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: