Among animation fans, Bill Plympton's work is like holy scripture. He's made countless short films, hand-drawn six feature-length films — including The Tune, I Married a Strange Person!, and Idiots & Angels — directed several live-action features, and animated music videos for artists like Kanye West and Weird Al Yankovic. He also has a new documentary about his life called Adventures in Plymptoons, directed by Alexia Anastasio, that's currently making the rounds at film festivals throughout the world. Buzzine's Jesse Livingston caught up with him to talk about Surrealism, working with Kanye West and Terry Gilliam, what you need to be a successful animator, and the perils of having a documentary made about you.
Jesse Livingston: I probably know your work best from the animation festivals my mother used to take me to as a kid, and from Liquid Television on MTV; your animated shorts and feature films have run at festivals all over the world, and have won multiple awards, including several Oscar nominations. You seem to have worked in every possible avenue. What has been your proudest moment as a filmmaker?
Bill Plympton: Certainly the Oscar nominations. That's the gold standard; that's what everybody wants to do — get an Oscar. So that, to me, is the apogee of success.
JL: Alexia Anastasio recently made a documentary about you: Adventures in Plymptoons, which is having its “Big World Theatrical Premiere” at the Los Angeles Animation Festival on March 10th. What was it like having your life laid bare to the public?
BP: It was interesting. There's a lot of stuff in the film that is not positive, and I wanted that. I want criticism. I think that a documentary where everybody says how great I am is totally boring. It's not true either. There are a lot of things I do that people don't like — they disagree with them — and that's part of being an artist. Also, there are pictures of me naked in there [laughs], which I guess is good for the film. But I think it's very important that people see the life of an independent filmmaker, especially young artists and animators who want to get into the business — to see that it is possible to be an independent filmmaker and make a living, and see what you have to go through to be a success as an independent. I think that was, for me, the reason I was so excited about the documentary.
JL: Was it strange knowing that your friends, family, and colleagues were being interviewed about you?
BP: No, it's important! I mean, there are a lot of stories they have to tell that I think need to be told — that need to be communicated to the audience. I think that's definitely part of the documentary process.
JL: You've animated videos both for Weird Al Yankovic (“Don't Download This Song”) and Kanye West (“Heard 'Em Say”). Did you recognize a common element shared by these two artists who appear very different on the surface?
BP: Actually, they were pretty different. [Laughs] They were poles apart. Kanye West — I'm not a big fan of rap music, to be honest with you — but I knew he was a star and a big fan of my work. He had seen my work, like you, when he was a kid going to the Spike & Mike show or the Tournée of Animation. He called me up in the middle of the night saying that he was a fan. First of all, he asked if I was the animator guy, and I said, “Yeah, that's me.” He said that he had a song that he wanted to make into a music video. I knew that he was a big star, so I said, “Yeah...” He said, “I have two questions that I have to ask you. One is: can you do it in ten days?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that.” He said, “The other is: can you do it for no money?” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” [Laughs] Apparently the entire budget was spent by Michel Gondry. So he came by my studio and looked over my shoulder, and he was very — how shall I say? — directorial, in terms of what took place on the screen and the drawings. I think he's a genius and a very smart and tasteful guy. I followed his ideas, and we argued about two or three ideas, but he's the boss, and he has a very strong sense of visual storytelling. Whereas Weird Al Yankovic basically just sent me the song — I knew him before I did the work for him — and said, “When you're done, send it to me.” So they were two very different approaches. Also, I must be honest with you and tell you that Kanye West did pay me some money out of his own pocket, and it was a nice sum of money — nothing compared to Michel Gondry, of course. I think Michel Gondry got half a million or something. And Weird Al Yankovic had very little money in the budget, but I was happy because it was a fun project. I love his music, and it was a very enjoyable process.
JL: Did you prefer one approach to the other — having the direction, or the artist just saying, “Send it to me when it's done”?
BP: Yes, certainly I very much like Weird Al Yankovic's direction. It's a lot more fun.
JL: Your new book -- Independently Animated, available from plymptoons.com -- has an introduction by Terry Gilliam, himself an animator-turned-filmmaker, who also presented your feature, Idiots & Angels; did you come to know him through the animation world? Did he contact you because of his admiration for your work?
BP: Yeah, what happened was I was invited to a premiere of one of his films — I think it was Twelve Monkeys — and I went to the party afterwards, and he was there. He was actually by himself. I think everybody wanted to talk to Jeff Bridges or something. [Laughs] So I went up and started talking to him. He was very friendly and knew my work and knew who I was; we both were friends of (cartoonist and founding editor of Mad) Harvey Kurtzman, so I think we connected on that score. And then I ran into him just about two years ago at the Dubai International Film Festival, of all places, where he was getting a special award and I was showing a bunch of my films. I just happened to have my portfolio of some of my drawings from Idiots & Angels, and he said, “Oh, let me look at it.” He started going through the drawings, and he really fell in love with the artwork. His agent, who was there, said, “Oh, Mr. Gilliam, we've got an interview with the BBC. You're gonna be late for your interview.” And he told him, “F**k BBC, I wanna look at these drawings!” [Laughs] So he was really excited about my artwork and said, “What can I do to help you?” I said, “Well, how would you like to present the feature film when it comes out in theaters?” He said, “Yeah, that's great. I'll do it.” He's been a big supporter for a long time. I owe him a lot. He's really been terrific.
JL: Was he someone you looked up to before you met him?
BP: Absolutely. I've always been a big fan of Monty Python and his independent films. I've always loved Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits. All his films are really terrific.
JL: You had a touring show with the great Don Hertzfeldt; were you and he good friends before that, or did you become friends while working on that project?
BP: I think we met at a Spike & Mike event — I can't remember which one. You know, that's a good question. It was a while ago. I think he was just graduated out of school. I'd seen a couple of his shorts, Lily and Jim — I liked that a lot — and Billy's Balloon. That really blew me away. So we became friends, and then he did Rejected, which was a huge, huge hit. If I was in Austin or if I was in L.A., I'd come by and say hello to him, and we'd hang out a little bit.
JL: You are listed as the only animator ever to draw every single frame of a feature film by yourself — is that true?
BP: Yeah, as far as I know, that's true.
JL: Which film was that?
BP: That was The Tune, but every succeeding film I've done, I've done every drawing: I Married a Strange Person, Mutant Aliens, Hair High... They were all hand-drawn by myself.
JL: What made you decide to take that approach?
BP: A couple of things. One is budget. I self-finance my films, so I don't really have the money to hire a bunch of animators. Animators are very expensive, especially the good ones, and rightfully so. They should be expensive. I just don't have that kind of money. Two: whenever I did use an artist, they would always put their own input into it. I understand that too, but I would have to go in and erase it and change it. So I felt that it would just be a lot easier using my own artwork. I spent more time changing their drawings than I did creating the drawings myself. And three: it's just plain fun. I just enjoy the drawing part of the process, so why would I pay someone money to do something that I want to do?
JL: What got you into animation in the first place?
BP: I've loved animation ever since I was a little kid. I saw cartoons on TV when I was three or four, and it's about the freedom, the humor, the Surrealism of it. I think it was Goofy or Daffy Duck — I can't remember which one it was — but it really was a delightful experience. I loved to draw anyway. Even when I was very young, like two or three, I was always drawing. So it just seemed like a natural career move for me.
JL: It seems like it could be a rather solitary existence; do you enjoy working alone, or do you get cabin fever sometimes?
BP: I do, and that's when I go to festivals. I get to meet other animators and party, and look at films. I travel a lot. I go to a film festival maybe twice a month. This month, I've gone to three festivals, and I'm probably going to four. So yeah, I travel a lot to see my films and see my fans. That's why I'm coming to the L.A. Animation Festival. I love coming to L.A. It's the Mecca of animation. I get to see all the big-time animators — all the Disney animators, and Pixar...people like that are all hanging out in L.A.
JL: You mentioned Surrealism earlier; your films have almost a Dadaist, stream-of-consciousness thing going on. I'm wondering if you see yourself as an absurdist to any degree, and is there a particular view of life that you're trying to express?
BP: Well, I've always loved Surrealism -- Eugene Ionesco's plays. I loved Theater of the Absurd, and of course Tex Avery and Bob Clampett animation — I love that kind of stuff. And, of course, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Roland Topor have all been influences. So I think that's the key to my humor: showing situations that are totally absurd, impractical, and impossible. That's what makes people laugh, so I like to use that a lot in my work.
JL: Do you ever find yourself wanting to tell a very linear and literal type of story?
JL: Fair enough!
BP: [Laughs] No, that's for filmmakers who make live-action films, and I don't wanna do that. I don't like live-action films so much that are people talking — talk, talk, talk, talk. I like visual storytelling -- people who tell stories through fantasy and whimsy and craziness and anarchy. Those are the kind of stories I want to tell.
JL: So you feel that, since you have the freedom that animation provides, you should use it?
BP: That's what animation is all about. Exactly.
JL: Do you have plans for the near future? Is there anything your fans can look forward to seeing?
BP: I've got a couple things coming up. I've got this Windsor McCay project. In fact, I showed that in Boulder when I was there. I took Windsor McCay's last film, which was made in 1921, called The Flying House, and it's a very beautiful film, but it's unwatchable because it's black-and-white, it's scratched and dirty, it's deteriorating, there's no dialogue, it's basically word balloons, and there's no music or sound. So, out of my own pocket, I cleaned up every frame, I put color on it, I put voices on it — Matthew Modine and Patricia Clarkson — I scored it, and now it's a wonderful, entertaining film. So we're starting to show that around. I'll probably show it in L.A. when I come out there, so I'm very excited about that. It's a short film, about eight minutes long. It will be available on DVD, but it's not going to be a big theatrical hit because it's more of an archive film that I've resuscitated. Then I have a book coming out through Focal Press. It's called Make Toons That Sell Without Selling Out, and it's basically my master class where I talk about tricks of the trade — how to sell your film, how to make a film cheap, how to draw, how to distribute your film, how to market your film... So, it's more of a how-to kind of thing. I'll be at San Diego Comic-Con with that book. Hopefully we'll get a big signing going there.
JL: With what words would you like this interview to end?
BP: If you want to get into animation, you'd better love to draw. I draw every day and I draw every night, and it's a pleasure for me. You have to really love the process of making the films and making the drawings. But I do want to add that everybody who comes to my show at the L.A. Festival — either my documentary or the other film showings — will get a free Bill Plympton drawing; I will do a drawing of the dog (from Horn Dog, Hot Dog, Guide Dog, and Guard Dog) for everybody. If you want to find out more about my work, go to plymptoons.com, and also I have a blog. Me and Patrick Smith have a blog called Scribble Junkies where I talk about my travels, films I've seen, films I'm working on, projects I'm working on, things like that. So if you're interested in animation, definitely check it out.
Bill Plympton's first feature, 'The Tune,' and the premiere of his documentary, 'Adventures in Plymptoons,' will be screening at the Los Angeles Animation Festival from March 7-11th, 2012, at The Regent Showcase, 614 La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California.