Mr Beaks interviews absolute super-genius Bill Plympton!!!
Harry here - Plympton is God... WORSHIP NOW!!!!!
At long last, following a *gi-normous* tour across this great nation of ours, Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt’s THE ANIMATION SHOW is finally coming to DVD. Wanna pre-order yourself a copy? Well, then you best visit Click Here.
But if your tastes tend toward the free-of-charge, signed by Mike and Don variety…
Yes, it’s another AICN contest! Folks, I don’t know how it happened (actually I do, but let’s pretend I don’t, like the shit was just abandoned on my doorstep like an illegitimate child, only these didn’t end up in the dumpster out back of the Rudy’s Hot Dogs next door), but I’ve got ten (10) copies of THE ANIMATION SHOW signed by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt at my disposal, and I’m just itching to give them away to our most deserving readers. The problem is, I don’t know most of you that well, so you’re going to have to jump through some hoops to prove you’re worthy of receiving one of these discs.
Here’s the deal: in 350 words or less (entries over 350 words will be disqualified), I want you to pitch me your dream animated project *and* the dream animator (living or dead) you would assign to pull it all off. The project could be anything. It could be a novel, a fairy tale, a play, a musical, a short story, an original idea of your own, a “Bazooka Joe” comic strip… *anything*! All you’ve got to do is express a passion for the material and offer an equally passionate (and logical) defense of the animator you’ve selected, and you might be getting a free DVD.
So, send the entries to my email address linked at the bottom of this article NO LATER THAN APRIL 23RD, 2004 (any emails dated 12:00:01 April 24th will be disqualified, and send no files, include your entry in the body of your letter - or you'll totally be fucked out of a chance to win, you prick!). I look forward to reading your ideas.
While you’re thinking about it, here’s my interview with the great Bill Plympton, one of the most brilliant animators working today. Like many of you, I first encountered his hilarious, perceptive, and often deeply disturbing work on MTV, which used to run his “Plymptoons” in between commercials. Since then, I’ve had my consciousness weed-whacked by his delirious, borderline depraved feature films I MARRIED A STRANGE PERSON! and MUTANT ALIENS. Now, he’s found a safe haven for his madness in THE ANIMATION SHOW, which features his slapstick-y “Parking”. The DVD also includes a commentary for “Parking” and a trailer for his latest feature, HAIR HIGH, which Plympton describes to fascinating effect in the following piece.
So, without further “to do” as my man Carlito Brigante would say, here’s Bill Plympton.
You’ve been around the animated festival circuit for some time now. What is it that strikes you as different about THE ANIMATION SHOW?
Well, first of all, it’s a much better produced show. And the work is of a much higher caliber, whereas most of the other animation collections are more slapdash.
Are they just not as choosy?
Well, they don’t pay the filmmakers very much money. And I’m talking about Spike and Mike. So, generally speaking, the really great and brilliant films tend not to go there. But, also, Spike and Mike have pretty much decided to go for the really outrageous animation – the “sick and twisted” stuff. So, a lot of it is just a totally different audience.
What was you relationship with Mike and Don before getting involved in THE ANIMATION SHOW?
I’ve known Mike for quite a while, actually. I met him when he was on MTV doing the BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD show. He was just starting out, and we became friends. And we went down to South By Southwest to do a show. That was five or six years ago. And I’ve known Don for maybe five years, I guess. I’m trying to think where I first met him. No, actually, it might’ve been four years ago at Sundance. He had a film there, and I really loved his stuff, especially “Billy’s Balloon” and “Rejected”. But I’ve been following his films since his really early stuff, like the date film (“Lily and Jim”). His humor is so original, and it’s so witty, so dry, and so very sardonic. I really loved his pacing and his sense of humor. I think my favorite is “Billy’s Balloon”. That’s the darkest animated film I’ve ever seen. (Laughs.)
It is. And I think everyone who sees it is reminded of THE RED BALLOON, which we’re all forced to watch thousands of times in elementary school and onward.
The malevolent balloon is such a wonderful idea. But thinking about that film, and moving on to your work, you really take full advantage of the medium. You tell stories that… well, they could be done in live action, but certainly not as originally or vividly as you’ve imagined them. Watching the trailer for HAIR HIGH, there’s that great moment where the humiliated character goes walking back into the classroom, and he just literally shrinks under the ridiculing eyes of his students. We’ve all felt that, but you couldn’t visualize that in live action without a ton of cash for f/x.
Animation, for me, is the truest art form because the fantasies I have in my head really would be very difficult to do in live action. Animation seems to be the purest art form to expressing those visuals. And I must say they mostly are *visual*. I’m not a very good writer in terms of dialogue and scripting. I’m a visual person, and, for me, the subconscious of the brain really hatches these incredibly surrealistic and bizarre images. Some of them are too offensive for most people. (Laughs.) So, I do have to sort of censor myself. I think most filmmakers do that. I don’t think most audiences want to see *everything* you think about, or everything your brain is hatching. Ninety percent of what my brain creates doesn’t get on the page or on the screen.
Going back to “Parking”, which is featured on THE ANIMATION SHOW, and for which you recorded a commentary. You call this guy the “Napoleon” of parking lot owners, and he’s kind of meeting his “Waterloo” in a stubborn blade of grass. Where did this idea come from exactly?
The parking lot downstairs (by his office in New York City)… there used to be a tree there. I loved the tree. I’m on the fourth four, but the tree was very high. In the spring it would blossom with leaves, and in the fall the leaves would turn colors. It was a really beautiful tree, and some asshole – I don’t know who it was – firebombed a car that was parked next to the tree. I don’t know if it was a mafia hit or some crazy guy, but the car caught fire and burned down the tree. And out of this parking lot, that was the only pleasure I got. Otherwise, it was all car alarms and smog and honking horns. So, it just kind of sparked a little anger in me, I guess. Eventually this whole city is going to be empty of greenery, so I just thought it would be a fun idea to do the cartoon.
So maybe that blade of grass is the vengeful spirit of the tree.
The tree coming back? (Laughs.) The tree’s revenge. It’s a revenge film, that’s what it is!
Well, they’re so popular now, what with KILL BILL.
Yeah, right. Well, a little aside: the guy who I patterned the (parking lot owner) after was shot about two or three years ago. And I saw it. Some guy held him up – it was a crackhead, I think – and the guy refused to give him the money. And he shot him. I heard the shot, and I looked out my window, and I saw this guy staggering. For some weird reason, I don’t know why, but there was this couch sitting on the side of the sidewalk, and he laid down on the couch and died. It was really… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone die in front of me before.
I thought, “I’ve got to memorialize this guy somehow because he refused to give up to this crackhead robber”, so I made him the star of my film.
Was the design of the character based closely on this guy? Because you kind of tell the story in this guy’s forehead. Was he that broad?
I never saw him up close, actually. I think he actually had a mustache, and he never wore shorts. I don’t know why I gave him the shorts. I just wanted to make him kind of a dandy, I guess. But he never wore a uniform. He had regular pants and a grey workshirt, so he never really had a uniform like that. That’s just… I wanted to push the militancy of this guy a bit. Make him a little more of a corporate-type guy.
Again, what you do with that character is so expressive. You could never have an actor with a forehead quite that expressive. Maybe Ray Wise.
(Laughs.) That was an old idea I’d always wanted to use, so I recycled it here. The original gag was this guy is driving through the country, and he sees this old couple – this really old, grizzled, wrinkled couple. He asks them for directions on how to get somewhere, and the old guy points to a wrinkle in his forehead, and it’s a map that tells him where to turn and stuff. It was a funny idea, but I never got a chance to use it, so I felt like I could use it with this parking lot guy. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s the same concept. You see people with a lot of wrinkles in their forehead, and you can see anything in there, like the way you see images in clouds. So, I thought it would be fun to take that concept and really push it.
Your work is so often a collision of the absurd and the fantastical. What is it that appeals to you about these worlds?
I think that surrealism is the basis for all humor. Even if it’s a verbal joke. If it’s something that is unexpected, or something that is absurd, or something that is unreal, you will laugh at it. I like to make people laugh, so I use the fantastic as a way to tell a joke, and, for me, that’s humor. For example… just walking down the street, if you see something that makes no sense, you just start laughing at it simply because it’s not something you see everyday. I don’t know why people laugh at it, but they do because it’s surreal. People find that funny. Like some guy wearing some bizarre hat on the subway, you start laughing at it because it’s different. That’s surreal, and that’s the basis for all of my humor.
And that’s the great thing about New York City. There’s *so* much of that. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t weird people everywhere, but the numbers are on your side.
It’s much more concentrated.
Now, who were or are your influences. Animated or otherwise?
There’s a lot of them, and I’ll list some of them for you. Obviously, Walt Disney was a big influence when I was younger. Tex Avery and Bob Clampett of Warner Brothers and MGM fame. R. Crumb. Myazaki. Quentin Tarantino. Emmylou Harris. Richard Lester. Peter Jackson, especially his early films. I mean, I really liked RETURN OF THE KING, but…
Well, BAD TASTE and MEET THE FEEBLES are obvious works of demented genius.
And DEAD ALIVE, of course. I hope one day he goes back to those kinds of topics, but I don’t think he will.
He has allegedly expressed a willingness to do a one-off zombie film, so maybe he’ll do that at some point to decompress. Now, one thing I liked about your website is that you give student advice. Hopefully, some of the people reading this interview are thinking about getting into animation, or are dabbling in it already. What’s your best brief bit of encouragement to young animators?
I have three rules about how to make a successful (short) film that you’d want to get in THE ANIMATION SHOW. And the three rules are: one, make it short. Not above five minutes. Simply because it’s harder to sell a film that’s ten minutes or fifteen minutes. It’s harder to program; film festivals find it hard to program and television stations find it hard to program. Two, make it cheap. Now, with the advent of the computer and flash and other programs, it’s a lot easier to keep the budget very low on your film. When you shoot it on film, you use big cameras and all of that stuff. Three, make it funny. If you make a funny film, everyone will want it. I don’t know why that is with animation, but most people, when they see animation, they want to laugh. And Don Hertzfeldt answers all three of these (qualifications). The drawings are very simple; they’re very easy, they’re not expensive, and there aren’t a lot of special effects or fancy music. They’re short *and* they’re incredibly funny. He’s actually an example I use for a lot of people who want to get into animation. Then, once you make that film, you send it to the film festivals, and there are film festivals all over the world. And that’s where the distributors looking for films buy it. You want people to react strongly to a film, so that way it’ll get a lot of sales. I assume that people who make films want to *continue* making films and be successful. Don and I are the two animators that I know in the world who are independently successful making their films without investors or government sponsorship or independent wealth.
Well, that’s the trick – to do it so cheaply that you don’t have to water down your work with other people’s suggestions.
I do notice that you do a lot of personal appearances. Is that a necessary thing to maintain interest in your work?
It is. It’s like a rock band touring to promote an album. I do it to promote my work and myself, but also… it’s fun. I really enjoy it. I enjoy seeing other parts of the world. I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy talking about animation and cartoons, and also, quite frankly, I make some money out of it. I charge fees for an exhibition, or sell a few books or DVD’s, and I use that money.
Looking at the trailer for HAIR HIGH, which you’ve done as a “gothic high school comedy”… where did the idea for this come from?
It came from a dream. Usually, I do not use dreams for my films, because I wake up in the movie and they’re pretty bland. But this one was very strong; it had a lot of resonance for me. The visuals were really intriguing. I’ll tell you the dream: at the bottom of the lake, there’s a car with two skeletons inside in the front seat, and the current is swirling over their bodies. You see their torn gowns and their hair waving in the current of the lake. You see some fish swimming around. And, then, all of a sudden, the lights of the car come on. The engine starts. The fish scatter, and this car slowly lurches forward out of the mud and the muck, and drives along the bottom of the lake. And, then, it comes up on shore, drives through this small town America – past the burger stand and Main Street – and then it goes to this high school, and to the prom. That’s where the dream ended. So, the trick for me was to discover how this couple got there, and what they did when they got to the prom. That was the fun part: filling in the blanks.
That’s great. And you’ve got a great cast of voices. The Carradines (David and Keith), Michael Showalter, Craig Bierko, Dermot Mulroney, Tom Noonan. Did these folks seek you out, or was it the other way around.
Martha Plimpton, who’s a distant relative of mine, we’ve been friends for about ten years, I guess. We were drinking one night, and I was telling her the problems I was having with getting… good distribution for my films. She said, “Let me make a few phone calls, see what I can do”. She started calling these people up, and they all said, “Hey, Bill Plymton! I love his stuff. Count me in.” So, we got them at the SAG (scale); obviously, they cut their rates for me, which is nice. But, also, we only needed them for an hour. They just came in for an hour and did their bit, so it wasn’t a big strain on their schedule. Matt Groening did a voice, obviously… which is going to be pretty cool. We wanted to get Tonya Harding, and she was very reticent. We had a part for her, but…
Oh, so you *did* get Tonya Harding?
We didn’t. She backed out at the last minute. Also, Matthew Perry was going to do a voice, too, but the day before the session his agent called and said, “Nope, can’t allow it. It’s too small time for him.”
Typically. But we got Dermot Mulroney, who I think probably did a better job. His voice is perfect.
And you animated this live on the internet. What was that like?
That was cool. I don’t know where the idea came from. One of my workers was talking about doing some internet stuff, and I said, “Maybe I’ll set up a camera over my drawing board.” You know what it was? You know those porno sites where women are dressing in the bedroom, and then they take a shower?
A friend of mine had a site like that where they had cameras everywhere. They even wanted one inside the toilet. (Laughs.) It was very popular. So, I thought, “Gee, that’d be fun to put that over my drawing board and people could watch me animate every drawing of the film” – about 30,000 drawings. So, we set it up, and it was very popular. We had lots of emails, and really good traffic. We used it as a way to promote the film, and to show people that computers don’t make all the films these days. There’s still people with pens and pencils making films.
That’s the thing. Studios seem to think it’s all about computer animation now. But hand-to-paper is so personal and primal in a way.
Yeah, it’s very basic. I grew up from three years old using pencil and paper. I’m still doing it now, and it still feels wonderful and thrilling and liberating to do that.
Do you think there’s a danger with people learning their craft with computers? That there will be a kind of de-personalization of the art?
No, I think it’s good. For a lot of young people who want to get into animation, it’s an easier way to learn. There’s a lot of crap that comes out of these film schools and animation schools that are done on computers. But, you know, you’ve got crap done on pencil and paper, too. It’s just part of the learning process. I don’t begrudge computer animation. I love Pixar’s stuff; I think it’s beautiful stuff. More people do animation because it’s a truer sense of one’s imagination. There are no limits. There are no rules. It’s like you’re God. You’re creating everyone and everything that happens.
Check back next week for my second go-round with Don Hertzfeldt, who was nice enough to pry himself away from his newfound passion – Sneetch Tentacle Porn – for another wide ranging conversation.
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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April 15, 2004, 8:18 a.m. CST
by Jon E Cin
Yes! Bill plymton should have done the animated sequence!
April 15, 2004, 8:22 a.m. CST
by Judge Doom
Me God!! Me GOD!!!
April 15, 2004, 8:23 a.m. CST
Yes, I'm third!
April 15, 2004, 9:17 a.m. CST
April 15, 2004, 9:29 a.m. CST
April 15, 2004, 10:23 a.m. CST
But "I Married A Strange Person" was terrible. sk
April 15, 2004, 12:38 p.m. CST
by The Dracut Stomp
I'll see anything with Sarah Silverman in it, even if she only does a voice.
April 15, 2004, 1:27 p.m. CST
On his own, Plympton's good with visual puns but he gets lost in them after about 5 minutes.
April 15, 2004, 1:29 p.m. CST
are there bowing spaceships?
April 15, 2004, 1:40 p.m. CST
I remember seeing Bill's work there for the first time. It was "One of Those Days", which is still one of his best shorts. He's a true independent, and I wish him luck with his endeavors. also: there's a really great book on Caricaturing from 1990 or so out that has a good profile of Bill's caricaturing career, and the careers of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman. Get it from your library
April 15, 2004, 1:45 p.m. CST
Judge's "Office Space" animated shorts, which weren't included on the movie DVD.
April 15, 2004, 3:07 p.m. CST
Not exactactly his best work, but it had some very silly sight gags (I'll never look at a wall outlet the same way again.)
April 15, 2004, 4:22 p.m. CST
Check it out, they ARE on the Animation Show DVD! The very first Office Space cartoon is included in, "Early Pencil Tests by Mike Judge" on the disc I don't think they are available anywhere else...? Has anybody seen these before?
April 15, 2004, 4:53 p.m. CST
I mean if people like his stuff, that is cool, but he is far from universaly adored. I can see that he has talent, but his sensibility doesn't appeal to me or most people. He has sort of a cult appeal I guess.
April 15, 2004, 4:54 p.m. CST
by Acne Scarface
and that other anthology program mostly consisting of animation whose name escapes me. i think it had "night" in the title. wished mars and beyond was in the collection, but it'll apparently show up in the forthcoming walt disney's treasures: tomorrowland dvd along with its companion shorts. i'm wayne brady, bitch!
April 15, 2004, 8:47 p.m. CST
He's from my town, Portland OR, along with Matt Groening, Mike Mignola and Gus Van Sant. They make a name for themselves, then split as soon as they can afford the bus ticket.
April 16, 2004, 12:10 a.m. CST
Oh well, it wasn't that good, but still kinda unique. Wonder where Patrick Warburton will land next.
April 16, 2004, 5:46 p.m. CST
Of "Ernie Pook's Comeek" fame
April 16, 2004, 7:48 p.m. CST
I was lucky enough to see Mutant Aliens on the big screen (with Bill in person!) and even got a signed poster. I'll be there for HAIR HIGH, too.
April 17, 2004, 12:21 a.m. CST
When Groening got famous, he was asked what advice he had for kids on how to be a success. He said, "Well, I cut a lot of classes and smoked a lot of dope." That's why he's not invited to speak at schools. Oh, and Courtney Love worked as a stripper here--we're finally getting the STD's back under control.
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