These days, independent creators have plenty of unlikely side roads to mainstream success. Like animator James Curran, who created his own animated opening-credits sequence for Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin, released it to the web, watched it go viral, and ended up with a job offer from Spielberg himself. Or E.L. James, who wrote a series of erotic Twilight fan-fiction pieces, then turned them into novels and self-published them as the 50 Shades Of Grey series, which sold so well as e-books that the brick-and-mortar publishing houses came sniffing around and put them into print.
But back in 1992, there were fewer opportunities for a wholly independent creator to get national attention. That never stopped DIY animation pioneer Bill Plympton, who in 1992 released The Tune, the first feature animated film with every image hand-drawn by a single artist. Like today’s Kickstarter-funded, YouTube-promoted, grassroots-supported indie creators, he financed and marketed the film on his own: He created and sold merchandise, chalked ads for his movie on East Village buildings, and pre-released completed segments to MTV as independent shorts that played on Liquid Television. But he did all this before there was a supportive network for efforts like his, largely by building a fan base, one bizarre animated short at a time.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, animation buffs knew Plympton largely as the guy whose sketchy, twitchy colored-pencil cartoons were almost invariably the best things about the shorts festivals that periodically toured theaters, like Spike & Mike’s Festival Of Animation, or the International Tournée Of Animation. Pieces like “25 Ways To Quit Smoking,” “How To Kiss,” “One Of Those Days,” “Push Comes To Shove,” and the Oscar-nominated “Your Face” were notable for their distinctive, instantly recognizable visual style, and for being consistently surprising and absurdist. Plympton strongly believed that animation was infinitely flexible, and that realism in cartoons was a waste of the medium’s potential. In a 2000 The A.V. Club interview, he put it this way: “I think it’s part of the responsibility of an artist to shock, to upset, to make people think differently, and to surprise people. And that’s where the good humor is, if there’s a surprise and there’s something unexpected. Something that’s not normal, not in the realm of general living expectations.”
His shorts followed suit: Each one was an exercise in stretching, melting, distorting, and transforming the characters’ faces or bodies. Sometimes the effect was disturbing, as in 1990’s “Tango Schmango,” which rotoscopes two dancers, with the male partner sometimes telling terrible jokes, and the female partner laughing hysterically, with her lips peeling back to expose giant stretching teeth and immense gums. More often, though, Plympton’s work was just meant to startle people into laughter with unlikely, abrupt transformations and turnarounds.
As Plympton puts it on the commentary track for The Tune, he got the idea of creating his own full-length movie in the ’80s when he was assembling his shorts for a retrospective collection, and he realized he’d produced more than an hour of animation on his own in just four years. It was the equivalent of a movie, he realized, which implied that in another three or four years of animating, he could actually create an entire film of his own. So he enlisted the help of composer Maureen McElheron and New Yorker cartoonist P.C. Vey to help him write a script, and then he spent the next several years drawing and coloring each image himself. The 69-minute film isn’t entirely a one-man art-studio gig: He hired artists to fill in the backgrounds, and had a camera operator, a sound crew, musicians for the soundtrack, and performers for the voices. But he drew and colored every single image himself. (In a DVD featurette about Plympton, Simpsons creator Matt Groening says with a straight face, “See, what Bill hasn’t learned that I’ve learned is, I’ve learned how to con a whole bunch of people into doing the animation.”)
Given that limitation, it’s no surprise that The Tune is visually simple, with minimal backgrounds and sketchy drawings. But Plympton’s signature has always been deceptive simplicity, at least until the faces start melting. The film follows a hapless every-schmoe named Del (voiced by Daniel Neiden) who’s trying to write a hit song to sell to his corporate overlord Mr. Mega (Marty Nelson), in hopes of becoming enough of a success that he can afford to marry his sweetheart Didi (McElheron). Rushing to Mr. Mega’s office with his latest half-completed song, he gets lost and winds up in a mythic place called Flooby Nooby, where songs just spontaneously happen. The Mayor (Nelson again) explains that Del is trying too hard as a composer, and just needs to learn to feel the music. So they wander around Flooby Nooby, listening to the denizens sing in a variety of styles: surf music, Delta blues, an Elvis pastiche, and so forth. Eventually, Del gets into it, starts generating his own songs, and tries to make his way home.
The musical format let Plympton assemble the film over the course of years largely as a series of self-contained music videos. He was able to release segments along the way as shorts: The Elvis-esque number, “Dig My Do,” featuring a dog bragging about his high-flying hairstyle, came out as a standalone piece in 1990, while the non-musical segments “The Wiseman” and “Push Comes To Shove” hit MTV in 1991. Other musical sections were never released separately, but they can comfortably stand alone, like the deeply strange “No Nose Blues,” in which a disturbingly caricatured (and noseless) black man has a passionate affair with a gigantic nose, then sees it all over town on a variety of other faces, and realizes it’s been cheating on him. Also particularly memorable: “The Lovesick Hotel,” an upbeat number about a hotel full of themed rooms featuring creative suicide methods for heartbroken people, from carnivorous plants and couches to beds with built-in rotary saws.
But some of the best and strangest parts of The Tune aren’t musical numbers or stand-alone pieces; they’re random snippets of story. In particular, there’s the surreal sequence where Del notices that in Flooby Nooby, objects actually become smaller as he gets nearer. The Mayor tells him that perspective is a myth, and that objects in Del’s world are afraid of being eaten, so they puff themselves up when people get close. Then he demonstrates with a fat, placid dog, which turns into a monolithic beast when Del approaches, because he’s spooked by meeting a stranger. Another funny sequence animates one of Plympton’s family portraits, and places it in a variety of increasingly unlikely settings.
One of the two most striking things about The Tune is its complete lack of consistency. Plympton says on the DVD commentary track that he varied his animation technique from segment to segment to keep himself interested in the project over the years, so over the course of McElheron’s sad ballad “Home,” for instance, he tries a variety of visual experiments, dropping out the color, then dropping out most of Didi’s face as she sings, leaving only her lividly textured eyes, nose, and mouth hanging in midair. The film gives a perpetual sense of an artist testing out every style that crossed his mind. Transformation is key to Plympton’s work, and the theme extends to his style as well as his content.
The other striking thing is that working on his own lets him work without censorship. He’s always had a macabre bent and a love of what he calls “barnyard humor,” which here extends everywhere from a field full of cowshit to a country-music song about happy reunions, in which various paired foods (spaghetti and meatballs, a hot dog and a bun, a hamburger and a french fry, a slice of pie and a scoop of ice cream) happily reunite… and then usually hump like bunnies. Nothing in The Tune is as raunchy as later Plympton features, but it’s clear he isn’t playing toward Disney standards, or worried about offending his audience; he’s playing to his own sense of humor, and letting everyone else choose to come along for the ride or not.
The Tune played Cannes and Sundance in 1992, and Plympton says he went in fully expecting a multi-million-dollar distribution contract to materialize out of nowhere, because in his naïveté, he thought that was how film festivals worked. When that didn’t happen, though, it didn’t daunt him. He went back to the drawing board, literally, and continued scripting and animating his own independent films: 1997’s I Married A Strange Person!, 2001’s Mutant Aliens, 2004’s Hair High, 2008’s Idiots & Angels, and the upcoming production Cheatin’. These days, Plympton has far more outlets for self-promotion, like his online production blog for Cheatin’, or his own YouTube channel. And he has more routes toward financially supporting his own work, like contracting out for an installment of a Showtime shorts series, or for a Simpsons opening-credits couch gag that tells the tragic origin story of the couch itself, while implying that Homer Simpson has a half-couch bastard child.
But The Tune still stands as a first, not just for him, but for the industry. In an era of committee-created, test-marketed, corporate-approved visions, it was just as much of an outlier as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs from the same year, and just as much of a positive sign for the future of independent cinema. If one man can make a movie, anyone can make a movie, provided they have the determination, and preferably the entirely oddball vision.