Bill Plympton draws upon a universal doggedness—the search for love.
Animator Bill Plympton earned his first Oscar nomination in 1987 with the short film Your Face, but it was his 2004 short Guard Dog (also Oscar-nominated) that gave him a character audiences wanted to see again and again. The Dog, a goofy-looking pooch always on the hunt for love, has gone on to star in three additional shorts, and inspired Plympton to launch Guard Dog Global Jam, inviting animators all over the world to remake two- to four-second segments of Guard Dog, creating one collaborative, multi-style film.
You can also see the Dog bounding throughout Plympton’s new book, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton. We talk to Plympton about his canine inspirations and why audiences empathize with the Dog.
In Guard Dog, we meet the Dog, who imagines that everything he encounters (a girl with a jump rope, a songbird, a flower) is a threat against his owner—with tragic results. What was the inspiration for this film?
There’s a couple of influences for that film. One is, when I was a kid, I used to go to baseball practice, I was like 10 years old or so then. And there was this dog on the road that wouldn’t let me pass. And I was on a country road, so there was no alternative route. And he used to chase me, barking at me all the time and I was frightened by it. I think psychologically, it kind of gave me this obsession with barking dogs. And then it was about six years ago, I was in the park right near where I live—it’s called Madison Square Park—and I saw this dog barking at a little bird. And I wondered, “Why is a dog so afraid of a cute little bird?” And then I went inside the dog’s brain and realized that he was afraid the bird would attack his master and he would lose his companion, his meal ticket, his master. So I thought, “Oh, that’s a funny idea.” And I immediately went home and started writing this storyboard about this dog who was so paranoid about these strange creatures that he imagined that they’re like these fictitious fantasy attacks on his master. And the film was a huge hit. Really, I was amazed how popular this dog was.
So often, we see animated dogs anthropomorphized, but here it seems like you did the opposite and really tried to get at what the Dog was thinking.
Yeah, I don’t like real cutesy talking dogs that take on human form. I like it when they’re actually real animals that you can identify with and it sort of feels like your own dog, like you really know this dog and it’s one of your own dogs. To me, that’s what gives a resonance to this character. That’s why people love him. It’s because they know he’s a real dog and not half-human.
In the later films Guide Dog and Hot Dog, we see the dog take on these more vocational roles—being a seeing-eye dog and a firehouse dog, respectively. Do you see some aspirational quality in dogs?
No, the basic idea for this dog is that he’s searching for love. Everybody’s looking for love and looking for companionship and someone to spend their life with, and that’s what he’s doing. So it’s part of his search to find a caretaker, a master. And he goes to the fire department and he wants to be adopted as a firehouse dog. And then when he’s a guide dog, he wants to help the blind people and he’s hoping a blind person will adopt him as their guide dog. And there’s actually a fourth one...and that is called Horn Dog, and that’s where he falls in love with another dog, a beautiful long-haired Afghan. And that obviously goes very badly, too. So, that’s his life, just getting rejected when he finds a companion, finds someone to take care of him.
So will the Dog ever find love?
No, that would be disaster. That would end the series. You know, he’s sort of become my Mickey Mouse, and he’s been identified with me quite strongly. So as long as I keep making the films, people want to see the dog. I like that, so I need to have him always in constant search for the love of his life.
Why do you think audiences connect so well with the Dog?
I think they empathize with him. They’ve been there. They know that oftentimes they make a fool of themselves trying to gain love or gain acceptance or gain approval and oftentimes it goes bad. And it’s funny. If people loved him, it wouldn’t be funny. It would be a romance. I prefer humor over romance. Well, that’s hard to say. I do other films for romance.
Are there any more Dog films in the works?
I do. I have another one that I’ll just tell you about briefly. It’s called Cop Dog, and this is where he works in an airport, sniffing for smugglers, drug-smugglers. And he finds a valise that’s full of drugs and he tears it open and the whole airport is filled with some sort of aphrodisiac. And everybody starts taking their clothes off and the airplanes start doing loop-de-loops and it’s total, total madness—a little mayhem. So I’ll probably have that one done over the summer.
The way you draw the Dog—his expressions, his walk—is so delightful. Do you spend a lot of time observing dogs?
The park where I first discovered the dog has a wonderful dog run, and so I do go over there occasionally and do sketches of dogs. They’re fun to draw.
My dog is a Pug, I think; the one I use for the model, I think was a Pug. I love drawing dogs and I’ve spent hours there sketching dogs and finding the right animal. I like the Pug. I think he’s a very handsome animal—very emotional, too. You know, the big tongue, the sloppy smile, that stuff.
And now you’re working on Guard Dog Global Jam.
Yes, we just finished it, actually, and we’re sending it out to festivals, and I think it’s going to have its world premier at the South By Southwest Film Festival.
It must be incredible to see that so many people want to reinterpret your work.
It was amazing. We had over 200 submissions and we only had space for about 70 artists. So we had to say no to a lot of people; it was very sad.
From what I’ve seen, the styles are so varied. Did you give people a lot of license?
We told everybody the same thing. We just said, “Reinterpret my artwork in your style.” And so the variety of styles is quite refreshing. I mean, we have one where it’s little bits of dog food, and then someone recommissioned 100 other people to do every frame of fill, which is just mind-blowing. It’s really beautiful. We have one that’s very theatrical; it’s almost puppets. .... It’s really interesting, the variety of different looks and styles. I like that. One’s a 10-year-old Chinese kid who did one, too. We had a Disney animator—a couple Disney animators and then a 10-year-old Chinese kid. So it’s a wide spectrum.
You’ve said that you don’t like anthropomorphized dogs in animation. Are there any animated dogs that are particular favorites?
I’ll tell you what I don’t like is the Hanna-Barbara stuff, like Scooby-Doo and Huckleberry Hound. They just don’t feel real to me, emotional to me. I don’t know; I’m trying to think. Goofy—I remember as a kid I loved Goofy. Pluto was not such a big favorite, but Goofy I liked a lot. I loved his sense of humor. He was an inspiration for a lot of my humor, the Goofy films.
I love how specific the movements in your animation are. Are you working in colored pencil?
Regular colored pencil. Regular, number two, Ticonderoga pencils that you use every day.
It adds so much texture. It’s so amazing to see when so many people are moving away from hand-drawn animation.
Well, that’s my specialty. It’s sort of my trademark. Whenever I say, “Oh a Bill Plympton film,” people always say, “Who’s Bill Plympton?” and I say, “Oh, the colored pencil guy.” And they say, “Oh! That guy!” Everybody knows who I am; they just don’t know what my name is. They know my style. They know my technique. They know my stories.
Why do you hold so firmly to hand-drawn animation?
A lot of reasons. One is hand-drawn is much faster. Computer animation is very slow. Also, it’s a lot cheaper. Computer animation is very expensive. For example, Toy Story 3 cost about $200 million to make, and it’s a beautiful film. I don’t deny it. It’s money well spent. Whereas my films cost about $200,000. So I could make a thousand Bill Plympton films for one Pixar film. That’s why I stay hand-drawn.
Is that true for 2D computer animation as well?
No, 2D is much cheaper, too. Especially with Flash, you can do it for a much cheaper price. But I still think it’s a little bit more—well, it depends on who the artist is. You know, a film like The Illusionist, which is hand-drawn, that was not cheap; that was about a $40 million film. So it depends who’s doing the art and how long the process is and what the market is—whether it’s TV or movie theaters.
It seems like you have a lot more control in hand-drawn animation as well.
I totally agree. There are so many things that you can do in hand-drawn animation. The only limit is really your imagination, and that’s why I love animation. I love drawing it and doing it. I did do a couple live-action films, and they were complete disasters because I couldn’t control the actors 100 percent. They didn’t allow me to sever their heads and have them start flying through the sky. They weren’t into that. So, with animation, I have no problems with that.
Take a peek at some samples from Guard Dog Global Jam:
Recent events in Northern Africa have turned the spotlight on Gene Sharp, PhD, a scholar and social scientist anointed by the Daily Beast as “the 83-year-old who toppled Egypt.” For decades, Sharp — through his manuals and books, including From Dictatorship to Democracy, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action— has argued that nonviolent action is the best way to overcome repressive regimes.
Sharp has a PhD from Oxford University, taught at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard, and is now senior scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit he founded in 1983. His office is on the ground floor of his East Boston home, where he lives and works in the company of Sally, a Golden Retriever mix; before Sally, he had a black Great Dane, Caesar, who was said to serve as Sharp’s chief confidant.
As we were trying to find information about Dr. Sharp’s relationship to the world of dogs, we were pleased to discover an article he wrote in the March 1976 issue of the magazine Fellowship. In this article, “Disregarded History: The Power of Nonviolent Action,” he offers empirical historical evidence for the power of active resistance, including the fact that “it wasn’t Gandhi who introduced fasting as a political weapon”; it was Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1765, urged colonists to fast in their struggle against Great Britain.
Sharp goes on to offer the observation that nonviolent actions of this kind can be seen in nature as well. He starts his argument by demonstrating the ways a recalcitrant child tries to win over a parent with “hunger strikes” and similar resistance, then continues to the canine side of the family:
“Many animals and pets do all these things. Haven’t you had dogs or cats act this way? They want to go with you in the car somewhere—when they know they are not supposed to—they go and jump right in. It’s a ‘sit-in.’ Or, they know very well what you’re saying to them and pretend they don’t, just like you’ve done yourself. Or you say ‘move,’ and they lie down, whimpering, and look up at you with the saddest possible look—like some demonstrators do to police. Sometimes they’re being ignored, particularly if there’s company coming and there’s a big fuss in the house and nobody’s paying attention to them when they’re trying to say, ‘Come and play with me.’ The dog then goes into the middle of the living room rug and does a ‘nonviolent intervention’—not biting anybody, not growling at anybody but getting attention! So we don’t have to change human nature—or even animal nature—in order to be nonviolent.”
Leave it to a visionary like Gene Sharp to incorporate lessons learned from our animal companions in the quest for human freedom.
A documentary about Gene Sharp, “How to Start a Revolution,” directed by Ruaridh Arrow, is expected to premiere in spring 2011. genesharpfilm.com
Dog Inc. author explains the high cost of canine cloning.
Canine cloning businesses like to tout their services as akin to resurrection—but the reality is much more complicated. In our video interview, John Woestendiek, author of the new book Dog Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend, exposes the high cost of canine cloning—for both the people who invest their money and emotions in the procedure, and the laboratory animals used to create the clones.
It sounds counterintuitive: dog and cat food, litter and leashes aren’t at the top of animal shelters’ wish lists, but paper, pens, phones and fax machines are, according to the 250 animal nonprofits registered on TheGivingEffect.com, a free website launched this summer. By connecting individual donors with stuff to spare directly with organizations in need, TheGivingEffect.com helps people clear away clutter and benefit a favorite charity.
GivingEffect founder Mitchell Silverman was initially inspired to create the site by the outpouring of support after Hurricane Katrina but, he says, “the idea really solidified after seeing the Liberty Mutual commercial where one kind act inspires another, and then another, etc.” The website’s online thank-you notes are designed to be shared, with the hope they’ll motivate others to “pay it forward.”
So, after office supplies, what do animal welfare organizations need? Cleaning supplies, blankets, sheets and towels, miscellaneous items that can be sold to raise money, and building supplies.
Dog's Life: DIY
Immortalize your pup in yarn by following the patterns in Knit Your Own Dog by Sally Muir and Joanna Osbourne. Using just simple knit, purl and loopy stitches, capture a Bulldog’s wrinkles, a Poodle’s curls or an Afghan’s flowing mane— 25 breeds in all. Download the pattern below to try your knitter’s hand at the Jack Russell Terrier pattern.
Men, dogs, 3,000 sheep and 150 miles
Anointed as the “first essential movie of this young year” by the New York Times, Sweetgrass holds promise for appearance on our next decadal list. This cinéma vérité documentary, made by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, follows—and perhaps is engulfed by—a herd of 3,000 sheep as they, their shepherds and assorted dogs make their way 150 miles up into Montana’s mountains to their summer sweetgrass pasture. While most reviewers extol the visual and vocal impact of the fascinating sheep, dogs—both Border Collies and Great Pyrenees (see if you can find the dog in the photo)—also play a part. This arduous trek was one of the last made by the Allested family and, as the filmmakers note, was undertaken to “carry on tradition against all odds.” A compelling backstory to an American pastoral. We, for one, can’t wait to see it. For a schedule of showings, check out sweetgrassthemovie.com.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Restaged classics to the rescue
Since the dawn of advertising, lovely ladies have been used to sell everything from soap to pickup trucks. But the women of Pinups for Pitbulls are more than simply beauties or burlesque queens. Founder Deirdre Franklin, whose stage name is Little Darling, describes a modern burlesque artist as “a strong woman who’s expressing herself in an art form that’s liberating.” Part of a subculture that’s revived a classic American art, they’re also using their talents to save a classic American dog.
Franklin’s first encounter with a Pit Bull was a lesson in the lifeand- death consequences of breed prejudice.When a stray was brought into a shelter where she was a volunteer, policy not only dictated that she couldn’t adopt the dog, but also that the dog couldn’t be released to a breed rescue; the dog was later euthanized. Franklin’s response was to adopt Carla Lou, her first Pit Bull, from a rescue group; Carla Lou quickly became what Franklin calls “the love of my life.”
Carla Lou inspired Franklin to get involved in Pit Bull rescue locally, but she was pushed to another level by her experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Determined to help, she turned to MySpace, where Pinups for Pitbulls still does a lot of its networking. There, she says, “friends who knew I was into animal rescue and was kind of a loudmouth about it” contributed to a plane ticket so she could go to New Orleans. After persisting through a few days of being turned away from the rescue efforts, she got out on the street to find that a huge percentage of the dogs were Bully types. “That’s what lit the fire under me,” she says. “Seeing it as a national, not a local issue, changed my perspective.”
Using her talents and connections, Franklin was able to start something that helps in a unique way: Through benefit performances and sales of their calendar, Pinups raised about $20,000 last year for the Bully rescue cause.Now they’re planning to branch out into selling prints and more merchandise, and have just received nonprofit status. Franklin has big plans of her own as well: she’s studying for the LSAT so she can go to law school and gain new tools to further her cause, especially the fight against breed-specific legislation.
You might think that with such a specific theme, there’d be a limited pool to draw upon, but last year, 50 models applied to pose in the calendar with their own Pit Bulls. Could it just as easily be “Pinups for Poodles,” or Pugs? Maybe, but Franklin thinks there’s a special connection between the modern burlesque artist and the beleaguered Bully breeds. They’re both outsiders, used to being stereotyped, she says. And Franklin, a woman who isn’t easily kept down, seems to be a kindred spirit to the many Pits, who, like her own, have kept their loyal and loving characters despite adversity. Describing one big dog rescued after Katrina who wagged his tail so much that it had a bare spot where it hit the ground, she says, “They’re triumphant in the worst of times, and I appreciate that.”
Order the calendar at pinupsforpitbulls.com
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Catch one from your dog.
A new study provides the first scientific evidence that dogs yawn in response to human yawns. The contagious nature of yawns has previously only been demonstrated in humans and other primates, but in a recent issue of Biology Letters, scientists Ramiro M. Joly-Mascheroni, Atsushi Senju and Alex J. Shepherd report that dogs can also “catch” human yawns.
The dogs in the study each spent five minutes with a human stranger. In these trials, the experimenter said the dog’s name; when the dog established eye contact, the experimenter gave a fake yawn, complete with vocalization. The experimenter continued doing this for five minutes, which resulted in 10 to 19 yawns, depending on how long it took to establish eye contact. In the control condition, the experimenter followed the same procedure, except that instead of yawning when the dog established eye contact, non-yawning, mouth-opening actions without vocalization were displayed. Of the 29 dogs in the study, 21 yawned in response to the experimenter’s yawns but none did so in the control condition.
Even reading or thinking about yawning can induce yawns, perhaps most notably among people with high levels of empathy. If you find yourself yawning right about now, take the opportunity to get your dog’s attention, yawn some more and see if your dog catches it.
Make the season brighter for animals in need.
Dog Days Perpetual Calendar
If you visit the Polka Dog Bakery in Boston’s South End, you’ll notice a huge gallery of Polaroids featuring every dog who visits the shop. Those photos provide the inspiration for this perpetual desktop calendar, and a portion of the proceeds go to the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
$24 from Polka Dog Bakery
“Hooray for Shelter Dogs!” Notecards
$5.95 for a set of three cards
Freedom Tails Handmade Collars and Leashes
These embossed leather collars and leashes are handmade by inmates at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center and the proceeds support Freedom Tails, a program where offenders train shelter dogs to make them more viable for adoption. The dogs get a second chance at a life in a loving home, and the offenders receive a renewed sense of purpose. These leashes and collars are available in a variety of lengths, widths and colors, and can be custom-embossed with your dog’s name.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for pricing and information. Collars start at $15, leashes start at $20.
Sponsor a Shelter Dog
If you have a dog lover on your list, consider sponsoring a shelter dog in their name. Sponsoring a dog ensures that shelters can cover that dog’s food, shelter and medical needs and helps alleviate the financial strain many shelters face. If they live near the shelter, your gift recipient can even visit their sponsored dog. You can sponsor a dog at the Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition (BARC) for $25 a month, or find a sponsorship program at a shelter near you.
Shop for a Cause
Even if dog-themed gifts aren’t on your list, you can still support canine causes with your holiday shopping. iGive lets you choose your favorite charity and sends money to that organization when you shop at any of over 800 stores online. You can send your shopping dollars toward your local shelter, your favorite rescue or any number of humane societies while shopping for clothing, electronics, books, airline tickets and more!
Robocalls to the rescue
Many pets go missing in September, says Colleen Busch, spokesperson for FindToto.com, the country’s first lost pet phone alert system. She thinks it may be due, in part, to all the distractions of getting kids back to school. But whatever the reason, when your dog escapes or, worse, is stolen, FindToto is there, like a search party in your laptop. Simply input the details of your dog’s disappearance, a physical description and a photo. The service sends out recorded phone alerts to residents in the area where your dog disappeared (as quickly as 5,000 calls in 45 minutes). Costs run from $85 for 250 calls to $875 for 10,000.
As of June, the nearly three-year-old start-up claims to have located more than 3,000 pets, from a Siberian Husky in Brooklyn to a Toy Poodle in San Francisco. It’s logging a 75 percent success rate for alerts ordered within the first 48 hours of a disappearance. And it’s not just for dogs and cats — FindToto has helped track down goats, turtles, birds and a wallaby.
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