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The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

The Animation Show

Bill Plympton Self Portrait © Bill Plympton

Bill Plympton Self Portrait © Bill Plympton

HESO interviews Robert May, co-producer of The Animation Show, and independent animator Bill Plympton.

HESO: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Animation Festivals in the US and abroad?

Robert May: In the 1950’s a group of international independent animators formed Association Internationale du Film d’Animation (ASIFA) to help bring animators and filmmakers from around the world together to communicate ideas. A festival was born from this in Annecy France. The International Annecy Animation festival is still the largest in the world today and embodies that original spirit. The first festivals for animation in the U.S. were by ASIFA members who wanted to share Annecy highlights to audiences here in the states. In New York and Los Angeles each year a Tournee d’Animation was started. These tournees (early to mid-sixties) grew in popularity but still really only traveled to a handful of cities and played only in museums and one or two arthouse theaters. They’re credited as the first to really highlight international animation work.

In the early 70s a group of concert promoters named Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble took great interest in a few local La Jolla acts that would use old Fleisher and other edgy toons to warm up the crowds before shows. In 1975 they ran promotion for the first fully promoted animation festival The Fantastic Festival of Animation formed by animation historian Chris Padilla. This was the first show to create the now universal “program on a flyer” and the first to receive a first-run 35mm theatrical release. Chris’s festival had a huge response given the sci-fi bubble that year with Star Wars but he couldn’t keep things together for a follow-up. Spike and Mike took the idea and with their concert promotion background and launched Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation. That festival grew in popularity through the 80s and competing festivals formed alongside. The most well-known was the Animation Celebration which bought out the tournees (still just playing arthouses) and pushed them into wider release. The late 80s and early 90s brought a renaissance of independent animation as the two festivals competed with each other for viewers. Out of that mix these festivals were the first to screen Pixar’s short films, Aardman Animations (Wallace and Grommit), Bill Plympton’s work, Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, Craig McCracken’s No Neck Joe (McCracken later creates Power Puff Girls), Don Hertzfeldt, John K, Danny Antonucci, the list goes on and on. The Animation Show was born out of Mike Judge’s interest in seeing a proper festival return with artists at the helm and the chance to right some of the wrongs that filmmakers associate with Spike’s reign on the festival circuit these last 30 years.

HM: The enigmatic Bill Plympton, most people know you from your animated shorts (For example the 1987 Academy Award Nominated Your Face or the recent Guard Dog trilogy), but you’ve done quite a bit of other work as well, correct?

Bill Plympton: Right, I have done thirty-five animated shorts and nine feature films. Of the nine, three were with actors, one a live-action documentary, and the other six were animated.

HM: Can you tell us about the process of making an animated film?

BP: First I come up with an idea, do a rough pencil & paper story board, resolve character design, do dialogue (if there’s any at all), flesh out the story, do the editing (almost all of its on story board), do all the drawings myself, which is cheaper, quicker and more fun. Then I give it to my staff (four people), who scan it, clean it, composite it, edit it together, color it, add music, sound effects, send it to the lab and print it.

HESO: (For Robert) Can you tell us more about the Animation Show?

The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

The Animation Show Year 4 Promotional Poster © TAS

RM: TAS was started as an annual feature-length theatrical compilation of short films from around the world, exclusively curated by Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill) and Academy Award nominated animator Don Hertzfeldt (Billy’s Balloon, Rejected, The Meaning of Life). 

As animation continues to be plagued as the single most misunderstood film medium, the animated short film is sadly undervalued and underexposed in American cinema, despite widespread appreciation throughout the rest of the world. With luck, popular animated shorts may see limited theatrical play, but most are relegated to the dungeons of the internet, or with luck, DVD. 

The show started with the notion of getting great animated shorts back on the big screen where they belong and has turned into much more with multimedia projects, developing work for the program itself and a range of outlets now available for the first time for short film to live.

HESO: You say that they belong on the big screen, but will any “screen” do- say a mobile phone or the new iPad, if, for example, it widens the audience and exposes more and more people, despite their ever-shortening attention spans, to more great animation?

RM: For the big screen it’s difficult to say. The festival route for a program like TAS would seem to naturally evolve to encompass the work I’ve listed above. A true festival with animation performance art, environmental theater and classic arthouse animation you can’t see online or anywhere else. We’ve taken an even broader challenge to seek out comedic work which is the absolute rarest on the market. Our last festival was a hit because it tapped into commission work and creating some real comedic gems. The truth is that the theatrical system here in the US is broken and we’re caught between the festival and feature motion picture world. We still have a lot of work to do, but traveling festivals are still kicking out there. Mike Judge has done a tremendous service to independent animation though and it’s been fun to be a part of that ride.

The big screen remains at the core of what we’re trying to do because of the experience. Imagine if you’d only ever seen what you now consider your favorite comedy feature film of all time on a four by five inch screen with terrible sound and picture quality. The films we root out to showcase are big movies, they have huge imagination, scope and timing. They’re absolutely murdered on a tiny screen. I think that has really led us more and more towards comedy. Our current theatrical tour includes one or two shorts that have had big lives online but every audience we’ve seen them with comment how much funnier the work was enjoying it with an audience. I’ve watched films on my laptop and iPhone but only out of travel boredom. I know many that enjoy their favorite TV show as downloadable bits while traveling. The point of all this is that the theatrical experience is more than just a big screen. It’s the difference between going to church and praying at home. It’s a shared experience and energy and when the film is good your adventure is transcendent. These gadgets will make the process easier for filmmakers and viewers alike, but I think a line will always be drawn in the sand for projects that look to be created by genius madmen and everything else that’s derivative of that. It’s a confusing thing for people to wrap their brains around because there are incredible TV shows that should be seen in a movie theater and terrible movies that aren’t worth viewing even on your phone. Eventually everything is sifted and that media finds its time in the right home. An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer runs every weekend at midnight at an art house in Santa Monica as a sing-along. The recent release Max Payne disappears immediately from theaters for it’s home on DVD (ironically Blu-ray or on some video game system)…So the universe corrects itself.

HESO: Mike has had pretty big success coming from a pretty obscure background, but concerning more Independent Animation (such as Bill, Don and PES), what is the process of “making it” like?

RM: The process of “making it” is slow. And there isn’t much of a handbook. Most animators finish school and look for work at small or large animation production companies.  The auteurs out there like PES and Plympton start their own companies to work for themselves. Short films are scheduled in between paid work like commercials, music videos, TV interstitials etc. There is some money to be made from releasing your short films to festivals, but as filmmakers increasingly jump to post their work online these options are fading. Some sites like Atom Films pay for independent work but more and more shorts are seen as stepping-stones for feature films and more commercial work. We’ve tried our best at changing that perception. There is huge value for an artist working on a short to really explore and grow in ways that commercial work simply won’t allow. Both Bill and PES have grown their brands over time. The process really comes down to having a sick amount of talent and drive. These men are also much more than great animators, they’re great writers, directors, producers, etc. The whole package.

Idiot's & Angels © Bill Plympton

Idiot's & Angels © Bill Plympton

HESO: What’s the future of Animation in the States? Internationally? Who’s leading the charge? Bill?

BP: The future’s bright. I think we are in a second golden age. Box office numbers say five out of ten films are animated. There are plenty of people out there making money, doing other kinds of animation, for example Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Henry Cellick, Nick Park, Mike Judge, all doing adult-oriented animation. There has been an explosion in techniques which helps.

HESO: Despite all these advances you seem to stick to your old school analogue techniques.

RM: The future of animation in the states is still with smaller studios that are pushing new ideas and taking the larger challenges. Unlike schools abroad students are encouraged to find work in the machine (studio work big and small). We are at somewhat of a crossroads as software becomes easier and easier to master and film-making evolves. I could point you in the direction of some of my favorite American animators, but until we all figure out how best to generate revenue from the internet it’s hard to say who’s leading the charge. The animation Youtube site Toonboom has picked up steam but I suppose that’s to be expected given the boatload of cash they’ve thrown at the project. What’s been exciting to watch is the number of independent filmmakers and production companies that have stepped up to the feature plate. In the next few years you’ll see animation succeed on the feature level in a big way from an entity that isn’t Disney, Dream Works or Sony. This will radically change the public’s perception of animation as the options at your Cineplex (here in the US.. at least. Overseas it’s been happening for a while) for animated movies that aren’t just family fare.

Robert May is a writer, does voice work, acts, enjoys Mexican food and mushrooms, though not necessarily together, and has been producing the Animation Show since its inception in 2003.

Interview With Don Hertzfeldt

Interview With Don Hertzfeldt

As the following will show, and after repeated attempts at contacting Mr. Hertzfeldt himself, I had to “make up” the following interview, though, that notwithstanding, that doesn’t mean Don didn’t say these things. Hey, me no plagiarizer. Thanks to Rob, for pointing me in the right way. I’ve included the intro questions, which, though now scrapped, still make me chuckle. The “actual” interview, such that it is, follows that.

Don, Let’s pretend like we’re sitting across from one another at a nice dark dive bar in the Valley, sipping, chatting, chuckling like men with beards and pipes and corduroy coats with patches. Let’s pretend that these words won’t be seen by millions of fans hungry for gossip and innuendo about The World’s Most Famous Unknown Interviewer and his next Everest to topple: you, Don Hertzfeldt, ok?

Interview With Don Hertzfeldt

Me: So, I hate interview-related questions, but I have to ask, How is the Animation Show’s 2nd season looking so far? And can you give a bit of background about how T.A.S. came about?


Me: Alright, alright, don’t throw your apple martini at me yet, we have a ways to go. Garçon, 2 double Doer’s, Heineken backs. OK, how about this: being as busy as you are touring with the Animation Show around most of North America, how do you find time to animate & shoot your stuff? You do it all by hand, right? I mean, there’s no all-most-naked-teen-girls Bitter Films staff in Indonesia cranking out Rejected Again as we speak, right?


Me: I see, so massages are like animation after all. Hmmm…I have met quite a Bitter Films fanbase here in Japan, people who ask questions like, “If Don could have anyone cook him anything, anywhere, what would it be, with whom and where?”


Me: 3’s a Crowd, Mister. What about, what animal represents you and why? Or better yet, what animal would you be if you could, mythical or otherwise?


Me: Favorite Comic? Favorite Comic gone Big Screen?


Me: Sexiest female cartoon character? Do you get aroused by saucer-eyed buxom manga ladies?


Me: Word on the street is that you are into plants. Does that include cacti or are succulents too “dry” for Santa Barbara’s “wet” climate? Also, best plant story.


Me: Ever wrote a song, entered a slam poetry contest, played beach volleyball, urinated in public, held an odd animal in an odd way?


Me: Any cd,movie, book, comic, cuisine, country recommendations?


Me: Any words to live by, famous last words, hidden mantras, the secret of Tom Cruise’s success?


Me: For the record, who wins a fight between ninjas and samurai?


Me: Well, thanks Mister. I hope the tour goes well and I can’t wait for The Animation Show Vol. II to come out on DVD so we can see it over here in the biggest Animation market in the world. Good luck with your plants.

The Meaning of Life © Don Hertzfeldt

The Meaning of Life © Don Hertzfeldt


Academy Award © nominated director Don Hertzfeldt’s animated short films have collected over one hundred awards and an international cult following. His films have been featured at the Cannes Film Festival, Sundance, MTV, IFC, Bravo, Comedy Central, and in over a thousand theatrical venues around the world.
-From bitterfilms.com

Don’s my friend. No really. We’re such good friends, he doesn’t even feel the need to take my calls or emails. He’s just busy. Right? So, in the name of friendship, I, Manny Santiago, undertake the task of speaking on behalf of the busiest animator this side of the pacific. (Sorry Mr. Miyazaki, Howl was great but, you’re old news).

Heso: Don, You’re currently busy as all heck with getting Vol. II of The Animation Show out on DVD by late summer, I know. So what, if anything, are you working on, after 4 years of intense work on The Meaning of Life?

Don: I did a bad comic strip a few years ago called Temporary Anesthetics, one good thing came out of it though and that was a character named Bill…and the new film is Bill’s film. He has quickly become my favorite character to write for, meanwhile…we will very very soon begin work on Bitter Films: Vol. 1: the dvd.

H: Rock on. I remember various conversations we’ve had and somehow they’ve always managed to meander back to music, specifically, REM. Does music of any kind figure in the mental process of starting a new project?

D: Central concept comes first… and lately music sometimes has been coming first. Then scribbles and storyboards and the outlines of a structure but, when you work largely solo there is very little info that you have to share with others, as in having to write a traditional script… ..so most of it is in my head or scattered around the floor on post-it-notes

H: Like the women in my life. So, you’ve been quoted as saying, “This may be the best short I ever make.” Where did the idea come from? Also, you using any computers these days to animate any of the especially painstaking scenes in MOL?

D: I’m not sure where the film came from..but, a central scene was something I’ve wanted to animate for maybe 10 years and never had a place for it (also I didn’t think it would be possible to do without computers), though eventually discovered I could do it without computers, albeit it would take 4 years…and quite a few brain cells. It was a very rough time…but I don’t think any of the new film’s space shots would look nearly as good as if they were done in a computer, granted it took me 10x as long to create them on film traditionally (with pinhole lights and diffusion and stuff), but there’s something about real light hitting a real camera lens that I’ve never seen a computer able to simulate. I think we’ll have a disclaimer at the end of the film, “no computers were used in the photography or animation of this motion picture.”

H: OK, what about Mike? Is he still involved creatively? Financially? Or is Rob (the extremely able-bodied plethora of voices in many of Don’s films) funding everything with armies of Chinese Triads & Yakuza extortionists?

D: Of course Mike is still involved! It’s his money we are spending… and he programmed everything with me again: the entire show – and I’m not exaggerating – is all thanks to Mike’s enduring faith and support. He stopped in to say hello in LA and Seattle and Vancouver… but lately he has been very busy with his new feature film, coming out in August.

H: So before we go, what distracts you the most working in “the industry”?

D: I am frequently distracted by invisible bats and miniature toads.

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