Rogue Animator: An In-Person Tribute to Ralph Bakshi

By on March 27, 2015

Tonight, and tomorrow night, March 27-28, rogue animator/artist/writer/director/producer Ralph Bakshi will be appearing at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, presented by the American Cinemateque in conjunction with the USC School of Cinema Arts, the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA/Hollywood), to discuss his films.

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On Friday night, 3/27, there will be a screening of Heavy Traffic, Bakshi’s 1973 follow-up to his first success, Fritz The Cat, which will then be followed by Bakshi’s 1981 film American Pop. There will be a discussion in between the films with Bakshi, who will also be showing a clip from his long-awaited new film, The Last Days of Coney Island.

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On Saturday night, 3/28, Bakshi returns with another incredible double feature, starting with his 1978 film The Lord Of The Rings, — hailed by director Peter Jackson as the inspiration for his own live-action Lord of the Rings movies — followed by a new archival print of Bakshi’s post-apocalyptic epic fantasy of peace and magic, Wizards, from 1977. Bakshi will again be at the Aero for a discussion between the two screenings.

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More info here:

The Aero Theatre is located at 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica, CA, 90403.

We here at Night Flight are big fans of Ralph Bakshi and his adult-themed western animation films which have always had a profound social and artistic impact, no matter their subject matter. Stylistiically, Bakshi’s films have always been diverse, but looking back at them now they appear like windows into the American psyche of the 70s and 80s. His films have dealt with social issues like sex, race, class and identity in ways that often made people uncomfortable, sometimes angry – even today. He showed us the sides of society many of us did not want to see or acknowledge because viewing them forced us to confront some of the complexities in ourselves.

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Bakshi worked as an animator at the Terrytoons studio in New York City, where he spent ten years animating characters such as Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, and Deputy Dawg. At the age of 29, he was hired to head the animation division of Paramount Pictures as both writer and director, where he produced four experimental short films. He held down this job for eight months before learning that the the entire division was to be shuttered soon, prompting his quick departure from the company, but by then he had decided he wasn’t really interested in the kind of animation he’d been working on.

In 1967, he started Bakshi Productions, with producer Steve Krantz, and moved his studio to Los Angeles, where he began to develop the kinds of personal stories that moved him, stories that had some kind of social and political impact. Bakshi was quoted later in a 1971 article for the L.A. Times as saying that the idea of “grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous.”

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His first idea was to produce Heavy Traffic, but unfortunately he couldn’t get anyone to fund the film because of his lack of film experience. He eventually came across Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, while browsing the East Side Book Store on St. Mark’s Place. Bakshi was impressed by Crumb’s sharp satire, which took on the topics of college life, race relations, free love and left-and right-wing politics — so he bought a copy and showed it to Krantz, telling him that he thought it would work as a film (the story of Fritz concerned the hedonistic adventures of an anthropomorphic cat living large in the big city, and it was perfectly suited for additional sociopolitical consciousness).

The success of Fritz the Cat in 1972 — it became both the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA and as the most successful independent animated feature of all time, grossing to date close to $200 million — allowed Bakshi to finally sell the idea of completing Heavy Traffic, which he released in 1973.

Heavy Traffic is kind of a weird coming of age film set in the dark underbelly of New York City, using photographs of the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Harlem and tracing over them with a Rapidograph to give backgrounds a sense of stylized realism. Bakshi used canted angles and fisheye lenses to shoot scenes in animated films, and documentary recordings were used for dialogue rather than having actors read from a scripted text. Bakshi would record people in bars and restaurants with battery-run recorders to capture natural ambient sound. Sometimes he would hire people to read the lines or he would ask them leading questions to get them to say certain things back to him in order to get the line he was looking for in the movie. The film mixed both live action footage and photographs, and cel and rotoscope animation — in fact, Bakshi truly pioneered the use of rotoscoping in the late 70s films Wizards and The Lord of the Rings, which look practically psychedelic and definitely dated — but in a good way.

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In 1976, after having made several films which are now classified as his “street films” — Fritz, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey Good Lookin’(which wasn’t released until much later) — Bakshi pitched a new film, War Wizards, to 20th Century Fox, which he thought conceptually would be a more family-oriented film. George Lucas, who was also working on a film with “war” in the title at the time, asked Bakshi to drop the word from his title and just name it Wizards. Bakshi agreed because Lucas had allowed Mark Hamill to take time from Lucas’s movie, Star Wars, to voice an elf in Wizards.

Bakshi released Wizards in 1977 and it began smashing box office records – until Star Wars was released, that is. Fox was distributing both films and, after seeing Star Wars break the records that Wizards had just set, removed Wizards from their theaters and replaced it.

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Buoyed by the success of Wizards, Bakshi took a trip to England to meet with J.R.R. Tolkien’s daughter to secure the rights to create a film based on The Lord of the Rings. Bakshi wanted to release the film as The Lord of the Rings Part One as he only completed half of the trilogy. United Artists told him they were going to release the film as The Lord of the Rings, because they felt audiences wouldn’t pay to see half a film. History — and Peter Jackson — would later prove them wrong.

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We should pause here to note that music was always vitally important to his films. Originally, Bakshi had planned to use some of Led Zeppelin’s music — such as “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin IV — in The Lord Of The Rings, but he was unable to secure the rights. However, his next film, American Pop, from 1981, featured songs by the Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, Bob Seger and others. American Pop brought in $8 million at the box office.

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The success of Wizards, Lord of the Rings, and American Pop finally gave Bakshi enough money to release Hey Good Lookin’ in 1982, seven year’s after its completion.

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Let it be said his animated films were not without their flaws — they were not then, and are not now, meant for everyone — but Bakshi was never trying to be a Disney for the masses. Sometimes they presented images that were too raw, intense, ugly and violent for most people, but that’s just the way life is, isn’t it? By mixing political and social commentary in his storylines, Bakshi elevated the animated film to a different plane of existence.

Bakshi’s influence on animation and technology with his use of rotoscoping, street audio and his social and poltiical perspectives have paved the way for adult cartoons, which in turn had a big influence and helped paved the way for popular animated TV shows, like The Simpsons and South Park and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. There’s much more to tell of Bakshi’s story, but we will be coming back to him again and again, you can be sure of that.

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Bonus:

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.