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Bill Plympton on Pixar, ‘Anomalisa,’ and Releasing His New Film For Free

The veteran indie animator discusses his decision to distrbute his new film, "Hitler's Folly," online for free — and why he envies bigger animation studios

Veteran animator Bill Plympton has always worked on his own terms, churning out a mixture of features and short films over the past several decades with a consistent idiosyncratic tone. His Oscar-nominated “Guard Dog” short spawned a whole series of related misadventures featuring the eternally-panting, ill-fated pooch that Plympton considers his own Mickey Mouse. In films such as “Hair High” and “Cheatin’”, Plympton’s hand-drawn style has given way to stories both hilarious, surreal and surprisingly poignant.

But even by those standards he’s trying something different this time, with his 67-minute “Hitler’s Folly,” by releasing it online for free (watch the film in its entirety above). Returning to the live action arena for the first time since 1997’s “Walt Curtis, the Peckerneck Poet,” Plympton’s latest absurdity is a bizarre kind of historical fantasy, envisioning a world in which Adolf Hitler when to art school and became a successful animator. Beginning with a found footage approach — as a conspiracy theorist dies at the hands of government officials — “Hitler’s Folly” then takes the form of mockumentary, recounting Hitler’s peculiar creative journey through a mixture of embellished clips and animation.

Needless to say, it’s one of Plympton’s most beguiling and experimental efforts in years, which makes it well-suited for an experimental release. Plympton is asking fans to donate to his Plymptoons studio if they like the film and want to help finance more of his upcoming work. IndieWire spoke to the New York-based animator about the idea behind the project and its release, as well as well his thoughts on studio-produced animation and other new releases.

Adolf Hitler, art student. Where did this idea come from?

The inspiration was an article that I read saying that Hitler was a huge fan of Walt Disney movies, specifically “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Just the image of him laughing at that was too surreal for me to contemplate. He almost got into art school. I started wondering what would’ve happened if he had. Then I realized that Hollywood and the animation business is very similar to nation-building and war. You have to finance your invasion and harness all the troops. Then you invade all these countries to get these films distributed. It’s really a battle where you have to use tactics and strategy. That’s really the premise.

The film is a mixture of archival footage, live action material and cartoons. Given that you usually work with traditional hand-drawn animation, how did you land on this mixed-media approach?

The most fun was coming up with the crazy cartoons that Hilter could’ve made. But I loved working with documentary footage that I found on the internet and manipulating it. My favorite sequence is when Hitler dresses up in a duck costume to cheer up soldiers on the frontlines. Instead, they shoot at him.

What was the thinking behind releasing the film online this week?

I’ve been doing feature films since 1992; this is my twelfth. I knew this wouldn’t make it into movie theaters. So we’ll let people watch it for free, and if they like and want me to keep making provocative cartoons, they can donate money. I’ve never done this before. But I noticed that Louis C.K. tried it with one of his standup specials and made out pretty well. It’s very much an experiment, buy it’s not a huge gamble. I spent about $20,000 on it out of my own pocket. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot. I know I have a lot of fans. Eventually, I think I’ll make my money back.

In your introduction to the film, you discuss your drive to make “wacky films that Hollywood would never want to produce.” But you’re not exactly anti-Pixar.

I’m a big supporter of Pixar, Dreamworks and so on. I wish them a huge success. But it’s not something I want to do. I like to make films that are more outrageous and provocative. And I get by with it. I’m not complaining. But I am jealous of their deep pockets and ability to have advertising all of the world.

You’ve said before that you believe you can make a living on short films. How’s it going these days?

Most of my films are fairly sellable overseas, on TV and DVD’s, stuff like that. But my whole library of films is on iTunes, basically. They paid me a big chunk of money upfront. I haven’t seen any royalties yet, but it’s only been a year.

Are there animated features from the past year that you’ve appreciated?

I liked the style of “Nerdland,” but it could’ve been funnier. I was rooting for “Anomalisa,” because it did show that you could make an adult animated film. But it’s not my kind of film. It was very slow and serious. I like comedies. Still, I wish it had done better. I know they lost a lot of money on it. I do think more Americans are opening up to animated films dealing with adult topics, but I haven’t seen anything recently that really knocked me out.

How about Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s upcoming R-rated animated comedy “Sausage Party”?

I haven’t seen it, but I’m a big fan of Seth Rogen and I’m hoping to work with him. Apparently, he’s a fan of my stuff.

What’s next?

I’m finishing up another feature called “Revengeance” that I’m really excited about. We’re just finishing up plans to submit it to festivals. I’m also completing a new “Guard Dog” short.

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