Acclaimed independent animator Bill Plympton was the special guest speaker at this week’s Dare2Draw event held at the Society of Illustrators in New York City on Thursday, an institution close to Plympton’s heart which he has long thought of as part of his world, even declaring to the crowd, “This is where I get my inspiration”. Plympton was originally a cartoonist who having worked in satirical and political cartooning for some time, suddenly discovered animation and was immediately converted to the medium to pursue his life’s work, so his address to aspiring cartoonists, illustrators, and animators at Dare2Draw was very apropos.
Dare2Draw is a non-profit organization that hosts live competition events and life-model drawing evenings which bring artists together to network, socialize and flex their drawing muscles in a rare opportunity to get away from the drawing table and turn their craft toward an interactive evening. The New York events are most often hosted by Brooklyn-based cartoonist Simon Fraser (Nikolai Dante, Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight, Doctor Who from Titan) whose enthusiasm and dedication to working with young artists makes for a very welcoming vibe. The results are clear in the turn out: Dare@Draw events are characteristically packed, but the organizers always squeeze in as many chairs as possible to include latecomers. Recently, Dare2Draw have been working closely with the organization Littleblokes to expand their events more widely across the US and internationally, and Littleblokes even recently hosted an online coloring competition in conjunction with Dare2Draw to encourage increased skillsets in the field of coloring, an excellent idea for an underrepresented area of expertise.
Plympton’s presence had already generated considerable buzz for the attending artists this Thursday, and his mixture of discussion, demonstration of drawing techniques and advice, and clips from his animated works made for not only an educative, but also a very entertaining evening for all concerned. His passion for the medium, and his frankness about his experiences working in animation and choosing to remain an independent animation filmmaker were engrossing. It was one of those evenings where an hour has suddenly flashed past, feeling more like a couple of minutes at most.
Plympton spoke about his career in animation and his background growing up in Oregon and watching Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, creating a fascination with animation. But when he graduated college, he saw that the animation business at the time was “dying”. Walt Disney had passed away and Disney Studios were “floundering” while Warner Brothers had also stopped creating animated shorts. There didn’t see like “anywhere to go” except for Hanna Barbera which he “hated” and wasn’t interested in. Instead, he moved to New York City to become an illustrator and worked in caricatures and illustrations, as well as comic strips and “gag cartoons” to keep busy.
He still had an “urge” to do animation, but not until 1983 did a friend of his ask him to animate a song that she had written with Jules Feiffer that he took the plunge. He didn’t actually know how to animate and had to be shown “every step of the way” what to do. This resulted in the film Boom Town, which was a “modest success”. Knowledge acquired, he then made his own film (now famous) called Your Face which is the “stupidest film you’ll ever see”, he said, with a guy’s head singing a “bad song” as his head “metamorphosizes” into different shapes. Watching the film being shown at a competition, he felt embarassed, until people started laughing. The “impact” the laughter had on him was astounding, since he’d never heard anyone laugh at his humorous work before. He felt like he was “floating in the air” at their reaction.
After the screening, he was invited out for drinks by other creators to talk about animation and “right there”, he said, “I felt like I was home”, clinching his desire to pursue animation. The next day he told all his friends and magazine employers, “I’m quitting print and I’m going into animation” and they said, “Are you nuts? Animation’s dead. It’s a dying art form” and they predicted he’d be “crawling back on his hands and knees for work in a couple of months”, but this didn’t deter him. This proved to be the “biggest turning point” in Plympton’s life since the film went on to be Oscar nominated, shown in Cannes as well as all over the world, and was eventually purchased by MTV.
Plympton spoke about his new animated film Cheatin’, which opened in France a few weeks ago to “rave reviews” and will be played in 70 theaters around France. The film, however, doesn’t have an American distributor yet and that’s an issue that “pisses him off” since the French are “more accepting” of animated films that are “not for kids”, and value “great art” and “great storytelling” more highly. Cheatin’ is basically “Quentin Tarantino doing drawings” he said, with sex and violence, but it’s difficult to convince American distributors that they will find an audience.
Plympton treated the audience to a quick drawing of the “Your Face guy”, which held everyone fairly rapt as Plympton’s sketchy style picked out the movement and personality of his character, and as he drew, he explained that creating “big eyed” cuter characters is something that immediately turns him off and seems to suggest a more amateur level of animation.
He also gave the aspiring artists a very brief lecture in “Plympton’s Dogma“, a three rule system for success in making your own animated film. Rule number one is: make your films short. He explained that this rule comes from judging festivals, and also based on ease of selling a short film versus a long animated film. Rule number two is: make your films cheap. By this he meant no more than $1,000 dollars a minute, so it’s easier to make a profit. Rule number three is: make your film funny. He described this as “key” since if a film is funny, anyone will watch it and you’ll make money on it. When people see animation, they do still expect to laugh. Plympton commented that sometimes longer, more serious animated films may win Oscars and deserve it, but they are less likely to make a profit.
Plympton showed the audience the trailer for his new animated film Cheatin’ and also drew “Ella”, the main character for the film for the audience, noting this is his first female lead in an animated film with a very noir influence, modeled on Linda Darnell. What he most enjoyed when making Cheatin’ was getting into shading and detail work on the shadows, feeling that they really helped “define” his characters, and its something he still studies by taking life drawing classes, which he recommends to students.
Plympton also screened the violent, funny, and constantly morphing short western-themed film Drunker Than a Skunk, for the audience (which when announced, prompted a round of applause from those familiar with it already).
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Plympton told some choice tales connected to his interactions with Disney Studios. As a teenager, and originally a fan of Disney, he sent a package of drawings to them for consideration. They replied politely that his work showed promise, but he ought to come back in “15 or 20 years”. The whole thing slipped his mind, but then when he was nominated for an Oscar for Your Face, he got a phone call from them, and a lawyer came to see Plympton at his office in New York.
During the meeting, he was offered one million dollars to come and work for Disney, Plympton said. He was delighted to finally be recognized, but “Negotiating with Disney”, Plympton said, “was not so much good cop/bad cop but bad cop/antichrist”. He asked them if he’d be allowed to make his own “little weird quirky films on the weekend” if he worked for them, and they said yes, but that they would own those also. He asked what would happen if he told someone a funny story or a joke, and they confirmed that Disney would own that, too. “What if I have a dream? Well, that’s ours too”, Plympton joked.
Plympton acknowledged that many people don’t have a hard time agreeing to such terms, but for him, his love for the bizarre meant that things just weren’t going to work out between he and Disney, since the quirkiness wouldn’t be allowed in the films they wanted him to work on (it turns out that it was Aladdin they wanted to hire him for) and he couldn’t pursue them on his own either if he signed on.
The Dare2Draw portion of competition for the evening was themed on Godzilla afterwards, with Legendary as a sponsor for the event, really challenging artists to get out of their comfort zone and delve into giant monster sketches. Meanwhile, Plympton set up to deliver personal sketches for each and every participant attending that night in a rather gracious gesture.
Plympton’s work will also be part of an upcoming exhibition at the Society of Illustrators commencing on June 6th with a Grand Opening event (at 6:30PM), and running until August 13th. The exhibition features “Icons of Animation“, and alongside Plympton’s creations, the work of Peter de Seve (Ice Age), William Joyce (Rise of the Guardians).
It was a fascinating evening with a master of the medium and someone with a great deal of wisdom to share about independent production and staying true to one’s own creative drives, and a keen example of the kind of benefits that an event like Dare2Draw offers, bringing mentoring to artists hoping to grow in their craft.
You can find out more about Bill Plympton and his work at his studio website, learn more about Dare2Draw here, and Littleblokes here, as well as follow Bill Plympton on Twitter, @plymptoons, Dare2Draw @Dare2Draw, and Littleblokes @littleblokes.