Monday, April 28, 2008

Idiots and Angels: Tribeca Film Festival

The tag line says it all: “This asshole guy wakes up one morning to find wings sprouting out of his back that make him do good deeds, and he doesn’t like it.” It's a three-part story: first you see the asshole in all his assholiness, then you see him fighting the good deeds his wings make him do, and then he is (quite literally) reborn as a decent guy.

Bill Plympton is there to introduce the film. This is its first showing at the Festival “and the first time we’ve seen it on a big screen,” Plympton says.

BILL PLYMPTON: We’ve been working on this for three years. I warn you, this is an imperfect film, but I think imperfections make it cool and human and special. It’s not Pixar or Disney with a $150 million budget – it’s dark and moody and surreal, so if you’re looking for happy little bunny rabbits you’re in the wrong cinema.

He's right. No happy little bunny rabbits here. And the main character is truly unlikeable; there's a ride ‘em cowboy scene in the first ten minutes that really makes you wonder whether you’ll ever be able to like this guy. But Plympton pulls it off because (a) everybody else in the film is worse than he is, each in his own or her own way and (b) and there are those wings, which make him a reluctant hero and a reluctant romantic. It’s vintage Plympton animation; pencils and bizarre points of views, garish smiling faces and physical impossibilities. It’s also wordless, though not soundless; and it has a score of songs and music that range from happy Tom Waits to despairing Tom Waits.

Questions at the end:

“What was the process of creating the story?”

BILL PLYMPTON: I was at a film festival in France and some young guy asked me what my next project was, and I didn’t have a next project, I wasn’t working on anything, so I said off the top of my head, “It’s about this asshole who wakes up one morning with wings on his back.” And I thought to myself, “Not a bad idea,” so when I got back to my hotel room, I started drawing scenes. And I just kept doing it. There was no script, I would just draw scenes, and I did that for about a year, and then we built the storyboards and the production and post-production process took about nine months, so it was almost three years from start to finish. The graphic novel will be available soon; we’ll announce it on the website.

“What percentage of the film was traditional animation versus computerized or digital animation?”

BILL PLYMPTON: The usual process, the one I’ve always used, is cels and paper drawings which are then filmed with a 35-millimeter camera. This time we tried something else. Biljana, why don’t you talk about this, you were the one who was involved the most in the process.

BILJANA LABOVIC (producer): Everything you saw in the film was drawn by Bill. It’s all his drawings, with pencil – a number two pencil – which we then scanned and colored in Photoshop by hand. Then we gave it shading, and volume, and composited it in After Effects. Very few of the shots were digitally animated. Post was done in Final Curt pro, which gave us a chance to look at it before it was done and actually gave us more control over the final product as we were building the picture. Bill would sit with the editor for instance while the edits were being done and have input into it.

BILL PLYMPTON: I have to say, this is the most fun film I’ve ever done. It’s been great. No one says you can’t do this or that’s impossible, or you have to do it this way. I would spend ten to twelve hours a day drawing, and after I finished I would feel totally refreshed, I would feel so high that I’d want to go to a bar and drink.

“Was the lack of dialogue a conscious choice?”

BILL PLYMPTON: Good question and I’m surprised nobody asked that. There are three reasons why there is no dialogue in this film. Number one, it’s hard to sell a film overseas when you have to pay for dubbing and translations and subtitles. It’s just a lot easier when there’s no real dialogue to speak of. Number two, it’s very hard to animate words. The lip synching process requires that every frame in a drawing have a corresponding vowel or consonant sound, so that makes it a lot more detailed and complicated to put together. And three, I’m a terrible writer of dialogue. I’d much rather make it real and visceral and emotional, and let that carry the story. It’s like the old Hollywood saying – don’t talk about it, show it. That’s what we tried to do here.

And here's the website.

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