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Drawn to This Line of Work

Movies* No computers for independent animator Bill Plympton. He draws every frame of his surreal projects, which include the new 'Mutant Aliens.'

June 12, 2002|LEWIS BEALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — If Bill Plympton likes to draw every frame of every animated film he produces, does that make him the Luddite of the cartoon world?

Certainly the 25,000 personalized illustrations in "Mutant Aliens," Plympton's latest feature project, serve as an interesting contrast to the three-dimensional, computer-generated images in studio blockbusters like "Shrek" and "Toy Story." And that's just fine with Bill Plympton.

"I really like the look of the pencil line. It's real fantasy," says the writer, producer, director and entrepreneur, whose film opens Friday in Los Angeles. "I just love to draw. There's nothing better than for me to get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and draw all day."

An Oregon native who has lived in New York for upward of 30 years, Plympton is more than just a speed-drawing whiz who can knock off 200 renderings a day. He finances his own films; he's done five, including two animated features, "The Tune" (1992) and "I Married a Strange Person" (1998), and has occasionally self-distributed them. He makes cartoons with R-rated material in a medium generally thought of as kiddie-centric.

And he is a self-taught entrepreneur who has learned how to increase his bottom line by selling everything from Plympton-inspired T-shirts to books and CDs.

Plympton "definitely is an anomaly" in the animation world, says Rita Street, online editor of Animation magazine. "He succeeds because he sticks to his vision, and he does it all by himself."

It's a style that's not for all tastes. Bawdy and bloody, surreal and free-form, Plympton's work seems, at first glance, to be aimed solely at pizza-eating frat boys. He loves off-color jokes, big-busted women and animated riffs that appear to come out of nowhere. As Plympton puts it, his output is "a blend of Magritte and R. Crumb--that European surrealism, but the weird, goofy sexual craziness of R. Crumb."

Plympton is not the only cartoonist working in this realm. Thanks to "The Simpsons," "South Park," Japanese anime and MTV, animation for adults is no longer limited to the occasional "Fritz the Cat" feature or a 1930s cartoon porno loop. But Plympton stands out because of his cult following, the sheer goofiness of some of his films, and his occasionally maddening indifference to pacing and plot.

In "Mutant Aliens," for example, a stranded astronaut discovers that a group of lab animals sent into outer space is still alive. The astronaut breeds their offspring and then returns with them to Earth, where they wreak revenge against the scientists who abandoned them. This weird tale is told with the usual Plympton flourishes: plenty of explosions, cartoony sex jokes, striking color schemes and an off-the-wall sense of humor.

Viewing a Plympton cartoon is like watching illustrations that move. Fully animated films such as "The Lion King" use 24 drawings per second to create a sense of fluid action, but Plympton's budgetary and time constraints force him to use only six. This tends to slow down the pacing of his work, but it is compensated for by visual stylization and zaniness. The films can, however, be quite off-putting--especially if you've been weaned on the lush look of Disney.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, both "Mutant Aliens" and Plympton's previous film, "I Married a Strange Person," have been awarded the grand prize for feature films at the Annecy (France) Film Festival, the Cannes of the animation world.

Plympton says he is sometimes accused of being misogynistic or obsessed with violence, but in reality he is simply filming "what makes me laugh. I think if [the 1940s screwball animator] Tex Avery were alive today, he would do these really offensive, outlandish, pushing-the-edge cartoons. In a sense, I'm sort of his son, but I'm pushing the limits of good taste, and I think that's important, because animation needs to break out of its stereotype."

"He's an auteur, that's his vision, that's what he likes," adds Heather Kenyon of the Animation World Network Web site, awn.com. "Everybody has their fans and those who are less than enthused about their work. OK, you don't like the violence, the girls with the big boobs; that's his vision."

Plympton's vision comes out of an unlikely place--a cosmically cluttered loft in the Chelsea section of New York, which doubles as his living quarters and studio. Scattered around the space are shelves filled with videocassettes, props and books, a drawing table and a copying machine used for transferring his drawings to acetate cels. There is also a video camera, which Plympton uses to test his work, and a worktable on which his assistants color the cels. All the drawings and cels from his films, about 100,000 in all, are stacked in boxes around the room.

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