Cheatin’ Doesn’t Lie
Bill Plympton gets honest — and a bit weird — about love and sex in his seventh animated feature, all while sticking with old-fashioned pencil and paper. By Tom McLean.
“Dialog is difficult to write and hard to sell overseas,” he says. “Also, I felt there was a certain poetry.” It’s also easier from a technical standpoint. “Lip synch is a real bitch to do, so there’s a number of reasons why I chose not to use dialog. Nobody brings it up as a problem.”
Despite decades of indie animation experience, the process of making a feature is still unpredictable. Cheatin’ is the second feature on which Plympton has used digital techniques to apply colors in the style of his magazine illustration work from the 1970s and 1980s. “I love that look, that warm kind of artsy feeling, and I was never able to create that for animation,” he says.
His producers developed a method for applying those colors to Plympton’s animation, but it proved labor intensive enough to put Cheatin’ over budget with about six months’ worth of work to go. Plympton — who says the budget on Cheatin’ was about $400,000 — turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds, succeeding quickly and exceeding the fund-raising goals.
“This opens up a whole can of worms,” says Plympton, who lauds Kickstarter as a way to circumvent the biases he frequently encounters
“Kickstarter is really valid. It’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t have to go out to Hollywood and do a dog-and-pony show,” says Plympton. “I can go to my fans. They know my films and love my films. They’re part of the whole process, they’re part of the whole release of the film.”
All of which leads Plympton into a bit of a rant about the difficulties of trying to get distributors and studios to consider adult animated features as a legitimate art form: they don’t understand animation, they think only CG sells and they think the only audience for animation is children.
Overseas, it’s a different story. Plympton says his shorts sell well all over the world and his films are extremely well received in places like France. “I’m considered the Jerry Lewis of animation in France,” he says. “I got amazing press; almost every publication in France did a write-up on me. It’s a mystery.”
But Plympton, 68, has no plans to stop now. His new projects include Footprints, which he’s drawing with ballpoint pen in a more cartoony style. He also has a feature planned called Hitler’s Folly, which Plympton said has a mockumentary vibe in the vein of This Is ... Spinal Tap. “It’s about Hitler becoming a cartoonist,” he says. “He becomes the Walt Disney of Austria.”
He also is collaborating with indie animator Jim Lujan on a feature titled Revengeance about what he calls the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles politics. “I’ve already started animating it,” Plympton says. “We’re about 10 minutes into the film and I hope to have it finished next year.”
The film, which premiered at the 2013 Cannes festival, is finally making its way to the United States, with a theatrical run beginning Aug. 29 following its VOD debut in mid-July.
Roughly half the film’s running time is animated in a 2D style influenced by the works of Fleischer Studios — especially Superman — and the more experimental and adult styles of animators like Ralph Bakshi. ‘It was very hard to find (Robin Wright’s) features because every time we’d animate, something would move and once you move it a bit,
it’s not her anymore.’
“We realized it was going to be quite expensive project if we were to do it exactly the way we had written it,” says Stassen. “We decided to turn a lot of the parts into nonverbal parts — so all the gizmos all the automatons in the film became nonverbal characters … In the end, it helps the film, because I think that these characters are better as nonspeaking parts and more expressive and more fun to watch and more entertaining than if they had been speaking parts. Sometimes the budgetary constraints can have a positive impact on the creative side.”
Retaining some of the original attraction element was another goal for the film, which features several elaborate chase sequences. “We did build that in a little bit, in terms of going out of our way to build good, immersive kinds of sequences that do remind you of some theme park attraction,” Stassen says.
Proper Use of 3D
Coming from the attraction world, Stassen is well versed in the use of stereoscopic 3D and says it is a very important element in the film. “We really want to use 3D as a tool to re-transform the experience,” says Stassen. “We build it in right from the start. We think about 3D; we stage it for 3D.”
Stassen says he’s frustrated by the state of 3D, which has been hurt by too many films that aren’t conceived for 3D converted into the format with poor results that disappoint moviegoers who often pay extra for it.
“We’ve always put a lot of time and energy into trying to create an immersive 3D experience, and it’s kind of frustrating because I see it dying,” he says. When House of Magic was released in Italy, it was not shown anywhere in 3D because the public had rejected the technology for all but the biggest summer tentpole films, he says.
“At the end of the day, (moviegoers) say, ‘Oh, we could have seen that film in 2D,” and it’s not the case with a film like House of Magic,” says Stassen. “The experience is quite different if you have seen it in 3D than 2D. It still works in 2D but it’s still a much more immersive and entertaining film in 3D.”
Based in Belgium, nWave has a full-time staff of about 120 on its animation team, kept busy by the studio’s annual feature film releases. That means everyone has a full workload and a tight schedule that prohibits re-doing or tweaking scenes short of a major issue.
Thunder and the House of Magic was conceived and produced as an English-language film, despite it having first played and been a hit in other languages. Stassen says nWave does that deliberately to improve the chances of selling the film.
“It’s crucial because our films — even at a $25 million budget — you have to sell them worldwide, otherwise you never recoup your investment,” he says. “If we were, for instance, to do the film first as a French-language film and dub it into English later, it would be a big problem, because when you go to the Cannes Film Festival, AFM or Berlin, you wouldn’t have a language that most buyers could understand.”
The company also sticks with established animation voice actors instead of going after expensive A-list live-action actors. “Unless you get — in the U.S. market — A-list talent, having recognizable names doesn’t really make a big difference at the box office,” says Stassen. “So we ended up working with really talented animation voices rather than well-known actors.”
While nWave’s films have found tremendous success around the world — Stassen says House of Magic was the second-highest grossing film last Christmas in Korea behind only The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and nWave’s 2009 feature Sammy grossed more than $100 million worldwide yet was never released in North American theaters — cracking the North American market has been especially tough.
That’s why nWave has teamed up with Shout! Factory, whose plans for the limited theatrical release, followed by the home video release, are intended to help pave the way for broader success later on, says Stassen.
That future includes a feature now in production and due out in 2015 retelling the Robinson Crusoe story from the point of view of the deserted island’s animal residents, with a decision looming for the company’s 2016 feature.
Despite the struggles in North America, Stassen says it’s gratifying to see nWave’s films succeed abroad. “Our films are recognized as having international quality and can appeal to international markets, where they are really well received,” he says.