Don’t let the accolades fool you. Neither should his unofficial title, “The King of Indie Animation,” given to him by peers and critics alike. Bill Plympton, one of the most prolific and enduring animators in the industry today, remains adamant about his opinions on animation as art and not a commercial. He hasn’t been swayed by money, which he has turned down from bigger studios that would have compromised his vision.
“The distributors, the movie houses, [they all] have … blinders on. They can’t see that there’s a wonderful audience of adults for animation.” There are, as anime fans will tell you on almost a daily basis whether you asked or not.
“I have a lot of friends who have worked at Pixar, and they’re human beings,” he tells me. “They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it.” I quickly imagine Mr. Incredible picking up a streetwalker late in the first act, which brings The Incredibles somewhat closer to its Watchmen roots than possibly intended.
“They can’t discuss it in their films,” Bill tells me. “Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life. That’s not my thing.”
It must be good to be the king.
A two-time Oscar-nominated animator, Bill Plympton has been a powerhouse in the animation industry for decades. Although he has dabbled in live-action, his main love has always been with what the human hand can draw. Beginning with his cartoon strip Plympton in 1975 for the Soho Weekly News, he quickly worked for publications like the Village Voice, Vogue, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Penthouse. His television work have included MTV and several couch gags for The Simpsons.
In 2005, he animated Kanye West’s music video for “Heard ‘Em Say,” and followed up the next year with Weird Al’s “Don’t Download This Song.” In 2008, his full-length feature Idiots & Angels, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was decorated at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France. That’s how I first knew of Bill.
His distinctive style is surreal, like watching an expressionistic painting move, breathe and cry. With his latest film, Cheatin‘, Plympton cranked up his unique art to eleven where you’ll watch a dude with the abs of a straw have sex with women as hips as big as a cannonball. Forced to fund the film through Kickstarter, Cheatin’ is a bizarre journey through the very real emotions we humans experience in our romantic tribulations. What happens when you don’t communicate to your significant other? This is the movie that finds out in the weirdest, most hysterical ways.
I recently spoke to Bill Plympton about his movie, which he hopes could change people’s mind on what a cartoon is supposed to be.
What is it about animation that influenced you in ways live-action didn’t?
Bill: The possibilities of communication [in animation] are unlimited. The only limits are your imagination. With live-action, you can’t take actors, cut them in half and spin their heads on your finger. Actors aren’t crazy about that. But with animation, you can do anything you want.
Plus, it’s an artistic medium. I grew up as an artist, a painter, a drawer, and I love to draw and I love telling stories with my drawings. I was a comics artist, did cartoons for National Lampoon’s, Rolling Stone, and places like that. So it made sense that I still wanted to tell joke with my drawings that I would get into film. In fact, at a very early age like 6 or 7, I knew I wanted to be an animator. I wanted to be Walt Disney, or Tex Avery. Those were my heroes.
I actually wanted to ask who were your animation heroes that directly influenced you.
Bill: Winsor McCay was a big influence, he was one of the first pioneers of animation. He was an excellent draftsmen and that really influenced me. Also his imagination, his surrealism was really terrific. Also Ralph Bakshi, he was a big influence. He told stories that were adult and not for kids, and there’s a big market for that which they have seemed to have forgotten today.
A guy by the name of Charles Addams from The Addams Family. He did humor cartoons, gag cartoons, but with a very dark side. [laughs] He used pain, suffering and death as topics of humor, and this was an era when he was really popular for The New Yorker. It was the Disney era, so you couldn’t do that in cartoons. But he did that, and he was one of the pioneers of dark humor and he has been a big influence of mine.
You’ve said before that Cheatin’ was based partly on a personal story of yours. I can safely assume that body-switching machines weren’t in your story, but how much of it remained in the film?
Bill: Just the whole concept of this beautiful couple who were madly in love wanting to kill each other. I thought, even though they wanted to kill each other they’re still hot to have sex, they wanted to kill each other. I just thought that was an interesting dichotomy with these two opposite passions living side-by-side in the same relationship.
Did making Cheatin’ make you rethink that relationship or any relationship you’ve had?
Bill: Yeah, sure does! It just shows you how pernicious and how evil jealousy is. Many people are very quick to become jealous and it can really ruin a good relationship. So I try to keep the jealousy down.
The look of Cheatin’ is really unlike anything I’ve seen. I can absolutely see the surrealist aesthetic. What influenced you to make the film look the way it does, with its exaggerated features and the way you tell the story from shot to shot?
Bill: A lot of my earlier films, if you’ve seen them, things like I Married a Strange Person! or Hair High or Idiots & Angels…
I loved Idiots & Angels, by the way.
Bill: That was a nice film, I mean I really liked that film and it was actually quite a successful film, but I didn’t really push the stylization very much. They were almost realistic. With [Cheatin’] I really wanted to stretch the surrealism of the characters, they’re bending their bodies and stretching parts of their physique. Jake, for example, his torso looks like a straw, it’s very muscular and there’s not an ounce of fat on his ab muscles. I wanted to play with that! I wanted to play with that kind of distortion and exaggeration in the anatomy, I thought that was cool.
Also, the technique was the first time I ever used a watercolor technique in my animation. When I was doing illustrations back in the ’70s and ’80s, that was my main look. A sort of water color … I wasn’t able to recreate that look up until now because we have certain programs that can duplicate that watercolor look. So we were able to have my initial animation style recreated in the film, and that’s why I think it looks so good.
How bizarre is it the way technology advances, the more we can recreate things to look simpler or older?
Bill: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true! That’s a very good point. But what happened was that it was very labor-intensive, you had to put a lot of layers of watercolor on each drawing. We had to hire four more artists to complete the film on time. Unfortunately, the budget ran out because we had to hire more artists. So that’s when we decided to turn to Kickstarter, to get the completion funds for the film. That was a huge success.
Do you see crowdfunding as becoming the next standard in filmmaking?
Bill: I sure do. I’ve done the route where I go to Hollywood and beg for work, beg for commission, beg for money. It’s very demeaning, and very depressing. Very negative. Then I realized, why am I going to these Hollywood big-wig producers, who don’t really understand animation, they don’t like hand-drawn films and they don’t like films for adults. Why not just go to my audience? They’re the ones who really want the film, they’re the ones who want to see it. So it just became very clear to me that I was going [in the wrong direction] to get funding.
I don’t generally use money from outside sources to fund my films, mostly my films are funded by myself — I like the independence, the freedom of that, and I like to keep the budgets low — but [making Cheatin’] was so expensive because of the technique, we had to go outside for money.
Why do you think our culture so quickly associates animation for children? Not that animation or filmmaking for children is bad, but why are we so linear in this thinking?
Bill: That’s the question I’m asking. I assume it’s just because Disney has been so powerful and so pervasive, that the American audience naturally assumes that cartoons are only a kids’ medium. Which is too bad, because in Japan and Europe they’re beyond that. They know that … animated films for adults are commonplace. But here, the distributors, the movie houses have straight-jackets and blinders on. They can’t see that there’s a wonderful audience of adults for animation.
I have a lot of friends who have worked at Pixar, and they’re human beings. They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it in their films. They have to do kiddie films. Which seems like lying. They’re betraying their artistic sensibilities. Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life. I’m not talking about some little six-year-old kid’s life. That’s not my thing.
It’s clear that you’ve walked a very tight line. What has been the most rewarding thing about being renowned as an “adult animator”? What has been rewarding about building your career on this kind of work?
Bill: Just being an audience when the audience loves the film and hearing their applause and adulation has been my payment. I do make some money on the films, like I said I make enough to break even and that’s good, but if people weren’t applauding and didn’t like the film I would stop doing it and do something else.
What do you hope to tackle next after Cheatin’?
Bill: I got two more films I’m working on now. One is a mockumentary on Adolf Hitler. You know Adolf Hitler in real life was a big fan of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, in fact he did drawings of the dwarfs. When I [heard] that I thought, isn’t that the most surreal thing you’ve ever head? Probably the most evil man in the history of civilization loves cartoons. So I thought it would be funny to assume that he was really just a cartoonist and didn’t want to start World War II.
He wanted to be an artist!
Bill: Yeah, so that’s the premise of this film. It’s almost done, we’re just doing the final sound edit right now so it’ll hopefully start making the festival circuit this summer or fall.
I hope to see it!
Bill: It’s pretty twisted. I don’t know if there’s an audience for it but we’ll see. The second one, and this is very exciting, it’s with an artist and a voice guy named Jim Lujan. I discovered him at San Diego Comic-Con about two or three years ago, and his films are so funny and so witty, and the characters are so unique, similar to my characters, they’re kind of the underbelly of society. Wrestlers, corrupt politicians, and bikers and hookers and go-go dancers and cultists. That kind of life.
So he wrote a script, and he did a wonderful script. It’s called Revengeance, and we’re about a third of the way done with that. It should be finished in, next year, sometime. Right after the Hitler film will be Revengeance. You can check Revengeance out online, we haven’t done [any promotion] on the Hitler film because it’s such a bombshell kind of film, but you can find out more about Revengeance online.
What are your final thoughts are on Cheatin’? About its heart or what its trying to say to audiences?
Bill: First I hope that they’re amused. And I think that’s very important. I hope they laugh and are entertained. In terms of philosophical messages, there’s no big philosophical message. [laughs] Like I say, jealousy is an evil human trait and we should minimize it. Obviously you can’t make it disappear, but don’t go overboard.
Do you think communication is a theme? I feel like if Jake and Ella communicated they would have avoided all this mess.
Bill: That’s a good one, a lot of people have mentioned it to me. “Why didn’t they just sit down and talk to each other?” And then I told them, they can’t. There’s no dialogue in the film. That would be impossible.
But the other thing I wanted to prove with this film is that there is a market for adult animation. I think there is an audience out there that wants to see this kind of stuff. It was influenced by James M. Cain and a lot of his darker stories, especially his movies. And I think anybody who likes that kind of dark sides of relationships — and nobody dies in the film, or gets injured, it’s just kind of a lot of crazy violence, crazy sex, crazy jokes. So it’s really a happy ending kind of film, but still there is that darker side I want to portray.
Cheatin’ opens in select theatres April 3. It will be available on Vimeo On Demand exclusively nationwide on April 21.