Bill Plympton on surrealism, seediness and doing the job himself

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Although he's been nominated for a couple of Academy Awards, Bill Plympton has always been a little too weird for the mainstream. His surreal animation, in which human forms are stretched, kneaded and punched to their breaking point, is frequently steeped in sex and hilariously gratuitous violence and is most certainly not intended for children -- but at the same time, it retains a certain childish and charming sincerity and a goofy sense of humor that sets it apart from the latest wave of ironic cartoons for adults. But fitting the trend has never been Plympton's primary concern, and that may be why, among indie animators, Plympton is king -- just ask his book, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation.

To promote that book and chit-chat with fans, Plympton will be in town tomorrow and through the weekend. We caught up with him in advance to talk about terrible cartoons and finding distribution for stuff that just doesn't quite fit into any mold.

Westword: One thing that's really interesting about you as an animator is that you do all the animation yourself -- I know that you have for at least a couple of your features. Do you ever hire anyone?

Bill Plympton: No, that's all I do. I never hire others.

WW: Why not?

BP: It's quicker. In the past, when I've hired animators, they don't do it exactly right, and I have to show them how to do it again -- in the same amount of time I could have done it myself. Two, it's more expensive. And lastly, it's just more fun to draw. That's my passion, and why let other people have all the fun?

WW: You must draw pretty fast, then.

BP: People say I'm fast. It's hard to compare to other people, but since I've done six feature films by myself and forty or fifty shorts, I would think that's pretty fast. Just for the sake of comparison, a Pixar film takes five to six years to make. I do a film in about two and a half years.

WW: How many drawings would you estimate you've done?

BP: Well, a feature film is about 30,000 drawings, and I've done five of those, so that's maybe 180,000, plus forty or fifty shorts... I guess I'd say a quarter of a million to half a million drawings, something like that.

WW: Doesn't it ever feel tedious?

BP: No, it's a pleasure, it's playtime. It's like I'm five years old, playing on the floor drawing characters. It never gets tedious, and in fact it's relaxing. It mellows me out.

WW:What are you working on now?

BP: A bunch of things. I just finished a music video for Weird Al -- I can't share the title; he's afraid somebody's going to steal it. I'm also working on a book called Independently Animated (ed: the full title is Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation). It's a big coffee table book, and the reproductions are just exquisite. I talk about my career, and I don't pull any punches: I talk about the bad times where money was really tight or people tried to screw me, but also the good times. A couple of reviewers have called it the best art book of the year. We're hoping to sell a whole bunch of copies while I'm out there.

WW: Is the text like a memoir, then? Did you do all the writing yourself, or did you have a co-author?

BP: I did all the writing the first draft, and then David Levy -- who is actually a wonderful animator in his own right -- went in and restructured and polished it, and then I had an editor who went in and polished it again -- so I'd say it was about 70 percent me, 20 percent David Levy and 10 percent the editor.

There was one big controversy in the book. I wanted to end the book with a list of my all-time favorite films and all-time favorite artists -- because whenever I do an appearance, I get asked that question: Who are your influences? And then I also wanted to include a list of films I hate, films that are really awful. Neither one them wanted to do that -- they said it was sending out bad vibes -- but I thought it was a valuable public service, to warn people about these terrible films.

WW: Like what?

BP: Any films by Hannah-Barbera, a couple of Disney films -- Black Cauldron, which came out in sort of the bad old days of Disney. Quest for Camelot was also really terrible.

WW: Did you end up doing the list, then?

BP: Oh yeah, it's in there. It ended up being one of the things people really liked about the book.

WW:I wanted to talk a little bit about your animation, too. One of the very distinctive things about your style is that it often involves a lot of shifting shapes, or contortions of the human form. What attracts you to that kind of surrealist approach?

BP: Yeah, surrealism. I love surrealism. That's been part of animation from the very beginning. The first animated films in the early 1900s used surrealism to tell their stories. One of my favorite animators was Windsor McCay, who was famous for his surrealism. He did Little Nemo in Slumberland and Gertie the Dinosaur. He was probably the top newspaper cartoonist from 1905 to 1915, and on the weekends, he would make these cartoons that were just brilliantly drawn -- he was a great draftsman. There was one, Flying House, that I'll be showing when I'm in Denver -- it really upset William Randolf Hearst, who felt McCay should be putting his energy into drawing cartoons for the paper instead of drawing these animated cartoons, and so he basically said stop or you're fired -- so he stopped. But he would have been Disney. He was a great, great animator.

One of the reasons I'm showing it is that I'm revamping it, so to speak. I'm cleaning up every frame and coloring it, and making it into a much more contemporary film.

WW: As far as your own animation goes, your stuff has kind of a seedy side -- where animation in general, and especially when you started out, was mostly seen as a kids' market, your stuff has always trafficked pretty liberally in sex and this kind of exaggerated violence. What made you decide to go the less marketable route?

BP: There's a number of reasons. One is that I certainly can't compete with Pixar and Disney in doing family films. I just can't compete. Two, I don't really spend my days thinking about cute little animals playing with balls and making songs. I don't think about those things. I think about love, I think about jealousy, about revenge, sex -- these are my day-to-day thoughts. So it's only natural that I would make films about what concerns me, about the things I think about. I also think that this sort of cartoon noir has been neglected - I think there's a lot of people out there who would want to see animation that deals with more adult-oriented subjects, and there just isn't a lot of stuff out there like that.

Lately, I've also been having trouble getting distribution because my films are not computer animated -- these people think America only has an appetite for CG, that people don't like traditionally animated stuff anymore. I strongly disagree. I think the world doesn't care what technique you're using, as long as you're making interesting characters and interesting stories.

Bill Plympton comes to town courtesy of the Ones and Zeros Pixelshow starting tomorrow night at 5 p.m., when he'll be signing is book at the Borders Bookstore in Flatirons. Friday night, he'll appear at a screening of his work at the Broomfield Audiorium -- tickets are $12 to $15. And on Saturday, Plympton will appear again for a meet and greet where he'll give a presentation and sign copies of his book; there, he says, "I will do a sketch for everyone who comes through the door." Tickets to that are $35. For more information on any of Plympton's appearances, call the Ones and Zeros Pixelshow at 303-460-6800. For more about Plympton, visit www.plymptoons.com.

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