Is Bigger Always Better?: The Rise of the Indie Animation Feature

Erstwhile Animation Pimp Chris Robinson talks to Nina Paley and Bill Plympton about their new movies.

Two bad breakups, a blues song and the Indian epic Ramayana inspired Nina Paley to create Sita Sings the Blues. All Sita images © Nina Paley.

Two bad breakups, a blues song and the Indian epic Ramayana inspired Nina Paley to create Sita Sings the Blues. All Sita images © Nina Paley.

What's that? You want to know how I feel about the increase in animation features? Well, let me tell you just what I think.

Most of it stinks. These clods can't even make short films, so why are they on about features now? Me? I forgive them. So should you. They can't help themselves. They are the victims of a horrible disease that's infested their sponge-worthy carcasses. This blinding disease of the featuretwitus insinuates itself into the body (often through the penis opening or nasal passage) and saturates the sponge's noodle, convincing it that LOOOOOONNNNNGGGG is RIGHT. MUST MAKE LONG. Make 'em long and they will come (with money, praise, sunglasses and coke). Make' em short and they will yawn and forget.

Some are immune to this soul-sucking mind-twist; others are only partially affected. There have been some recently reported cases where some good has come from this viral bitch of a killer. Unconfirmed reports state that at least two (deux) mutants actually make 'em long AND make 'em good. These mutants, miraculously, think first, make second. It's a God damn miracle (who else's miracle could it be, praise ye all). Praise Wayne Gretzky for Persepolis, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly (puritan animators be damned for your perverse perfection puddyfutting).

While traveling through the sick ward at the civic hospital, I located two of these mutant creatures: one of each sex. The female created Sita Sings the Blues, a multi-layered mother of a film that deals with Indian mythology, getting dumped, and the sweet sounds of torch song divas. The male, who has made a number of good 'uns, made a dark and rather mature film called Idiots and Angels about a jackass who awakens to find that he has wings growing out of his back.

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Bill Plympton's off-the-cuff story idea in which 'an asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back' eventually became Idiots and Angels. All Idiots and Angels images © Plymptoon Studios.

Thanks to the friendly administrators at the hospital, I was permitted to interview the two weirdos so that I might uncover the dark and delicious secrets of their miraculous success stories and convey them to you.

Sorry? What's that? You DIDN'T ask me what I thought about animation features? You want to know how Nina Paley and Bill Plympton made their new features. Shit, why didn't you say that instead of making me waste all these good people's time. Umm... okay... if that's what you want. Here it is. But it's not nearly as exciting as my science fiction/zombie thesis (which is rooted in fact, mates).

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues harkens back to a hot summer day in Trivandrum, India in 2002. While working on a daily comic strip, The Hots, Paley had the idea to make a comic strip of the epic Indian book Ramayana. "I designed the main characters then," says Paley, "but never intended to animate them; I was thinking of making a little Ramayana comic strip, something small and easy. I had my laptop with me, and figured the easiest way to lay out a comic would be in Flash, which I was already using for laying out and lettering The Hots. I read my first Ramayana in Trivandrum, the Amar Chitra Katha comic book version. Perplexed and affronted by Sita's role, I sought out text versions in hopes of better understanding why she is so revered."

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As Paley pondered Sita, she headed back to New York for the launch of The Hots. That's when step two of the feature emerged. While in New York, Paley's hubbie ditched her, via email. Ouch. "Instead of returning to India," says Paley, "I stayed with friends and friends of friends, one of whom was record collector Sherwin Dunner. My friend pulled Annette Hanshaw's 'Mean to Me' off his shelf, and I was hooked. 'Mean to Me' was my theme song that September, and when I moved to Brooklyn in October, I listened to my Hanshaw CD constantly. All those torch and blues songs captured my feelings at the time: longing, self-pity, love, heartache, and even a little self-deprecation. At some point I connected my heartbreak experience (especially my continued longing for my ex in spite of my better judgment) to both the songs and the Ramayana, and realized I could animate my characters to Hanshaw's voice. So I created a short film, Trial By Fire, featuring a pivotal scene from the Ramayana with 'Mean to Me.'"

That was gonna be it. There was still no urge to make a feature... until... Paley got dumped, get this, a second time. "I got really depressed. Only one thought cheered me up: the thought of a Sita feature, one that would explain the Ramayana story, and my own. It started as a passing fancy, but as it offered such relief from the depression, I entertained it more and more. The only reason it seemed outrageous was that it would take years and provide no income and I'd never made a feature before so it would be a leap into the unknown. So on the one hand: no money, no security, maybe I'd lose my apartment, and maybe I would fail. On the other hand: suicidal depression. I made the only rational decision, obviously."

Plympton finances his films out-of-pocket. For Idiots he received some pre-sales money, but he hopes a distributor picks up the film and pays off his costs.

Plympton finances his films out-of-pocket. For Idiots he received some pre-sales money, but he hopes a distributor picks up the film and pays off his costs.

Plympton, on the other hand, isn't entirely sure where his original idea for Idiots and Angels came from. "The earliest memory I have is I was at a film festival in Lille and I was walking back to my hotel and this kid asked me what my next film was going to be about. This was about three years ago. Off the top of my head, I just said 'an asshole guy wakes up one morning with wings on his back.' He laughed and said, 'I like that idea, that's a clever idea.' So, in fact, that night as I was laying in bed I took out a pad and started writing down possible plot summaries, character descriptions. I was so excited about it that I drew until one or two in the morning."

Okay, fair enough, but why a feature? Why not just churn out some affordable short films instead of gambling on an indie feature that might never be seen and end up costing the animator a ton o' cash? "I just thought," says Plympton, "that there was a lot to talk about in terms of a person reforming themselves and that the situation was really ripe with ideas. Also, it's a little more serious topic then my other films and I wanted to do something a little bit deeper, not a jokefest like some of my other films. I felt I needed more time to explore this guy and his situation."

Paley felt that it would be impossible to adapt the Ramayana (one of the longest epics around) for a short film, but also admits to being aware of some other advantages to making a feature. "People pay more attention to features than shorts. Features can, theoretically, make money [although this hypothesis remains unconfirmed in my experience]. Feature filmmakers get treated better at film festivals -- sometimes they even get free travel! I tried to tune out these ego temptations while working. My main goal was simply to finish it. As I saw it, the film wanted to exist, and it wanted to be long-form, and it was my job to make it real."

"Ego temptations" also drove Plympton towards features (Idiots and Angels is his sixth feature). "I do feel that features are a bit of an ego trip because when you go to a film festival like Cannes, Sundance or Annecy, the feature filmmakers get a lot more respect. People want to talk to them. It's easier to get distribution. For some reason short filmmakers really do not get any respect at all, but also I saw what was happening with Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and all these guys that went from shorts to features and were huge successes, and I say, well, I can be the next Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam.

"I actually had those ideas and it never panned out that way of course. I don't know if it was because I'm really not a good pitch person and don't know how to do the Hollywood routine. Maybe I'm lazy and I like sitting here in my New York apartment making my films and hoping that they will come to me -- which they probably never will (laughs). I'm not complaining because things are working out really well. I do a feature every two to three years. I do two or three shorts a year. I make enough money to keep up my studio. That's all I can ask for really."

Despite the different origins and techniques, both Idiots and Sita took about three years to make. The budget for Idiots was $150,000. "I still finance the films out of my pocket," says Plympton. "A lot of that money came from the shorts, merchandise and TV sales. I did get some money from a French distributor, about $30,000 pre-sales from France, but other than it's all out my pocket. The hope, as it is with all my films, is that a distributor will be excited about it and give me money to pay off my costs. That rarely happens and I've never really made a lot of money with my features. Quite frankly, the features barely break even. It's the shorts that are the big money-maker for me."

Sita Sings the Blues set Paley back about "eight million dollars": $200,000 in money, and $7,800,000 of her time. "If you subtract money I used for food, rent, travel, and other living expenses over the three years of production, the budget is more like $70,000. But I hope to recoup my $7,800,000 on the back end."

Now, people with vested interests like me [Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival] will always rant and rave about the importance of festivals. But, I gotta admit that I've started to wonder about how effective festivals really are these days in terms of promoting animators and getting them some concrete returns (i.e., distribution, jobs, cash).

"Well," says Paley, "a lot of people have now heard me cry, which was my main goal. My art is never complete until it reaches an audience. All that angst I put into the film is received by the audience, and they each take a little piece of it home with them, dispersing it into harmless particles. It's a convoluted way for me to socialize, but it seems to work."

In terms of distribution, she's had some interest, but doubts Sita will score a theatrical release in the U.S. "As the 'buzz' builds, distributors offer better deals, and the festivals and reviews and awards help a lot. They also help my reputation as an artist, and I'm getting more invitations to speak at colleges, which actually pay. Next year, though, we might see a trickle of income. Distributors and international sales reps themselves spend most of their money on marketing, not filmmakers."

Plympton believes that "reviews at festivals are very important for the distributor. For me, I need to make the money and pay my employees and pay the labs. So I need the money. I need the press. I need the awards and the buzz. It's a very important part of my survival. I think festivals are the place that you should take your film if you want to get into the business. That's what happened to me. Start at the festivals first, because that's where you get the reviews, the buzz, and make your name."

All this talk about festivals and features starts getting me all steamed about the way bigger-name features have bypassed animation festivals like Annecy and Ottawa in favor of the big live-action festivals like Toronto, Venice, etc.... On one hand, I understand it. Features cost a lot of coin and you'll find that money at the big-market live-action festivals. Besides, how do Pixar or DreamWorks benefit from showing at animation festivals? Still, given that some of these creators got their start at animation festivals, howsabout a little payback? [Editor's Note: we are aware that the author has drifted off onto his own freakish perverse road again. We are doing all we can to put an end to this nonsense and have threatened to withhold his fees unless he gets on with the task at hand.]

While I know that Plympton will make another feature (in fact, he's already at work on it: "I'm going through the same process. It's about jealousy. It's darker, a David Lynch kind of film. It will have a somewhat happy ending though"), I wonder if Paley has caught the feature virus now that's she had a slurp of it.

"Maybe," she says. "I'd need to be fiercely compelled by my muse and demons first. I'm getting there. It would be easier for me to finance another feature, now that I have a 'reputation'. It's tempting, but I don't want to make a film just for that reason. That way lies madness, or at least crappy art."

Never have sweeter, truer words been spoken.

(If you want to see Bill drawing Idiots and Angels, stop by idiotsandangels.com. You will not see Nina drawing at sitasingstheblues.com, but you can read her blog and learn about her experiences with bugs and her exciting life as a hobo.)

Chris Robinson, an author, commentator, curator and the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), is a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. For five years, he wrote the "Animation Pimp" column for AWN, the best of which is collected in the book of the same name. His latest books Canadian Animation: Looking for a Place to Happen and Ballad of a Thin Man: In Search of Ryan Larkin (co-published by AWN Press) will be released this September. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife Kelly and their sons Jarvis and Harrison. His dog is Molly.

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