Independently Animated: Bill Plympton

Independently Animated: Bill Plympton

The father of animation, Winsor McCay, launched his career as a newspaper cartoonist. His spiritual grandson Bill Plympton, often tagged as the Father of Independent Animation, also made his first mark as a newspaper artist. This parallel is presented in the last pages of Independently Animated: Bill Plympton, as the animator discusses how this affinity led him on a pilgrimage to a rundown, rat-infested building in Sheepshead Bay where the pioneer once lived:

I feel such a personal connection to McCay... we have so many things in common: beginning our careers making art for newspapers; having senses of humor based on surrealistic absurdity; and drawing every frame of our animated films ourselves. I wouldn't have a career in animation without [his] pioneering work.

The preceding 250 pages demonstrate an artist who has so well exceeded his influences that he has become a sub-genre of the form himself. Due to his MTV presence in the pre-YouTube world, he may have been the only animator whose name was currency in a high-school cafeteria.

McCay has been the subject of several exceptional surveys (John Canemaker's 1987 Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, foremost). Over the past quarter century, Bill Plympton has produced a few dozen short films, even more commissions, and five animated features. McCay's career as animator lasted about half that long, and prolific as he was, the first master of the medium only managed about ten short subjects within that time frame. Apart from a few collections of gag illustrations and the occasional storyboard-as-comic-book, this volume marks Bill Plympton's first major publication.

Another figure looms unspoken over Independently Animated: animation auteur Ralph Bakshi. McCay as angel hovers over Plympton's left shoulder, representing the fantastic, shape-shifting and surreal. Bakshi, pitchfork in hand, floats over the right, prodding sexuality, angry monsters, and other forbidden fruit. Bakshi's films (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Wizards) demonstrated that animation can appeal to an audience interested in mature storytelling. This kind of film doesn't generate the revenue of kiddie fare, but are produced at low enough costs that the lower returns more than pay back expenses. Bakshi attempted to adapt the J. R. Bray-created/Disney-perfected studio system to his specialized films, pushing many productions beyond feasibility. Plympton, harkening back to McCay, is an animation producer with a skeleton crew, an animator without assistant. When Bakshi speaks today, it almost sounds as though, were he to do it all over, he would opt for the Plympton method.

Independently Animated compares to Bakshi's Unfiltered (2008, also from Rizolli/Universe). Both volumes share the same format and handsome design. They showcase the all important process art -storyboards, pencil sketches, designs -as well as the finished pictures. Instead of presenting a parade of pictures, the layout builds an edifice with the illustration. This visual framework provides a structure for the language, allowing Plympton (with co-author David B. Levy) to roll out tale after tale of animation brushes with success, failure, celebrity and mistaken identity.

Surface resemblances between Bill and Bakshi dissolve against the voice of their writing. As in his films, Bakshi writes with a hard edge. The angels on his shoulders have been replaced with chips. Plympton's films are light on dialogue; his latest, Idiots & Angels, doesn't feature a single spoken word in 80 minutes. Plympton's voice here sounds affirmative and upbeat. Even when describing failures, there's a self-effacing humility. His one philippic is fired at an unfriendly, penny-pinching film lab. That story is funny too, with humor couching prickly anger:

The final insult came when I had to send my prints off to meet an urgent festival deadline and they wouldn't release my film to me without payment in full. I had no credit cards at the time and they wouldn't take a check, so I brought cash but I forgot to include the taxes and I was thirty-eight cents short... I rushed down the subway and realized I had given all my money to DuArt and had no tokens left, so I ran home thirty blocks...

Even “The King” has his share of humbling moments.

In some ways this volume is long past due. Few artists have had the impact on animation which Plympton can claim. In his recent output—the Oscar-shortlisted “The Cow Who Wanted To Be A Hamburger” and the feature-length Idiots & Angels—his work continues to move in new and more ambitious directions. So it may be that this book is really a little premature.