Bill Plympton

The indie animator and cartoonist talks distribution troubles for his new movie Idiots And Angels, Pixar, Dreamworks, and the golden age of animation

For more than 40 years, indie animator and cartoonist Bill Plympton has been contributing to what he believes is a renaissance in filmmaking. With his work appearing everywhere from The New York Times to Kanye West’s “Heard ’Em Say” video, Plympton continues to push the boundaries of what American audiences find acceptable in animated art.

A two-time Oscar nominee, Plympton is finally overcoming distribution issues and releasing his fifth proper feature-length film, 2008’s Idiots And Angels, in theaters this fall. The story of an immoral man who grows wings that cause him to do good deeds contrary to his nature, the sans-dialogue movie will play at the Music Box, starting Dec. 2 with a special screening featuring Plympton in person. The A.V. Club caught up with Plympton to discuss Idiots And Angels, his opinion on Pixar and Dreamworks, and why he thinks animation is experiencing its second golden age.

The A.V. Club: Why has it taken Idiots And Angels two years to get a proper theatrical release?

Bill Plympton: That’s a very good and very important question. It opened 2008 at the Tribeca Film Festival to glowing reviews and great fan response, and we thought we were a lock to get distribution. We talked to about 30 distributors, you know, the big ones, the usual suspects, and they all turned it down. They just said, “Well, it’s not our kind of film,” which is what they always say.

I have four reasons why they turned it down. First of all, it’s from Bill Plympton Studios, which is a small, minor, no-publicity studio. There’s no real history of great success. I’m kind of a cult animator, and they didn’t want to deal with that. Two, there’s no dialog in the film, and that kind of freaked them out. Three, it was hand-drawn animation, and they know computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks makes a billion dollars, and no one wants to see hand-drawn. At least, that’s what they think. And four, it’s an adult film. It’s not family fare. I think a lot of people think of that believe in the theology of Disney, and they think I’m a travesty to the purity of family animation.

AVC: Idiots And Angels’ website calls the film a “dark comedy,” and that’s a bit of an understatement considering the main character comes off as a morally bankrupt individual who’s forced to do good deeds. How do you get audience support for a protagonist who’s so hard to like?

BP: It is a comedy, and I find that villains are usually the funniest people. I think people will laugh when he starts blowing up cars after he loses his parking spot, and does crazy things like stealing women’s purses when he flies down with wings.

I wanted the contrast between him being a bad guy and being an angel extreme. If it were a subtle change, it wouldn’t be a comedy. For me, that’s what comedy is. The conflict has to be abrupt and extreme for it to work.

AVC: Music plays a big role in Idiots And Angels, so far as being the only actual dialog that occurs in the film. What is your process for determining what songs go in the score?

BP: A couple of those musicians I’ve worked with before like Nicole Renaud, Corey Jackson, and Hank Bones. They’ve been working with me for about 10 years. The other musicians are people who’ve either sent me their CDs or I know about them from friends. While I’m making the film and doing the drawings, I’ll have a stack of CDs with me, and I’ll narrow it down as I listen over and over again to the music that I think is appropriate for each individual shot.

AVC: What’s it like working as an independent animator in a world of studios like Pixar?

BP: I think it’s wonderful that they’re so successful, as we’re at the height of a second golden age of animation, the first being 1930 through 1950. Now, since about 1985, animation has really been exploding all over the world. A lot of that has been Pixar, but it’s not just computer animation. It’s Tim Burton’s stop-motion animation and Nick Park’s claymation and Henry Selick’s palpate animation. It’s really a great time to be doing animation, and if you look at the box office accounts for the end of the year, there are usually three or four animation films in the top 10 grossing. There’s never been a time in history when animation has been so popular and made so much money. I think it reflects well on the state of animation that people are knowledgeable about it, and love the fantasy and imagination that goes into it. I sort of get the crumbs that are left over from Pixar and Dreamworks and Blue Sky, but I’m happy with that. At least there’s an audience for me.

AVC: If this is a golden age for animation, what does the future look like?

BP: America is behind Europe and Japan in terms of accepting adult ideas in animation. In Europe, graphic novels have been popular for 30 years, whereas in the states, they’ve only been popular for about 10 years. I think within this next decade there will be a film, hopefully mine, that breaks this cultural barrier of this stereotype that animation is just for children.

It’s interesting because Quentin Tarantino, who is one of my favorite filmmakers, is putting sex and violence in his films, which are basically cartoons that aren’t drawn. They’re with live actors. I don’t see why it’s such a stretch for distributors, buyers, and studios to put cartoon characters into adult situations on film.