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Feb 13, 2009

Animator Bill Plympton has become one of the genre’s living legends by holding strong to his independent approach in both in art and life.

By Tara Kyle

A magically powered newlywed. A blood-lusting astronaut. A multitasking, misguided house pet. A misogynist who sprouts wings.
These are just a few figments of the imagination of Bill Plympton,
whose twisted tales have helped make him a superstar in the world of
independent animation.
“I love humor. I love surrealism. I love sex and violence. I love
independence,” says Plympton. “These are the five consistencies.”
Those elements are at the core of new works that should make 2009 a big year for the animator.
First up is the release of Idiots and Angels,
a somber, dialogue-free fable without the gags that define his earlier
works. The animated feature premiered last year at the Tribeca Film
Festival and is currently touring around France, where it has received
rave reviews, in advance of a general release in the U.S.
Also on the horizon is Horn Dog, the fourth entry in a series of shorts that started with 2004’s Oscar nominated Guard Dog. In this go-around, the film’s titular canine hero’s search for true love goes terribly wrong.

A steady flow of releases has helped keep Plympton at the forefront of the animation scene for the last two decades.
“I think Bill is actually a genius,” says Matthew Curtis, programming
director at the Florida Film Festival, where Plympton’s offerings have
played in all but one or two of its 18 annual events. “His work is
stylish, irreverent, hilarious and provocative.”
It’s a style characterized by hand-drawn, hyper-kinetic darkness and
beautiful scoring—an approach that has influenced an entire generation
of animators and filmmakers.
When Plympton was 15 years old and growing up in Oregon, he wrote to
Disney asking for a job—any job. Decades later, after he had
established his reputation as a veteran illustrator, cartoonist and
commercial animator, Disney came back with a lucrative offer that
Plympton later learned included a chance to draw the genie in Aladdin.
Plympton declined.
Along with feeling tied to New York—working for Disney would require
relocating to Southern California—he was afraid a move into the
corporate world would mean relinquishing creative control over his work.
“Even though I turned it down—with a lot of regret—I think it was a
decision that had to be made. I would have been fired after about a
month,” he says.
That spirit of independence has marked Plympton’s place in a world
where top animators who do join studios, such as Matt Groening of “The
Simpsons” and Mike Judge of “Beavis and Butthead,” become household
names—not to mention multimillionaires.
“It’s a core of his success, but it’s also a core of his failings,”
says Signe Baumane, who began collaborating with Plympton in 1995
following the master animator’s Oscar nomination in 1988 for Your Face and the 1991 Prix du Jury for Push Comes to Shove at the Cannes Film Festival.

“From his work, a lot of people say it’s weird, and they envision this
weird, sleazy guy…But he’s actually very empathetic,” Baumane says,
describing Plympton’s work style as relaxed and mellow.
Yet he also demonstrates tremendous drive. Plympton starts drawing at 6
a.m. each day, and according to Baumane, he’ll return from a weeklong
trip to Europe, drop off his bags and start drawing again immediately.
When Plympton first started animating films in the early 1980s, there
was what Baumane calls a “tiny little hole dug out by independent
animators,” filled mostly by avant-garde artists like George Griffin.
“Bill cut out that niche for audience-oriented animators…He cut out a
big hole from the wall and made room for more of us.”
Today, Plympton continues his support for newer animators, in part by helping to produce the DVD series, Avoid Eye Contact: The Best Independent Animation of New York City.
His drive continues to astound his colleagues. “All the animators I
know, we can’t get over what it is—that engine inside Bill Plympton,”
Baumane says.
But for Plympton, it’s all part of the ride.
“For me, drawing is a big pleasure, and something that’s endlessly
entertaining,” he explains. “So I don’t look at it as work. I look at
it as playtime.”

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