February 14, 2011

More Than Just Animation

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This Wednesday, Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton will screen his latest work Idiots and Angels, a film without dialogue defined by both its nearly monochromatic palate and the furious energy that fills its frames. Plympton will be discussing the creative and business aspects of animation and giving out free drawings to students in attendance.

The film follows a cold-hearted corporate drone through an angelic transformation, as he sprouts massive wings that force reformation through any means. Its dark, violent movement is complemented with an easy humor —moments of sadness and absurdity flank one another to create a character so full that he never needs the words that never come. Plympton’s career has spanned over four decades, consistently producing animations that twist and distort reality in all its forms.

Idiots and Angels is a departure from most of Plympton’s earlier work, which along with Oscar-nominated animations includes the video for Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say,” in its isolation and introversion. I talked to the artist to discuss what exactly separated Idiots and Angels from his usual ensemble productions.

Bill Plympton: I did a film before this called Hair High, and it was a very expensive production — a lot of famous actors, Hollywood-type film. And that just did not do well. So I decided to make the next film very personal, very adult — make it for myself. There’s no dialogue, it’s pretty much entirely in black and white and there are very few characters. It’s much more introspective, a departure from the sex,  violence and jokes. Idiots and Angels is a quieter, more personal film.  And to my shock and amazement, it’s actually been my most popular.

The Sun: It has an amazingly unique style — there’s so much movement and vitality despite the stark, almost empty frames.

B.P.: Well, another thing I did for the first time for this piece was actually scanning the drawings onto a computer rather than shoot it on 35mm film. And that’s allowed the finished product to pick up so much more detail and subtlety in the drawings. There’s just a lot more depth and it becomes a much more visual experience as a result, and I think people in the audience are seeing and comprehending the image since it’s just cooler to look at.

Sun: So I take it you prefer this new way of doing things?

B.P.: I do, yes.

Sun: Your Face and Guard Dog were both Oscar-nominated for best animated short, but they came 17 years apart. Has that level of success affected the way your approach the drawings?

B.P.: It’s not really the level of success as much as the influence of the audience. The awards don’t really mean all that much to me, although not everybody has that mentality. For me, though, it’s really about the influence of the audience — what they like, what they laugh at and what they appreciate. I’m always trying to do something different, try something I’ve never tried before and show the audience something they’ve never seen before. And that’s why Idiots and Angels is such a fresh trail. It uses a very unique technique and style.

Sun: Have any other artistic mediums contributed to that? Do you ever mess around with other sounds or textures?

B.P.: Oh sure, when I was younger I played around with painting and I was in a country western band in high school — I guess it was in the 80’s when I just got too busy and had too many animation projects to do any other art forms. I just directed all my energy towards drawing.

Sun: Busy’s good, right? What do you have coming down the pipe?

B.P.: A couple things. There’s a music video I’m doing with Weird Al Yankovic and a feature film with John Leguizamo, a series of animations for his movie called Fugly.

Sun: You can tell there’s a definite musical quality to Idiots and Angels. The sound becomes a big part of the movement since there’s no consistent or bracketed musical style — so many different genres come in that the dissymmetry provides an eerie, evasive harmony.

B.P.: Yeah, I’m always listening to music while I’m working — I’m always trying to find the right music for the right shot. There are a lot of sequences in Idiots and Angels that take place in bars, so I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits while I was doing it. And I was thinking how great it would be to get him involved in the film, but the problem is I don’t know Tom Waits. I’ve never met him before, so I called up my friend Jim Jarmusch—

Sun: Great hair. Decent stuff underneath it too.

B.P.: —and I gave him a rough cut of the film and asked that if he liked it, could he pass it on the Tom Waits. I got a nice e-mail from Tom Waits’ wife about a month later saying that they loved the film and I could use any song I wanted for a very reasonable fee. It was a great opportunity … he’s a pretty quiet guy, so it was good to be able to work with him.

Sun: Good growler, that man. So what’s in store for Wednesday?

B.P.: I’m going to be giving out free drawings to anyone that comes to the showing, so just come on by and say hi.

Idiots and Angels will play be playing at Cornell Cinema on February 16, 18, and 19.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan