Music critic Jon Landau famously dubbed Bruce Springsteen "rock and roll future," an appellation credited with kickstarting the singer-songwriter's career. And according to a blurb on the new documentary Adventures in Plymptoons!, cartoonist Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, similarly proclaims, "Bill Plympton is God!"
If only someone had said that 25 years ago, the acclaimed Plympton might be the moneyed equivalent of a Lasseter or a Lantz, a MacFarlane or a McCracken, rather than the succès d'estime that's made him a moderately successful, Academy Award-nominated and, from all indications, quite content independent animator.
He's also one of the very few stars of that ilk, alongside the likes of the Brothers Quay and the semiretired Sally Cruikshank, and to paraphrase Bill Murray in Groundhog Day is certainly a god if not the God. His 1987 "Your Face" was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Academy Award, and to give you an indication of his vitality and longevity, he earned another nod two decades later for "Guard Dog" -- the title character of which has gone on to three sequels through 2009.
Born April 30, 1946, in a Portland, Ore., hospital, Plympton grew up in a family of six kids on a farm in nearby Oregon City. A cartoonist from childhood, he attending Portland State University, where he first attempted animation, and in 1968 moved to New York City, where he studied for a year at the School of Visual Arts. He drew covers and illustrations for periodicals as wide-ranging as The New York Times, Vanity Fair, National Lampoon and the delightfully pornographic Screw before producing his first animated short, 1977's darkly humorous life-lesson "Lucas the Ear of Corn."
Following "Your Face," his third short, he went on to make nearly 30 more -- all drawn by hand, and for years drawn essentially solely by Plympton himself. His shorts -- and a highly ambitious handful of features, starting with the self-financed The Tune (1992) -- have played everywhere from film festivals to cable TV to short theatrical runs.
Plympton -- one of the rare guest-animators to have done a Simpsons couch gag, and who has a second one airing this December -- married artist Sandrine Flament last December. The two had a baby boy, Lucas, born about three weeks before this interview was conducted on Oct. 13, 2012, at the New York Comic Con.
Plympton will give a free animation master class Friday, Oct. 26, at the New York Institute of Techonology's de Seversky Mansion, as part of the Gold Coast Film Festival, in Old Westbury, Long Island, New York, where also premiere part of his work-in-progress feature, Cheatin'. He also has a new how-to book, Make Toons That Sell Without Selling Out.
Q: I gather the Gold Coast Film Festival is dear to your heart because of its connection to the New York Technical Institute, which has a campus the festival uses.
BP: The New York Technical Institute -- it's the birthplace of computer animation, I don't know if you knew that. [Two of] the guys that started Pixar went to school [and/or taught] there [Edwin Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith], and that's where they learned the first digital animation. So it's very cool to do an animation program at this famous college. Have you read the book To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios? They talk a lot about the early beginnings of computer animation and they show that hand, the first computerized hand, and it was such a breakthrough to take a human body part and animate it with computers. They said they didn't even know they could do this. That started the whole computer-animation industry.
Q: Which is ironic, since you're known for doing classic cel animation, by hand. Any other connection to Long Isand?
BP: I have relatives who live in Syosset so I'd go out there and hang out at the beach and go swimming. Also, I used to work for [the Long Island / New York newspaper] Newsday -- I did a lot of illustrations for them, I did an ad campaign for them. I used to do the theater caricatures. I was the Al Hirschfeld of Newsday for a season! It was great, I got to see all the shows for free and meet all the actors and actresses, that was a gas.
Q: What kind of people are expecting for your master class?
BP: A lot of art students, a lot of film students, a lot of animation students. It's mostly kids who want to break into the industry, who want to find out if there's a career in animation and if so, how do they get started, how do they find work, how do they make a portfolio piece, how do they do a short film to work at Pixar, or Dreamworks, or Blue Sky, or places like that. Or be independent.
Q: Which reminds me of the famous story about you turning down a million dollars to work at Disney. I'm assuming that that must have been a multiyear contract.
BP: That was a three-year deal. They just wanted to try me, see if I'd work out. This was at a stage when animation was very hot and there weren't a lot of animators out there simply because animation had been dead for so long. There were no schools, there was no way for anybody to learn. So I was a very prized commodity because I had been nominated for an Oscar, I knew how to draw, I knew how to make animation, so I was a very valuable asset to Disney at that time. But I had to say no simply because I would have had to move out to L.A., I would have been stuck on some stupid TV show. I don't know what it would have been like and they never told me [what specifically I'd be working on], so I decided to stay in New York and remain independent.
Q: Tim Burton started at Disney, but his sensibilities were too different from theirs and he washed out.
BP: [John] Lasseter, too. They just fired Lasseter. Says something about Disney.
Q: Do you teach outside Gold Coast?
BP: I'm not a big teacher. I don't like teaching, it's really very difficult work. Because all these students have problems with their films, or their stories, or their scripts, and I have to be the doctor and fix them and I have enough trouble trying to fix my own stories, so why should I fix them? So I prefer just lecturing and I may critique their work if I have time, but basically I just show my films and talk about my work. I do some drawings, show them how I draw and design my characters and everyone that comes gets a free Bill Plympton sketch.
Q: When I saw you do a screening and Q&A at the Tribeca Screening Room in 1991, you said you're basically a one-man studio, but in the documentary you have a fairly substantial studio with a staff of animators.
BP: We're doing a feature right now and need a lot of cel painters, so we have about 10 people, but when the film is done we'll go back down to three or four people. That's about all we need.
Q: When did you start expanding from just yourself to a staff?
BP: When I started making money. Actually, I was [making money], but I didn't really have big productions. It's hire-to-fit-the project. So when the project's done, I have to let people go, they know that, they're aware of that. When another project comes in, I bring people in.
Q: So Matt Groening calls you the god of animation.
BP: I think he was drinking at that time! We're good friends, actually; that's why I'm doing this work for The Simpsons -- Matt suggested I do some work for them. It's really interesting because more people have seen those Simpsons couch gags than have seen my films all around the world. It's the power of television and the power of The Simpsons. I'm talking about doing a TV series that I'll be showing a clip of at the Gold Coast Film Festival.
Q: Some of your films, like Hair High, were released theatrically.
BP: All my films were released theatrically, some bigger than others. Each film has its own personality and business.
Q: Is your market primarily DVD and VOD [video-on-demand] now?
BP: VOD now -- Internet, television, especially foreign. I'm very big in foreign countries. When I go to France or Russia I get mobbed. Germany, Spain. Not so much England, not Japan, I don't know why. I'm very big in Korea. I went to Moscow and I had paparazzi in the lobby of the hotel and crazy fans. I wasn't used to that.
Q: Do you ever have a sense of, "What if I gone with Disney, what if I had gone mainstream?"
BP: There's a lot of what-ifs. The big what-if was, Why didn't I start animating when I was right out of school? That's what I wanted. I didn't want to be an illustrator or a character artist -- I wanted to be an animator. If I'd known [Ralph] Bakshi was doing [the landmark, 1972 adults-only animated feature] Fritz the Cat, I would have volunteered. I would have paid to work on that! I would have learned everything. Bakshi was the guy who blazed that adult-animation trail. My life would have been completely different. Maybe I could have been as big as Seth McFarlane, or Tim Burton, or John Lasseter if I started younger, but I didn't.
Q: You're like the Woody Allen of animation.
BP: I think more John Waters -- this subculture, minor-filmmaker kind of guy. I don't wanna denigrate John Waters -- he's a nice filmmaker, he does very well. Maybe [I'm] even [like] Jim Jarmusch. We're still doing our films, we're doing them our way, we're independent, we're not superstars, we're not James Cameron, but we're making what we want to make and have fun doing it -- and get by doing it. We make a living.
You have to love life, you have to love what you're doing. If you're happy all the time, laugh a lot, that keeps you young. That's why I make films with humor. People say you gotta make children's films or you gotta make ones that are serious and political and have a viewpoint. I don't wanna do that, I just wanna make people laugh and I think that's a very strong political statement. There should be a Nobel Humor Prize because humor is something that when the world is going bad and things are depressing and there's a lot of violence, humor gets you through those times -- it gets you up at the beginning of the day and gives you a positive outlook.
Q: You grew up on a working farm?
BP: A self-sufficient farm. Occasionally we'd sell something, but not that much.
Q: There were no video stores, and I'm sure just a small handful of TV channels, so how were you exposed to animation?
BP: They'd show those old Warner Bros. cartoons on TV and I'd watch The Wonderful World of Disney. I didn't see my first animated film in a cinema until I was 13 and that was Sleeping Beauty. I love that film. Then I saw Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, and I knew that's what I wanted to do.
Q: "Your Face" was just your third animated short and yet, here you go, it gets Oscar-nominated.
BP: I'd done a bunch of shorts [before it] that weren't really finished, I started them and didn't know how to finish them. The first one I finished was "Your Face" and it was a huge hit -- nominated for an Oscar, it went to Cannes. It was fun. "Your Face" changed everything. Right after [the nomination] I called Newsday and said, "I can't work for you anymore, I'm gonna be an animator, I'm nominated for an Oscar."
Q. And I see you've got this DVD called The Flying House Project that takes [pioneering animator] Windsor McCay's 1921 black-and-white silent short and gives it color and sound, and it looks like there's a making-of documentary bundled with it.
BP: We'll be showing the Windsor McCay film ["The Flying House"] at Gold Coast. That's an interesting project because Windsor McCay was this genius animator. He was the greatest draftsman animator ever. You could talk Miyazaki or Lasseter or whoever, and he was better than them. He had no technology [like animators could use even shortly after his time]. He's largely forgotten. I'll do shows at Lincoln Center and say, "Who knows who Windsor McCay is?" and maybe one person raises a hand. That's why I wanted to do the film, I wanted to show the brilliance of his drawings, the brilliance of his storytelling. This was the primitive days of animation -- there were no cels; he had to draw on paper, he had to draw every background and he's just a genius.
Q: The Fleischer studio is another New York City animator from the era.
BP: I love Fleischer, especially the early stuff -- the very surreal and outrageous Betty Boop stuff.
Q: You see a lot of that Fleischer sensibility in much of your work, with the constant transformations going on.
BP: Disney didn't use transformations so much, but the Fleischers did.
Q: Congratulations on the baby [whom his wife is holding nearby]. What his name?
BP: This is Lucas.
Q: Named after George?
BP: Named after a short film I did called "Lucas the Ear of Corn."
Q. Like that's better! (both laugh)
For more from Frank Lovece: http://franklovece.com