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  • Going Indie: Plympton and Making Animation


    Posted on: 01/10/2003

    By Natalia Radywyl

    Natalia is a Postgraduate student in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne.

    There's something exhilarating about getting up each morning, going to my drawing board and having the total freedom to draw whatever crazy, bizarre and offensive image that comes to my brain - there's no producer, director, lawyer or agent looking over my shoulder telling me to change the art because it might offend someone or hurt sales.

    (Bill Plympton) [i]

    The strange world of Bill Plympton

    Working in coloured pencils and producing a range of disturbingly bizarre creatures, Plympton has produced countless shorts, features (Hair High, Mutant Aliens, I Married A Strange Person, The Tune), live action (J Lyle, Guns on the Clackamas) MTV video clips, commercials, illustrations, editorial cartoons, graphic novels and comics.

    Unafraid to show complete disregard for political correctness, Plympton's work is satirical, surprising and at times a little disgusting (read: bitten off heads, liberal use of saliva and other bodily fluids), but invariably raises a sly chuckle from his audience.

    A failed animator

    Plympton grew up in Portland, USA, and spent many rainy days drawing and absorbing the likes of animation greats such as Walt Disney, Tex Avery and the Warner Brothers.[ii] His first attempt at animation was at university, although he concedes that he failed miserably. However, he later moved to New York in 1968 to study at the School of Visual Arts and make further attempts to develop his craft, starting a long tenure as an illustrator and cartoonist.

    Plympton's casual, pacy style began to emerge during his years as a political cartoonist for New York's Soho Weekly News in the 1970s. [iii] This affiliation with satire and illustration informed his development as an animator. In 1983 he was approached by Android Sister Valeria Wasilewski to collaborate on a film using Jules Feiffer's radio script, 'Boomtown', a farcical piece about the arms race of the Cold War. The film was released in 1985 after an intensive 6 months and 1000 drawings later. The film was a success, paving the way for Plympton's career as an animator.

    In your face and counting successes

    This new-found recognition led to the production of a musical short Your Face, where a male head croons lovingly to his sweetheart whilst contorting in a disturbing and strange manner. Interestingly, the male voice featured in the film is actually female, but decelerated for effect. The voice belongs to Maureen McElheron, a country and western singer with whom he used to play (badly - he admits) in a band. This collaboration marked the beginning of a working relationship which would continue for many years to come. Your Face received an Academy Award nomination and further augmented his status as animator, eventually attracting commercial interest. However, Plympton treasures his independence and has been wary of the trappings of success. At one point he turned down a one million dollar offer from Disney to work on the genie in Aladdin, not wanting to compromise his professional integrity: 'legally, any doodle you do, any jokes you tell, and any dreams you have during that 36 month period, they own'. [iv] 

    Plympton's self-financing strategies

    Plympton's website is a good place to start for animators looking for advice on self-financing their work. For The Tune, his first animated feature, he released sections as short films, using the proceeds to fund production costs. Mutent Aliens also relied on pre-release earnings, although this time he produced a graphic novel-version before the film. This is a technique common to Japanese anime films, as the novel often helps to story-board ideas and work on character and plot development. [v] Plympton also employed strategies from Disney, 'pioneers' in marketing, to merchandise his work and promote himself. [vi] Having financial independence meant that he could produce animation without directorial or commercial restraints: 'I come up with ideas that are very weird. sometimes they involve sex, sometimes they involve violence, and if that's what I enjoy doing and that's what audiences enjoy watching, I can't be concerned with theatre owners or distributors'. [vii]

    References (last accessed 2003) 

    [ii] Fehling P., [no longer available]

    [vi] [no longer available]

    [vii] [no longer available]

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