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Ralph Bakshi: Still Cutting Free and Being Honest

The director of classics like ‘Heavy Traffic’ and ‘Fritz the Cat’ opens up to crowd at retrospective screening.

'Heavy Traffic' (1973). All images courtesy of Ralph Bakshi.

An artist has got to cut free and just sit with themselves
- Ralph Bakshi

Bakshi’s art has been shaped by the culture of his 1950’s childhood. He came of age in a time of jazz, improv and free form exploration. These influences are often seen in Bakshi’s work as scenes flow together and animation styles change throughout a single film. As a child, he learned to follow his gut, and he still creates his art that way today. Legendary animation director Ralph Bakshi joined a group of loyal fans this past weekend at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to watch a selection of his films and answer questions. During the interview between his films Heavy Traffic (1973) and American Pop (1982), the director shared artistic advice that he lives his life by to this day.

Bakshi shared that when crafting his films, he refuses to follow a formula. He believes his films are honest, and that honesty arrives not by attempting to craft a story, but by taking characters and situations from real life and depicting them as they really are. This is why he refuses to use storyboarding, an industry standard process in creating the story of an animated film. According to the director, storyboarding is a process of construction, which strips the honesty from a film. Though the constructed film may be good, only honest films stand the test of time.

It’s not surprising that he believes when a film is made the right way, the characters will talk to the writer. Bakshi explains that this doesn't happen at the beginning - normally it happens half way through production. But when it happens, he says, you know you are creating the right film. You also learn that you must go back and change a lot of the film to fit the newly discovered characters. As seen throughout major animation studios such as Pixar, a film will be better for it.

Bakshi’s refusal to look at the work of other animators was probably the most insightful advice the artist shared. Arising from his insistence on following his gut, Bakshi maintains a highly trained focus on staying true to himself. He believes viewing the work of other animators could skew his own. If an animator watches another, they will attempt to emulate the work, and nothing new will come of it. According to Bakshi, modern animators just emulates each other. In order to preserve his personal animation style, he refuses to watch other animators. Instead he looks for inspiration in other art forms, but when working in the same medium, “an artist has got to cut free and just sit with themselves.”

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Luke Kelly is an aspiring animation producer and contributor to Animation World Network.

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