Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Rahul Hamid

Guard Dog,  One of Plympton's most famous films

Guard Dog, One of Plympton's most famous films

by Bill Plympton and David B. Levy. New York: Universe Publishing, 2011. 264 pp., illus. Hardback: $39.95.

Like so many American animators, Bill Plympton has had a tortured relationship with Walt Disney. Plympton’s new, richly-illustrated memoir is bookended with Disney anecdotes. After receiving an Academy Award nomination for his film, The Tune, the company contacted Plympton with an offer he couldn’t refuse. A Disney lawyer offered him lots of money, job stability, and the opportunity to work on films seen by millions of people. Eventually, after significant soul searching and not without some regret, Plympton turned them down in favor of the freedom to make his own films and be his own boss. His memoir, that follows this story, chronicles a remarkable career as an independent artist and does its best to explain how Plympton arrived at a point in his life where he was able to turn his back on what was once a long-cherished dream.

Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation, is a mix of autobiography, entertaining show-biz encounters, and advice to young animators. Plympton and his cowriter, David B. Levy, organize the book chronologically, telling Plympton’s story in breezy snippets. The real fun of the book is the generous illustrations, which take the reader from Plympton’s earliest art-school sketches through cels from his animated features. His vivid lines, grotesquely drawn bodies, sharp sense of caricature, and black humor leap from the page. The illustrations make an interesting contrast with the matter-of-fact, dryly humorous prose. Plympton does not delve deeply into the source of his surrealist imagination; he prefers to explain his creativity through the lens of his material circumstances.

Of his childhood Plympton writes that he always loved to draw, recounting a story about his mother discovering scribbles in his crib, which could only be deciphered when viewed from baby Bill’s point of view. As a boy in Oregon, he watched The Wonderful World of Disney and the Warner Bros. cartoons and was transfixed by the power that animation had to tell stories, evoke laughter, and make people think differently. He found that his own ability to draw helped him to navigate the social terrors of adolescence. Animation gave the artist a godlike power of creation. He entered art school in Portland, with the dream of moving to New York or Los Angeles. He applied to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and came to New York in the late Sixties.

Plympton found himself in the center of the downtown counterculture, while at the same time avoiding being drafted for duty in Vietnam by serving in the reserves. His descriptions of himself with a military haircut haplessly trying to get a date in Greenwich Village are hilarious. It is at this point where Plympton’s life intersects with that of this very magazine. One of Plympton’s first jobs in the city was as the designer for some of Cineaste’s earliest numbers. Plympton speaks of this early time in New York as his awakening as a film buff. As he encountered art and experimental cinema, his ideas about what animated film could be expanded a great deal. Disillusioned with SVA, Plympton began trying to find work as an illustrator at various magazines. He eventually was able to get his work into many major national publications, but his most steady income for many years came from adult magazines. Plympton credits having to invent sexy gags on deadline for many years with keeping his films snappy, funny, and short. Plympton identifies these qualities as a key to indie animation filmmaking success.

Plympton’s story is far from triumphal. He describes his failed attempts to make live-action films before his more successful career making animated movies. On the first day of shooting one of these films, the cast and crew were attacked by a transsexual hooker who felt that the project was infringing on her turf. Plympton much preferred the total control that he had on his light board. His beginnings in film in the early 1990s happened at the same time that Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh were achieving their independent success. Plympton used the same festivals and circuit of independent producers and distributors as his live-action colleagues.

Toward the end of the book, after he has achieved great success, and won many awards, including the Oscar, Plympton describes timidly trying to crash a party of Disney animators, including Pixar head John Lasseter. Expecting to be completely ignored, he is greeted as a hero. The most commercially successful animators in the world envy his freedom to make any kind of film he wished, just as he had envied their job security, health insurance, and box office. Throughout the book, Plympton never seems embittered. He has nothing but the greatest respect for a whole host of fellow animators and filmmakers from the most mainstream to the most obscure outsiders. Independently Animated is a must for Plympton fans and offers a fascinating and personal history of the recent American independent film movement.

Rahul Hamid is a Cineaste editor and teaches film at New York University.

To buy Independently Animated, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3