Bill Plympton

"The Tune
" was animator Bill Plympton's first full-length feature. His short films have been seen widely around the country, highlighting many animation festivals. His oblique, off-center sense of the ridiculous in everyday life has made the "Microtoons" and his other shorts a popular MTV offering. His distinctive style has even invaded the world of advertising. Commercials for both Trivial Pursuit and Sugar Delight (a new NutraSweet product) make us chuckle and gasp. But it's been a lot of hard work. When Plympton first moved to New York City, a recent college graduate with a B.A. in Graphic Design, he tried selling belts on the street. "It was January, about 25 degrees outside. I couldn't sell a one!"

Born in Portland, Oregon on April 30, 1946 to Don (now a retired banker) and Wilda Plympton, he grew up in a large family of three girls and three boys. For the six children it was often far too wet to play outside. Plympton credits Oregon's rainy climate for nurturing his drawing skills and imagination. He also was a cub scout and played little league when the weather permitted. In 1964 he graduated from Oregon City High School where he participated in J.V. basketball, swimming and the art club. He went on to Portland State University, where he edited the yearbook and was a member of the film society. It was for this film society that he first attempted animation, making a yearbook promo that was accidentally shot upside-down, rendering it totally useless.

To avoid the Vietnam War, Plympton served in the National Guard from 1967 to 1972. In 1968, he moved to New York City and began a year of study at the School of Visual Arts. Making the Big Apple his home, Plympton served a long tenure as an illustrator and cartoonist. Between toting his portfolio and catching cheap matinees, he designed the magazines: Cineaste, Filmmakers Newsletter, and Film Society Review. His illustrations have graced the pages of The New York Times, Vogue, House Beautiful, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Screw, and Vanity Fair. His cartoons appeared in such magazines as Viva, Penthouse, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, and Glamour. In 1975, inThe Soho Weekly News, he began "Plympton," a political cartoon strip. By 1981, it was syndicated in over twenty papers by Universal Press.

All his life Bill Plympton has been fascinated by animation. When he was fourteen he sent Disney some of the cartoons and offered up his services as animator. They wrote back and told him that while his drawings showed promise, he was too young. It wasn't until 1983 that he was approached to animate a film. The Android Sister Valeria Wasilewski asked Plympton to work on a film she was producing of Jules Feiffer's song "Boomtown". Connie D' Antuono, another of the film's producers, "sort of held my hand through the whole process," Plympton says. "It was a great way to learn how to make a film."

Immediately following the completion of "Boomtown", he began his own animated film, "Drawing Lesson #2." Production of the live-action scenes was slow, due to inclement weather, so Plympton decided to start on another film. For this one, he contacted an old friend with whom he had performed in a Country Western Band (he played pedal steel guitar). Maureen McElheron, whose band it had been, agreed to score "Your Face." Due to budgetary considerations, she also sang. Her voice, eerily decelerated to sound more masculine, combined with a fantastically contorting visage helped garner the film a 1988 Oscar nomination for best animation. "Suddenly people began returning my phone calls," remembers Plympton. His work started appearing with more and more frequency on MTV and showing in the increasingly popular touring animation festivals. After a string of highly succesful short films ( "One of Those Days," "How to Kiss," "25 Ways to Quit Smoking," and "Plymptoons"), he began thinking about making a feature film. His shorts were winning prizes like crazy and he wanted a new challenge. The result was "The Tune". As he puts it, "I wanted to make a full-length movie ever since I was a kid."

What came to be called "The Tune" has been financed entirely by the animator himself. Sections of the feature were released as short films to help generate funds for production. These include "The Wiseman" and "Push Comes to Shove", which won the 1991 Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. At the same time, two different ad agencies offered Plympton what then seemed "mind-boggling and obscene" amounts of money to make a few commercials in the by-then distinctive Bill Plympton style. With this money in pocket, he was then able to complete "The Tune" and realize a childhood dream. The completed "Tune" has also been making the rounds of the film festivals. It has garnered the Houston WorldFest prestigious GoldJury Special Award as well as a Spirit Award nomination for Best Film Score.

Plympton's life-long fascination with animation led to the eventual genesis of "J. Lyle". "Making 'The Tune', I had a lot of ideas I realized wouldn't work with animation, but would be lots of fun with real people! I took those ideas and made 'J. Lyle'. Besides, my hand needed a rest after drawing 'The Tune'. Live action is so much quicker. I was working on 'The Tune' for about two years and now I'm done with 'J. Lyle' after less than a year!" Like "The Tune", "J. Lyle" has been financed entirely by the animator himself.

Plympton's second live-action feature,"Guns On the Clackamas", a behind-the-scenes look at an imaginary disastrous Western, was shot in Oregon and New York. Plympton says the idea came from the 1937 movie "Saratoga", in which star Jean Harlow died during the filming and a stand-in was used to finish. "It was supposed to be a drama," says Plympton, "but it ended up being funny. Every time Harlow's stand-in was in a scene, a box or something blocked the view."

Plympton has now completed another animated feature, titled "I Married a Strange Person". It's a heartwarming story of a newlywed couple on their wedding night. Grant, the husband, starts experiencing strange, supernatural powers and Kerry, his wife, can't cope. Whenever Grant thinks of something, it becomes reality, yet he doesn't know where these magical powers come from. Once again Bill Plympton has single-handedly drawn and financed an animated feature extravaganza - only this time it's for adults and the unpolitically correct. Get ready for the most bizarre animated film of the 90's!
Plympton's short films continue to be shown in animation festivals around the world, and he has also released a comic book featuring "The Sleazy Cartoons of Bill Plympton". "Plymptoons", a video collection of Bill's short films, is available in stores or can be ordered on-line.

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Last Updated February 1998

© 1998 Animation World Network