Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 12/31/2008
Bill Plympton has been making animated and live action films for the best part of a generation now. Quirky and idiosyncratic, yet always entertaining and accessible, his work has garnered both critical praise and accolades from an increasing number of fans, as well as numerous awards and nominations, including two Oscar nods, and a place on this very magazine's recently published "85 Weirdest Creators" list.
We caught up with Plympton on the eve of the release of his latest animated feature, Idiots and Angels, to quiz him about his creative process, why he still draws every frame of his cartoons himself, and how a simple stroll around his neighborhood in the Big Apple will, quite often and without any warning, become...
A Walk on the Weird Side
Bill Baker: You've a new animated film, Idiots and Angels, which is out now. Where'd that come from, and what about that particular idea made it worth investigating?
Bill Plympton: Well, I don't know where the original idea came from, and usually I do. Usually I know where they came from. But the first reference I can remember was three years ago at a [film] festival in France, in Lille. I was walking with this guy to my hotel, and he asked me what my next film project would be and, off the top of my head--I don't know where it came from, it just seemed appropriate--I said, "An asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back."
And he said, "Yeah. Hey, that's a good idea. I like that idea."
And I started thinking about it, and I said, "Yeah, it is kind of an interesting, intriguing concept."
So that night, as I laid in my hotel room, I actually started doing preliminary sketches, story ideas, character designs, possible plot devices, and it just felt like it was really something that would be fun to make, and could be popular with the audience.
BB: And how do you decide which ideas will make good fodder for a longer film, like Idiots and Angels, and which work best as a shorter piece?
BP: This one had a real...how should I say it? It had a real intriguing character. The character had a real span to it, in terms of that it had to take place over a period of time.
Most of my films are joke films-the shorts, anyway-and I can tell a joke within five minutes. This one had a lot more depth to it, a lot more character development and, again, the period of time that it took place sort of demanded
that it had to be a feature film.
But, also, I just thought that the concept was so universal, and was so meaningful to a lot of people, that it really should be treated as a feature film.
BB: You said that you normally know where your ideas come from. Do these arise from some striking images, or perhaps concepts, you've encountered, or do you draw them from another source?
BP: Usually, it's something that I observe. I live in New York City, and it's kind of a cartoon city, so I see a lot of bizarre events and people, and hear a lot of bizarre stories.
For example, the Guard Dog series was inspired by an event I saw in the park right by where I live. It's called Madison Square Park, and I saw this dog barking at a little bird. And I wondered why is a dog threatened by this tiny, little birdie?
So I went inside the dog's brain and realized... Well, I didn't realize, but made up this fantasy that the dog was afraid the bird would attack his master, and he would lose his meal ticket. So, that was the inspiration for Guard Dog, and that whole series has become very successful-and all simply because I looked at something that's an everyday occurrence, and I needed an explanation [for it]. There're so many things in life that are just mysteries. And oftentimes, by exploring these mysteries, I get a lot of good ideas.
Also, a lot of my ideas come from seeing something that's confusing. You overhear a conversation, and you don't hear the whole conversation, you hear a clip of it. And so you sort of add words of your own to it, or misinterpret what they're saying, and it's so surreal, it's so absurd, and so bizarre that it works. It becomes a plot for your next short film. So it comes in many different ways.
Also, sometimes I'll just lie in bed in the morning for an hour and just let my mind wander. I think daydreaming is very important part of my creative process, and often my mind will sort of take flight and touch on these bizarre ideas, and I write them down as I think of them. And, before you know it, I have a plot for a new film.
BB: So, it sounds like, in a very real sense, rather than being purposefully weird or quirky to be funny, these are expressions of your take on the world, and represent your own particular world view, then.
BP: Yeah, real life. Yeah, these are the kinky side of life, the bizarre side of real life.
BB: Has that always been the case, and is this something that's interested you since your childhood, perhaps?
BP: Yeah. I think everybody has those either misinterpretations of reality, or curiosity about the mysteries of life, and I think we all are attracted to that. I think we all want to explore those ideas, and that's just what I've been doing since I was kid.
BB: Now, I know that when it comes to your animation work, you've always insisted on drawing every single frame yourself.
BB: So you still do that?
BP: Yeah, I do. There're three reasons for that. One is that it's quicker. If I had to hire somebody to do it, I would have to keep correcting them, and so I find it faster to do it myself. Number two, it's cheaper. Rather than hiring other animators...
The good ones are very expensive. You know, like a thousand dollars a day, or whatever. I just don't have that kind of money.
And number three, it's more fun. For me, the pleasure of making these films is to do the drawings myself. That's what I want to do. I don't want to be a big boss, or a bureaucrat, or a producer. That's boring. I want to be the guy doing the drawings, and making up these characters, and having them move around.
BB: Plus, you're investing a big part of yourself directly into the film, in a very real sense.
BP: Yeah. Of course it is, yeah.
You know, my films aren't hugely successful, I'm not like Pixar or anything like that, but they're fun for me to do, and they're quirky, like you say. They have their own sort of "Plympton look." It's sort of a brand now. I've a kind of a cottage industry, making these animations, and I like it like that.
For me, that's comfortable. I have no pressure. I have no deadlines. I have no marketing people, or toy companies pressuring me to finish it at a certain time. So, it's a very easy lifestyle for me, and I'm just blessed that I can make money on these films, and I just turn them out whenever I want.
BB: Now I know that, while you might be working on something longer like Idiots and Angels, typically you're simultaneously working on one or two shorter films, as well.
BB: So, how do you manage to juggle all that, and why do it that way? Does it help keep you and the work fresh?
BP: Yeah, that's part of it. Although when I was making Idiots and Angels, I pretty much concentrated on the feature, unless I had a deal [come up]. For example, I was working on a music video for Kanye West, and that was a real rush job, so I had to sideline the feature for that. But the shorts that I do...
Like Hot Dog or Shuteye Hotel; [Shuteye Hotel was] done before production of Idiots and Angels, and then Hot Dog was done after production. So, when I'm drawing, that's pretty intense. That's like ten, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. And I get in this real zone. It's almost like a high, and I'm so single minded about finishing this film, about the characters in the film, and the storytelling in the film, that's it hard for me to get distracted by other projects. In fact, I refuse to be distracted, unless it a big commercial or something.
You know, I just remembered another little story, and I'm sorry if I'm interrupting the flow here, but you were asking about where I get my ideas?
BP: Did you see the film Shuteye Hotel?
BB: A while ago.
BP: That was a real Edgar Allen Poe-ish kind of story, and it was interesting because that idea came from a visit to another hotel while I was at another foreign film festival. And I remember waking up in the morning, and this pillow, this very plush pillow that I'd been sleeping in was so deep and so plush that it had encompassed my head. And I thought, "Oh my god, this pillow is trying to eat my head!" And right there, I just knew that was a good idea for a film.
So, Shuteye Hotel is basically a murder mystery where this pillow is eating everybody's head that lays on it. And I thought that was such a fun idea. It's very [Alfred] Hitchcockian, you know? It's like there's this mysterious murderer, you don't know who it is, and then you realize that it's a very soft, comfortable pillow who's taking revenge on people for drooling on them, and fluffing them up and having pillow fights. I'd like to extend that idea, because I think pillows can be very scary creatures.
BB: Yeah, I was just thinking that you probably didn't have time to worry about any creatures that might have been lurking in your boyhood closet!
BP: That's right. Pillows were scary enough, that's true. [General laughter]
How would you describe you general creative process? Once you've struck that initial spark of an idea, what do you do to get it from that to a finished film?
BP: Well, for example, with Shuteye Hotel, I will do a lot of sketches of what the hotel looks like, what the pillow looks like. I will try and find a resolution, like the discovery that the killer is actually a pillow, and I save that for the last because that is the gag, that's the punch line. And I wanted this killer to be, in the imagination of the audience, some vicious strangler or rapist or psychopath or something like that.
I kind of build on that plot device of unmasking the killer. So, I will write down possible story ideas, or gag ideas, or possible killers that could be false trails, that sort of thing. I just play with it, and think about it. I close my eyes and just imagine what would be fun to put in there? What would really be cool? What would the audience really like to see in the film?
And so, once I have a basic concept for the plot, then I start storyboarding. The storyboarding process is a very important process for me, because that really defines so much of the film in terms of what the characters look like, the atmosphere, the pacing, the storytelling, the cutting, the camera work, the camera angles, the lighting, the shading. All that stuff is all defined in the storyboard process.
And, once I have a good storyboard, then I start doing layouts. And layouts are taking every shot and defining what action takes place in that shot. For example, if it's the woman fighting with the pillow, the cop fighting with the pillow, then I show the first sequence and the last sequence, so I know what takes place in that shot.
Then I go ahead and start making the animation. And the animation is, obviously, the longest part, because each drawing has to be drawn by me. So, for a short film, that will take like two or three weeks, something like that, to do all the animation.
I'll do the backgrounds while I'm doing that. And then, I hand it over to my staff, and they will scan it, and clean the drawings, and composite the drawings, and sequence the drawings, and color the drawings. So that's a very important part. That's basically putting it all together. And then, once we have all the shots assembled, and colored, and completed, then we edit the film together, which is a very normal process, like every place else.
Generally, I don't use dialogue for my films, so the dialogue, which usually goes first, is never really used in the film. So we just put in sound effects and music, and that is it.
BB: Well, how much has the introduction of the computer helped make your process a bit easier, or perhaps even quicker?
BP: On a number of levels, it's helped. It's made the whole process a lot cheaper, because shooting on film was very expensive, and very tedious, and prepping the shots for the film was really a huge drain on money and personnel. Also, if I want to make a change, it's easier to make a change when it's on computer. Simply by changing some numbers, I can adjust the timing of the film, or adjust the shading of the film, or the color of the film. So post-production is very easy and quick and cheap with the use of the computer.
But, essentially, everything else is still the same. It's just me drawing, and coloring, and all that sort of stuff.
BB: OK. I wanted to jump back a little bit into your last answer for a moment. You said that the storyboarding process, and the storyboards themselves, are very important to your overall process. Are you doing those very detailed? I ask, because when you see most storyboards, you clearly can tell what's going on, but it isn't necessarily that detailed an image.
BP: Yeah. For Idiots and Angels it was very detailed, simply because it's a big film. What I did was, I did, I think, 220 pages of storyboards-six storyboards per page. So it's almost a drawing for every frame of the film. And we will use it as a graphic novel, it will be published as a graphic novel. So, that was another reason to make the drawings pretty detailed, and pretty finished for the storyboard.
BB: And is that how you typically create your graphic novel versions of your films?
BP: It is, it totally is.
BB: And, of course, you really can't get a truer vision of the film than that, and yet it's still a kind of original version of the film, too.
BP: Right. And it's good for young animators to see how the process works, how my storytelling works, the difference between storyboards and the finished film. It's very instructive. A lot of schools buy my books, my graphic novels, for that reason alone.
BB: Who's influenced you?
BP: Well, there are a lot of people. Of course, Disney was the first huge influence, as he almost influenced everybody, as were Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. Robert Crumb was a big influence. Saul Steinberg.
Charles Addams, you know, the Addams Family guy? He was a big influence because his pictures were very dark and sick. He made fun of people dying, he made light of death, and I thought that was a real refreshing move. I mean, no one had ever done that so much before him, using people's pain and death as a source of humor.
An artist by the name of A.B. Frost, who was a turn of the century cartoonist. A great, great artist from Buenos Aires called Carlos Nine. Roland Topor, from France.
Of course, The Beatles. Quentin Tarantino. Frank Capra. Let's see, who else?
Tommy Ungerer is a big influence. Richard Lester, the British filmmaker who did the early Beatles films. Miyazaki. John Lasseter. Another big one was Preston Blair, who wrote the book, "Animation". I saw that when I was a kid. That was really great. Milt Kahl.
You know, it goes on and on.
BB: It sounds like you've really got a work ethic, and that it might have been instilled in you at a young age. Is that something you might have picked up from your father, or even grandfather?
BP: No. I'll tell you what it is.
When I first moved to New York from Oregon, back in the 70s, I really liked hanging out, and checking out New York, going to movies. I would sometimes go to eight a day. I was really just impassioned by movies. And I did my cartoons and everything, and it was OK. But, when I got into animation-which was in '86, I think, '85, something like that-I was just so amazed by the popularity of my films, and the magic of animation. Even though when I was five I wanted to be an animator, it took me a long time to learn the technology of animation; that was the big hold up [for me]. But I had all these great ideas that I used for print that I wanted to turn into animation, so I felt like I was trying to make up for lost time. I felt like, "Oh, man, from when I was twenty to thirty-five, I could have been making animated films. I gotta catch up!"
So I just have so many ideas, and so many fun things that I want to do, that, again, I'm just making up for lost time. And it's a pleasurable occupation. I really enjoy animating, so it's not like I'm working hard. Basically, it's like I'm playing pretty hard.
BB: And that also answers what was to have been my next question, which was 'What do you get from making your films?' But that leads me to wonder what you hope your audiences get from your work?
BP: Well, I like it when they laugh. For me, that's really the big thing. A lot of filmmakers will make their films for money, or will make them for prizes, or make them for good reviews. I don't. I make them for the audiences' pleasure. To me, that's the ultimate goal.
And, sure, I like to get money. I like to get good reviews. I like to get prizes. But that's not the number one thing. And you may laugh and say, "Oh, yeah. Of course, that's so obvious." But it's not.
There are so many filmmakers who don't give a damn about the audience. They will do these real artsy-fartsy films that are totally boring, or political films that really turn everybody off, or soul searching films all about their own lives or childhood or something, and they don't really care whether the audience likes them or not. And I think that's an insult. I think they should, if they don't care about the audience, they shouldn't show their films to their audience-they should just show them to themselves.
So, that's a really important issue. You probably see a lot of these films that are very hard to watch, very obscure. They get a lot of grants, a lot of art grants, and it just pisses me off that a lot of government money and tax payer money is going to films that are unwatchable, or people do not want to see. In fact, I did a film about that. It's called Spiral, about an art film that nobody wanted to see.
So I think that, to answer your question, I just want people to have a good time.
BB: And there's certainly nothing wrong with that by any stretch of the imagination.
BP: Right. Exactly.
BB: Now, this is not a question I typically ask, but I think it's very appropriate for you and your work, considering how much light and dark, the sweet and the sour, that I have to ask if you see life as essentially a comedy, or a tragedy? Or is it perhaps something else entirely?
BP: No, I don't see it as a tragedy. No, I'm a very optimistic guy. I'm almost a Pollyanna. Even as old as I am, it's weird, I'm very Pollyannaish.
Oh, yeah, life is pleasure, totally. I was just walking down the street wondering how cool things are, just looking at people on the street and letting my imagination run wild. It's definitely a pleasure.
But some of my films are very violent, and they're not necessarily sad, but I certainly find a lot of humor in violence. And that, again, goes back to the Tex Avery cartoons, or the Charles Addams cartoons, and that it's sometimes good to laugh at our misfortune, or other people's misfortune. For some reason, people like doing that. I don't know why, when someone hits himself in the head with a rock or something, why people laugh. I don't know the psychology of that, but it's funny.
BB: I've heard it said that, quite simply, we laugh because it's not us.
BP: Ah, that could be, but I've made stupid blunders and hurt myself badly, and I've laughed at how stupid I am. So, I think it goes beyond that.
BB: Point taken.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen or experienced?
BP: We were in the streets of New York, on the very first day of shooting J. Lyle, one of my live action feature films. It was like a Sunday morning, a beautiful sunny day. This transvestite, basically naked except for a little negligee, starts following me around the set and tipped over the craft services table, and attacked one of the crew with some scissors. So I grabbed this big roll of tar paper and started to, sort of like Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, sword fight, trying to get this guy away from everybody. He stabbed me in the arm with the scissors. The cops came and the ambulance came and they hauled him away. He stabbed one of the cops, it was a real fracas. I just realized that when you're doing animation, in like, my apartment, this never happens. It's much safer there.
BB: Is there a question you've always wanted to answer, but no one's asked it yet?
BP: Yeah, there is a question I think interviewers should ask, and they rarely do. If I was an interviewer, this is the question I'd ask ever
artist, and it's probably one of the most important questions: Why do you do it? Why do you do what you do?
Obviously, I could make more money if I was in the Stock Market, or a salesman or something like that. So, why do I do it? Because everybody has a different reason why they create, why they make their films. And I think it just started when I was a little kid, and I started to draw a lot. I just felt like there was a certain power in drawing something-whether it's a car or a pretty girl or a beautiful tree or something like that-there's a certain power you that have when you draw when you draw these things, that you own them, that they become yours.
Like, if I see a beautiful woman on the street and I draw that woman, I almost feel like I've had sex with her, because I control her. I created her.
And I think that's one of the reasons that I love doing cartoons. It's a god-like feeling. It's a very all-powerful feeling. I guess it can go back to that whole totem thing of tribal societies, where they would do a totem of their god, or their rival tribe's, and they would stick pins in it and that sort of thing.
There's a certain power in creating these characters in my film, that I own them, I control them. And I think that's one of the real reasons why I make these films.
BB: Well, it's a good thing that you're a benevolent god watching over them.
BP: Yes, that is true. [Laughter] That is true.
BB: Well, anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?
BP: There is a new book coming out with Kanye West. It's called Through the Wire. And that should be out, hopefully, in November. It's a pretty cool book.
Kanye West chose twelve of his favorite songs, and then I illustrated them. And then he goes back and talks about what each song means, the story behind the lyrics, and all that sort of stuff. So that's going to be a pretty cool book, I think.
BB: OK. And who's publishing that?
BP: That is published by Simon and Schuster for Atria books.
Also, if people want to find out more about Idiots and Angels, they can go to www.IdiotsAndAngels.com
or www.Plymptoons.com, and check out all the cool stuff.
BB: And they can also buy all of your films and books there, too, right?
BP: Yes. You can get any of my DVDs, or books, or posters, music on the www.Plymptoons.com site.
[A shortened version of this interview previously appeared in issue 351 of Weird Tales. If you'd like to learn more about Weird Tales--or purchase of copy of that specific issue or get a subscription to that venerable magazine--head on over to www.WeirdTales.net. BB]
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