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The Miscweant: ‘Icons of Animation’ at The Academy

AWN's The Miscweant attends The Academy’s “Icons of Animation,” dedicated to the work of character designer and New Yorker cover artist Peter de Sève; artist and animator William Joyce; Argentinian illustrator, author and animator Carlos Nine; and the King of Indie Animation, Bill Plympton.

L to R:: Sedelmaier, Plympton and de Sève

I’m surprised they don’t charge more, but every month or so the New York branch of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presents a program at their midtown auditorium for the princely sum of $5.00. Screenings of restored films and panel discussions abound—like for example, June 5th’s “Icons of Animation.”

The event was a tie-in to the identically titled show at the Society of Illustrators four blocks north of the auditorium, dedicated to the work of four icons: character designer and New Yorker cover artist Peter de Sève, artist/animator William Joyce (creator of give or take a million kids books, not to mention the Oscar-winning animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore), Carlos Nine, (an incredibly talented Argentinian illustrator/author/animator/etc. I never heard of until that evening), and Bill Plympton, quite accurately described on the Society’s website as “The King of Indie Animation.”

Of the four, only de Sève and Plympton were on hand, interviewed by J.J. Sedelmaier, an animation icon in his own right. (The Ambiguously Gay Duo, The X-Presidents, Harvey Birdman and hundreds of animated commercials.)

de Sève drawing Scrat

Joyce was present on video, offering an intimate (the camera seemingly about two feet from his face), somewhat tongue-in-cheek tour of his Shreveport LA Moonbot Studio. (It was hard to overlook the Oscar situated just behind him labeled PLEEZ DON’T NOTICE ME.) Joyce mentioned the movie based on his book The Leaf Men, “renamed Epic unfortunately.” Passing the studio’s extensive collection of reference books, Joyce casually remarked “we steal a lot in this business” then added “Moonbot supports the publishing industry.”

Back in the theater de Sève presented a sequence of his famed New Yorker covers, including a clutch of lobsters escaping oblivious would-be diners via an open kitchen window, and in one of his masterful anthropomorphic images, a lion ignoring the salad in front of him while eyeing the oblivious, hoodie-wearing zebra just outside the restaurant window. (Other animal passers-by include a surly, suited water buffalo, backpacked mother and child impalas, and a glasses- and fedora-wearing giraffe sporting a scarf wrapped around the top of his lengthy neck.)

Sedelmaier and Plympton in front of video projection of de Sève drawing Scrat

Artistic influences were discussed, with Plympton crediting Disney and Warner Bros. animation and Charles Addams’ macabre New Yorker cartoons. de Sève reeled off a list of names including Winsor McCay, Tomi Ungerer and early 20th century illustrator A.B. Frost, no slouch himself when it came to anthropomorphizing animals. “Bugs Bunny is my hero,” de Sève declared. “He’s smart, resourceful… Mickey Mouse? There’s not a personality there…Warner Bros. was an influence on my stuff; Wile E. Coyote and Scrat (the hapless Ice Age character) share the same DNA.”

Plympton bemoaned the pigeonholing of animation in the eyes of American studios as a kids-only medium (“it bugs the hell out of me”) before crediting the underground comics of 1960s as a “big” influence on his work and going on to declare “I hate all anime; it all looks the same with the big eyes.” (If you’re applying for an internship with Plympton, be advised to leave your anime-style work at home and “try to find your own style.”)

Things got interesting when Plympton accused computers of “ruining” de Sève’s “beautiful artwork” in the process of turning his character sketches into three-dimensional figures existing in virtual space. “I see it as a challenge” de Sève replied, but acknowledged “it needs to be chiseled and smoothed out – it loses something” in the production process. “It loses the artist’s hand,” Sedelmaier agreed. “It’s the imperfections that are wonderful, you definitely know there’s a human hand working.” Both de Sève and Plympton showed the artist’s hand at work, each creating a live sketch on stage.

Sedelmaier and de Sève shield their eyes from the lighting glare trying to see questioner in the audience.

Near the end of the evening Plympton declared character designers “the superstars of animation,” creating the cartoon equivalents of the movie industry’s George Clooneys and Angelina Jolies. “We give these films their face,” de Sève agreed, “which is why I want my name as far north in the credits as possible.”

A film of his own? de Sève said he’d like to make a small film, “but everything’s got to be big” in the eyes of the studios. Some hopefully mock sparks flew between de Sève and Plympton over the subject of working together. “I always wanted to do a short film” de Sève claimed, “but Bill wanted to do a feature.” He advised the animation students and young artists in the audience lucky enough to get a fulltime job at a major animation studio not to let the studio’s style overwhelm their own: “If you go to a big studio, keep your own thing alive.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.