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?