Bill Plympton on Kanye West, Paul Giamatti, and Dirty Flash Animation

From his humble beginnings (1977’s crudely drawn “Lucas, the Ear of Corn”) to his first Oscar nomination (for 1987’s cheerfully bizarre “Your Face”) and on into the wild world of animated features (beginning with 1992’s The Tune), animator Bill Plympton has managed to retain his currency. His hand-drawn, refreshingly 2D films continue to garner acclaim – including an Academy Award nomination last year for “Guard Dog” – and “The Fan and the Flower,” a collaboration with writer Dan O’Shannon, won an Annie Award this year from the International Animated Film Society and was shortlisted for another Oscar nom (though it didn't quite make the final five). The newest Plymptoon is a music video for Kanye West, meaning a new generation of viewers may be tuning in to his wavelength.
How did you become involved with Kanye West's music video “Heard 'Em Say”?
It was originally a Michel Gondry piece. They shot it at Macy’s, it was like half a million dollars, and apparently Kanye didn’t like it so much. I don’t know what the reason was. So anyway, he still had this deadline to deliver to MTV his new music video. He had like a week to go and he remembers, as a kid, watching my animations on those touring animation shows. He called me up out of the blue and said, ‘Would you like to do my new music video? All my money’s gone. You have a week to do it. Are you interested?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I wasn’t a big fan of his stuff, I like more country and western, but I had seen some of his stuff and thought he was quite good, a very smart musician and filmmaker. He played me the song and I did a storyboard for him. He made a few changes in the storyboard, but generally he liked the storyboard, the idea and the concept, and we did it in a week. It was really crazy.
Was the concept yours?
Yeah. The guy in the taxi cab was him as a street poet, and he drives through the neighborhood and sort of comments on life in the hood as he was growing up. It’s essentially him growing up – the people he meets, his parents, things like that. I probably shouldn’t be speaking for him like that, but that’s my understanding of what it’s about.
What about the scenes based on studio performance footage?
I didn’t have anything to do with those. Kanye directed the video, and I have no problem giving him credit for that. He was very nice and gave me an animation credit at the end and I thought that was really generous of him. A lot of filmmakers don’t do that. Even though I did the storyboards and concepts, he came in and micromanaged each individual shot and said change this, fix this. He was very intimately involved in the whole production.
Why is it black and white?
We originally did it in color, and then we realized the color didn’t work very well with the type of pencil I was using. You lost the graphic style of the pencil, so we switched to black and white.
Aside from the time and money restrictions, was there anything unusual about the production process?
No. It was a pretty traditional Plympton production process. It was pencil and paper scanned in and digitized and composited. It’s old-fashioned retro animation. I went to the release party. [West] had a gallery show where he blew up a lot of the artwork on these huge 4 x 5 pieces of art. It was really beautiful. He made a presentation and he called me the Michael Jordan of animation, which I thought was pretty cool.
How long did it take?
About a week. Which, for two minutes of animation, is pretty fast. That’s unheard of. I was supposed to make an appearance at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival that I had to cancel. I worked night and day for seven or eight days. It was a pretty big deal.
What about “The Fan and the Flower”, written by Dan O’Shannon? Is it unusual for you to work with someone else’s material?
It is. He was a writer/producer on Frasier, and he’s a fan of my stuff. Just like Kanye, he’s been seeing my films at these festival shows. He did another short that was nominated for an Oscar in 1998, “Redux Riding Hood.” That was through Disney and he wasn’t happy working with Disney. It’s a big corporation and they owned the film and it was not a good experience. He called me out of the blue and said, ‘I have a story that I want to make into a film.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have enough of my own stories, I really don’t do outside projects.’ And he said, ‘There’s money involved,’ and I got interested in it. It’s a really nice story. It’s not a typical Bill Plympton, it’s very romantic and kind of sentimental, but it’s a beautiful little story. We started working on it and he obviously wrote it. We went through it together and I put in some visual ideas but it’s essentially his story. We just finished it last year and it’s been winning a lot of prizes on the festival circuit.
How did Paul Giamatti get involved?
We had done a mock-up version and I used one of my voice actors for the voice. I really liked it but Dan didn’t like it so much. This was the year “Guard Dog” was nominated, so I said, ‘Well, I’m going to the Oscars ‘ let me see if I see someone there we can entrap into doing the voiceover.’ I was there at the Governor’s Ball and I saw Paul Giamatti and I had always loved his voice. So I took a couple hits of alcohol and built up my courage and walked over to him. I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m Bill Plympton, and I’d like to -‘ And he goes, ‘Bill Plympton! Wow, man, I love your animation. You rock.’ Apparently he had wanted to be an animator at one point when he lived in Seattle, so it was really a project that was dear to his heart, something he could relate to. He did it for scale in, like, two takes. His voice is so perfect. It was a bit of good fortune that we were able to get him.
Where did your visual motif for that come from, with the simple line drawings and silhouettes?
That’s a very important aspect of it. When Dan did the sketches for it, he was a big fan of John Held Jr. He was big back in the 20s, when he was famous for doing flapper girl cartoons. They were very black and white, very designy. And so we used his style as sort of a model for the design. It’s very clean and very simple, and for this kind of story it works very well.
How has digital technology changed your working methods?
It’s brought down the costs. I did a film called Hair High, which I’m very proud of, and it was done on camera and film. It was really expensive. It came in at $300,000, and half of that was painting and camera and film stock. “Guard Dog” I did on digital and the technical costs of it were minimal. Mostly it’s financial – but it does make it flow a lot easier, even though we get a few crashes here and there. It’s smoother technically, without so many problems.
Is it true that you turned down a lucrative offer from Disney earlier in your career?
Yeah, I did.
That was based on concerns about ownership of your work?
That was partly it. I would have had to move out of New York, so I don’t know how I would have kept my studio alive. They didn’t tell me what project I’d be working on. I found out later they wanted me to do the genie in Aladdin. I think I would have been restricted there in terms of what I could do and finding my voice. This was an era of independent filmmakers – Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee – who were doing it outside of the Hollywood industry, and I wanted to be part of that movement and keep my independence and do my weird films.
You sell your own DVDs at How does that work?
DVDs are a big market, as you know. A lot of my shorts have been collected on DVDs. I have a brand new one out now called Bill’s Dirty Shorts. It’s all my raunchy shorts that have never been collected for television and some of my Flash animation that is very scandalous.
Is that something working with Flash as an animation format encourages?
Yes. There’s no censorship at all [online]. Nobody cares how raunchy it is. I love the Internet for that reason.
Finally, do you have any words of advice for young animators?
I have very important words for them. There’s three golden Plympton rules for success in independent animation. Number one, make your film short-around five minutes. Number two, make it cheap, less than $1000 a minute. And number three, make it funny. If you can do all three of those things, the film will be a success.