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Indie Focus: Bill Plympton and animation for grown-ups

Sure, 'Toy Story' is cute. For kids. The filmmaker wants to bring 'Quentin Tarantino-kind of topics' to his animated work. His latest, 'Idiots and Angels,' is about a bitter old guy who grows wings.

October 17, 2010|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Animated features have long been the favored medium for telling kid-friendly stories about princesses and cuddly creatures. But if New York-based animator Bill Plympton were to have his way, moviegoers would also see more hand-drawn offerings depicting hard drinking, fooling around, murder and deception.

"As a kid, I loved kids animation, but now I'm an adult," Plympton, 64, said by phone.

"Idiots and Angels," Plympton's fifth independent animated feature, follows a bitter, lonely man named Angel who discovers he is growing wings. And he doesn't want them. The squiggles and imperfections of Plympton's colored-pencil style, as always, imply an emotional instability that captures the searching, uncertain feelings of his storytelling.

"I don't want to do kids animation," Plympton said. "I'm not interested in toys or playground antics. I'm interested in jealousy and love and hate and revenge and Quentin Tarantino-kind of topics. Those are the films I want to make."

The filmmaker will be appearing in Los Angeles around the film's weeklong run, which starts Oct. 29. A preview screening at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica the night before will include his new short, "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger."

"In the case of feature films, Bill's a pioneer. He's basically the guy," said animation historian Jerry Beck, who will be hosting an evening of Plympton's shorts at L.A.'s Cinefamily on Nov. 1 with the filmmaker.

Regardless of the subject matter, the process of making one of Plympton's films is laborious. He spent a year storyboarding "Idiots and Angels," then another year animating the film, some days drawing up to 100 images by hand before an additional six months of post-production (In all, some 30,000 drawings were used in the movie.) "Idiots and Angels" marks the first time Plympton has had his drawings scanned into a computer as part of the animation process; that decision allowed him to use a smaller staff and complete the project on a budget of around $135,000.

"This is the first time I've made a film where my drawings really look like how I wanted to make them," he said of the difference between his old method of photocopying drawings onto acetate sheets versus using the computer. He said he's resistant to fully animating on a computer, though, and will continue to draw in pencil.

"I like drawing, because it's not like a machine is making the film," he said. "It's like a human being is making it. And there are mistakes in it, there are imperfections. You can see the touch of the hand on the screen. And I love that. It's like going to a museum and seeing a Degas drawing or a painting by Monet. It feels natural and human.

"People say I'm a masochist from drawing 12 to 14 hours a day, but I believe I'm a hedonist. For me, this is like playtime. When I was a kid I always wanted to draw, and now that's my job to draw all day long."

Plympton has long flirted with a broader audience. Beginning his career as an illustrator and cartoonist, he started animating in the mid-1980s and has twice been nominated for an Academy Award for animated short film. In the late '80s and early '90s, a series of his shorts were shown on MTV. More recently, he animated sections of Kanye West's music video for "Heard 'Em Say."

Over the years, he has made three live- action films but allows that "they were bombs, total disasters." On the other hand, he believes that "animation is the most perfect art form in the world. And I can prove that. When you imagine something in your head, if I want to re-create those imaginings, animation is the only true art form that can re-create my imagination. You can do it in painting, but it's just one image; you can do it in music, but it's just sound. Animation has all the art forms.

"With live action, it's limited by what the actors will do. You can't just chop off an actor's arm. But in animation, there are no limits, and there's no other art form that can re-create the imagination purely, just identical."

Plympton's influence can be seen in a recent diverse group of movies, including "Sita Sings the Blues," " Waltz With Bashir," "My Dog Tulip" and "Persepolis," films that share his idiosyncratic and personal view of what an animated feature can be.

"In the last five years or so, he's really diversified his output," said Beck, cofounder of the website Cartoon Brew and author of more than 15 books on animation, of Plympton's switching between lighter, comedic shorts and darker, more ruminative features. "He's not phoning it in. He's on top of his game at this point. I think this is the golden age of Bill Plympton right at this moment."

Plympton is qualifying "Idiots and Angels" for consideration in the animated feature Oscar category with its Los Angeles run, having also booked a screening at the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater. He acknowledges it's an uphill battle against "Toy Story 3" and "How to Train Your Dragon."

"I'll tell you what, I am jealous of Pixar and DreamWorks — they put these releases in 4,000 cinemas, and I would die to get that kind of release," said Plympton. "But I'm doing adult animation, which is not like the family audience. So that's Strike 1 against me.

"Strike 2 is I have no money, so I have to make my films by myself, on my own, with low-budget technology. So I really am the dark horse. I'm like the Jim Jarmusch of animation. I make these films on my own, they're quirky, they're weird, they're bizarre, but people want something fresh they haven't seen before. They want to see adult ideas expressed in animation."

calendar@latimes.com

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