originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/688508...
Hi friends, welcome back to Animation Night!
Tonight we’re returning to the American independent animation scene~ last visited, in a way, on Animation Night 9, Animation Night 48, and a couple of weeks ago on Animation Night
If you want to be an independent animator in this world, there are a couple of ways you can go. These days, you can try to make a name for yourself on social media: put your videos up on Youtube, Newgrounds, or even Vimeo and hope your thing will make people sufficiently excited to stroke their chins and throw a few ducats your way on Patreon.
But that has not always been the case. For the more old school type of guy, outside of commission work for documentaries and music videos, the big hope is to get your stuff into film festivals. One of these types of festival was the touring animation festival - there is The Animation Show of Don Herztfeldt (Animation Night 89), and I talked a little of Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival on Animation Night 48. Another would be The Animation Show of Shows, which ran through the 2000s. You could kind of think of Animation Night itself as a bootleg version of these lol.
And if you look for one name who features in all of these, it’s Bill Plympton…
So, Plympton! Definitely one of the big names in independent animation. He is likely known to fans of The Simpsons as the creator of a number of couch gags, not to mention the guy who Matt Groening calls ‘God’. The guy’s had a long career since the 60s, and has been crazy prolific in that time, creating a number of feature-length films as well as a huge pile of shorts.
For me, I first came across him in Spike and Mike’s festival of gory, grossout animation, thanks to my beloved @mogsk, where he was definitely one of the most interesting creators. She described his work very well:
I like Plympton bc his stuff ranges from, like, delightfully weird to just kinda, like… Smth somebody’s awkward dad came up with. But it at least always feels like he’s rly into whatever it is he sets out to create!
That’s pretty much on the money, from what I’ve seen of his work. But to be fair, that’s only short films. At his best, Plympton has a gleeful visual inventiveness when it comes to drawing surreal morphing and splatter.
As you can see in these examples, Plympton’s style is based on directly photographing pencil drawings - no painstaking cel cleanup. He’ll shade with rough hatching, taking advantage of the boiling lines effect to set a mood - and generally speaking adopt a low drawing count, relying on the strength of the static images and strong poses more than classic animation principles around timing. In a sense, his style resembles very detailed animatics.
The sketchy pencil style definitely brings to mind other independent animators like John McCloskey (Animation Night 79) or Joanna Quinn (Annecy 2021 writeup). It is an approach that much closer resembles academic figure drawing - or, in Plympton’s case, newspaper caricature (his other line of work!). He loves to draw a serious-looking guy in a suit, or a caricature of a 50s movie. His process definitely seems to follow the usual steps of traditional animation - storyboard, layout, finished drawing, use of X-sheets - and you can see in making-of videos like this one and this one just how fast and loose he tends to draw, it’s crazy to watch.
As far as his background, you can find a pretty detailed account of his career on his website, which gives starting points to dig up material from elsewhere. So we know he first tried animating at university in the 60s, and joined the National Guard in order to avoid being sent to Vietnam, and worked as a magazine illustrator up through the 70s. He was first approached to animate a film in 1983 by Valeria Wasilewski of satirical musical duo The Android Sisters - I can find very little about them but there is a brief article here with examples of their music. This resulted in a seven minute music video Boomtown (1985) based on a song by Jules Feiffer, satirising the Cold War. Unfortunately, it seem to be next to impossible to find a copy of this film.
Plympton put the money from this film into making more short animated films, and quickly realised that animation was indeed his calling far more than illustration. He secured an Oscar nom as soon as 1988 for Your Face, set to the distorted country and western music of his old bandmate Maureen McElheron. I’m not gonna run down the full list of films here, because there’s a lot, but here’s a list!
Anyway, it seems like he was not satisfied with just drawing multiple short animated films a year, but wanted an even more extreme challenge: drawing his own feature film. For most people I think even a short film is a pretty tall order (certainly is for me), but apparently cranking out 30,000 cels was no problem for this fucking drawing machine here; he funded the endeavour by releasing sections of the film as short films and eventually released it in 1992, reaping a lot of success at film festivals.
I want to emphasise here like: this guy was at this point doing the whole animation pipeline: storyboard, LO, backgrounds, key animation and inbetweens alike. Later on it seems he got an ‘intern’ to help with scanning and cleanup, and I’m not ultimately sure how big his team got, but for the most part these early films seem to have been fully one-man efforts. The trick seems to be keeping the whole process very intuitive…
He spent most of the 90s in live action, which we don’t care about except on Tuesdays in these parts, but returned to animation in 1998 with I Married a Strange Person - kind of an exaggeratedly prosaic title for a very weird film. Since then he’s made a whole load more feature films, usually parodies, e.g. of 50s high school movies or B-movies. Honestly I don’t really know what this guy does but just go down the studio and animate every day. Anyway, as for the immense dad energy - he got married in 2011 and had a kid, so I guess he is indeed a dad now, although this came after most of his films. Just a guy who is like that.
I definitely want to dig in more to the common themes and narratives of his films. There’s a certain amount of eagerness for gore and body horror - he cites the early films of Peter Jackson as an inspiration - and surrealism, which again makes me think of the ero-guro movement lol. Mostly he seems like a very intuitive animator, stringing together visual gags in almost a stream of consciousness way, much like someone like Schuschinus.
That’s about all I have time to write, so I’ll leave it there. Tonight we’ll be watching The Tune (’92), his first feature-length animated film, and I Married a Strange Person (’97), his second - if we have time we might even slot in Hair High (2004). Plus as many of his shorts as I can track down, which… isn’t actually very many!
Animation Night 112 will be starting at 8pm UK time, about 45 minutes from now, to give me time to fry some tofu… I’m also going to try a new venue tonight, Picarto.tv/canmom - just a nicer streaming service all round really! so register an account there if you want to chat (please note your channel display name is also your chat name!) and let me know if that presents any problems