Master Class: Bill Plympton’s Guide To Telling Animated Stories

Bill Plympton is an independent animation icon. His drawings have appeared in syndicated columns, Academy Award-nominated shorts, videos for musicians like Kanye West, commercials for Microsoft, and more. Although he doesn’t believe much in art school, here he shares some lessons with Co.Create.

Imagine that it’s always been your dream to work as an animator for The Walt Disney Company. Now, imagine that early in your career, after one of your short films is nominated for an Academy Award, Disney comes calling with a generous offer in hand. It’s a wish-fulfillment scenario that, coincidentally, sounds as though it were plucked straight from a Disney movie. When it actually happened to Bill Plympton, though, he had to turn down the offer. The thought of having his ideas become somebody else’s intellectual property was more than he could bear.


Plympton is an independent animation legend with a style all his own. In addition to his reputation for not selling out, Plympton is independent in that every single frame of his hand-drawn animations comes from the artist himself. Although he’s worked with MTV, Microsoft, and Kanye West, he’s kept to his own path, as documented in the career-spanning film, Adventures in Plymptoons.

Bill Plympton isn’t just famous for his independence, though. He also happens to have an inimitable style, a Ginsu-sharp wit, and a twisted sense of humor. He’s also a master at branding, as you might discern from watching some of his most famous shorts, labeled, appropriately enough, Plymptoons. Here, he talks with Co.Create about the importance of storyboarding, the artificiality of computer animation, and what to do (and not to do) when starting out as an animator (hint: don’t draw your hands too big).

Having a Great Idea Is Better Than Being a Great Artist

You should always start with a good idea. A good idea is so important to a successful film. You don’t even have to be a great illustrator or a great artist; if you have a wonderful idea, you are way ahead. My films usually start with an idea that I get while walking the streets. For example, I got the idea for Guard Dog when I was walking in the park and I saw a dog barking at a bird. I wondered if the dog was afraid the bird would attack his master and kill him. It seemed like kind of a funny, grizzly idea, so I went back to my apartment and jotted down different gags that would demonstrate this idea–different animals, cute little forest animals that are bent on killing the master. I started designing the character–sketching out some single panel jokes. Then, when I felt that I had enough material, I did a storyboard.

There are three rules to success when making a short film. Make your film short: five minutes or less. Make your film cheap: a thousand dollars a minute or less. And make it funny. If you can fulfill those three requirements, your film will be a great success. Being a talented artist is good, it’s nice, but it’s not the most important thing. I think being a good storyteller, having a good idea, a good gag, is probably more important than being a great artist.

Visual Storytelling Begins With a Storyboard

The storyboard for Guard Dog was about three or four pages long. Doing the storyboard is the most important part because almost all the information for the finished film is in it There’s the story, of course, the editing, the character design, the backgrounds, the movement. Noises can be indicated; so can camera angles, shadows, and the costumes. It’s all there in the storyboard. Doing a really good one is paramount.


At real studios, they do layouts, which are basically a single drawing that demonstrates what’s going to go on in each shot. For me, the storyboards are pretty close to the layouts–from them I know what the shot will look like. So I go basically from storyboards right to animation, and basically I put it right on my desk over my drawing board and look at the picture in the storyboard and draw the scene, animate it. Then we pencil test it, scan it, make sure the movement’s good, and if we approve that, I go in with a colored pencil and color every drawing.

Next, the drawings are scanned again in high resolution and composited–the dog drawings will be put on top of the backgrounds and then we go over to music and sound and editing–all the post-production stuff. Then we have a movie. Things might change in the animation stage—I’ll come up with an idea as I’m drawing something–“Wouldn’t it be funny if a tree fell on his head?” or whatever–and I will take that someplace, but very rarely do ideas worth implementing come up in the editing stage. It’s too late to change it then.

You Can’t Beat The Warmth of a Human Hand

Hand-drawn animation is something that I feel really strongly about. A Pixar movie may be really great, but it looks like it was drawn by a machine. It’s all perfect and all the corners are exact and the circles are exact and I miss the warmth of a human hand–the mistakes, the little touches that a human hand can add, the idiosyncrasies of the hand that makes something more personal and warmer and compelling. That’s why I remain as a hand-drawn animator. But also, the cost of a computer-animated film is really expensive, whereas if you just hand-draw it, it’s only one or two people putting it together. When you do a computer-animated film, it’s thousands of people doing the modeling and the shading and structuring and all the digital stuff that has to go in there, so I just don’t have the budget to do computer-animation. For the cost of one Pixar film, I could make a thousand Bill Plympton films.

I recommend animating your short films single-handedly. There are three reasons why I do it. First of all, it’s cheaper–you save a lot of money that way because animators are very expensive. Second, it’s actually quicker because I did hire animators at one point, and they would do some of the drawings wrong and I’d have to go in and correct it. I realized I was spending more money and more time correcting their mistakes. Finally, it’s just more fun doing my own drawings. It’s a pleasure. Why pay more money instead of doing something I want to do myself?

Things Become More Interesting When They’re Warped

I look at some of my early stuff–back when I was 12 or 13 years old–and I was already doing cross-hatching back then. I don’t know where I picked that up. I think I was in a hurry and I wanted to shade something really fast and I tried cross-hatching a shadow. In any case, it became a technique that I still use today–whether it’s pencil or pen or brush.

There’s a lot of animation out there that’s not very well drawn and I take pride in the fact that my drawings look really good. One of the reasons that Disney was so successful and is because the artwork was always really top notch, and so I wanted to emulate the craftsmanship of the Disney work and take it to the next level. The visual characters that I draw are an evolution of my illustration background, and I love realism–I love Winsor McCay and his taking something that’s really normal and cliché and really twisting it and bending it and making something new out of it. I think that came from the drug era. I did do a few drugs, and I noticed that things became more interesting to look at when they were warped, so I applied that to my drawings and it’s–I hate that straight-forward realistic look. I wanted something that was very distorted and surreal, and to me that makes it more interesting


A Distinctive Tone Transfers To Any Medium

When I was in college, I did a lot of cartoons for the newspaper and I had ideas that I wanted to promote. My day-to-day thought process was basically the Seven Deadly Sins–coveting your neighbor’s wife, violence and revenge, and other very cool things. Film noir stuff–that’s what I’m excited about. Later, I moved to New York and a lot of these adult ideas were perfect for the men’s magazines–Playboy and Penthouse and Screw. So when I went into animation, I had all these ideas that were ready to go because of all my sketchbooks and ideas I’d written down. It just seemed natural to make cartoons about these same jokes–these same ideas. How to Kiss is something I did for Rolling Stone and it ended up making a perfect film, and also 25 Ways to Quit Smoking was a book project that never sold but it was a funny idea so I turned it into a film.

I’ve done live-action films a few times, but I prefer animation, obviously. Animation is more personal than live-action. It’s easier, it’s more fun to make, it’s more about me than the other actors. In animation, the characters are really just extensions of my drawing hand, whereas in live action the actors create their own characters. You have more control over animation.

The Development Process Is Different for Every Client

Working on commission is different for each client. Kanye West was very hands-on. He was looking over my shoulder as I drew the animation; whereas Weird Al Yankovic told me to do pretty much do whatever I want. I mean, he wasn’t paying that much money so he couldn’t really get too overbearing. He just submitted a song and said to send it to him when I was done. He didn’t want to hear about the concept or the style or the storyboard–he just said finish it. I love working with Weird Al–he’s really fun. When it came to Microsoft, it was really simple. I had submitted a storyboard and they approved at and I did the finish.

I’m old friends with Matt Groening. We both grew up in Portland. When they started doing the couch gag on The Simpsons with other artists–they did Banksy and John K.–it was at Annecy Animation Festival and we got to talking and he suggested I do a couch gag. I did two storyboards, and I sent both, and they loved both of them. They’re still going to air the second one; they’re just going to wait a while for it. The one that played actually had smoking hookers and strippers, and they said it was all fine except for the smoking. They didn’t complain about the hookers or strippers, though.


You Don’t Need a Formal Education To Learn How to Animate

Going to art school was good to meet people and some of the teachers were quite good. I didn’t learn much there, though. I think just living in New York is a great education. You can go into B&N to look at art books, go to art museums, watch animation at film festivals. That’s where I learned most of my stuff–looking at Goya paintings or looking at MC Wyatt–that’s where I really got my inspiration and my learning.

There were a lot of influences: Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Charles Addams, Virgil Partch, Marv Newland. Live action directors like Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, and people like that. Illustrators like Milton Glaser and cartoon artists like Mobius and R. Crumb. All these people–I steal from everybody.

A couple things that bug me in artists who are just starting out–I hate it when their characters’ hands or feet are really big. This is the first indication that the artist is an amateur, and not very talented. Also, big noses. Another thing I look for is whether they can draw fabric. It’s important to do clothing really well. For myself, even if I’m in the middle of working on a film and drawing every day, sometimes I still sketch on the subway or at home or go to a drawing class and draw from a live model. I like to keep trying different things, ideas–sketching different objects. It’s important to keep excited about drawing, the whole idea of putting a person in real life on pencil and paper is very thrilling to me, very exciting.