In Portland-born animator Bill Plympton's films, faces might turn themselves inside out, explode, or puddle into primordial goo; they come back blandly whole, the very soul of bureaucracy. Features float across cheeks like ducks in a bathtub; Kanye West becomes a tongue-wagging devil; impossible dogs fail impossibly, with terrible pathos. But however grotesque they become, Plympton's animations and drawings are always also drolly charismatic, dryly hilarious: One is willing to accept anything from them. Like many of the best animators, he subjects the world to a new, strange, entirely idiosyncratic logic.
This idiosyncrasy and independence forms much of the subject matter of his new, lusciously and copiously illustrated book, Independently Animated: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation (Universe, 264 pages, $39.95), from his perhaps-mythical beginnings as a baby doodling in his own crib, to art classes at PSU and in New York, to the various byways, frustrations and joys of flying largely without a net. Plympton famously hand-draws all his own animations and works with only a small, dedicated team, while doing sidebar, often inspired commercial work to pay the bills. In animation terms, he's John Cassavetes. What's not to like about that?
WW talked with Plympton about writing and drawing things.
WW: What gave you the idea to write a book?
Bill Plympton: I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, and my buddy [legendary animator] Ralph Bakshi was there. He had his book from Rizzoli [Press] and was doing a signing. We went out drinking and crashed the Warner Bros. party, which we weren't supposed to do; they had very good security, in suits. He asked if I'd ever done an art book, and he said let's do one. About two years ago, I started writing the book with David Levy, and we got Terry Gilliam to do the introduction.
How did you go about it?
I wrote all the words, and then David Levy would edit and correct my grammar and my spelling, add a few words and shape it. Chris McDonnell was also a really important part of it—he was so good with the design. The artwork and the look of the book is really a huge part of it.
It's an oddity in being both a coffee-table art book and a personal autobiography.
It's also instructional; it's great for young filmmakers who want to learn how to make films independently. I talk about my favorite filmmakers, my favorite artists, films that I hate. There was a big debate about whether I should talk about films that I hate. I think people should know what films not to see.
You figure bad film can be somehow toxic to the soul?
That's an idea. No, you do learn things from bad films. You learn what not to do, what mistakes to avoid. You can laugh at them.
In your book you talk about crashing a party full of Pixar animators, and that some of them were jealous of the independence you have in making your films. Do you ever get jealous of the resources they have?
They were Disney animators, and absolutely. I'm very jealous of the money they get, first of all, the distribution that they got on their films, and the fame that they get. So certainly it goes both ways. If the money is right, I would do it. If they offered me a couple million dollars.
You've said you felt a personal connection to early animator Winsor McCay?
I'm actually working on a project now with Winsor McCay, although he died 80 years ago. I'm reviving a film of his called The Flying House, which was the last animated film he made. I was amazed at how beautiful the drawing was, the characters, and the story, and I thought how tragic that nobody has seen this film. It's black-and-white, very scratched and deteriorating, with intertitles and word balloons to slow it down, and there's no sound or music because it was made in 1921. I took it upon myself out of my pocket to remedy all of these. We're still not finished; in fact, we have a Kickstarter campaign where people can donate money: the Winsor McCay Resurrection Project.
Other upcoming projects?
I'm working on a feature—it's about halfway done. It's called "Cheatin'," as in "Your Cheatin' Heart." I also just finished a music video by Weird Al called "TMZ." I did one three years ago called "Don't Download This Song," and Weird Al liked it so much he asked me to do another.
GO: Bill Plympton reads and speaks at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, July 18. Free.