Bill Plympton On ‘Cheatin’, the State of Animation, a Possible Tarantino Team-Up
It’s surprising and frankly disheartening that the state of animated movies has barely changed since its inception. Perhaps the biggest revolution in the art form was ushered in by Woody and Buzz Lightyear and in Pixar’s 1994 jump to the third dimension, Toy Story, but if you take a step back, the sad reality sinks in that animated movies are still as narrow in terms of subject matter as they ever have been. Virtually all animated features that hit theaters these days are either aimed at kids or at least kid-friendly, and adult subjects like sex, infidelity, drug use, and murder remain largely untouched, even in 2015, over 100 years since the world saw its first animated sequence on celluloid.
We’re long overdue for an animation revolution, a wave of films full of mature themes and imagery to expand people’s minds beyond the “cartoons are for kids” mantra that’s been ingrained in our culture for decades and continues to stifle the art form.
Bill Plympton, a veteran animator who’s managed to remain a completely independent artist throughout his decades-long career, has been fighting the good fight and trying to spark said revolution since he put pencil to paper. His work has been seen in film festivals and on television probably since before you were born, telling stories about the messier side of life with his inimitable style and surrealist philosophy.
Cheatin’ is Plympton’s latest film (though the prolific filmmaker has always got at least a couple of projects in the pipeline), a trippy tale about a husband and wife whose relationship slowly crumbles as outside temptation drives them apart. It’s a timeless tale told in timeless fashion, existing in a world where everything looks slightly wrong, and yet strangely familiar.
I had the honor of speaking with Mr. Plympton about the film, which is out on Vimeo On Demand today. In addition, his entire library of work is also available now on iTunes, including 60 short films and 10 full-length features.
You’ve been essentially autonomous as an artist for your entire career. Because of this, do you find you have a more intimate relationship with your fans than perhaps other artists?
I don’t think so. Everybody has fans, just mine are a little weirder. A little strange. There’s sex, violence, and surreal humor in my films, so I think that appeals to a special audience, certainly not family-type people. It’s a younger crowd, probably about your age. Mostly male, though Cheatin’ has been getting a lot of female fans. They’re a little more educated, people who like seeing something they’ve never seen before.
Film is still a relatively young art form, a little over a hundred years old. But to me, animation is still in its infancy, in a way. The type of animated films available to us are so narrow, almost exclusively telling stories that are appropriate for children. You know this as well as anybody. I think your work is important because it keeps alive the idea that animation can be much more expansive than it is, as far as subject matter. What do we have to do to get adult animated movies out there?
Thank you for saying that. It’s something I’ve been asking myself a lot. I don’t know. I think the preeminence of Disney in this country is one factor. People are afraid of mixing cartoons and sex. There’s still that conservative side of American society that prevents these films from getting major distribution. I know there’s a big audience for me, people who want to see something fresh, from a different viewpoint. It’s just a matter of getting the distributors to believe that. That’s been my struggle for 25 years. I hope Cheatin’ is the film that will break that glass ceiling that’s prevented animation from reaching adult audiences.
When I was a kid, I grew up loving animation. I still love animation. So it just makes sense to see adult ideas made with animation. Animation, to me, is a perfect art form. There are no limits to what you can do. Why would you just keep it for kids? It seems very offensive to me that that’s the way it is in this country. An example I use is Quentin Tarantino, who has a lot of sex and violence in his films, and they’re cartoons, basically. They’re very exaggerated, with big, weird characters. How come he can get away with it and I can’t? I just don’t understand it.
I think words get in the way sometimes. I think animation is the perfect art form as well, because some emotions and feelings cannot be expressed adequately through words. With animation, I think you can be more expressive.
I made this film without dialogue for three reasons. Number one is, it’s really expensive to get distribution because you have to do the translation and dubbing and subtitles. Number two is, I’m not really good at writing dialogue, and it’s hard to do lip-synch. Number three, I think it’s just more poetic and powerful to tell a story through sound, music, and visuals.
It’s cinema. Pure cinema. That’s the way I like it.
I think what a lot of people don’t get is, visual language is a language as well, and it’s often more articulate than the spoken word. You speak with your images.
I appreciate great writing, but this is just another style of storytelling. I don’t begrudge anybody for telling their stories the way they do; this is just what I prefer. I’m not doing it to be unique; it’s the way I prefer to communicate.
Illustration and animation is special to me because you can see the artist’s work right there on the page and screen. Every stroke. It’s so full of passion and hard work, and there’s a unique connection there. That’s all you on the screen.
Yes, that’s my hand. Every drawing you see on the screen is created by me, pencil on paper.
I enjoy the music in the film. Do you like being retro? Some people don’t want to be retro.
There are some retro elements in this film, no question. I just chose the best elements from each part of the filmmaking. The cars are ’40s, the fashion is ’50s, the architecture is ’20s, the music is European opera. It’s a mixture of different eras, and I like that. I want to create a world that’s unique and special, somewhere you’ve never been before. I like creating worlds that you want to go to and stay. It definitely retro, but it’s more a Neverland, this place that has two people trying to act out their problems.
What else are you working on these days?
I’m working on a film with Jim Lujan. He’s writing the story, designing the characters and doing the voices. He’s pretty well-known for his online cartoon, but it’s not very well animated. I said, “Jim, let’s do a feature film. You do the story and I’ll do all the animation and produce. We’re about a third of the way done, and it’s called Revengeance. It’s about the underbelly of L.A., cultists, wrestlers, bikers, transvestites; all the weird people in L.A.. We’re running a Kickstarter campaign for it, too. One of the cool things we’re doing is, for a pledge of $1,500 or more, I’ll animate you into the film as a character. You’ll be immortalized in a Bill Plympton feature film.
I love the character design in this film. It’s very extreme and exaggerated. Their physical appearance is very much reflective of their personality. Is this the farthest you’ve pushed your design?
Yes. I really wanted to let loose, stretch and exaggerate the physical reality of these characters. It was really fun. Whenever I’m doing a film, if I’m not having fun doing it, I’m doing something wrong. I really wanted to go crazy with the characters.
Are you the kind of person who keeps track of your progress as an artist? In other words, do you look back at your old work and think, “This film is where I learned to do this,” or “My style took a big leap here.”
Absolutely. I’m moving more and more to the surreal right now, but my early stuff was actually quite realistic. It’s always educational to see where I came from. I’ll look back at something I did 30 years ago as an illustrator, and I’d be doing things back then I thought were new now! Style comes back around.
A lot of artists hit a creative plateau, but I don’t think you’ve hit it, even though you’re a veteran.
I think the next few films I’m bringing out are some of the best I’ve ever done. I’m doing a short film called The Loneliest Stoplight that should be done next month. It’s about a stoplight that nobody uses. He’s on a country road in the middle of nowhere and no one cares about him. I’m recording Patton Oswald for it next week in L.A.. I hope I’m getting better. I’m learning more about animation, storytelling, and making better films. That’s the whole point: learning.
What’s your perfect creative environment?
Just sitting at home at my drawing board. I put on my headphones and listen to Emmylou Harris. I can be happy all day long drawing these characters.
Why Emmylou Harris? I love her music.
I grew up with country. I’m from Oregon originally. I listened to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, people like that. I’ve got a lot of Emmylou Harris stuff. I love it.
Does she know that you listen to her when you work?
I met her at Sundance, actually! She was standing behind me in line for a film. I said, “I’m a big fan of your stuff! You’re so great! I’d love to do a music video with you!” She said, “Here’s my card, send a letter to my agent.” I sent a whole package of my stuff and never heard back.
I think she thought I was a stalker or something.
Does country music inform your work?
Absolutely. Cheatin’ is really a country song. “My baby left me, I want to kill her, I’m going to a bar to pick up women.” It’s a very country-Western style of storytelling. I really want to do a film with all the great ’50s country artists’ music. Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, George Jones.
Loretta Lynn would be great.
I’d love to do a film full of that music. It would work so well with animation.
I’d love to see you draw Lyle Lovett. He looks like a cartoon already!
His eyes are so tiny, and he’s got that big ‘ol chin. He’d be fun to draw. And I love his music.
Is Kickstarter going to be your regular avenue for putting your work out there?
I’ve done three campaigns. For Cheatin’, we asked for $75,000 and got $100,000, so that was a big success. Now we’re doing Revengeance, and it seems like a perfect way to make a film. It’s a shame I didn’t have this when I was starting out. I’m an independent artist, and I think that appeals to my audience and the Kickstarter people. They want to see me still making films.
It’s quite the community you’ve built.
It is! I go to a lot of my screenings and ask how many people have contributed to the Kickstarter, and usually one or two people will raise their hand.
There are more avenues for independent artists like yourself to reach your audience now than there ever have been. Does that motivate you?
Absolutely. I feel so much more freedom now to make whatever I want. But there’s another issue we should talk about. When I started out making movies, it was all analog. I’d have to get a big camera stand and an operator to shoot all the drawings. It took forever, and it was very expensive. Thank god, now it’s all digital: you put the drawings in the scanner, scan it, and then you can color it on the computer and it’s done. If I see a mistake, I can just go in digitally and change it. Before, I’d have to buy more film and shoot the drawings again. Before, almost 50 percent of the cost went to the technical side of making the film. Now, maybe five percent. The digital revolution really changed my studio setup for the good.
Your art style is so unmistakable. Whenever anyone tries to emulate it, it looks wrong. That’s all you on there.
It is all me. However, I steal from a lot of people. All my career, I take a little bit here and there. Everyone says my style is so unique and different, but I look at it and say, “I ripped off this guy, I ripped off that guy.”
Would you really say you’re ripping them off?
Well, I’d say I’m borrowing.
It’s all filtered through you at the end of the day.
It’s filtered through me and it’s also mixed around with other people’s artwork. It’s about 40% me and 60% other artists. If people say I have a unique look, I’ll accept it. It’s great.
Are there any current animators you could point us to that you think deserve more attention?
Don Hertzfeldt is doing really great stuff. He’s sort of the rock star of animation. Signe Baumane, who did Rocks in My Pockets, is doing interesting things as well. I love Marv Newland’s stuff. Joanna Quinn is a British animator, and she does great stuff.
Pixar makes great movies, and Up is one of my favorites. That opening montage is amazing, but I think a big part of why it garnered so much attention was because it was dealing with adult subject matter in a serious way. I think there needs to be more of that.
I think America’s ready to change its attitude toward animation. It’s ready to grow up. I think Cheatin’ will hopefully be a film that changes the attitude. You need something edgy and fresh and unique.
I think people would love to see a rated-R animated movie.
I see Quentin Tarantino occasionally, and I say, “Hey, let’s do a film together. You write the script and I’ll do the animation. He said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” I say, “Wanna talk next week?” and he says, “I’m too busy.” He’s got a really full plate.
Do you have a vision of what that movie might look like?
It’d be similar to Cheatin’, but it’d have his flair. His writing is so good. I met him at Sundance back in ’92. He knew all of my movies. He’s a real student of film. I was blown away by his knowledge of animation. In the film Kill Bill, the Uma Thurman character is marrying Mr. Plympton at the beginning of the film. I saw Quentin, and he said, “That’s you, man!”