Plympton career takes animated life of its own
Bill Plympton — longtime artist, cartoonist and filmmaker — embraces his reputation as “the king of indie animation.”
“I’m sort of like the David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch of animation,” says Plympton, who will be in Memphis on Monday and Tuesday for two public events.
What pleases Plympton as much as his reputation is that he actually makes a good living with his short and feature-length cartoons, which are as distinctive for their free-flowing surrealism, sex and violence and dark humor as for their traditional hand-drawn animation style, characterized by fine lines, penciled crosshatch shading and distorted, caricaturelike representations of the human figure in flux.
“I don’t take government grants, I don’t take Hollywood money, I don’t take corporate money, and everybody is amazed that I can do this,” said Plympton, 63, in a phone interview from his New York studio.
In conjunction with Indie Memphis and the Memphis College of Art, Plympton screens his latest feature, “Idiots and Angels,” at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Malco’s Studio on the Square.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, he’ll host “A Master Class with Bill Plympton” at the College of Art in Overton Park. At the free public event, he’ll screen some short films and clips, demonstrate his drawing style, discuss his work and explain how he’s managed to remain independent in an era when corporate-financed animation is bigger than ever, thanks to Pixar, “South Park,” the Cartoon Network and many other venues. He’ll also give everyone who attends a free drawing, created on the spot, he says.
“He really embodies the spirit of what we’re trying to teach,” said Meredith Root, head of the animation department at the College of Art. “He manages to work with full control of his creative gifts. He remains fantastically independent... especially for animation, which is so rigorous.”
The Portland-born Plympton is a lifelong doodler who was known as a cartoonist and illustrator for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and other publications before he began concentrating on filmmaking about 25 years ago, earning Oscar nominations in the Best Animated Short category in 1988 (“Your Face”) and 2005 (“Guard Dog”).
The new “Idiots and Angels” is Plympton’s fifth feature. But though it arrives on the crest of what the artist refers to as “the second golden-age explosion” of animation (the first was the classic Disney/Warner/Fleischer etc. era of 1930-1950), this movie about a curmudgeon who awakens to find wings growing out of his back is unlikely to be screened outside of film festivals and special events, thanks to its monochromatic palette, its lack of dialogue (the soundtrack features only music and sound effects) and its status as “a dark comedy about a man’s battle for his soul,” to quote the film’s Web site.
Although Plympton prefers to work by his own rules (he famously turned down what he says was a seven-figure deal to work on “Aladdin” for Disney because he wouldn’t own the rights to the characters he created, among other issues), he’s no animation snob. “I love the Pixar films, I love the Blue Sky films,” he said. “I love Disney. When I was a kid, that was my goal in life, to work for Disney.”
Although he now thinks working for a studio would be “a hassle,” he does take outside jobs that appeal to him. He created the “Heard ’Em Say” music video for Kanye West, and illustrated West’s “Through the Wire,” a “graphic memoir” and song-lyrics gift book to be released Nov. 10.
Plympton said he creates his films mostly by himself. A feature requires up to 30,000 drawings, he said, while a short needs “only” about 5,000. He no longer uses shortcuts, but draws the entire image for each shot, even if only a small part of the picture is going to move during the scene. “It’s more fun that way.”
He said he enjoys animation because “there are no limits to what can be shown. Whatever the brain thinks of, it’s possible to draw it. I like the idea that it’s totally created out of the imagination.”
Bill Plympton will screen “Idiots and Angels” Monday at Studio on the Square.
Bill Plympton, cartoonist and filmmaker, discusses his work at Memphis events next week.