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What started out as a childhood pastime for a shy boy living in the backwoods of rainy Portland, Oregon, has become a lifelong passion.
The “King of Indie Animation,” Bill Plympton, says he always wanted to be an artist, and his first love was really animation.
As an introspective, unpopular student growing up in the 50s, Plympton recalls using his art skills to meet people — sketching pictures of classmates and teachers. To get dates in high school, he won girls over by drawing comical illustrations of them, at times a bit risqué,with sexy négligées and garter belts. But that was then.
As the former Cub Scout and Little Leaguer matured, his whimsical sketches became one-of-a-kind illustrations, sometimes conveying social and political messages amid wacky avant-garde, over-the-top scenarios.
During a sunny but scorching Memorial Day weekend, Plympton enthusiasts were in luck: They stayed cool while getting a rare opportunity to experience the king’s work, and helped celebrate his new book, “Independently Animated: Bill Plympton! The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation,” during a two-day “Plymptoons” fest at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.
A preview screening of a unique new documentary, “Adventures in Plymptoons!”, followed by a Q-and-A discussion led by Plympton and up-and-coming director/filmmaker Alexia Anastasio, gave fans a humorous glimpse into the uber-creative mind of a man whose wonderfully old school pencil-on-paper drawings brought to life an assortment of imaginary characters and their madcap adventures.
“Creating and perfecting characters is the most important process of making a film,” Plympton says. Because there’s hardly any dialogue in his movies, the sound effects, visuals and music tell the story.
In the film, Anastasio cleverly combined tongue-in-cheek interviews with Plympton’s family, friends, colleagues, critics, and fans, with amazing animations from Plympton’s short and feature films. Celebs like Keith Carradine, Ed Begley, and others in show biz were featured. (Kanye West had agreed to be in the film, but later turned down the offer after his blunder during the MTV Video Music Awards).
A film critic summed up what the animator’s work was all about: “He has a completely novel way of looking at the physical world.”
Two feature films Plympton directed proceeded Anastasio’s film: The colorful “Hair High” is described as an outrageous Gothic myth from the 1950s; “Idiots and Angels,” which was entirely hand-drawn, mainly in gray pencil, is a dark fantasy about a misanthropic gun dealer who spouts an unwelcome pair of wings.
There was a book signing afterwards, as fans flocked to meet the improvisational animator who drew an original illustration for everyone.
It took two years to finish and the book is chock full of brilliant illustrations; it may be the quintessential guide to what makes its author tick.
“Daydreaming is important… I have three or four working ideas every day,” says the artist, who creates, markets, distributes and merchandises animated toons by himself — along with his team, a handful of super-talented, close-knit, multi-tasking employees who work in the modest Chelsea studio by his apartment.
He believes in drawing what he’s thinking, and has “a big file cabinet full of ideas that are ready to go,” but only some will make it to the storyboard and go on to become films, he explains. After all, there are limitations to being an indie animator: Time, money and manpower.
“Growing up, I was deprived culturally… and I had no car,“ says Plympton. “I had to entertain myself by drawing for hours… and a lot of artistic impulses were my own motivation.”
As a bored teen, having fun in the summer meant mud parties by the river with his friends, and five siblings.
What sets this creative soul apart from other artists he knew was his burning ambition, always wanting to learn new things, really working at his craft and a bit of luck.
The two-time Oscar nominee says his dream was to come to New York City and become a big success. Skipping his college graduation ceremony at Portland State University, he moved to the Big Apple in ‘68 and began a year of study at the School of Visual Arts.
As more people recognized his talent, Plympton’s imaginative illustrations were featured in The New York Times, Vogue, House Beautiful, The Village Voice, Screw, and Vanity Fair. His work has also appeared in Penthouse, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, and Glamour.
Getting caught up in the animation storm of the mid-1980s, Plympton reminded his MOMI audience that he emerged on the scene at a time before Internet and DVDs, when doing film festivals was how you got noticed.
One of his first short films, “Your Face” (on MTV) was nominated for an Oscar; this led to his first feature film, “The Tune” in 1992. At one point, Disney offered him a job and big bucks, but he turned both down, bravely choosing the independent route and his own style, instead of conforming to theirs.
Plympton admits that there’s a harsh-reality quality to his work like many of today’s movies. Indeed, there’s some sex and violence spicing things up, and one senses a determination to shock. Yet paradoxically, there’s an innocent quality, as well.
“Everybody loves sex. Look at all the Hollywood films — everybody loves violence,” he says. “Look at Quentin Tarantino’s films. What am I doing that’s so different?” he asks. “I want everybody to love my films. I’m a populist, talking about things that everybody wants to see — not an ‘artsy fartsy’ type.” And Frank Capra is one of his heroes: “I wish I could be making films like Capra.”
Visiting friends when he’s in Queens, the laid-back animator especially enjoys hanging out in Astoria: “It’s refreshing to see how the area has built up in 10 years… with restaurants, bars, shops,” says Plympton, who likes lunching at 5 Napkin Burger, across the street from MOMI.
“I’m a firm believer that humor will save the world,” says Plympton. “In fact, I think there should be a ‘Nobel humor prize,’ because in a world that’s full of anger, hatred and jealousy… if everybody laughed… a lot of the misery would go away.” He adds, “Humor is a serious art form. It gives me pleasure when I hear people laughing at my films. These are not intellectual films, these are films you laugh at.”
Book tour: July 12-30 (Starts in Portland, then San Diego). San Francisco: book party and screening at Pixar.
The book is available on Amazon.com. “Idiots and Angels” is coming to DVD later this summer.
Alexia Anastasio’s film “Adventures in Plymptoons” will be competing at the famous Annecy Film Festival in France, June 6-11.
©2011 Community Newspaper Group
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