Back-to-Bakshi: The Iconic Animator Looks to Play New Toons
The idea that cartoons are made mostly for kids makes us wanna Ralph.
When we asked Bill Plympton about making full-length animated features for adults, he responded, "One of my gods is Ralph Bakshi, and he was doing this, what, 40 years ago? People seem to have forgotten about him and the success he had with his films." He might be happy to know that we haven't forgotten, and neither have 20th Century Fox or WonderCon: The 35th anniversary Blu-ray of Wizards comes out today (win a copy from us right here), and on St. Patrick's Day this Saturday at 6:30 p.m., you won't need spirits to intoxicate your senses with a screening and Q&A at WonderCon in Anaheim. But before all that, the always-outspoken animator wanted to have a few words with us.
Nerdist News: How are you doing today?
Ralph Bakshi: I'm good. I've had my coffee. Getting ready to come to L.A. at LACMA for Wizards. Then WonderCon, then I'm going to Ottowa for an animation film festival. It's a real racket I got going: they pay my way, put me up in a hotel and I see all these great spots in the world.
NN: Back in 2008 there was some talk of doing a Wizards sequel. Is that still in the works?
RB: I am pushing it real hard. I wanna do a sequel because it was written for a sequel; it was written as a trilogy. I had just finished reading Lord of the Rings when I wrote Wizards. I am trying to get Fox in talks to do it. Now, I hadn't been pushing that hard - I occasionally would talk about it - but Fox has never been more responsive to Wizards than now. The whole feeling is changing. These kids who have come aboard taking care of the Blu-ray have gotten me LACMA, have gotten me some major publicity; they're spending money, and they seem to talk about Wizards fondly, like they understand that it's gotten this great following for 35 years. I've never heard that come outta Fox before, so I'm now officially badgering Fox through people like yourself and telling them I wanna make Wizards 2, because I think it's another franchise like Rings or Star Wars. But I won't do it for a million dollars - I need a budget that's bigger than a million. I'll take a million and a half.
I went to Alan Ladd Jr. and went, "I need $50,000 to finish Wizards," and he said no, I can't have it. They didn't know what fantasy's all about. They did the same thing to Lucas! He wanted 25-30 million for Star Wars. Alan Ladd Jr. said no, so Lucas said, "Okay, I'll put my American Graffiti money in, and I'll renegotiate the contract." Ladd's a schmuck, he renegotiates the contract and Lucas gets all the merchandising back! This is how smart these guys were in the '70s. I needed $50,000 because I came up with this thing called rotoscope, and by the way, if I hadn't finished the picture, they would have sued me. Not only were they not gonna give me $50,000; they were gonna sue my ass, make me give back everything they gave me. They didn't even want the picture. They didn't know what the hell they were doing.
Ned Tanen (at Universal), he's gone now, but I sat behind Ned Tanen when they screened Star Wars for the first time at the director's guild and the poor guy vomited, for real, on the floor - because he had turned it down. And the minute the credits came on and that big ship came in, he knew what Lucas had done, and he got sick. He knew what he had blown, and that's the way it was in those days.
NN: If you had the resources of George Lucas now, would you go in and make changes to Wizards like he's done with Star Wars, to make it closer to what you wanted originally?
RB: No, I'd leave them. I'd certainly make a new round of films that live up to today's appearances, but my films are underground, they're still playing after 35 years. There's a certain f*** you, in-your-face about them. And there's something I've been preaching for a long time: it's not really important about how good is this film done, it's about what it has to say, what kind of heart it has. In my day, animators would never take a million-dollar budget with Fritz or with Wizards, because there wasn't enough money there to do any kind of quality. The guy who did quality was Disney, and you needed $14 million or $20 million to do it, otherwise you were gonna make a fool of yourself. If your animation was bad, then you were an idiot, and you were a tramp.
And I was saying, "It's not about the animation, guys; let's just get something down, give us an opportunity to say something," only because the low budget allowed us to say something without them looking at us. If I did a $20 million film, they'd be all over me. With a million-dollar film, they didn't care what the f*** I was doing. And I did what the f*** I wanted, because I knew that and I took advantage. And I didn't care that anyone laughed at me. Of course the animators laughed at me; some blogs even today, these kids go, "It's trash, he can't tell a story." But we didn't have pencil tests! We animated it, went straight to color, and if something didn't work you had to throw it out of the film; there was no money to fix it. So a lot of the story points got a little hazy and choppy, because I had to cut around it. Kids won't believe that today.
Now how could we do that? Well, because we had the greatest animators in the world. My guys were old-school, from Warner Bros., from MGM, from Disney's short department - they all came to me, because they were out of a job. And these men were so brilliant, I'd take a storyboard form my desk and they would animate at 30 feet a week. The Manny Perezes, the Virgil Rosses, all the guys that brought you Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck worked for me, and they supported me on a level I can't even begin to imagine. Today, every time you do a drawing you can shoot it and take a look at it at your desk instantly. In our day, I'd shoot a scene, finally, send it to camera, it'd spend five days in camera before they shot it, then they'd shoot it, send it to the lab. Two days later it'd come back as a negative, you'd make a positive, look at it once, and then you'd have to argue with some guy about why you shot it. Today, computer animation is shot instantly, and that's why it's so good. The level of animation today is spectacular. I can't believe what I'm looking at sometimes.
NN: Are you interested in using CG, or are you still old-school, hand-drawn only?
RB: It's a good question, and it's about what's happening. What is it about? It's only to be used if it's right for the story. I've seen a lot of stuff companies have done that's just CGI that were horrific. Take Wizards: could you imagine the technology in Wizards being CGI, and the animation being old-school? I'm trying to make the point that magic is battling technology - how great is that? The metaphor, what it's about: if after the fairies and everything, you get into CGI, it's a perfect use of CGI in combination with graphic arts. I've seen a lot of science-fiction films on Netflix - God's greatest gift to directors - and the technology is hard-edged, alien Borg kind of stuff, but they shoot the humans on Earth the same way, and they're missing a great opportunity to have the contrast. It depends what the story is, what technique you should use. Let the tail wag the dog, ya know? But what they're putting up on the screen is mind-boggling. I've seen stuff even on the TV shows where they drop in all the backgrounds and bluescreen 'em; it's really gone ahead in leaps and bounds.
NN: You see a lot of motion-capture animation now. Do you see that as an extension of the rotoscope techniques you were using, or are they different things to you?
RB: Well, I saw a film on Netflix...I'm reading Philip K. Dick for the first time; I was too busy in the '70s making films. The man's an unbelievable writer, one of the most creative minds I've ever read in science fiction. I saw A Scanner Darkly, and it's too real. If you're gonna get that real you might as well just shoot it live. They missed a wonderful opportunity to do L.A., the seediness of it with those backgrounds, that's an indication of what it could have been like. Living and working in L.A. was really what the film was about, and I would use that.
Is it an extension of rotoscope? Yes, it is rotoscope exactly. But rotoscope, if you're tracing your live-action too closely, it's ugly. I mean, I don't love rotoscope, but I needed it to do Lord of the Rings with the amount of work and no budget; it was a cheaper way to achieve animation on a realistic level. But if you did it too closely, it was horrible looking! Guys who could interpret the photograph rather than tarcing it exactly did the best job for me. Motion capture, if it gets too close to live action, you should go shoot the movie. I mean, what are you doing? Motion control thrown into a live-action picture works well - all those Orcs in (Peter Jackson's) Lord of the Rings were motion-capture, and that's fine; it's the same medium. But an animated film - I wouldn't bother with it.
NN: What did you think overall of the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings?
RB: I didn't see it. I saw a couple of scenes, but it was too hard to watch. I was angry over it. I don't know how he had the rights to do it; I'm not sure what came down there. I keep putting my finger on the Netflix button and I'm afraid to push it. I'm afraid he did it better than me. I don't want to see that. He made a lot more money, too.
NN: One thing that strikes us watching Wizards today is that it might not get a PG rating. Elinore's outfit would draw fire, and all of the blood...
RB: No question about it! I totally agree with you. I don't know how I got it in there.
NN: Was it a struggle for the rating at the time, or have we just backslid in what we tolerate?
RB: No, because basically they were just happy to see me stop cursing! I'm dead serious - they were so happy, they thought I'd reformed, that I'd changed my wicked ways from Hey Good Lookin' and Traffic and Street Fight...they were so pleased I was doing fairy tales that they let it slide. I don't know how the hell I got away with that. I personally don't think it's wrong for a kid to see the body, I dunno, I just don't. To me there's nothing wrong with it. But to the world at large, there should have been.
NN: When are we, as a culture, going to get past the idea that animation is just for kids? Do you think we're getting there at all?
RB: I dunno, you know, they're slaughtering people in Syria and we're sitting on our hands. When are we as a culture gonna understand we can't allow that? Everyone's telling Israel to be cool about the atom bomb, but they're not sitting there waiting to get wiped off the face of the earth by the Iranians. Everyone's got another take on what people should be doing. Global warming? Rush Limbaugh says, "Ahhh, it ain't happening." The seas are dying, yet people say the fish'll be there forever. You got this guy running for president who thinks church and state should be together; he thinks Kennedy made a huge mistake keeping them separate. What are we doing here as human beings? Something's gotta change. We're getting worse and worse as far as what we are allowing ourselves to think about. Greed has totally taken over this country. The housing bubble, the gaps between rich and poor people. It's unbelievable!
How about those issues to make movies about? And as far as edging toward animation: why give up those lucrative markets of merchandising? I'm walking through Wal-mart every time there's an animated film out, and I sit there vomiting at the waste and uselessness of those plastic toys that they're trying to sell. Who needs that crap? Why can't we stop? It's thinking only of commerce. Bernie Madoff walks around robbing everyone, everyone else is getting in on the game. I don't like where we're going. So I'm not surprised - there's too much merchandising that you don't get if you do adult animation. You can't sell dolls. I'm a Beatnik, out of the '50s and '60s. Some of the social issues I go after are different from what people go after today. A lot of guys are trying every now and then - I don't think it's hopeless.
NN: With that said, if you get the Wizards sequel going are you gonna resist merchandising on it?
RB: Good question. Well, if I get the Wizards sequel going, it's gonna be their money and I'm gonna have nothing to say about it. When you take someone else's money, they're gonna call the shots. If I could get in my contract good merchandising versus bad merchandising...But they would give me the movie to do. So it's something I'm gonna have to consider. I guess in this particular case, I probably would let merchandising go to get the film made to have the kind of ideas which I'm discussing with you now: the heating of the Earth, the terrorism, how greedy we all got...if I could say that in the film. Yes. I just thought of it now: if the film had something important to say, then merchandising, I could live with that. If the film has nothing important to say, with sh**ty merchandising on top, I can't live with that.
NN: What's the latest on the Robert Rodriguez Fire and Ice remake?
RB: He comes to me, says he wants to do Fire and Ice as a live-action picture. I say absolutely, anyone stupid enough to wanna do that film, go right ahead. And he asks if I wanna be involved creatively, I go "no." I wouldn't do the picture without my buddy Frank (Frazetta). Frank would love to have done it live. And I got a nice cut coming to me if he sells his film, but I don't know what he's doing with it. I don't want any part of the creativity - he's on his own with it. I wish him good luck with it - I think he's right, it's another Avatar.
NN: He's also doing Heavy Metal; it seems like he's looking to acquire older animated films for adults. Has he asked you about your other films?
RB: That's news to me. No, Fire and Ice is the only one. I haven't heard a word about it, so I was getting a little concerned that he canceled it altogether. By the way, it's a great idea - he should do Wizards live!
NN: Aside from Wizards, are there any other projects you're working on right now?
RB: I've got a script called Last Days of Coney Island. It's a detective murder-mystery taking place at Coney Island in the '50s, but what it's about is the disintegration of what's happening to us. I sent it in to Sony; they said , "it's ridiculous, we can't do this. We all love the script, but we can't do this. It's not a family film." I said, "it's an R-rated movie, you knew what the game was," and they said, "well, we can't do it." I put it back in the drawer. That happened about six months ago. I went to a big animation agency, that represents everyone in the business, sent them the script. they all laughed at me. My pictures are still playing, 35 years later, but now we can't do this?
NN: Would it be feasible to do something like that independently? Get together some animators who could put together something on their home computers?
RB: I love what you're saying. You know, I would, but I'm 73 and I don't have the strength that I used to. That would be the way to go. I'm sorry that I have to go talk to these people that have the money. Let me be clear: I'm an artist, and I'm having a wonderful time drawing and painting. I have shows in New York and L.A. and once in a while I sell a painting. I'm living a good life. For me to go back to battle at 73 would be physically hard and mentally too tough. I didn't walk out of the business on a high note; I crawled out. I got chopped up, I was screamed and yelled at, I was sued four times, so I left very battered. I'd love to do an independent; I need to have an independent producer call me.
You wanna hear the truth? I did Fritz the Cat, and I'm being invited to the Dallas Film festival. I get picked up in a limousine, and sitting in the car with me was a guy called Frank Capra. He's telling me all the pictures that he made, and I'm incredulous; I'm a young kid, and Frank Capra's telling me now he can't get a picture made. I don't quite understand this. And then I'm on Melrose Avenue, on Wizards, and a restaurant opened up called Ma Maison, French restaurant. I think, great, I'm tired of eating at Canter's every day. So I go, and sitting in the restaurant is me, Wolfgang Puck - who became a great friend of mine - and a big fat man, tremendous fat man called Orson Welles. And we're sitting there, the three of us, and he's telling me how he can't get a picture made. And I don't believe it again; it's the second time in my life I'm sitting with brilliance, guys I love, who can't get a picture made. They knew who they were talking to, those guys; they knew I was next in line. It's happening to me now, and I know how incredulous they felt. Nobody wants me around, I guess.
NN: Well, the advantage you have is that with the internet, you can talk directly to the fans and know that there are many of them out there.
RB: Thank you for that. I'm relieved. I feel I failed, but I did not fail. It's amazing how good I feel about what people say about my old films. It's amazing, every film I've ever made is on YouTube. Every piece of every film! It's a good feeling. I got beat up, and I'm laughing at these people not wanting to make a film with me. Believe me, I'm not crying. I'm laughing about it. My God, can you imagine working with these guys? Forget it. I don't know what to say. I'm having a lot of fun, though, talking again. If you hear I've released Wizards 2, we'll have a party or something.
Win your copy of Wizards on Blu-ray right here.