An Animated Life
RALPH BAKSHI with
Ralph Bakshi is one of the pioneers of American animation. He began his career working at Terrytoons Studios on series like Mighty Mouse and created the Mighty Heroes for the studio. He made his feature directorial debut with the X-rated film Fritz the Cat (1972). This was followed with a remarkable series of films, such as Heavy Traffic (1973), Coonskin (1975), and Hey Good Lookin’ (1982), drawn from his experiences growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. These films uncompromisingly brought into relief urban issues of economic and racial inequality. His fantasy-themed films, like Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and Fire and Ice (1983), are considered classics of the genre, but are distinctive for their allegorical discussion of technological destruction, imperialism, and militarism.
Bakshi left the industry after growing increasingly frustrated with the constraints placed on him by the industry, moving to New Mexico and focusing on painting. However, he has recently launched a campaign on Kickstarter advertising two new projects: The Last Days of Coney Island and Wizards II. Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker interviewed Bakshi by telephone for the Rail to discuss his career, his views on the history and contemporary state of animation, and his forthcoming projects. Bakshi’s website is ralphbakshi.com.
Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker (Rail): Could you begin by telling me a bit about your childhood? How did you come to the United States?
Ralph Bakshi: My parents emigrated from Russia to Palestine in the mid ’30s. They met and got married in Palestine. They became involved with the liberation movement there. They got into trouble for their political activities, so they came to America in 1938. I was a year old. Nazis stopped the boat, but, since it was an American ship, they allowed it to proceed because America was not in the war at that time. We came to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where I grew up.
There was a vitality to Brownsville when I was growing up. My family was very poor, but we never felt poor. The community was very strong, especially the Jewish community. It was a very big neighborhood. We got along with everyone. There were never any problems. There were Italians, Jews, Blacks, and eventually, Puerto Ricans all living together. The kids got to be free in the streets. I went to an all-boys school. The girls had their own separate high school. You couldn’t mix us. The guys were too crazy.
We didn’t think that toys and all the crap people buy is important. Music was very important. First, you ran into swing, which is absolutely beautiful. The ’40s music was staggering. I still love it. Then, you ran into rock and roll. Jazz was a big part of my adolescence. It taught me how to think in terms of improvisation. It taught me about the fluidity of trusting your instincts, and not necessarily having to plan every move ahead of time, hoping that you have learned enough to have something come out that is good.
Rail: What was going on in animation when you entered the business?
Bakshi: Animation today is so overwhelmingly dominated by money. I entered the business when it was in a state of crisis. Television had opened up, but the animation for television was very limited animation. The industry as a whole was being destroyed because of television. The theaters were not buying shorts anymore, which had been the biggest part of the business. With the exception of Disney, there were no animated features being made. Walt Disney was considered God. He was everything. He was an anti-Semite. He was brilliantly commercial. He ran his studio like a little fiefdom. Every animator in the business wanted to work for Disney and wanted to be as good as Disney. Anyone who wasn’t working for Disney was considered crap. I had to yell at the guys at my own studio, Terrytoons, because they thought their work was terrible. I kept telling them that their stuff was great.
Rail: What paradigms were you trying to overturn?
Bakshi: When I entered the business, the world was changing. The civil rights movement was starting. As a young animator, I encountered Miles Davis and writers like Burroughs and Kerouac. I don’t think they’re great writers, but I felt they were trying to change things. I was changing as a person and as an animator. I felt that content was very important. Drawing is important, but it’s not everything. The animators at Terrytoons basically lived to move their characters well. They did not care what the character was doing. I found that to be outrageous. Disney was so successful because he spent a fortune on moving stuff. My animators produced about 30 feet of footage a week. Disney’s animators produced about a foot and a half to five a week. The difference is overwhelming. However, if I may brag, my movies have played for 35 or 40 years. They were done for a million dollars with no pencil tests. You cannot get any cheaper than that. They have played longer and made more fans than most of the Disney films that cost tens of millions of dollars. Sure, Pinocchio and Snow White were brilliant, but you don’t hear about most of the other Disney films anymore.
It was not easy fighting the studios, fighting Disney. I was labeled a pornographer. The top Disney animators said that I was destroying animation. I could not believe it. I was just saying what I wanted to say. I do not know what the big deal was. The guys that saved me were all the animators who were looking for work when the smaller animation studios were closed down. I was able to hire all these great animators who had made shorts for Warner Brothers and MGM. I always thought they were better than the Disney animators. They had to work faster than Disney’s animators. Also, I always thought that Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny were much better than Disney crap. All those great animators, like Manny Perez, came and worked for me. They loved what they were doing and they backed me. If they had not stood behind me, I would have had to go to Russia [Laughs.] They worked hard. They had to do it right the first time—the only time—and they did, to the best of their abilities. We got pictures out that were impossible to get out. Those pictures are still playing. I wish those guys were around. I was not trying to save the business. I was trying to find my voice. It certainly was a Brownsville voice. All the things I did growing up went into my movies. All my work came out of my wanting to find my voice.
Rail: One of the things that I have always thought set your films apart are the strong political critiques in your work. Do you see that as central to your work?
Bakshi: Absolutely. Heavy Traffic had sequences about garbage polluting the world. It also talked about the American and Russian arms race. At the time that I made Wizards, I saw fascism rising again and also dealt with the rise of terrorism. I even had a scene in Wizards where the elves get sent to a concentration camp, but Fox forced me to take it out. Coonskin dealt with the fact that the mafia was pushing drugs in the inner city, the disenfranchisement of the black community, and also all of the bullshit revolutionaries. Of course, Miss America is a major character in that film—little did I know she would turn out to be Sarah Palin. [Laughs.] I used the character of the cop Madigan to talk about racism. His own racism kills him.
Rail: Many animated films seem to talk down to their audiences, but your work engages complex social and political issues. What kind of audience were you trying to address?
Bakshi: That’s an interesting question. Let me be clear about this. I have been in a thousand meetings, in a thousand studios. All directors and writers lie. They make movies about lying. They try to tame the masses. They write about what they think will make money. They are writing to entertain people in theaters. They are not writing about what they really feel. I never thought in those terms. I just wanted to write about what I thought was right. Pandering to an audience never entered my mind. I was not sitting there thinking about who is sitting in the theaters watching my picture. My whole attitude has been, “I hope you like my picture. I really want you to like my picture. But, if you don’t, I don’t give a shit.” I did lie to the motion picture companies about what the pictures were about. I told the studios that Heavy Traffic would be another Fritz the Cat. My sell for the movie companies was nothing like the end result. I didn’t mind if I didn’t tell the truth to the motion picture companies.
If I make another picture, I want to make sure that this picture is something I want to make and believe in. I never considered the audiences and that’s not safe when trying to sell a movie. But, you cannot consider the audiences. It becomes lying. To me the worst thing in the world is that people are not marching in the streets because of all the lies they are being told today. I have tried to comprehend it. It is overwhelming to me. Apparently, people do not mind lies.
Rail: You often talk about the other artists you have worked with over the years. There seems to be a real effort on your part to look at animation as a collaborative effort.
Bakshi: One of the things I detested about Disney was that you never were told who animated and directed the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia. Who directed Pinocchio? The only guys who ever took the credit in the animation business were the producers. Walt Disney had some of the most brilliant artists and directors that ever walked on this planet working for him. They are the guys that actually made the movies. It was not done by Walt alone, but he kept that quiet. That affected me. I tried my best to never be that. Animation is a collaborative medium. Animation is a bunch of great artists who work together like an orchestra. You do not go anywhere without animators liking what they are doing. You have to give them freedom, respect their work, and tell them how great they are.
When I made Heavy Traffic,I was the first writer/director in the history of animation to take the credit from the producer and he sued me. He fired me, but had to put me back on because Sam Arkoff, the head of American International Pictures, told him that they bought the picture because I was working on it. So I won big time. That’s when I got my full credit for writing/directing. I wanted to shake loose from the producers. But, we have now gone back to the old days where all you see is the producer. The guys today have changed. The animators working for studios like Pixar make an awful lot of money. They don’t really care about not getting credit. I come from a different generation. Art was important; money was not. The kids today like the money. They don’t care what they are doing. They do it well, but doing Toy Story 3 and Cars 2—what is this shit?
Rail: Why do you think that is?
Bakshi: It’s very different from my days when animators—the good ones—had much more fire in their stomachs. Things are different. People are not marching in the streets over the financial crisis. In my day, you would have had riots day in and day out. That is why I am making this film, The Last Days of Coney Island. It discusses the new America versus the old. Ethically, we have got to get back on track. That is why I am animating again. I want to take one more crack at what is going on out there.
Rail: One of the distinctive features of your work is the use of rotoscoping—tracing over live action footage—to blend film and animation. What prompted you to incorporate other techniques into your work?
Bakshi: To tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell I had to find new ways to do it. If Heavy Traffic did not have that live action background of the Lower East Side, it wouldn’t have felt the same. Jackson Pollock said, “To paint different pictures, you’ve got to find new material.” Well, to make animation move away from Disney and Warner Brothers, you have to find new ways to do it that help tell your stories. I needed impact. I needed believability. In my day, when Bugs Bunny ran into a tree, he just stood up and walked away. When a character died in my films, I had to let the audience know that these people were really dead. Of course, I was also trying to artistically break barriers by using collage. Different styles in the same pictures never bothered me. I mix and marry styles that are emotionally right for the scene. My style came from Brownsville. It came from the dirt on the floor. It came from the paint. It came from the old wood. It came from these things being mixed together. It was not the clean suburb with trees and leaves falling perfectly on a block.
Rail: Computer animation has become the dominant technique in animated films. Is something being lost by the move to new technology?
Bakshi: Content is most important to me. Technique is second. I always want to point to what is being said. When I do a painting, I do not care if it is made with watercolors, oils, or tempera. It is what is on the canvas that counts. In Wizards II, my cartoon character up against computer technology is going to look pretty amazing. If I used computer technology in Wizards, all of those tanks would have been even more overwhelming to the elves, which were drawn in this old style. I think there is a great deal of untapped potential in working with computers. Wizards II will use computer animation to animate the destructive technology to show the clash. I don’t know if we are loosing anything by using computers. I don’t mind things moving forward. I don’t like when they move backwards with the kinds of stories that are being told.
Rail: All your movies touch on issues of social and economic inequality as well as rising militarism. Is there still a space for animation to serve as social criticism?
Bakshi: At some point, someone found out that you could lie to the people and they don’t care. When I was growing up, we had writers like Norman Mailer and James Baldwin who had something to say. Today, I don’t think words could change anything. Everyone has got a blog and everyone’s screaming about what they think. I think the big powers found that they could lie through their teeth and they’re not called on it. I don’t know if animation can change anything. I don’t know if anybody could change anything. I don’t know where our heroes are. Someone’s got to put money aside and put his life on the line and do it. That’s what has to be done. It’s very dangerous now to go against the Rush Limbaughs of the world. Kennedy, King, think of all the guys that were killed for trying to say something. There are no more great authors anymore that care about this stuff. Everyone is trying to get famous. I don’t know if anyone can change anything. I made a short on Mitt Romney and put it on YouTube. It got taken off. I’m doing another one on Halliburton fucking over America. I’m just an empty vessel.
Rail: You’ve mentioned your current projects. Could you say a bit more about the themes you are going to deal with?
Bakshi: Last Days of Coney Island is about what’s wrong today. The best days of Coney Island were when immigrants poured in. It was the place to go. America was great and there was a future. Wizards II is definitely about Iran building the bomb and the threat of terrorism. I open up Wizards II trucking through Auschwitz, through the dead bodies, with dead Jews. I put that footage of bodies being thrown into ditches after the camps were liberated. My narrator is a woman, she says, “Here died the cure for cancer; the next great piece of music.” What died in Auschwitz wasn’t just Jews. It was the future of our planet. And here we go again. We’ll see if I get the money. I’m trying to get the picture started. That’s where I’m at today. I’m back.