Idiots & Angels: COED’s Interview With Oscar Nominated Animator Bill Plympton
October 6, 2010 by Neal - Johns Hopkins
I first saw Bill Plympton’s work on MTV’s Liquid Television in the early ’90s. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The big-nosed, chubby-cheeked, squinty-eyed characters he drew were inevitably lumps of clay that Bill would mold into a number of different objects with ease, though with added sound effects those seamless transformations could cause one to become uneasy or even queasy.
He was born and raised in Portland, Oregon where he graduated from Portland State University in 1968 and moved to New York’s School of the Visual Arts in 1969 to pursue graphic design, illustration, and animation.
His work has been published in The New York Times and weekly newspaper The Village Voice, as well as in the magazines Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Penthouse, and National Lampoon. His political cartoon strip, which began in 1975 in the Soho Weekly News, eventually was syndicated and appeared in more than 20 newspapers.
He’s also published a comic book, released 6 DVDs of animated shorts, and created animations for music videos and commercials.
In early 2007, he animated his latest feature length film, “Idiots and Angels”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. The story follows a greedy, immoral man named “Angel” who awakens one day to find he’s grown wings that give him amazing powers, but deter him from any wrongdoing. In short, the film is a dark comedy about a man’s battle for his soul. Sort of like Groundhog Day.
I sat down with Bill at his studios right down the hall from us here in New York City to discuss working with Kanye West, Weird Al Yankovic, a peckerneck poet, and Sarah Silverman.
BILL: Yup, born in Oregon. It rains there a lot. A lot of drizzle. Consequently, I was always by myself indoors drawing. That was my love, I’d do it constantly. It’s basically what I’m doing today, I feel like I’m a kid again.
COED: Do you feel like you get better work when it rains?
BILL: I do, yeah. When it’s sunny I really want to go outside and play and go to the beach or hiking or something. When it rains or it’s miserable I get a lot of work done.
COED: What lead you to create the Oscar-nominated short, “Your Face”?
BILL: I was yearning to do animation. I wanted to see my drawings move. I wanted to see them talk. I wanted to see them dancing and telling jokes and things like that. And so I really wasn’t happy doing [the] print stuff.
COED: You sent Disney some cartoons and offered up your services as an animator. They wrote back and said you showed promise but were too young. Would you work for Disney now?
BILL: Yeah, I would. If I could direct. I would love to break into the big time and get a film on 4,000 screens and get press all over the world and break out of this “cult” status. I want to get into more mainstream. I’d definitely be interested if Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks called me.
COED: In 1996, you followed “Mala Noche” writer Walt Curtis around his Portland hometown to record him reading his poetry. It’s been called an outrageous performance film that stunned audiences. What was so outrageous and stunning about it?
BILL: It’s very autobiographical, it’s about [Walt]. He’s a poet but he’s more of a performance artist, ‘cuz he does poems about very transgressive situations like having sex with his dog. In the film, he reads poetry, he gets naked in a big mud lake and starts playing with some guy’s dick. It’s pretty outrageous. I think that’s why he and I are very similar; we try to get outrageous and provocative and politically incorrect and that’s the kind of stuff we do, we like to provoke people, provoke audiences. That’s why I did the documentary about him.
COED: It seems fitting your animation would be on Liquid Television since it has a very liquid style. What can you attribute to that style of animation?
BILL: You look at some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons like Road Runner or Daffy Duck, they really have visual extremes, very surreal, very absurd, very bizarre visuals. That’s what I’m doing here, basically, just taking the freedom that animation allows you and just go bonkers; try to get as weird as I can and that’s what happened with “Your Face”.
COED: MTV has changed significantly since Liquid TV aired. What are your thoughts on the evolution of MTV?
BILL: Well, I was saddened when they stopped doing animation and move to reality TV, but I understand they want to boost their ratings and get more audiences, but I did talk to a guy [who's] putting together an animation web channel or internet station for MTV, and it’s very exciting because they want to do interviews with the animators and visit the studios, show new films, show new comics, show new games. So if that’s successful enough it will go onto a real TV station, a regular TV station.
COED: You created animations for Kanye West’s music video for “Heard ‘Em Say“, which seems at first glance to be a mismatch but ended up being a cool mashup of his flash and your grit. How did that project come about?
BILL: He called me out of the blue. Michel Gondry did the first version of the song and he didn’t like it. The deadline was a week away, it had to premiere on TRL on MTV. So, even though there was no money and a very quick turnaround I accepted the project because I knew it would get a lot of exposure. And it was a lot of fun, he would come down to my studio, and he would look over my shoulder as I did the drawings and critique it. One of the things he said was to make sure he looks handsome. It’s his gig, so I’ll do that.
He really is a genius. His ideas, theatrics, stage setting, lighting, costumes, backdrops and music is quite amazing, he really is a genius. So, I’m happy to follow his ideas. I’ve done other projects with him, I did a book with him called, “Through The Wire” and that was a nice success. We’re talking about doing other projects together. He’s a very big animation fan.
COED: The dog from Guard Dog, Guide Dog, Hot Dog, and Cop Dog has a cameo in Kanye’s video. Why are you so drawn to him, what makes him so appealing?
BILL: He’s become my Mickey Mouse. He just sort of took off. People really relate to the dog, he’s looking for love he’s looking for companionship, he’s looking for acceptance. But the problem is he looks so hard, he tries so hard, that he ends up destroying any kind of relationship he has.
COED: You produced animations for another music video, this time for Weird Al Yankovic’s “Don’t Download This Song“. This one seems more expected and more in line with your style…
Yeah, well, Weird Al’s more of a comedy writer and I love that, I love doing comedy. Quite frankly, that’s why I felt more comfortable doing his stuff. Because I can tell jokes, I can do more crazy stuff. With Kanye, I had to be a little more serious. I just talked to Weird Al and I can tell you I’m doing another music video for him called, “TMZ” but that’s all I can say. That should be done by the end of the year. He’s a really nice guy, really fun to work with.
COED: :The song is about digital piracy, illegal peer to peer sharing. What’s your stance on the issue?
BILL: Well, obviously I’m against it. We find a lot of people take my films and put them on the internet. If my stuff is all over the internet (illegally) then I wouldn’t be able to make a living and I’d have to stop making films.
COED: Is there a foreseeable solution?
BILL: Well, it’s pretty much a mindset thing. It is theft. I think that once people realize it’s just like stealing from the store (they) will not be so anxious to take stuff for free.
COED: Isn’t it bittersweet, though? Knowing that people want your to see your work?
BILL: A lot of my animator friends are delighted to have their stuff all over the internet and it’s good for them. Maybe they’ll get discovered, maybe they’ll do some commercials , maybe they’ll sell more merchandise. For me, it’s not. I’m at a place now where my films are pretty well known. If people want to show 30 seconds, that’s fine, I have no problem with that, but to show my entire film, it ruins my entire market.
COED: “Hair High” is a gothic ’50s high-school comedy about a love-triangle that goes terribly bad. It stars the voice talents of Sarah Silverman. What was it like working with Sarah?
BILL: She was a darling she was so great she’s a pretty big star and for her to come and do the session about an hour long session. really a big treat for me I see her she always friendly gives me a big hug her humor is similar I love her I love her humor our humor is very similar. She likes to say things that aren’t so innocent and sweet, so I have a real kinship with her humor.
COED: There’s no dialogue in your latest film “Idiots & Angels”…
BILL: A lot of people don’t even realize there’s no dialogue in the film until halfway through or even at the end they say wow there were no words in that film because the storytelling is complete. You do get a sense of the characters, you do get a sense of their personality without their voice, and I did that for 3 reasons: One, it’s really much easier to sell the film overseas because you don’t have to do dubbing or subtitling, which is very expensive. You also don’t have to do lip sync, which is really a drag. It’s very slow, it’s very time consuming, it really bogs down the production. Two, I’m not a particularly good dialogue writer . I’m not a very good writer of anything I just like to draw. And three, it’s just really fun to draw these characters without any dialogue. I just love to draw.
COED: Do you think that could ever work as a live action feature? Not having any dialogue, just music and sound effects?
BILL: Yes, of course, Jacques Tati has done that. It wasn’t live action but Triplets of Belleville had no dialogue in it, so yeah I think it’s possible.
COED: There seemed to be a heavy emphasis on smoke and exhaust especially at the beginning of the film, was that a conscious decision?
BILL: Yeah, it is. I wanted to make [Angel] a smoker in the initial part of the film, there is a lot of smoke when he’s driving to work, dust, pollution and everything, but near the end of the film, he stops smoking, and the air is cleared. The air becomes pure and that’s kind of a metaphor for this guy’s personality. He’s purified and reborn.
COED: What’s next for you?
BILL: We’re working on a new documentary on me that should be finished by the new year that is made by Alexia Anastasia. Then we’re also a big coffee table book about me with an introduction by Terry Gilliam. It spans my whole career, beautiful artwork, beautiful design, a lot of wacky anecdotes from my life. We have high hopes for the book, it should be out in April.
“Idiots & Angels” releases at the IFC Center in New York today, October 6th. Watch the teaser trailer below then check out the website for showtimes: