Bill Plympton

Interview by Alyce Wilson

Animator Bill Plympton first earned distinction through his off-the-wall short animated films, played on MTV, as well as on other channels and on the festival circuit. An artist who began his career as an editorial cartoonist and illustrator, Plympton has since created feature length animated films and even written and directed live action films.

He hosted a question and answer session and signed autographs at the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival screening in May of his latest animated feature, Hair High. Afterwards, he agreed to do a telephone interview about his career and his creative process.

To find out more about Hair High and how to order his books and videos, visit his web site.

You've been busy hitting the festivals with Hair High. What's been the response so far?

Well, it's been very good. In fact, every time we show it, we get a huge amount of laughter in the response. Oddly enough, we haven't had a firm distribution bid yet, although we have a few distributors that are interested. But we do have a lot of cinemas that want to book the film. So it's kind of ironic that the theaters want to show it, but we can't get a distributor to pick it up.


How does that compare to when you previously went through the same process? I think you kind of did the same thing for The Tune, which just came out on DVD, didn't you?

Well, The Tune got picked up in Sundance about 10 years ago. But we got no advance on that. Basically, a freebie. So that was kind of a bitter disappointment. The good thing is we got the rights back, and now I'm starting to sell the film and starting to make money on it. Ten years later, I'm finally making money on my film.

And with I Married a Strange Person, that got picked up by Lions Gate. And that we did get a good deal on that. We got a big advance. For me it was a big advance. And it did well in the movie theaters, did well on TV and DVD.

And then Mutant Aliens came out, and again, I had to distribute that myself. Actually, no, it wasn't myself. It was with Apollo Cinema. But I didn't get any advance on that. It was basically just a distribution deal.


So what are your next steps in promoting Hair High? Are you just going to continue to hit the festivals?

Well, it's opening up in Europe, let's see, [in June]. And so that's what I'm busy today, is trying to get the print ready for Europe. And then doing the festival circuit. And I hope it gets a lot of sales, a lot of deals for foreign sales. And I can make some of my money back.


You financed this yourself?



And you've done that before. Let me see. I was going to ask you this later, but I'll just jump in here and ask you it now. You say that you're willing to sacrifice money for artistic expression.



I found that on your web site. I find that refreshing. It reminds me of the John Lennon song you might be familiar with, "Watching the Wheels."

No, I don't know that one.


Well, you would probably love this song because I think any independent artist would probably identify with it. It's when he stepped back from the whole recording industry and decided to concentrate on his family for awhile. People were saying, "Are you crazy?" And he said, "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go rolling by."

Yes, yes, yes. Well, I don't know if I'd compare myself to John Lennon. He was independently wealthy. I'm still struggling. But in a sense, you know, it's more difficult being independent because I have to take care of all the legal stuff: have to take care of the contracts, the distribution, the marketing, the advertising, the promotion. It's really a full-time job. And it's not pleasant work to do, but it has to be done. In a perfect world, I would prefer just to draw all day and make these cartoons. But the problem is, if I work for a big studio, then I would lose a lot of my creative ideas, of course. And I would be under pressure to finish it at a certain time. So there's certain drawbacks to both sides of the filmmaking process.


Have you always had this attitude, this independent spirit, for lack of a better word?



Or has it been an experience with commercial projects that soured you on that way of doing things?

The way it started was actually, before I even started making films I really assumed that I would work for Disney or Warner Brothers or some big studio and just be one of the animators there. But around the early '80s, when the independent film explosion happened, people like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and Susan Seidelman, I started making my own little films. And to my surprise, they were a success.


Like Your Face?

Yes, like Your Face. And I financed it for $3,000, and it went on to make $30,000. So very early I realized that if you invest your own money in your own film, that you make all that money back plus the profit. And why let someone else make that profit when it's your work; it's your sweat; it's your ideas; it's your labor? Why should they be reaping the benefits of your labor?


And when you talk about the creative freedom that it gives you, a number of people seem to confuse animation with something that's for children only.

Right. Of course.


How do you handle it when perhaps they see mature content in your films? Do you get negative reaction about that?

Well, first of all, I do have a brand name at this point. So when people hear "Bill Plympton," most people know that it's not going to be for kids. Also, so we put disclaimers on the posters and on the promos, catalogues and things like that, that this is adult fare; it's not for children. So if a strange child does happen to walk into the screening or an unsuspecting mother comes, generally speaking, they still enjoy the film. And I've had a few kids being pulled out by their mothers from the screening. But that's pretty rare, actually.

photos and images used by permission of Bill Plympton from