Cartoonist Bill Plympton Talks About Idiots and Angels and Finding Success on His Own Terms
For three and a half decades cartoonist Bill Plympton has astonished audiences with his rapidly mutating animated films. In works like Your Face (1987) and 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, (1989) human features erode, transmute, and grow in and out of each other. Since 1992's The Tune he has been creating feature films, and his latest work, Idiots and Angels, may be his best. A wordless tale of a jerk who sprouts wings, it zooms through one amazing transformation after another, accompanied by a soundtrack that hums, warbles, and thumps in time to the action.
Tell us about Idiots and Angels.
It's my most successful film. It should do well here, as San Francisco likes dark films.
How did the project originate?
I don't know where I got the idea. I was in France and a kid asked me what my next project was. I said, "An asshole wakes up one day with a pair of wings. He hates the wings because they make him do good things." The kid said that was a good idea. That night I started writing it.
The film before Idiots and Angels was Hair High, which I thought was going to be a great success. It wasn't. I was so frustrated -- I said "Screw it, I'm going to make a film for myself." So I set pencil to paper, made a film with no dialogue, very little color, just a small personal film, and it's been the success Hair High wasn't.
I financed it, I write the story, I was the director, I did the storyboards, I did the layouts, I did the character designs, I did the animation, I did the backgrounds. I did it for free -- I don't pay myself.
It was 30,000 drawings. Cost $125,000. With that kind of money I could make 100 Pixar films. It's self-distributed. Thirty distributors rejected it, as it's not a child-friendly film. The good news is that when I play a theater all the money goes to me.
The character is awful, yet by the end he has grown into his wings, as it were. Why redeem him?
It's my theory that everyone has invisible wings on their back and we need to nurture them for them to grow. Hopefully your idiocy will disappear and your angelic side will appear.
I hope this film will reach a deeper part of the body than my other films -- people say this is a very spiritual film.
Why do you like to animate?
Animation is perfectly suited for surreal things, and actors don't like their faces being pulled apart.
Winsor McKay must be an influence, as he was drawing every frame of early animation like Gertie the Dinosaur 100 years ago.
Oh yes, and also in particular the French animator Roland Topor (Fantastic Planet). As a kid I was totally in love with animation and watched Disney, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett cartoons.
What's your new film about?
Another film, more of a romantic film. Its working title is Cheatin', and it's about a longtime couple who become jealous and try to kill each other.
Plympton appears at the Balboa Theater with each screening of Idiots and Angels today (Monday, July 25) and Tuesday, July 26. On Wednesday he leads a master class in animation featuring extracts from his work in progress. On Tuesday at the Cartoon Art Museum, Plympton conducts a live drawing session and screens samples of his work, including parts of Cheatin' as well as a video he's done for "Weird" Al Yankovic. Admission to all events is $10; those who attend the master class or the drawing session will receive a free signed drawing by Plympton.