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Man of Many Faces

Animator Bill Plympton on Shrek, dreams and love

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If you watched much MTV in the '90s, you're probably familiar with Bill Plympton's Plymptoons, animated shorts featured on the channel's show, Liquid Television (a kind of precursor to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim). He's also done animation for videos by Weird Al Yankovic, Madonna and Kanye West. We spoke with him from his Plymptoon Studios in New York about his new release, Hair High.

You're very easy to get ahold of. You even answer your own phone.

I'm pretty accessible. It's amazing to me that I have name recognition. When you see people who do Pixar films or Shrek, no one can tell me who directed Shrek, but they know Bill Plympton. In a way, that's good, but I wish I had the distribution of Shrek and have that kind of money. When you're an independent filmmaker, you just don't have the same access.

Are you seeing your films moving out of the arthouse theaters?

I thought Hair High would really be a breakout film. I thought it would play 500 or 600 theaters because it has all these big name voices: Sara Silverman, David Carradine, you know, all these big names. And it just didn't connect with the distributors.

Are you hearing fans saying, "I saw this film and I want my friends to see it?"

Of course. That's the sad thing. Everyone wants to see it, but the distributors feel ... I don't know whether they have narrow-minded prejudice against adult animation. That might be one of the things. They also think that animation is just for children. Or they just think that Bill Plympton doesn't have the audience a Shrek or a Bug's Life has. I sat through the audience [of Hair High], and I heard the people laugh, and I know for a fact that it gets more laughs than a lot of those Hollywood films. I saw Open Season. It's a huge multi-million-dollar film and I heard maybe three laughs through the whole film. My film gets up there, and I get tons of laughs.

Do you write, direct and draw every single cell of your films?I do. I do every single drawing. Hair High was done on film and painted cells. That's an old, classic animation technique, but it was edited on computer. It took about three years to make Hair High.

Is that all you worked on at the time?

No, I did a couple of commercials, I did some commissioned stuff. But pretty much, 90 percent of what I was doing was Hair High. It was a very expensive film, too. The voices weren't cheap; the music wasn't cheap; and for painting the cells—it took like 30,000 drawings—I had to hire students and artists to do all the painted cells.

Speaking of music, I read that the music for "Your Face," my personal favorite, was Maureen McElheron's voice slowed down.

I was too cheap to hire a male singer.

Did you create the animation around the music or was the music written for the animation?

I had come up with the concept and I knew I wanted a really dorky song. A real smarmy song. So I asked Maureen McElheron, who's my musician, to write something. And she came up with a song but it was too good. I said, "Maureen, no. It's got to be like a bad 1930s song." So, she came back with the new version. I wrote some of the lyrics like, "Makes me happy fella / I won't be singing a capella," cornball lines like that. It's a beautiful melody and one of the reasons the film is a big success.

Do you find that in your films a lot? That the music carries the story?

There's something magical about animation and music that takes me back to the old Fleischer Bros. Betty Boop films. I've always loved great music with animation. I try to put as much music as I can in my films and keep the dialogue to a minimum.

Was there one particular '50s film you'd seen or something in that genre that inspired Hair High?

It came from a dream. Usually, I don't use dreams for my films but this was a really intriguing dream. There's a car on the bottom of a lake. Inside the car are two skeletons. Worms are crawling in and out of the skeletons and fish are biting them; hair is blowing in the current. All of a sudden, the lights turn on and the engine turns on and the fish scatter. Slowly, the car lurches forward in the mud and the muck on the bottom of the lake. The car drives along the bottom of the lake until it comes up on shore and drives through this little Midwestern town past the Dairy Queen and the drive-in theater. It goes to the high school, and there's the high school prom. And that's where I woke up. I thought, "Wow, this story has possibilities."

I started [thinking] back to my high school days, which was in the middle '60s and films like Rebel Without A Cause and Grease and Carrie and came up with this era that's sort of a cliched '50s era. I took for inspiration a lot of the music of that time like "Teen Angel," where the car gets stuck on the railroad tracks, and they escape as this train is onrushing, but the girl discovers she left her ring in the car. She couldn't lose the ring, God forbid, so she rushes back to the car and, of course, gets killed. But, it's OK because she did it for love. In the '50s, love was more important [to teens] than life and death. That's the whole basis for Spud and Cherri, who come back from the dead because they're so much in love it survives their mortality.

Hair High has been held over at the Flicks with a 9:20 p.m. showing each day July 27 through August 2. For more information visit www.plymptoons.com.

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