Celebrating the work of Bill Plympton
Celebrating the work of Bill Plympton
Bill Plympton isn’t your average animator. In fact, he’s entirely unaverage. It isn’t just that Plympton, self-proclaimed King of the Indie Animators, is one of very few feature filmmakers who still works entirely with hand-drawn animation. It’s that his stories are wildly, fascinatingly unconventional.
Take, for instance, Revengeance, his 2016 film, codirected by Jim Lujan, about Rod Rosse, the One Man Posse, a bounty hunter in ’70s-era Los Angeles who is hired by the former leader of a biker gang, an ex-wrestler known as DeathFace. Rosse’s job is to locate a young fugitive named Lana who’s suspected of an arson attack that decimated the biker gang’s digs. Or take Plympton’s first animated feature The
Tune (1992). Del, a talentless, lovelorn songwriter, is tasked by his boss, a slimy music mogul named Mr. Mega, with delivering a hit song in under 47 minutes, lest he risk losing his job and his girlfriend. In search of inspiration, Del finds himself on a surrealistic odyssey in the musical town of Flooby Nooby with its population of oddball denizens.
Plympton is honored with the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award on Saturday evening, Oct. 20, and the festival is screening two of his films back to back — Revengeance and his newest animated short The Modern Lives — at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. He’ll be doing a Q&A with the audience after the screenings, when he tends to give out free drawings of characters from his films to the audience. Earlier that day, SFIFF offers a master class with Plympton at the Center for Contemporary Arts where he does a drawing demonstration, discusses his career as an animator, and shows some of classic shorts, clips from feature films, and music videos he’s worked on.
Plympton usually works solo on his animation projects, writing and directing them himself, but
Revengeance was a change of pace for the animator. “Jim [Lujan] lives in Los Angeles, and he would come by my table at San Diego Comic-Con every year,” Plympton said. “He’d give me DVDs of his short animated films. The artwork on the covers wasn’t so snappy, so I just laid them aside. A couple of years later, it was a rainy night, and I said, ‘Well, let’s look
at this Jim Lujan guy and see what his films are like,’ and I was just stunned by the imagination and the wit and the characters that he did.” Plympton contacted Lujan with an offer to work on a project together. Over the next several months, Lujan developed a script. “When I got it, I said, ‘It’s hilarious. Don’t change a thing, except do me one favor: Put a sexy woman in there.’ His films don’t have many sexy women. So he did that. Her name is Ms. Candy, and she was so much fun to draw.”
Plympton’s animated characters are a pure delight, with their exaggerated features and idiosyncratic quirks. Often, his protagonists resemble himself. His dialogue is always sharp and witty, too. Although Lujan can be credited for the writing in Revengeance, it’s no less meant to tickle the funny bone. In the film, Lujan’s character Rosse searches through the dark urban underbellies of America for the fugitive teenager. He learns that her hit on the biker den was spurred on by the fact that DeathFace killed her family. Rosse sees his allegiances changing. “So what do you want from DeathFace?” he asks Lana. “Revengeance,” she says. Rosse replies, “I’m pretty sure that’s not a word,” then awkwardly pauses in the midst of hearing Lana’s disturbing revelation to answer a call from his mom.
In typical Plympton fashion, the characters feel familiar, like people we all know. In all of his films, Plympton takes some chances. He’s not afraid to show a bit of nudity now and again, or violence either, but it’s never so over the top as to seem distasteful. Real heart and empathy for the characters are at the center of all his films. Even though the characters in
Revengeance were developed by Lujan, who also did the majority of the voices, Plympton’s hand-drawn, twitchy style and signature striking psychedelic visuals seem a natural fit.
“Here’s how we split up the work,” Plympton said. “He did like 80 percent of the voices, the character designs, and the music. I was the producer. I did the storyboards, the layouts, all the animation, and the post-production. So it is really a two-man operation.” The film went on to receive awards and nominations at international film festivals and won the Grand Jury Prize for best animated feature at the Nashville Film Festival in 2017. “We’re very happy with the response, and we’re really excited to bring it to Santa Fe and show it to the people there because I know they’d love it. Remind the people that it’s a stoner film, so if that’s their inclination, they might enjoy it.”
Plympton hails from Portland, Oregon, where, as a kid, he wanted to be an animator. “I watched Walt Disney on TV, the Mickey Mouse Club and, of course, Warner Brothers cartoons on Saturday mornings,” he said. “I love to draw and I love to make people laugh, so it just seemed natural. The unfortunate thing is, when I got out of college, around 1968, the animation business was dead or dying. The only thing out there was Hanna-Barbera, and I hated Hanna-Barbera. So I felt there was no future for me in animation.” Not knowing how to make an animated film anyway, he moved to New York City and became an illustrator instead. Over a span of 15 years, he made illustrations that ran in The New York Times, Vogue, The Village Voice, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. He also drew cartoons
It isn’t that Bill Plympton is one of the very few feature filmmakers who still works entirely with hand-drawn animation. It’s that his stories are wildly, fascinatingly unconventional.
The Modern Lives; opposite page, from Revengeance (both details)