Independent filmmaking is not only a labor of love, is one of tireless perseverance, devoted collaborations, and unshakable faith on a project that may
or may not remunerate anyone involved. Failure is not a vague possibility but a really possible outcome. Now let’s take those incredibly challenging stakes and double them when
speaking about independent animation. Indoctrinated by a lifetime of impeccably fairy tales and magical adventures, it’s difficult for both
American audiences and investors to see animation as an art form that shouldn’t be bound to easily digestible, children-oriented themes.
Europe and Asia -Japan, in a particular – have a more sophisticated relationship with the medium. They understand its power, beauty and possibilities
beyond the happy-ending artificiality we are used to. In the U.S. few voices in animation make waves while working outside of the studios grip, among them Bill Plympton is by far the most celebrated and prolific. His irreverent artistry has refuse to a align with the status quo both stylistically and thematically for the past 30 years.
In Plympton’s films the artist is ever-present in the visible handcraft
of every frame. Colorful, ironic, sometimes twisted, and others endearing, his
characters, even with all the surrealism that coats them, are more human than
those which are smoothly crafted digitally. His work feels alive and delves
into a wondrous array of emotions, concerns, and tragedies that others avoid.
To call it daring and one-of-a-kind would be an understatement.
His latest feature “Cheatin’,” is a spellbinding
tale that translate all the irrationality of love into an exhilarating animated
experience. A man and a woman fall hopelessly in love for each other, but when
they suspect the other is being unfaithful, hatred kicks in with the same force
as their passion once did. Delightfully racy and visually stunning, this is the most audacious and intelligent
animated film you will see this year.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Plympton about “Cheatin'” and the challenges and privileges associated with being an independent animator in a profit-driven world.
Aguilar: Your films, both shorts and features, often take us into
extraordinarily imaginative trips, but they also seem to come from everyday issues we can all relate to. Tell me about the origins of “Cheatin’” and about
transforming the familiar premise of a relationship in trouble into an animated
: It’s taken from a real relationship I had that went very bad and we decided to break up because we were so bad together. I thought this would be a good
idea for a film because there would a lot of humor in it. There is always a lot of humor in conflict and there was a lot of conflict in our relationship.
Around 2009 I made a list of all the scenes I wanted to include. Once I got that down I started doing a storyboard. This was a tiny storyboard it wasn’t a
big one. When I had that figured out then I went and did the finished storyboard, and this is where all the real problems are answered. This is where I
design the characters, I design the editing, I design the story, I design the backgrounds. Everything was resolved in that major storyboard. I liked it, I
thought it was a great idea and had good potential. Then I went right into animation.
The surreal, dream-like sequences are a
highlight of the film. They are inventive metaphors that really showcase a refreshing and uncompromising use of the medium.
That’s the magic of animation, you can go on these crazy surreal dream-like sequences. They are really fun to draw and fun to watch. My favorite is the
one where Ella is sitting on a park bench and she discovers her heart. She discovers romance. You realize she’s been hiding her love deep inside of her
soul. She wants to go inside and discover her heart, bring it out, and revive it. That’s when she falls in love with this guy named Jake. I think that
was a very poetic sequence and it was done without dialogue, it’s all visual storytelling. It’s one of my favorite parts.
Aguilar: As you mentioned,
the film doesn’t have any dialogue. It’s completely cinematic, yet you are able
to convey rather complex ideas. Why did you feel this was the best approach for
a film like “Cheatin’”?
You use the word cinematic and that’s one of my favorite words. It really is about storytelling with images. I’ve done that before even when I was doing
illustration. I would do cartoon strips, sequential comic strips with 10 or 12 panels and not use any dialogue. I always felt that was a very powerful and
poetic way to tell a story. Then when I started doing animation I did some of my shorts without dialogue such as all the Guard Dog films. They had no dialogue and they were very successful. Therefore, with “Idiots and Angels” I decided to try to make a feature film without dialogue. Nobody had any problem with it, nobody complaint
about it having no dialogue, so I felt pretty sure that I could make “Cheatin’” also without words. Sure enough everybody likes the idea that there’s no
dialogue, no one’s complaint about it. But you know, I’m not a very good writer of dialogue [Laughs], so it made sense for me to use this way to tell a story. It’s often times more powerful that way.
Aguilar: Would you say it’s
more difficult to devise visual sequences that express what you want to say
rather than having the characters say it?
Occasionally there might be some places where I wish I could put dialogue, but eventually I’ll find a solution to tell it visually and it’s actually more
successful that way. I find it easier to make a film without dialogue simply because doing all the lip-sync, the recording, and the editing of words is
really time-consuming and work-intensive, so for me it’s easier to draw without the words.
Aguilar: Tell me about the visual style and how you draw your characters. They have a very peculiar aesthetic with a certain entrancing fluidity. I also love the fact that you can
see the handcraft in the lines throughout the film.
I started out as an illustrator so I love the act of drawing, and I love drawing people, to me that’s the pleasure. But with this film I really wanted to
exaggerate. For example, Jake’s body, his physique with the real tight abdominal muscles, was fun to do. I wanted to really stretch the anatomy, to really
push the deformations of muscles in the arms, and the crazy positions a lot more because I just felt that this film needed to be more exaggerated. It’s a
very stylized film and it’s kind of an opera in fact. Their passions are so over-the-top that it felt like an opera, so I wanted to stretch the characterization
a lot more. That’s why I used Nicole Renaud’s music, because she writes very European, operatic kind of music and I felt that worked really well with the
story and with the characters.
Aguilar: Nicole Renaud’s
music definitely gives the film a unique feel that is retro but also timeless.
However, there are many other elements in the film that make us wonder about
where and when it takes place. It all blends beautifully.
I love that retro feel. It’s a real mélange of different techniques, styles, and eras. The cars are kind of like 30s or 40s cars, which I
think are really fun to draw. The clothes are also from that era. The soul machine is kind of retro from old showbiz – vaudeville kind of shows. The music
is European, and the architecture is kind of Southern border town with lots of overhanging balconies, shadows and shade. For me shadows are really a part
of the drawing, and I love drawing shadows because it realty fills out the dimensions of the characters, it gives them weight. I love doing shadows, and
that’s why I set the story in a desert town, but you’ll see a couple palm tress in there. It’s really a mixture of different eras and locations.
Aguilar: Unfortunately, we, as audiences, have been trained to think of animation as a medium that’s exclusively for children’s content, but your films take a different
direction and use the medium to tell stories involving more adult subjects. Films like yours prove that this is much broader storytelling medium.
Bill Plympton: That’s a really important point that you are talking about, and I really appreciate that. I think animation can be a full spectrum of different
storytelling techniques and different genres. I think it’s sad that there is only one audience that the studios are aiming for and that’s the kid audience. It’s
really tragic that they don’t’ make films for older people. People like me. I know a lot of the Pixar artists and they all have real lives where they have
affairs, and they have jealousies, they have divorces, and these are real adult themes that they’ve lived through, but they are not allowed to make films
using these themes simply because that would ruin their kiddy market. I feel that I can’t complete with them doing kids films, but I do want to make films
that deal with issues that I think about everyday like romance, sex, and serious stuff. I’m not competing with them, I’m showing an alternative, and I’m
showing a different road that they can take. I want to make films that are different, films that are unique, I don’t want to make the same old children’s’
fairy tale, I want to make something that’s real and that’s about our dreams, our thoughts, and out passions. That to me is what “Cheatin’” is all about.
In the U.S. 2D animation is scarce. For many
years now CG has become the norm, but there is still something incredibly
special about hand-drawn projects. Why do you prefer this technique in
That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t get distribution, of course one was that it wasn’t a kiddy film, and the other was that it wasn’t computer animation.
I like the idea of seeing a film that has the artist’s hand in there,a film where you can see his strokes, you can see his working patterns. It’s like going to a museum
and seeing a Renoir drawing. You want to see their work and you want to see how they put it together. For me to see that in animation is really fresh,
it’s really exciting, it’s really original. That’s why I hope people will come see the film, because it’s a very unique film and it has a very special style
Tell me about financing ”Cheatin’” through
Kickstarter and finding a way to make your film when the big studios are not
supportive of your ideas.
Kickstarter and platforms like it are going to chance the way people make movies in the U.S and all over the world. In the past I’ve had to go begging
to the big studios, show my stories, and do a dog and pony show to kind of pitch, and pitch and pitch. This is very frustrating because there is so much
rejection involved. But now, I don’t need to go to the studios. If I need money for a project I got to my fans, who are really the people that I should go to
anyway. The studios don’t understand what I’m trying to do, they don’t care about what I’m trying to do, but the fans do, the fans love what I do,
and the fans support me. They want to see more films from me, so it makes sense that I go straight to them rather than the studios.
Aguilar: You are such a
prolific artist, besides “Cheatin’” you also recently released the short “Footprints,” which was shortlisted by the Academy.
Where do you search for new ideas that can work as animated films and how do
you choose what project to do next?
When I was doing illustrations for magazines I built up an “idea file,” which had folders of ideas that I wanted to develop. The file has gotten so big
now that I have too many ideas, but not enough time or money to make all the films. I like to draw them all myself, so it’s very important that I select the
right film to make next. I select them based on whatever film would give me the most pleasure. The good thing about being independent is that no one
is going to say I can’t do that. I don’t have to wait for a big producer to say “Here is your green light go ahead on it.” I can greenlight it myself, and
that’s a real luxury that is worth the price of being an independent artist. I have three or four features that I want to do next. They are all lined up. I
also have two or three shorts that are ready to go too. They are all storyboarded and ready but I have to use my time wisely.
Aguilar: Which of these projects you are developing are you focused on now? Where can we expect to see them?
There are two feature films I’m working on now. One is a mockumentary about Adolf Hitler. It’s crazy. Hitler was a big fan of “Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs” and I thought it would be very funny to create an alternative reality where Hitler became the Walt Disney of Europe. The other one is called
“Revengeance” and it’s written by Jim Lujan, who is also an animator. He wrote the story, deigned the characters and did the voices. That one is about a
third of the way done, so that’ll be about probably next year.
“Cheatin’” is finally opening this week
theatrically. Where can people see it? I understand you will be present at some
of the screening.
Yes, “Cheatin’” opens April 3rd at the Village East in New York. I will be there every night to sign autographs for everybody and to introduce
the film. It also opens across the country after April 12th. I’ll be touring for about two weeks making special appearances
throughout the U.S. Then it will be available on Vimeo on Demand starting April 21st. Also on iTunes, through Shorts International, you will be
able to get all my backlog of shorts. There is almost 15 hours of cartoons that I’ve doing for the last 30 years. People can find out more about where
“Cheatin’” is playing and more about the film at