A grand irony has befallen the tradition of hand-drawn animation: The cost of making such films has grown so high that the only way left to produce them is on a low budget.
The Mouse House’s movies have been computer-generated and 3-D for roughly a decade now. And the rumored closure of Studio Ghibli will sound yet another death knell for this form. With that, the domain of Walt Disney will be unceremoniously donated to the independent scene.
The inheritors will include Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton, who’ll be presenting his new film Cheatin’ at the Brattle this Friday. (It’ll play there through May 4.) He uses rough strokes in animating his narrative, wherein a smitten lady steals the bulky beau of another, then sees her new man seduced away from her just as easily. The shading on the character’s features shifts from second-to-second, like a finely-textured flip-book.
The deliberately imperfect drawing-style isn’t the only thing linking Plympton’s film to the fine art of classroom doodling. He also employs virtually no dialogue during Cheatin’s 75 minutes, instead relying on broadly imagined visual signifiers to help him tell his story. His couple meets while riding bumper cars, and their first kiss gets electrified by the ride’s apparatus. When their shared bed grows cold, he illustrates a crack in its center. And when our man realizes the error of his eponymous ways, he speeds down the freeway, with his massive tears riding in the wind behind the vehicle, looking like lima beans. Plympton realizes romance as a series of over-exaggerated sense memories.
In these images, he occasionally finds the same fantastical poeticism that fueled silent cinema. But we also must note that he did not scribble this whole film onto a page, like a caveman onto a stone wall. There’s a three-dimensional smoothness to some of the more fluid images—like the blood violently bursting from a broken heart—in part because Plympton has merged his approach with a digital workflow. It clearly mitigated the difficulty of creating the most complicated images, the ones that pen and paper struggle to render. If this form has a future, it’ll be in hybrids like this.
That reminds us of Don Hertzfeldt, the cult animator whose short films about stick figures (like the legendary Rejected) have always been started and finished on pads of unscanned paper. He just completed his first digital short, World of Tomorrow, which—in his trademark deadpan-absurdist-existentialism mode—considers the Mobius-strip-style relationship between a young girl and her thrice-cloned future self. The latter briefs the former from “the outernet,” a perpetually shifting swirl of lines, shapes, and video screens.
Hertzfeldt’s drawings of stick-people also inhabit a surrealist space defined by its digitalness—by the smoothness and linearity it provides for his figures’ movement. And so another irony emerges from the work of artists like him and Plympton: An analog art form survives and thrives, by way of being computerized.