Cartoonal Knowledge: Plympton's School of Animation
"I worked at some small post production houses and I briefly volunteered at ASIFA Hollywood hoping to get in with the John K[ricfalusi] crowd -- the closest I got was thumbing through almost every original Ren & Stimpy storyboard. Last year I wrecked my VW and signed up for Bill's workshop with the insurance money. It seemed like a great opportunity to meet folks in the New York animation/illustration community and get some feedback from one of the masters of independent animation. I'd like to have a studio like Bill's someday."
After a brief glance at his production techniques -- keeping a cartoon's art organized in scene folders, explaining exposure sheets and separating elements in a shot onto different levels ("anything that moves gets its own level"), Plympton talks about brainstorming: "A good idea is half your film right there --I've seen badly animated films that were great because they had a great concept." He points to two file cabinet drawers "filled with ideas -- anytime you get an idea, just jot it down. That's why I like New York City; you see so many different kinds of people that spark ideas."
Plympton screens his Oscar-nominated Guard Dog film, explaining "it was inspired by a walk through the park and seeing a dog barking at a bird." Wondering how a dog could see a small bird as a menace to its master led to the film's series of nightmarish "what if" scenarios, with the paranoid pooch seeing danger at every turn. ("People love the dog," he explains the following week, as he quickly sketches out ideas on a large newsprint pad for the canine's next film that won't be revealed here. "These are terrible drawings" he mutters. "I cannot do a pitch-- that's why I can never do television. The thrust of the dog films is that he's looking for love, looking for acceptance... and never getting it.")
According to Plympton, the formula for a successful short film is "a strong beginning, strong characters, humor and a big finish." He asks the class to come in next week with ideas for their 30-second films, "the simpler the better, with one or two characters and a gag at the end." Wrapping things up for the night, Plympton talks about his influences, beginning with a childhood in the Oregon woods where "there wasn't a lot of culture," but plenty of Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons on TV. The toons led him away from the fine arts and into animation. "Paintings don't have humor. Animation is universal; you get to show it to everybody. I want to make people laugh with my art."