One of America’s greatest animators still has passion, drive and stories worth telling.
Since the release of his first animated feature, Fritz the Cat, in 1972, Ralph Bakshi has been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism. Once considered the anti-Disney, he spent decades both working within and chafing against the established world of entertainment, battling to finance his rough, gritty stories about the destructive foibles of the human race.
Notoriously cantankerous and “difficult" in an industry where creative risk is often defined as pairing brown shoes with a blue suit, Ralph has never been one to back down from a fight, legal, verbal or otherwise. Yet despite the controversy, the battles and the tsuris, he has been adored by legions of fans who love his work for the exact reason many animation “critics” have deplored it – it’s not “pretty,” it’s in your face, it’s raw, unapologetic and often uncomfortable. Which all suits him just fine.
Now, the 74 year-old artist and filmmaker is back from a self-imposed hiatus to mix things up once again with a new short film, Last Days of Coney Island and plans for Wizards II. In the few short weeks since this interview took place, Ralph’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the short’s completion raised a tad under $175,000, almost $10,000 more than the $165,000 he was seeking, certainly a sign his vision is still credible, relevant and appealing. I recently had a chance to talk with Ralph at length about his career, his recent fights with certain bloggers in the animation community and his desire to get back to what he does best – tell it like it is.
Dan Sarto: I met you for a split second in Ottawa this past fall when you spoke at the animation festival. I really enjoyed your interview and Q&A discussion.
Ralph Bakshi: Thanks. I had a very nice time. It was great.
DS: Your Ottawa session was fantastic. I truly appreciated the honest discussion. There aren’t many people in our business that feel “free” to talk. It’s very hard for people to really speak their mind. Everybody has some affiliation, everybody wants to be polite and not cause problems for themselves. So honest and frank discussion about issues is not always possible. But your talk was such a breath of fresh air.
RB: Well I appreciate that. What you’re saying, it’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. Everyone being attached to everyone else’s blog. Either you’re part of that club or not. A couple of guys said to me that if you don’t act right they don’t put you up on their blog. It’s kind of worse now than it was when I was fighting Disney, if you want to know the truth. So it’s interesting you should say that.
DS: We live in a weird time with regards to the media. There is no shortage of access to what people say and do. But finding content of substance, that’s not so easy. Lots of people in the animation business have blogs and specialty websites. They write about properties they like, they’re into a certain animation style or a certain period of animation. Everybody has their slant and interest, even me…
RB: Wow, where did you come from?
DS: I’ve been doing this for a while.
RB: I’ve been thinking that through, it’s incredible. I was just going through the whole thing in my head that you’re talking about. Continue please, it’s great. I love this, I’m serious.
DS: Well I appreciate that. You know, I don’t have an axe to grind in what I do. I’m always interested in learning and listening to what people have to say. Even people that have viewpoints and perspectives that aren’t necessarily popular. I’ve always felt that if you’re credible in your actions then you have a right to say what you’re going to say. Many people are seriously into their animation, cartoons and comics. They’re into collecting, the history…they are really invested. Often they feel an ownership in a certain sense of what’s relevant in that universe, and they get very protective. They don’t like interlopers, they’re not always open-minded about things. You can see it in what they write about and what they publish. I often refer to them as “fan boys” and sometimes I myself have felt I’m on the outside looking in. If you’re not one of the chosen…if you’re not with us you’re against us...
RB: I don’t believe you’re saying this. Well, I’ll give you a few insights into what you’re saying. I wasn’t going to talk about it. I asked my wife about it and she said stay above it, but not if you push. I said OK. But now that you’re saying what I was thinking about, or angry about, or wondering about, there are many things to discuss. First of all the big movement today is everyone has discovered UPA.
RB: OK, so UPA is back and everyone is copying UPA. I’ve always respected and appreciated other artists and I’ve loved their work, and told them that even when they were alive. Most of these bloggers discuss people they love after they’re dead. So UPA is very, very big. Design is very big and everyone is copying UPA. When I came into the business, everybody was copying Disney and if you moved away from that you were the enemy.
RB: …as I was. Now everyone is copying UPA and I am the enemy again. I laugh. Look at all the major animation blogs that wouldn’t even discuss my stuff because they don’t understand what I’m doing. What I’m doing, what art has taught me, is you respect everything, then you reach out for something on your own. All these rip-offs of Clampett and Warner Bros. and UPA have now become the property of these people, and if you’re not part of that community they don’t want you. Instead of battling Disney now I am suddenly battling bloggers. Except that large groups of audiences seem to love that I’m still part of the animation business.
If you’re not copying or getting on your knees to the UPA altar, they won’t talk to you, they won’t put you up, they won’t discuss that you’re going on Kickstarter, they won’t run Trickle Dickle. I totally agree with you. I never seek out conformity. I was talking to a guy the other day, an animator, and he said, “Well you know, if you’re not nice they won’t put you on their blogs, they won’t tell other people to go visit you.” So much control! Then of course there is all this stuff about people writing and badmouthing my work, how cheesy this or that is. On a lot of these blogs people say this is disgusting and that’s horrible. There is one major blog where it’s idiotic what they do to people who go out there with their best art. So I don’t. Of course the big studios, Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks advertise on blogs so, yes without the advertising those guys can’t go on I guess so it’s another form of control.
DS: I fall into that category. I just want to let you know upfront I fall into that category as well. We’re an advertiser driven publication and we get advertising from big studios as well. But, it’s never colored what we publish or…
RB: I could hear that in your voice.
DS: …because it’s one thing to say, “I don’t like that particular work,” but it’s another thing to question the credibility of the people involved. That’s different.
RB: Exactly, exactly. Congratulations. You know what, you are the first person I’ve run into, and I’ve been running around for a while, so congratulations. I’ve been up against that…they basically said shut up and go away Ralph. Maybe they are wrong. Congratulations, I felt that way all along. Someone put my Wizards’ 35-year anniversary picture up on a blog, a major blog. That picture was made for a million bucks, using every trick in the book to get an image up on the screen, thirty-five years later people still love it, right? The question the blog asked was, “Do you think this picture holds up in today’s market,” meaning Pixar and the like. And once the blog posed that question, you should have seen the shit, if you pardon the expression, that rolled in.
DS: Oh, I can imagine.
RB: It’s terrible, it’s slow, it’s limited animation. Instead of the blog person not allowing comments to go up, or editing them, you should have seen the crap that they allowed these people to yell at Wizards on Fox’s [20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor] 35th anniversary of my film. Made for a million bucks. That people really liked. That’s the kind of control I’m talking about, that if you want to get publicity you’ve got to bend to the rules of these small time dictators.
DS: That’s the beauty and the curse of the Internet. Little publishing fiefdoms. It allows people to play in a sandbox of their own creation, of their own rules that they can control. Please, don’t get me started…
RB: Me too, because I want to say it’s difficult, it’s difficult, it really is.
DS: It’s wonderful that you are reaching new audiences. One of the beauties of the Internet is that now each new generation has an even greater opportunity to discover vast new worlds of great work, in so many mediums, for the first time. That’s always wonderful and I would imagine, very gratifying to you. I’m 51 and I have two older brothers. We grew up in LA and I remember Fritz the Cat as a kid because it was a topic of conversation at my house. But I was old enough to go see Wizards on my own. I can honestly remember watching that film with my friends at the Studio Theatre in Studio City. For a young punk like me, it was awesome. As I recall, we all thought it was really cool. There was no consideration or even context regarding whether that film cost a hundredth what a Disney film cost, or was 50 times more expensive. It wasn’t even part of the discussion. It’s not really relevant now.
RB: I know. Thank you.
DS: So, let’s discuss the Kickstarter campaign. In Ottawa, you talked about your new short film, Last Days of Coney Island as well as plans for the future. Can you tell me a little bit about the latest?
RB: I’ll tell you a lot about that if you want. Yes, Kickstarter is amazing. My mouth drops open from what you can do, the fact that Kickstarter is even in existence. I’m 74. The fact that Kickstarter is sitting there and can finance artistic endeavors, through people who like your work, it’s stunning. I have a son who teaches animation, who started a course at New Mexico University. He was at a seminar for young kids going into college, and some 10-year-old kid gets up in the audience and says, “Are you Ralph Bakshi’s father?”
RB: My son called me and says, “They’re 10 years old and they know who you are.” I was stunned and so was he. [Getting project funding through] Kickstarter is a great opportunity for me to experiment in styles, continue the voice that’s forever going on in my head, in a sense, to fight. Not to fight physically. Really, I believe that everyone should make what they want to make in any style they want to make it. What’s important is what the pictures have to say and not how they’re made. Not the techniques they’re made with. I could care less whether it’s computer or hand drawn or puppets. What are you trying to say and what are you trying to say that’s different from Bob Clampett, that’s different than Disney? What are you doing that’s yours?
If you grow up with painters like I did, if you understand art, you know that art is learning from everyone. Everyone is your master and everyone should be respected. But then you have to move out on your own, you have to drop your teachers, you have to move away. But I don’t see that happening especially with this UPA craze.
UPA made the most boring bunch of cartoons in the world. I was there! They were on Sunday afternoon. Except for a few, maybe a handful, most of them were just as boring as the Disney shorts. A lot of them were pretentious, so I am not a big fan. The design was great and the style was great in all of them. But so what? I mean, the shorts themselves were not saying anything new to a great degree. So Kickstarter has allowed me an opportunity to write about people, write about character, and write about what’s happened to America. There is a dwarf in Last Days of Coney Island who thinks he’s God. He’s a little short guy, he runs around working for the Mafia. It’s all about what was going on in America from 1950 to 1960 and how it made our attitudes a certain way and how we reacted and didn’t react to things. I’m doing things I’ve never done before with styles I’ve never used before.
You know, when I was trying to find an animator to help me, all these ex-Disney animators sent me their stuff. It looked good. But with that Disney Aladdin shit - excuse me - that Disney Aladdin stuff and all those feature films done in the 80s and 90s, it was so boring, it was so perfect. I finally found a young woman who lived two years in Singapore, has a rather crude animation style, self-taught. Her name is Colleen Cox and she did some of the funniest animation I had ever seen in my life. It’s not perfect, but it’s honest, it’s coming from her, it wasn’t trying to copy anything, it was an honest piece about how she felt about something, without it leaning towards Disney or UPA or anything. That’s the kind of people I love to work with. Those are the kind of people that aren’t part of the pack.
The Disney guys reacted in horror and disbelief because I didn’t hire them. All of them said to me, which is embarrassing, “Could you imagine if I worked with you in the old days how much better your films would have been?” I said, “So what do you mean?” and they said, “Well, you know, the animation wasn’t very good.” I said, “Guys, you’re really good at this so I’m not hiring you.” Their animation was good enough and exactly wrong for what the material was. The material was raw, it was on the street, it was unslick and so the great animation is for what? I was able to do what I did because I didn’t care about being great like you guys.
I plan to put up all this stuff up on the Internet. I’m not looking to push it any further. I’m not looking to take this and do a series, I’m not looking to take this to a motion picture company. I’m not looking to broaden its base. I am going to screen this on the Internet wherever I can. That’s my goal. My goal is to bring animation to the Internet that’s unfiltered by working through a big studio that controls what you do.
RB: You know I took this Last Days of Coney Island to studios who said they would do it, except it’s not merchandisable, there’s nothing in it to merchandise.
RB: I said well OK, I’ll make it for six million dollars. A picture is a picture. It’s still a film, I said. So what we can’t merchandise to adults. The kids don’t need the crap anyhow. So they were very nice to me and that was that. So, I plan to do Wizards II, another short if I get the funding to finish it and show it online and so on and so forth. Kickstarter will allow me to continue to work with creative people in animation and laugh at the guys who think UPA is God. Before I came into the business, UPA was God. That’s why, probably, it’s come full circle back to the same stuff. I don’t mind fighting. I love to fight. I love it because every time I do something like this it gets all my enemies mad. But hey, it keeps me alive. These bastards don’t know what they’re doing for me. I love it [laughs].
DS: [laughs] Going back to your earliest feature work, you obviously had tough, gritty stories to tell, with in-your-face characters. Certainly we live in a different society now than we did 40 years ago when Fritz the Cat came out, but the human condition doesn’t change all that much. Do you think audiences will understand and relate to your storytelling in the same way they did years ago? Do you think people are any more receptive to your storytelling than they were then?
RB: I’ve got to give this thought. I don’t know, but I’m going to find out. That’s my first answer. I don’t know but I’m going to find out. There is a certain lack of integrity today that…
DS: No kidding…
RB: …I say that mildly, that I did not find in my day. In my day a hand shake was a hand shake. He’s an old fart, we know he is an asshole, but a hand shake is a hand shake. You had kids who were more involved in what was going on in the world. Today it seems to be every man for himself. Be careful what you say. Everyone is trying to hook up with each other so be very-very careful. They’re not talking to each other they’re texting, there is no emotion. I don’t know.
But you’ve got to understand that it gives me a perfect opportunity to yell at them. In other words, I never went and did a film to make audiences feel good or happy. I could care less what my audiences cared about. What every big director in Hollywood today is really doing, most of them, they’re creating lies. Now what do I mean by lying? It’s that they get together in a room…I was there so I know…they get together in a room and they say, “OK, how do we make audiences happy? How do we make a film that gets them excited?” So they forget the truth. The truth isn’t the issue anymore. It’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s the reality. A lot of them are very, very successful. When I approach my films, I’m asking myself what am I angry about, what do I want to say to people? Who cares what they think. That’s always my approach. And I’m dying for them [the audience] to show up and see it. Don’t get me wrong. I’d like a Ferrari. I would love to buy a Ferrari and drive around America, you know what I’m saying? There’s nothing wrong with money if you make it honestly. I always wanted audiences to come, I wanted them to like my films. Every artist wants you to like their work. But I didn’t bend my work towards what I thought they would want to see.
So I think the opportunity today, it’s amazing. [In my new films] I’m going to call everyone a bunch of assholes. I’m going to say we sold America down the river. I’m going to say we financed two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan and lost them both, we shouldn’t have been there. But instead of raising taxes on Americans to pay for these wars, we sold our souls and borrowed from China. And everyone just kept on going about their business being yuppies and going out to eat and no one even gave the soldiers a parade when they came home. That’s the kind of fury I feel now. And if people don’t like that I’m telling them that, they can stop watching my films. And if I make a couple of shorts that say that and people don’t want to give me any more money to say that what I have to say, well, I don’t really care. I’m going to find out what they’re thinking about.
RB: I’ve always been that kind of pain in the ass. But, you can’t lie to yourself. Art is about freeing yourself and trying to find out what you’re really thinking about and not what they’re thinking about. It’s very difficult to get through your own bullshit, to get to some sort of minor truth occasionally. That’s why Hemingway killed himself. People lose that ability to be honest and stop copying other artists or saying this is mine now that I put it up my blog, I love UPA so much I must be a genius. I’m a great fan of a certain style so I must be great too. It’s kind of sick. I love all those cartoons that they put up on the blog but I don’t try to take those cartoons over. I respect them, I love them, I learn from them and move on. But I don’t try to suck them dry. I certainly don’t think I am as good as any one of them. What I am trying to say is there are animators out there that feel that way with me. A lot of people must have liked my works I guess, even my attitude about not caring what audiences think. The answer is in my Kickstarter [campaign]. Let’s see if I make it.
DS: Sure. Time will tell.
RB: Let’s see if I get the money. I’m very nervous about this. I’ll be very, very disappointed and embarrassed if I don’t make it [raise his targeted dollar amount on Kickstarter]. My enemies will laugh their heads up if I don’t make the cut, but I’m going to take the chance anyhow.
DS: How do you think audiences have changed in the last thirty or forty years?
RB: Critical thinking in the arts, in film and literature is very, very important. I grew up during a time when there were brilliant film critics, brilliant art critics. There were art movements. All that's gone. That entire movement of critical thinking and discussion is dead. I recently saw the latest James Bond film…
RB: A piece of shit. It was the most horrible, stupid, dumb fucking film I've ever see in my life. All these critics are raving it’s the best Bond. Do you believe this old women and James Bond go to this little house somewhere and make a stand against guys with machine guns and helicopters, putting up light bulbs that explode, do you believe the garbage that that film was? People were saying it should have gotten an Academy Award. It's the worst James Bond ever. It’s so stupid. Where is the criticism? And it was such a huge success! There are so many bad films out there that get these huge audience responses, I think everyone is kind of dumbed down, if you want to know the truth. In my day, there were great films. Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, there were things to discuss. Skyfall, I felt the bottom of my mouth drop open. That’s how bad the movie really was. I mean the ignorance of those chases at the end, they made no sense, absolutely no sense.
So one thing is, I don't know what audiences want but I think criticism and discussion have moved away. The great art critics have moved away and disappeared. Look at the art business, the painting business. You got guys like Damien Hurst selling their work, and audiences are jumping all over it, for billions of dollars. That's not really art. It may be theatre, but it’s not art. But because art criticism has disappeared, everything goes, everything is a masterpiece, everyone’s a hit, everyone is a genius for a couple of weeks and then they're gone. So I mourn the lack of criticism and intellectual discussions on music, on art, on films and I think that has made audiences less aware of what they are watching.
DS: I couldn’t agree more.
RB: It has to do with how do we make them happy and stupid. That's what I said in my Kickstarter film. I don't want to make films that make audiences happy and stupid. I say it right to everyone's face so then they can get mad at me and not give me any money.
DS: Right. Truth in advertising. Do you think that part of that lack of critical thinking and lack of discussion is that in the US, people are much more suspect of alternate views on issues they feel passionate about? Here, it sometimes seems every disagreement is a dividing line used to alienate people of dissimilar views. You see it in every area of public discourse, from politics to religion to the economy to the arts.
RB: Right on.
DS: And it seems like criticism is used to draw up lines of division and…
RB: Absolutely, well said, well said…
DS: So consequently, people take a warring stance as opposed to an intellectual stance about discussing their differences of opinion …
RB: You’re absolutely right. Listen, I grew up in a place called Brownsville, in Brooklyn, OK. I am Jewish. The screaming and the yelling on the street corners, about ideas, people just screaming and yelling at you. Then when it was over, they felt good, you shook hands and they left. You always respected the other guy’s opinion. It was all honest, intellectual conversation. Whoever is right, whoever is wrong, I respect you. What you just said is a 100% right. Today, if you aren’t with me you’re against me.
RB: It's crazy. Well, look at our government falling apart because of it. Look at our government, teetering on the brink of disaster because of that reason alone. Obviously we have changed, obviously our country has changed from back when I grew up. Something has happened. Maybe because so many people have poured in. Look I believe in diversity and I believe everyone should get an education. In my day there were things called vocational schools. That's where I went. If you weren't going to college, there was some place that could prepare you for a job. But if you went to college, you better fucking study. Now college has become a place of big business, a huge business where kids are getting ripped off. Schools are bringing them in by the millions, whether they deserve to be there or not. Why? To get their fees, to get their money. The education has become secondary. It’s this big huge business. Kids stagger out of school owing so much money, they are terrified to have a voice. They need a job. They shut up and take a salary. All of this is hugely bad. It's part of the corruption that has settled into our society, along with the bankers, the politicians, the real estate people and of course, the World Bank. All this dishonor and lack of integrity is costing western civilization a lot.
DS: Yeah, it is. One of my brothers and I, we get together and rail on things. It's one of the few things that I really enjoy in life. We sit and curse this, curse that. Not because…
RB: You have to.
DS: …Not because we're old coots but because you can’t just sit back and let everything objectionable in life pass you by without taking a stand and voicing your concern. Every once in a while you have to put your foot in front of the wagon…
RB: You got to.
DS: …and stop it and say, “OK, this isn’t right. We need to take a closer look at this.” We can't just keep going in this direction solely because we've got inertia. It upsets me deeply, the fact that there is a lack of civility in our society these days. People will say and do anything at any moment without giving it a moment’s thought. The idea of being untruthful, dishonest, lying or being fraudulent, while these are not new issues for our society, suddenly it has become our entertainment. Our society has developed this voyeuristic need to watch people fail, to watch people be deceptive, to watch people be nasty, to celebrate people’s lack of civility. Because the Internet has made every square foot of the world a potential TV studio, anything and everything is fair game. It boggles my mind.
DS: I bemoan this in my own business. There is no money in writing five solid paragraphs on something that might need research and can’t be completed until the next day, when you could write copy three sentences from some other source and be done five minutes later and get it up online or out on your Twitter feed. People used to differentiate themselves with their effort, their moral code, their word, the way they conducted themselves in business, whatever they did. It meant something to do things a certain way, a credible way, whatever that might be.
RB: That's right, that's exactly right. Pride in ownership, absolutely. Do things a certain way…and do them correctly. You know, years ago I yelled at Michael Ovitz. Michael Ovitz, was one of the guys who used to run Hollywood. He started his own agency and he kept getting bigger and bigger. Then he sold out and went to Disney to run it. They finally fired him. I started with him, you know. I said, “Michael, you had a great agency, CAA. You started it, it was yours. You owned it. You built it. You had a shingle out front. Why did you give all that up just to make movies with Michael Eisner?” He tells me, because Michael Eisner was running Disney and he was making more money. He said that to me! My grandfather had a shoe shop in Brownsville. His own shoemaker shop. He put a shingle up. That was our store and we were very proud of it. When I went to the Village and John Coltrane was playing for drinks in the Five Spot off of Second Avenue, he loved his music so much. He was very proud of it.
RB: You know, so that’s what’s changed. People think if you’re straight you are a moron.
DS: Yeah, you’re a rube.
RB: You are an idiot. If you do things right, you are a fucking idiot. But that will change. Steroids in sports, there you go.
DS: Yeah. Like, Lance Armstrong.
RB: Wonderful guy Lance, wonderful guy.
DS: You know… I won't even…
RB: …go on, get dangerous.
DS: No, I won't even get into it. Last question for you…
RB: This has been a fun interview. Go ahead.
DS: When you look back on your body of work, is there anything that gives you a particular sense of personal satisfaction? Whether it was a particular film, a moment in time or a response you received, is there anything that makes you say, “You know what? If that's what I'm known for, if that's the only thing that I got out of it, then that's OK with me.”
RB: Yeah, there is one. That's a good question, thank you. When I watched Fritz the Cat [for the first time as a finished film], that was OK, you know. But when I walked out of Heavy Traffic, I was crying. Making that film, I didn’t have the money for a pencil test or Leica reels. We just animated. I storyboarded myself, timed it with a stop watch then gave it to my animators. Over the year [of production] it would come to me in different pieces, this scene or that scene. They never came in story order. The easy scenes came in first and the heavy scenes came in last. The first time I saw the film cut together, when I finally put it together and screened it for myself, I walked out crying. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea that it would be so strong. I had no idea that it worked. I had no idea that animation could do that.
The big decision, why I didn’t do Fritz the Cat II right away was because I didn't want to do a remake. I wanted to keep moving on. I had this big idea. I wrote and rewrote Heavy Traffic as I went along the entire year of production. The final film had nothing to do with the script I handed into AIP. We kept changing and shifting. The last thing I put in, that I snuck in to Steve Krantz, the producer, was my mother Ida walking around with all those photographs, “You know how beautiful I was…” which is so Jewish and so real. That was snuck in. Then it was thrown out of the picture. Krantz threw it out until I put it back in.
When I walked out of that first screening, I would say that I felt that if it all fell apart now, I'm the happiest guy in the world. That picture was Brooklyn, New York, and so Jewish and so raw. I was shocked! I didn't know I was making that film! You have to understand, it changed and shifted and metamorphosized, very much like an expressionist painting. They paint, they repaint, they paint, they shake out, they scrape and finally it’s finished and they are surprised! When it’s finally finished, they are surprised, I had the same feeling. So that to me was everything.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network