Commentary: Bill Plympton on 2-D

Old-school hero sees hope in hand-drawn toons

Variety asked Bill Plympton, a two-time Oscar nominee for his shorts “Your Face” and “Guard Dog,” about the state of hand-drawn animation (as he puts the finishing touches on his next feature, “Idiots & Angels”):

I’ve been fascinated by animation since I was four. I remember watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday night. Occasionally they’d interview the animators, and I’d go, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be one of those guys who draw these characters that do amazing, funny things.” 

Now the whole field has changed because of CGI. Pixar really revolutionized the field. Certainly their films have proved their ideas were valid. I can’t think of any filmmaker who’s had a string of hits as big as Pixar — not even Spielberg.

Because the films make so much money, Hollywood seemed convinced that CG was the only way animation could survive, so they all jumped on the CGI bandwagon. The problem is, CG looks too perfect. It feels like it’s made by a machine. All the animals look the same, and people are getting bored.

But I never thought 2-D was finished. “The Simpsons Movie” was a huge hit. And I celebrate that John Lasseter (whose roots are 2-D) is going that route with Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” which I expect to be as big as “The Incredibles.” I think a lot of these studios look for talent that are good drawers and good storytellers, and the digital talents are secondary because it’s easier to teach computer programs than it is storytelling.

There have been some great hand-drawn French films (like “The Triplets of Belleville”), and Japanese anime has always been 2-D.

In America, I feel a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness, and a lot of people dismiss me because I’m using the old techniques and style of animation, doing all the drawings myself. They think I’m in a time warp. Do I care? Yes, I’d love to have multimillion-dollar budgets and promotional campaigns. Would I ever do a CG film? Sure. It wouldn’t be a sell-out. Brad Bird did it successfully, and if DreamWorks or Pixar offered me a ton of money to do one, I’d be delighted.

But I think they see me as the rebel, provocateur, sex-and-violence guy, and they’re afraid there’s no audience for those films. And even though I feel like I’m battling these money-making machines, it’s still a pleasure to draw every day. It’s what I’ve done since I was four.

As told to Iain Blair

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