from that.
As you know, animation is a very evergreen art form. Disney re-releases Snow White every four or five years and makes double the money they made initially. So the library that I own right now is bringing in a lot of money, and I use that to help finance new projects.
Did Disney ever try to buy your services?
They did approach me, and it was funny because when I was 16 or 17 I really wanted to work for them. I sent off a packet of drawings to them in hopes of getting a job offer, and they sent a nice note back saying, "Thank you for your work. You're young, come back in ten years and we'll talk." So I was kind of dispirited about that. Then, in 1990, they sent a headhunter to New York to hire me. They offered me a million dollars to come out and work for them - a lot of money! And the chance to work for Disney sounded really cool. But they didn't say what project I'd work on. They weren't very specific about that. And then I asked them if I could work on my own personal films on the weekends on my own time at home, and they said, "Yeah, sure, you can do that, but we will own those films." And I said, "What if I tell someone a funny joke?" "Oh, we own the joke." [laughs] I felt that I'd be really restricted working for them. And quite frankly, I was in the middle of The Tune right then, and I didn't want to abandon that project. So I turned them down.
I found out later that they wanted me for Aladdin; specifically, to do the genie, the very surreal Robin Williams character that does the crazy transformations. It would have been fun. But I think Eric Goldberg did it and did a really good job. So I have no complaints.
I think you made the right choice anyway.
Yeah, I would've had to bail out after a few months. I'm sure that would've been a problem.
Oh, one of the cool things I did with Hair High was we had a webcam going [on the film's Web site]. I was inspired by these women who put Internet cameras in their bathrooms and bedrooms and you can watch them all day long. And I'd noticed that they were getting really high audience numbers. So I thought, "Why don't I try that over my drawing board so people can watch me as I complete every drawing for the film?" A lot of people were shocked; they'd email me saying, "Gee, I thought computers were doing this all the time, I didn't realize people actually still hand-draw the cartoons." And then I got emails wondering if I was naked while I was drawing. I'd say, "No, but my hand is naked, does that turn ya on?" It was a fun experiment; worked really well. We wanted to develop a Blair Witch-type following, people following the progress of the film and then hopefully when it comes out they'd overrun the movie theater. And I'd like to do it for my next film, too.
That does sound like fun. I don't know any other animator who's done that.
Yeah, you'll never see Disney or Dreamworks doing this, that's for sure!
No, because they own anything anyone's doing.
Lastly, a chance for a free plug here: Can people buy your animation cels anywhere?
Absolutely! They can go to our Web site, and all the cels from any of my films are there - even Your Face, How to Kiss and 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, and on up to Hair High. And you can also get books, DVDs, posters.