Plympton's Metamorphoses

In which the noted animator puts us through some strange changes.

by Mark Segall

At first glance, you wouldn't peg lanky, laconic Bill Plympton as the kind of guy who likes to electrocute people. Or squash them, burn them, and blow them up. But don't let that innocent, boy-next-door look fool you. When it comes to cartoon violence, Bill is an innovator on a par with Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. His characters swallow and inhale each other, and like to bite one another's heads off one chomp at a time.

I Married a Strange Person Storyboard Sketch, Bugs and the mother-in-law in I Married A Strange Person
© Bill Plympton

Plympton is currently working full-tilt on his new animated feature, I Married A Strange Person, which should be finished in December. He describes it as "Akira meets Pulp Fiction." Judging from the 300 individual sketches push-pinned to the studio wall--the working storyboard for Strange Person--this comedy/thriller will be full of the kind of transformations that have become a Plympton trademark: men turning into lizards, characters tearing themselves to pieces, lawns refusing to be mowed.

Features are supposed to be turned out by big studios, using an army of animators and inbetweeners, not one guy with a little help from his friends. Bill's first feature, The Tune, was something of an independent animation milestone: a 90 minute film animated by one man. Ten colorists are helping on Strange Person, but once again all the animation will come from his hand.

I Married a Strange Person
Storyboard Sketch, the hero before he gets "zapped" in I Married A Strange Person
© Bill Plympton

While prolific draftsmen animating single-handedly isn't unknown, it's still pretty rare. Animation pioneer Winsor McCay worked that way on such films as Gertie the Dinosaur, before the advent of the studio system. Modern independent animators like Plympton's mentor George Griffin work alone. Animating a feature was a pretty daunting task for the husband-and-wife team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, whose hour-long Drawn from Memory was released last fall. For someone working alone it must be doubly hard.

Joking, Dreaming, or Drunk?
In 1990, Matt Groening and MTV's John Payson and Abby Terkuhle ran into Plympton at a party. When he announced that he was making a feature, and that he would be animating the whole thing himself and financing it out of his own pocket, they thought he was joking. Or dreaming. Or drunk. They were wrong to doubt him. Bill completed The Tune, his film about an aspiring songwriter, on schedule and within budget, in 1992.

outrageous work of Bill Plympton The outrageous work of Bill Plympton
© Bill Plympton

How does he do it? First, he draws fast. Plympton's style, going back to his days as a political cartoonist for New York's Soho Weekly News in the 70s, is loose and squiggly. Second, he puts in long hours. "My social life does sorta get sacrificed to my animation habit," he admits. He rises daily at 6:30 a.m., goes straight to his animation table, and works for 10 to 16 hours. He does not generally take weekends and holidays off. Third, it's not his style to use a lot of inbetweens; he often works on threes and fours, meaning he keeps the same drawing on screen for a sixth of a second instead of a twelfth or a twenty-fourth.

Animation on The Tune was a three-step process. Plympton animated scenes on paper. Assistants cut the characters out with X-acto knives and then mounted them on cels. Plympton then repenciled, adding shadows, detail and color. Animation on Strange Person is a more traditional, two-step process. Pencil drawings are xeroxed onto cels and painted on the back ("opaqued," in animation parlance). "It's quicker this way," he says, "and I like the look."

It's a lot of hard work to animate, finance and promote these films himself, but Plympton wouldn't have it any other way; it gives him the artistic freedom and the independence he wants and needs. Starting with Strange Person, he'll even be handling his own distribution. To give himself more visibility, he's also launched a web site. "Actually, New York University initially contacted us about being part of their site," says Plympton's assistant John Holderried. "Mike Dougherty, a student in NYU's graduate animation program did the HTML and worked with Bill on the layout and the links. It was fun to put it together, to look for other related sites. I was surprised how much Plympton material was already on the web."

I Married a Perfect Stranger

Storyboard sketch, I Married A Strange Person
© Bill Plympton

Plympton's financing is ingenious, and extremely well thought out. His master plan for funding The Tune is a case in point. He made some money from his string of successful, award-winning shorts (How to Kiss, One of Those Days, 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, Plymptoons) and from animating commercials, but still didn't have enough to make a feature. He then decided to complete segments of the film, submit them to festivals, market them as shorts, and plow the profits back into the feature. This accounts for The Tune's episodic structure, as different parts needed to stand alone.

There's more money available for the new feature, so it contains only one segment originally released as a short, How to Make Love to a Woman. It appears in the film as an instructional film that one of the characters is watching. Strange Person is more story driven, though like most Plympton projects, difficult to summarize, but here goes:

When newlywed Grant Boyer is zapped by strange radiation from a TV satellite dish, he grows an extra brain lobe capable of making his fantasies real. Grant turns his wife Kerry into several different women during sex. He makes bugs come streaming out of his mother-in-law's mouth. A demonstration of his abilities on a TV talk show attracts the unwanted attentions of a megalomaniac media maven, a washed-up comedian, and a power-mad Colonel. To stay alive and out of their clutches, Grant will need all the help he can get, including that of his somewhat bewildered bride. Will she stick with him, for better or for worse, even though he's become... a strange person?

A Full Head of Hair
It's hard to get personal details out of Plympton; he'd rather talk about his work. Peter Vey, who collaborated on the script of Strange Person, proved equally close-mouthed. When I asked him, "What do you know about Bill?" he told me, "He's tall and he has a full head of hair. He likes to wear shorts."

Musical collaborator Maureen McElheron, who played with Bill years ago in a country band, was more forthcoming. "Bill's funny," she says. "He comes off so deadpan and normal and understated. Not a big talker. But he has that component that all geniuses have, complete focus, singleness of purpose." Bill is very supportive of others, she points out, and the same people collaborate with him again and again. She's very appreciative of the help he gave in promoting her soundtrack for The Tune, making sure it got displayed in record stores.

I Married a Strange Person I Married A Strange Person
© Bill Plympton

In fact, for someone who puts in such long stints alone at the drawing board, Bill manages to maintain a remarkably large and loyal circle of friends, which includes Matt Groening, cartoonist John Callahan, filmmaker Gus Van Zandt and Portland animators Joanna Priestley, Will Vinton, Jim Brashfield and Joan Gratz.

Bill grew up in Oregon City, Oregon, by the Clackamas River; his parents still live there and he keeps in touch with many childhood friends. He goes back there every year without fail to throw a barbecue beside a mud lake that has formed on the Clackamas. What happens at this annual "Mud Party"? "One hundred fifty people get stoned, take their clothes off and wallow in the mud," says Bill. "It's like warm chocolate pudding." When fellow Clackamas County native Tonya Harding made headlines the other year, Plympton added another party in her "honor."

Soiled Underwear
What else does Bill Plympton do when he's not animating? Well, for one thing he turns out live-action films. The first was 1994's J. Lyle, a comedy about a greedy landlord. Currently touring the festival circuit is Guns on the Clackamas. A fake documentary, à la Spinal Tap, it details the calamities that befall makers of a big-time western after key financing pulls out. Production economies lead to food poisoning and electrocution; frugality necessitates shooting key scenes with dead actors; new money is raised by selling the stars' soiled underwear.

So, how does a kid from Clackamas County end up in the cartoon business? Ever since he first saw Daffy Duck, Bill wanted to make cartoons; but it wasn't until after working on the short Boomtown with Jules Feiffer in 1985 that he had the opportunity. "It was the time of all the independents--Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch-- that inspired me." In 1987, he garnered an Academy Award nomination for the musical short Your Face. In it, the singer's head goes through myriad transformations--imploding, exploding, melting and breaking out in dozens of miniature faces. "It was a cheapo, throwaway experimental film, I thought. This'll weird a lot of people out; they won't get it, but they did."

They didn't just get it, they loved it. Your Face established Plympton's reputation as a leading independent animator. Only three years later, he was turning down a million dollar contract from Disney.

"They wanted me to work on the genie in Aladdin--on all that crazy metamorphosis, fast humor they're not really great at." At 21 he would have jumped at the chance, but at 44 it would have been a step backwards. He was already making a living off of his own wacky ideas without having to tailor them to some corporate board of directors. "Disney contracts are so complete," Bill points out, "that legally, any doodles you do, any jokes you tell, and any dreams you have during that 36 month period, they own." Friends told him that, "When you negotiate with Disney, it's not good-cop/bad-cop, it's bad-cop/antichrist".

He passed on their offer in order to devote his time to The Tune. The irony is that Plympton did once offer Disney his services--in 1958, at age 12. A big fan of Song of the South and Peter Pan, he sent them his drawings with a note emphasizing his eagerness to lend a hand on their next big feature, Sleeping Beauty.

They turned him down flat. Some nonsense about his being too short, or child labor laws, or something like that. It's tantalizing to imagine how animation history might have been changed had they accepted. There might now be a film where Sleeping Beauty rises from her long sleep, gazes deep into the Prince's eyes and then suddenly--bites his head off.

A self-described red diaper baby, Mark Segall has won awards for labor journalism and public service copywriting. He co-authored How To Make Love To Your Money (Delacorte,1982) with his wife, Margaret Tobin. This fall, he will become Editor of ASIFA-East's aNYmator newsletter, which he currently designs and is a regular contributor.

Visit Bill Plympton's Web site

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