Last night, before shutting down the laptop for the evening, I banged out a quick e-mail to an animator whose work I’ve loved since I was seven. I had recently seen a short film of his that had won the Best Comedy Animated Short Award at the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival and thought it would be fun to get an interview with the fella. The e-mail address seemed like a generic stepping stone address that would take me through a series of representatives at which point I might get an opportunity to speak to him, if there was a response at all. I honestly had little expectation of ever getting an opportunity to talk to the guy.
Imagine then, my surprise at getting a call this morning and hearing, “This is Bill Plympton. You wanted to do an interview?”
Chances are if you’re my age, you’ve heard of Bill Plympton, and even if you’ve not, you have very likely seen his work. Plympton has had a prolific career in drawing, animation, and live action film-making, with an eclectic and fantastically odd body of work that has spanned over four decades. His political and social commentary has always been sharp but never preachy, his rated R offerings hilarious; the animation style uniquely and unmistakably Plympton. I was thrilled to be able to sit down and have a conversation via phone about his new short The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger which, after the interview, I realized was not up in it’s entirety online.
Hooray for lack of forethought.
It’s the story of a young cow, mesmerized by the marketing power of a hamburger billboard, and his ultimate goal of becoming the best hamburger he can be.
While the film can’t be viewed in full, lucky for you (and me), there is a trailer:
Also, thanks to the wonderful world of the internet, there is plenty of access to Mr. Plympton’s work to get acquainted with. Trust me when I say, it’s well worth poring over. I was also able to talk to Bill about animation, the benefits of self-funding, what young filmmakers and animators he has his eye on, and the future of short film. On to the interview!
Dustin: First, congratulations on winning Best Comedy Animated Short at the LA Comedy Shorts Film FestivalThe Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger. I believe that was your Southern California Premiere.
Bill Plympton: I got my prize today, actually. It’s really funny, it’s a really funny prize.
It was a great festival, and the short really went over well with the audience there. I know it’s been making the rounds here recently; what’s the feedback been like so far?
Yeah, this is the second prize it’s won in the last month. It’s been a real pleasant surprise that it’s been so successful. You never really know how successful a film is going to be, and when people come up to me after they’ve seen it and say how much they loved it, uh…you know you have a really good film. Quite frankly, I haven’t heard a lot of laughter during the film, so maybe it’s more of a subtle humor than a belly laugh kind of humor, so I was kind of shocked when I won a prize at a comedy festival.
I mean, there are some funny bits, but it’s more like an emotional kind of humor than belly laugh humor.
Right, that’s something I noticed too. During the film, there wasn’t a lot of noise, but after there was a really warm reaction. Lots of clapping and cheering.
A lot of your work is known for its political and social commentary. What exactly sparked the idea for The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger? It seemed like sort of a fun way to poke fun at what is ultimately sort of a serious issue with being constantly bombarded with advertising.
There are three or four issues that I think the film deals with. One is what you just said, about the power of advertising. Two is the whole question of being a vegetarian or eating meat, and three is the sort of issue of mother’s love; the idea that a mother’s love is the most powerful thing there is. But, the initial idea came while I was driving through the countryside of Oregon, where I’m from, and I saw this pasture of cows eating grass. What struck me is they were so intent and obsessed with eating as much grass as possible; it was like they were trying to fatten themselves up to be the perfect steak.
So I thought that would make a funny story, about a cow that wanted to be the perfect hamburger. That was the initial idea of the film. I wanted to make it like a children’s story, even though it’s a little bit graphic. I sort of wanted it to be like Ferdinand the Bull. This cow is obsessed with being the perfect hamburger; I wanted it to be sort of like a children’s fable. That’s the initial style I wanted to use, and that’s why the colors are very primary and there are lots of thick lines. It’s almost kind of primitive art; it’s very simplistic, very decorative art rather than the realistic style I usually do my films in.
And on it being like a children’s film, I think it’s something kids should see. I feel like these days, we sort of coddle and protect children from what we think are adult topics.
Well, we’ve entered it into a bunch of children’s festivals, so we’re sort of hoping that happens.
Also, this might just be me, because I read into things too much sometimes, but I sort of picked up from the short the concept that a lot of our goals that we strive so hard for are ultimately self-defeating.
Yeah, that’s another issue I forgot to mention, that sometimes what you wish for is not exactly what you really need.
Or what you really want. I think that’s an important issue to deal with.
How do you choose the music for your films? I feel like it’s as much a part of the spectacle as anything. I’ve noticed sometimes you do a really Eastern European thing that’s a lot of fun.
The lead singer for the beggining of The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger was a French chanteuse named Nicole Renaud who lives in New York. That’s where a lot of the European sound for this film came from. I also used a guy from LA named Corey Jackson, he did the part near the end at the slaughter house, and he’s a traditional orchestral musician and writer.
Gotcha. Could you sort of give us a brief idea of the process by which you go from concept to finished product? I mean, you’re creating art on different levels, from the animation to the music. From what I’ve read, you’re really sort of a one-man show as far as creating your work and presenting it to fans.
Um, I’m not necessarily a one man show. I mean…I do the writing, I storyboard, I design the characters and the backgrounds, I do the animation, I ink the animation. For this film it was actually Sharpie on regular bond paper; very low tech.
Then, I gave it to my producer, Biljana Ladazic. She would take it, scan it, color it, and clean it up. She also chose the music, she put the music in there.
She did a fantastic job.
Yeah, I had some suggestions, but she picked the music. You’ll notice there aren’t any sound effects in the film. I asked the musicians to use music for the sounds effects. For example, um…when the mother cow cries, it’s a trumpet. We used musical instruments.
The first Bill Plympton animated film that I saw was Your Face, and I can tell you — pretty much any seven year old boy would love that, which is how old I believe I was at the time. If you weren’t funding your own projects, do you think your body of work would be significantly different from what we’ve gotten to see as fans? For instance, how hard a sell do you think I Married a Strange Person (get ahold of this film on DVD; well worth it alone for the boob-balloon animal scene alone) would have been if you couldn’t self fund?
Oh, it would have been impossible. Nobody would have bought that, nobody would buy it. But it works out better that I self-fund because I own the copyright, and if the film goes out of release I can release it myself. I think that’s very important.
Are there any animators or young filmmakers out there that are really impressing you right now?
What do you think of short filmmaking as a bridge to features? Do you think this is what the new generation of artists and filmmakers are doing to build a foundation for successful careers?
I think that’s always been the case. Guys like Nick Clark, he started out on short films, I started out on short films…John Lasseter(chief creative officer at Pixar) started out on short films. I don’t feel like it’s a new phenomenon. I still like doing short films; I like doing one or two a year. They actually do pretty well, they make me a lot of money. I’m very happy with the success of short films. In fact, for me, the short films make more money than the features.
Yeah, so I depend on the shorts to keep it going. The DVDs with the compilations of my work do very well too. Actually the new DVD I brought out called Dog Days has a lot of my biggest shorts on it, as well as my music video for Kanye West and for Weird Al Yankovic.
I guess I should have expanded on what I said a moment ago. With the growth of sites like Atom.com and Youtube, really, it may not be a new thing but certainly people that don’t have access to funding and budget have a completely new avenue to get their work out into the world.
Well yeah, but there’s no money in Youtube.
Right, if it goes directly to Youtube you lose ownership, or something to that effect. I could be wrong.
It’s still a good avenue to get seen and move on to bigger things.
So, you’re an Oscar nominated, multi-award winning animator and filmmaker who’s been successful at your craft since the early seventies —
No, no, no…since the middle eighties.
Ha! Sorry, you’ve been working since the early seventies, but found success in he eighties.
Are there any career milestones you feel like you’ve not met yet?
Well, I’d love to win an Oscar; that would be great. I hope to get a feature film that I’ve made get a wide release. I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.
Well, here is hoping.
Yes, it’s very difficult.
Finally…on that last question, can you tell us about any future efforts, animated or otherwise?
BP: Yeah, I’m working right now on a feature film called Cheatin’, and I’m working on another dog film (the first is linked at the beggining of the article), where he’s a drug sniffing dog at an airport.
That’ll be the fifth in the series, yes?
Yes, very good. You did your homework.
It’s funny stuff. I really appreciate you taking time out to chat with me this afternoon.
Thanks again Mr. Plympton.
After the interview I got the skinny on why, exactly, The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger wasn’t available for public consumption quite yet. Bill is looking to get his short nominated for another Oscar; and releasing it in full online disqualifies the film from consideration. Interwebz…you are a cruel mistress.
If you’d like to see more Bill Plympton goodness, head on over to Plymptoons.com. One of the more interesting features of the site is a section of time-lapsevideo of Bill drawing animation for one of his projects. You know, if you’d like to feel particularly inadequate when struggling to put together a decent stick figure.