Bill Plympton On The Spot

Bill Plympton’s short films are a staple at animation festivals around the globe. His distinctive style has been seen in films including Your Face and Guard Dog, both of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. The 59-year-old Portland, Ore., native, who now calls New York home, has also lent his talents to commercials, including Geico’s “Mistakes” and an Internet campaign for Wilson tennis rackets. Fallon in Hong Kong recently tapped the animator to create “Signature” for United Airlines, a Pan-Asian spot now airing that stresses “the importance of being there in person.”

What was it like working on “Signature”?

One of the things [Fallon] insisted on was that they wanted the characters to look Asian but not be clichéd Asian. Not be stereotyped. So it was a very subtle kind of design. I went through a number of design features before they were happy with the character. They flew here to New York and they spent about two weeks looking over my shoulder and I drew the characters, refined the timing and the music.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

Money, of course. I never really thought I had a career in advertising, and then my first film, Your Face [1987], got nominated for an Oscar, and a lot of these companies came to me saying, “We love your concept when you see the face morphing. We can use that to sell NutraSweet or Trivial Pursuit or computers or banks.” They all came to me and offered me such amazing amounts of money. I was very thrilled and happy to do it.

Who has influenced you most creatively?

There’s no one person: Walt Disney when I was very young was a huge influence. Tex Avery, R. Crumb, Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams.

Name the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that.”

Those [other] United spots were amazing. Michael Dudok De Wit (“A Life”), “Interview” with Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis. Alexander Petrov (“Rose”) and Joanna Quinn (“Lightbulb”). All four of those spots were excellent, and I’m very honored to be included in that group.

What do you think is the most overrated campaign?

I think those M&Ms spots. They drive me up the wall. They’re so cornball, and the design is so bad. The big shoes and the big gloved hands. It’s just too clichéd. They look like California Raisins, only instead of raisins, they’re M&Ms, and it’s totally unoriginal. But I hear they’re the most popular characters in the country right now, so who am I?

What’s the smartest (and dumbest) business decision you’ve ever made?

To get into animation. I got into animation really late. I was 35, I think. And the reason I got in so late was because I didn’t know how to make a film. I didn’t know what the technology was. I knew how to draw, how to tell stories. I knew how to design characters and jokes, but I didn’t know how to do the technology, and that was a big mistake. I should have started when I was 20. Fortunately, everything’s turned out okay.

What did you do before animation?

I was an illustrator and cartoonist. The cartoons—especially the political cartoons and the caricatures—were a great training ground. I had to come up with funny ideas very quickly because I did a daily political cartoon strip, gag cartoons for men’s magazines. And then I had to also draw fast, and I created a style that was really quick and fast to draw. So those two qualities were very valuable when I began making films.

How would you describe your style?

Surreal grunge.

What are your favorite cartoon characters?

Goofy, Daffy Duck.

Do you watch any of today’s animated shows (King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Family Guy)?

I do, but quite frankly, my favorite is SpongeBob. I think it’s really very funny, very wild. It has a visual humor, which most of the other stuff does not.

Do you watch Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim?

No, I never do. The reason is that it’s very campy and dialogue-centered, and for me, I like the draftsmanship, I like visual humor. And all that Adult Swim is all just dialogue; you can do it with hand puppets.

Would you ever do a TV cartoon show?

I did a pilot for MTV, and they said they tested it on 14-year-old girls in a New Jersey shopping center … they didn’t like it, so they dropped it.

What is your dream assignment?

To do a feature film à la Fantasia using the greatest animators around the world to do Beatles music. But the problem is that you can’t the rights to the Beatles’ music—it’s so expensive. The second would be something we’re actually starting to work on: a compilation in the style of Fantasia of music about New York City. It could be orchestral like George Gershwin, or it could be rap or hip-hop or Billy Joel or John Sebastian or someone like that, and [be] a totally animated film that takes place in New York City.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Normal guy, weird humor. It’s three words plus one.

How about three words that describe how others perceive you?

Independent. Maverick. Those are the two best words.

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