I’m going to hit you with some stats. The Disney juggernaut FROZEN (2013) skated jubilantly to the bank with a $67 million dollar gross on opening weekend. Bill Plympton’s independent animated feature CHEATIN’ (2014) made $5,293 on its opening weekend. Obviously, these numbers aren’t a surprise given the odds stacked against CHEATIN’. FROZEN had a budget of $150 million backed by one of the most influential studios in the world, while CHEATIN’ made a plea to the masses on Kickstarter to raise the $75,000 necessary to do something artistically revolutionary. Another vital distinction is that Bill Plympton animated this film himself. The film consists of over 40,000 drawings hand-painted by only eight artists. FROZEN had 166 animators feverishly developing a winter wonderland that would make Bing Crosby croon. FROZEN also falls into the predictable practice of trying to cram as many A-list celebrities onto their promotional poster as possible. Plympton, on the other hand, opted out of having a cast in his film. As David Puddy would say, “Yeah that’s right”. No cast. No voices.
Given the minuscule budget and complete lack of voice actors, why should we even pay attention to Plympton’s animation? Because what he is doing is exceptional. There’s a strange phenomenon when animation is rendered completely by hand. Each movement acts like a jump cut – you know it doesn’t match up exactly, but the dissonance is satisfying. I attribute this to metaphysics. Bill Plympton’s pencil marks are rhythmic. Every object rendered has a pulse, especially the inanimate ones. The cross hatching creates a net or a grid that traps the viewer’s gaze, yet compels them to use it as a guide for navigating. Plympton creates a dimension that operates much like the subconscious.
In short, Plympton’s imagery knocks me out. The entire film makes me feel as if I was teetering on a sphere of surrealistic magnificence. Plympton manages to balance the gravitas of the main characters’ storyline with a few moments of comedic relief, one being an impromptu operatic number involving a chorus of carrots. Another impressive use of the animation medium is the dissolves and fades, with Plympton using an inanimate object and personifying it or morphing it into the next scene. Absolutely brilliant.
Silent films are like olives to me. I want to like them, but as much as I try, it just doesn’t happen. The awkwardness of no sound always gets to me and I want to bail. Not so with CHEATIN’. The lack of speech in the film is brilliant because Plympton proves you cannot only understand his narrative, but you actually stand to gain more by not having dialogue. This film allows for contemplation because the imagery is free to bounce around in your mind without the distraction or interruption of a character telling you how they feel.
Now back to Disney. My appreciation for hand drawn animation began with 101 DALMATIANS (1961) and its freewheeling quality. Animators on that film were able to incorporate new technology while still preserving the dissonance created by hand-drawn animation. According to an interview with animator Chuck Jones, the animators on that film experimented with Xerox photography to transfer the drawings to animation cels, which saved time and money, but also preserved the hand-drawn elements. Animating one spotted dog is a daunting task let alone one hundred and one, and Xerox camera allowed the animators to not have to drawn each dog (and its spots) individually in a scene. Those Dalmatian spots were far more whimsical because they did not behave. Part of it was due to the constraints of the technology but the animation felt more fearless. CGI films animate every minute detail. Sparse may be sparse but it is not lacking. 101 DALMATIANS and CHEATIN’ have more substance because they make the choice to not show everything.
I am disappointed that CGI is now the standard. Even the modern traditionally animated Disney films are too clean cut (visually speaking) and lack depth. Plympton’s characters don’t adhere to the superficial standard of beauty. He uses extreme foreshortening, making his characters look like they’ve been through a couple of fun house mirrors. The distortion, particularly in the facial expressions, pushes the boundaries of what is possible in expressing the human form. Disney is so consumed with image and product placement that the thought of a character looking unfit for a backpack or birthday plate prevents them from creating visually compelling characters.
Plympton’s film CHEATIN’ is a reminder that despite the most advanced technology being available, it does not have to be used. Even standard ingredients to a film like a cast or dialogue can be omitted in favor of singling out an element of film for exploration. Progress or innovation does not equate to using the most modern of tools. Hand painting 40,000 drawings is insane but completely necessary. The cure for madness is more madness.