Like elaborate doodles on the back of a spiral pad springing to kinetic, pugnacious life, Bill Plympton's animated films have always been disquieting. Plympton first gained attention for several hand-drawn shorts, one of which (Your Face) was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988, perhaps the only time a series of colored-pencil drawings got within loogie-hawking distance of an Oscar. Soon the cartoonist had become even more ambitious.
"I was compiling a video of my short films," says Plympton, audibly out of breath from moving his East Coast studio into new digs, "when I noticed that it came to about an hour. So I thought to myself, 'That's already about as long as a feature film.' " Thus The Tune, his first full-length animated movie, was conceived.
Plympton envisioned The Tune as a sort of Fantasia of American roots music, a series of linked, multigenre musical interludes. Weary of his trademark colored pencils, the artist decided that each sequence in the film would have its own distinct visual style, employing a myriad of techniques including crayon, painted cels, rotoscope and paper cutouts. For the songs, he enlisted composer Maureen McElheron, who had worked with him on Your Face. Instead of moving from one musical number to the next via some psychedelic, jaundice-tinged dirigible, Plympton concocted a plot about a hapless songwriter-for-hire who is assigned to write a sure-fire hit in an extremely limited time frame. Most of the action is set inside the protagonist's brain.
When the time came to shop the script to movie studios, "all of 'em turned it down -- every one," Plympton laughs. Turned out that an adult-oriented full-length humorous cartoon was an untried commodity in the early 1990s. It probably didn't help that Plympton's script was essentially a "weird" story with a lot of "sick" imagery. And probably most important to the studio execs, there were no bankable stars attached to the project. The animator, however, was undeterred by this bevy of rejection: "I went ahead and decided to make it anyway, with my own money. Screw it."
Fortunately, Plympton's fiduciary ship pulled into dock right at the crucial moment. Two ships, in fact. "I had shown MTV some of the completed musical pieces I was working on for the film, and they bought two of them." Not much later, Plympton was hired to create commercials for both Trivial Pursuit and NutraSweet.
Money wasn't the only element of The Tune that found Plympton flying solo. Every line, every shade, every dab of coloring on the screen, was wrung directly from the auteur's fingertips. "It's incredibly painstaking," he says. On all of Plympton's subsequent animated features (including I Married a Strange Person, Mutant Aliens and Hair High), he has employed a small staff to do some of the more tedious labor.
Its intense one-man workload notwithstanding, The Tune was completed in time for 1992's Sundance Festival, "the same year as Reservoir Dogs," Plympton proudly points out. Yes, it certainly was a good year for fans of surreal violence.
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