At some point in the ’90s, the magic formula that changed everything without touching anything appeared. The trick was to apply the term “indie” at the beginning of whatever. We were told that “indie” came from “independent”, a concept related to certain productions created “outside the industry” and that it had the prestige of the strange, the deformed, the dissonant. Among the thousand incarnations of the beast, there was no shortage of cinema; nor his deformed little brother, the cartoon. But “indie” animation brought an undisputed king, and the guy was called, is still called –forget the dynasties– Bill Plympton.
Of course, such a crown is not without risk. Is he famous, Plympton, or is he not known by anyone? Plympton himself illustrated this problem with an anecdote: once, while touring animation festivals in the United States, he worriedly noticed how the car in which he was traveling was surrounded by patrol cars with colored lights and the intention of escorting him to some point outside his plans. . The point was the City Hall. Red carpet, national anthem, and a perplexed mayor, holding out a hand as steady as a fish. The next day, he found out from the newspapers that he had been mistaken for Bill Clinton.
To avoid these confusions, here is his story.
IN YOUR FACE
It was 1988 when an inexplicable animated short fell from the sky, made with some colored pencils and a drawing worthy of the solid professionals of yesteryear. It was called your face and it consisted of a close-up of a man, in a suit and with a short mustache, singing a romantic homage to his own face, which began to deform in all the ways associated with LSD to end in an abstract paroxysm that the earth swallowed. A little sign at the end informed that we had seen a Bill Plympton movie. Who was this guy? An illustrator (New York Times, Rolling Stone), fairly well known in his field, who, saw in hand, stuck his head out of the movie screen when no one expected him. The film had one Oscar nomination, but it was as if it had won five. It was a genre unto itself, a three-minute aesthetic manifesto that changed the landscape entirely. Film festivals then became desperate to get more of his material, MTV (indie paradise at the time) programmed what it could, Caloi in his Ink he rolled his eyes. It was not for less.
The funny part of the matter was that the animator was not only “indie” but wanted to remain so. It wasn’t a pose, painstakingly held up by a lack of offers, as Disney studios (they were still in the business of producing animated movies) found out when the guy turned down one of those corleonic buy-it-all offers. Plympton continued to do his own with his shorts, some video clips, and then went on to the biggest bet, the one that postulates him for the Guinness of records: the production of animated feature films made by a single person and a minimum team of collaborators.
True, the idea was far from novelty. This is how the first feature film in the history of animated cinema had been made, The Apostle (1917), by Quirino Cristiani (who would relapse in 1931 with furrypolis, the first voiced; and if you want to see any of these films, I remind you of the effective conservation policies of Argentine cinema). It was also the case Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926), made by the German Lotte Reiniger with the help of a pair of scissors, or even a le roman du Renardby the great inventor of stop motion, Ladislav Starevich (1931, 1937, 1941, depending on the version).
But then Disney arrived, with its facility for erasing other people’s productions, and its Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) left in the collective unconscious the notion that such works were reserved for those Willy Wonka-style citadels where thousands of dwarfs drew, painted or hummed greasy melodies under Walt’s stern gaze. Against this background, Plympton’s one-man features may seem more extravagant than they are. But what really sets them apart from the pioneering movies is that Bill didn’t give up his smack after one or two. He made seven; he is working on the eighth, and this is not counting short films, videos and experiments with actors. Ray! How does he do it? Here is his secret.
SHORT, FUNNY AND CHEAP
Every time Plympton came to Buenos Aires, he was brought by an animation festival. Because he travels like this, from festival to festival, to be exhibited to the public; almost always in shorts and flip-flops, his favorite outfit. A true festival attraction, in the old sense of the word. But the attraction is not limited to letting himself be studied between the bars: he continues working. In effect, the guy is a perfected link in the do-it-yourself chain and wherever he goes, he takes his movie with him, which he continues to draw in the taxi or hotel, a Santa Claus-type bag with his dvds (which he gives away or sells as he pleases), old originals, books with his life story, etc.
I had already heard from him in 2007 or 2008, when Bill had made a pilgrimage to Olivos’ studio to meet one of his personal deities, Carlos Nine. I wasn’t there, but I got news about him by phone (“He likes cornstarch cookies, we showed him our movies and he laughed in mine and yawned in yours, he’s not a big fan of Chuck Jones”).
Until in 2017 I received an email from him advising that he would be in Buenos Aires (it seems that the yawn had been misinterpreted). Extracting it from the clutches of the festival was one of those complex operations that appear in Le Carré novels, but after a triangulated maneuver and a car chase, we managed to get together to chat a bit and, at least for my part, study it more closely.
Plympton is exactly what you see in his movies. His face looks like a drawing of Plympton, one of those neat Americans from the 50s who in his stories tend to face the strange, the deformed, or the scatological, without losing his composure or optimism. If anything can define her style, it’s that particular cross between tradition and a steamroller. Not exactly the Thanksgiving turkey, but the hatchet with which its head is to be lopped off. This tension makes each of his films a timeless exercise, to which an enormous number of novel elements saves it from being classified as “retro”.
Many of these stylistic elements are also –as occurs in animated films in general– economic reasons. For example, the fact that each drawing is repeated about four or five frames instead of the one or two of classic animation (which implies fewer drawings per second); the minimalist backgrounds that are part of the animation, or the repeated use of the “loop” that ends up creating a hypnotic effect. And above this, the primacy of drawing: it may seem incredible, but Plympton still thinks his stories in pictures. His characters can talk, but it is not about illustrated radio, as it has been since Yogi Bear gave the scepter to The Simpsons (let’s just say that he guest illustrated some of the series’ openings). In his films there are often story arcs or “character motivations”, but he is allowed to leave them out if a particular image suggests another direction; and his digressions generally help to avoid that flavor of canned premise by a morality committee. Let us add to this that Plympton’s drawings are conscious of being such. In an age where the pinnacle of civilization would be to eliminate all traces of pencil, slapping the viewer with a festival of photographic textures, the North American delights in scribbling on the screen and being noticed. Going back to basics, Plympton reminds the viewer how precarious this movie business really is; a bit as if he applied to the image the punishment that Mac Phantom reserved for soundtracks back in the day. Badia and Company.
According to what he said, his secret goes through three very simple rules, or what he calls his Dogma: brief, funny and cheap. Probably, the brief did not run in the seven feature films, and what of funny (a rather subjective concept) is related to the fact that he applies a test to his work that dates back to the days of Gato Félix: measuring the reaction of an audience in a dark room (moved spectators remain silent; the laughs instead, they are heard). Abstract animation has caused him panic since a festival programmed one of these pieces just before his and he lost half the audience, with the addition of having to see a generous list of contributors in the credits of the tome; fine people who would never put a hand in one of his movies. Plympton finances himself and you often see him doing it, with his dvds or whatever. In that sense, he has no fearful fears. He trusts the old hand trade, even barter, and how well he does it. That’s why it’s going to be difficult to find a lot of his material going around the internet, that phantasmagoria of potentialities that for some reason never fully materialize.
FOLLIES IN THE WEST
But the world keeps turning and despite being a ghost, the internet brings new messages from Plympton. In December he will be here again, giving a “master class” at Argentina Comic Con; and with Slide piggyback. He had talked about this feature film project on his previous trip: a tribute to the country music of his childhood. Slide it was then just an idea, a couple of sketches and an opportunity to play the guitar, another of his many talents. The trigger for the film was proof of how well Hank Williams’ music worked in a cartoon, and the project grew into a musical comedy in the style of the cartoon. follies in the west by Mel Brooks, set in a logging town in his native Oregon, although through the filter of a fairy tale, since the trees speak or complain when they are felled and the protagonist has something of a princess and a lot of a prostitute (again , Plympton should not be confused with Disney).
Right now, Slide has entered a hectic post-production stage. With the animation and some of the coloring now complete, Plympton has begun editing voices and music, and is confident that the film will be finished by our next fall (or his spring, depending on which point of view one chooses).
Paradoxically, the confinement of the pandemic – which for some was synonymous with continuous work without interference from the outside world – complicated the tight circuit of talks, signings and exhibitions that had allowed him to finance his previous projects; something that he ended up solving with the sale of original drawings or appealing to financing platforms. Of course, all this detour is basically nothing more than the price of independence, and in this sense we must admit to the North American that in his case the “indie” label was not just a simple record store joke.
Finally, you should never despair. The tight circuit that gave us some incredible films from time to time is starting to move again and soon we will have Plympton here with his bag full of drawings, books, films and other obsolete formats that can be felt or carried under his arm. It will be a way to bring Christmas up a bit this year.
Argentina Comic Con will be on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at La Rural, Av. Sarmiento 2704. The Plympton master class will take place on Saturday the 10th.
We want to give thanks to the author of this write-up for this outstanding material
Bill Plympton, a unique handcrafted animation phenomenon | The American will be visiting Buenos Aires next weekend, invited by Argentina Comic Con
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