The voice comes out brass and booming, reverberating with vintage aged-in-concrete Brooklyn tone: "Stop calling me animation. I hate animation! I want to be real!" The speaker is Ralph Bakshi (you were expecting maybe Walt Disney?), the brazen creator of such abrasive fantasies as "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic." "I don't consider myself animation; I'm not in animation anymore," he goes on, having fun. "I'm in the moving-painting business now."
The specific moving paintings Bakshi is referring to is his long awaited version of one of the great cult items of modern times, J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," a trilogy that has captivated everyone in the English speaking world with the possible exception of Edmund Wilson, who dared call it "an overgrown fairy story, a philological curiosity."
At a cost of $7 million plus, "Lord of the Rings," which opens Wednesday at the Dupont Circle, is Bakshi's most expensive project to date, one he hopes will expand both the audience for and the technical perimeters of animation. Judging by its first public screening, however, the film is as exasperating as its creator: Sometimes it works magnificently, sometimes it does not.
"Lord of the Rings" does succeed in the most critical of areas, the creation of a self-contained world of its own, an enormously engrossing, totally convincing backdrop for a classically riveting adventure. And Bakshi's realization of the nonhuman characters is always apt, the most effective examples being the slimy, devious, Smeagol and the horrifying, deadly Balrog.
In fact, the more evil the characters get, the better Bakshi is at depicting them, making "Lord of the Rings" one of the most sinister cartoons ever made. Bakshi attributes this affinity for the powers of darkness to his Brooklyn boyhood: "It's like walking home alone down Pitkin Avenue at 3 a.m. Saturday night after a date. Who could forget that?"
Bakshi's interest in "Lord of the Rings" stems from those Brooklyn days and predates even his interest in animation. "I was a true Tolkien fan. I read the triology at least four or five times," he says. "What's wrong with escaping to Middle Earth in the middle of Brownsville?"
Unfortunately, the flaws in "Lord of the Rings" seem to stem from Bakshi's devotion to the original. It is, for one thing, a difficult film for the noninitiates to follow at times, and for another, at 2 hours and 16 minutes, it is clearly too long. Especially tiring are the endless battle scenes, which start to look very much alike and which, Bakshi hinted at a postcreening press conference, may be cut a bit before the film goes into release.
What may be hardest for Tolkien fans to take is that for all its length this film ends just about midway in the trilogy, right after the battle of Helm's Deep and just as Frodo and Samwise are approaching the awful environs of Mordor. As for a possible second part, it is distinctly up in the air at this time.
"Only one movie was shot; the second will come when it comes," Bakshi said at the press conference. Added producer Saul Zaentz, "There are no plans per se, although there have been some preliminary discussions with the script writer."
Bakshi in person is a streetwise, promotion-wise rogue who manages to be charming as well as provocative. He greets a visitor with a raised eyebrow and a wonderfully accented "Nu, what's happening?" and quicly moves to his main occupation, convincing people that "Lord of the Rings" is the most unconventional piece of animation ever to emanate from the mind of man.
"You've never seen anything like this before. I'm not saying this is the world's greatest movie, but is has a shot," is a fair sample of his rhetoric, as is his claim that the technique he used "is a bigger leap for animation than when sound first came to silent films. We've gone right to stereo, that's the leap. It's a new visual experience onscreen. I don't think that; I know."
What Bakshi claims to have accomplished is the realization of what he calls "my dream, to compete with live action, both emotionally and technically, in realism as well as subtlety." It is something he feels he has been pushing toward since "Heavy Traffic" where he put animated characters against photographed backgrounds. "I'm going for a realistic painting, not a cartoon," he says. "You'll fall on the floor at the realism."
In order to achieve that animated realism, Bakshi simply started with live-action realism. He went to Spain and, at the cost of $1.4 million, shot an entire live-action, full costumed version of "Lord of the Rings," "A shortcut?" he snorts. "This director made two movies in one year and got paid for one. Hey, I gotta talk to someone about that."
After the filming was complete, Bakshi and his task force of 600 illustrators and animators took all those frames of live footage and used a painstaking tracing-type process to convert them one by one into animated frames. "All I did this year was totally repaint a live action picture," Bakshi explains. "It sounds silly, but my colors and my drama are better."
The irony of this process is that to oldtime animators it sounds very much like rotoscoping, a technique the Disney studio, of all people, pioneered tohelp make "Snow White" more realistic, with dancer Marge Champion standing in for Ms. White. "Bakshi contending it's new form of animation is absurb," said veteran animator Chuck Jones. "That must mean that Disney plagiarized it from Bakshi in 1937."
Ask Bakshi if his process is related to rotoscoping and he will say, "very much so" and, without skipping a beat, go on to delineate what he feels the major differences are:
"For one thing, people have used it for moments and I shot an entire movie that way, which gives the film a set structure, a timing animation never had. Also, animators who have used it have forced the live action back to cartoon form, making it a kind of bastardized form, like 'God, it's too real.' I use it to create believability. That's my job. I'm a purist when it comes to entertainment, but not as to how I get there."
In addition, Bakshi stresses that he did not merely trace the action, but "interpreted it artistically so I didn't lose the nuances. Next year, everyone in the country is going to go around tracing and fall flat on their faces."
Still, even with this refined technique, Bakshi had problems he never anticipated. "When you shoot 95 horses in motion, they blur on the individual frames of film, they're not there, they're only there when the film moves," he relates, getting irritated all over again at just the thought.
"I'd take it personally, like 'Why do they blur for me? God cheated!' I'd bang my head against the wall. I thought there was sabotage in the studio. I'd spent zillions of dollars in Spain on people blur, ring! I could have done that in my living room."
And should all this careful planning lead to total success what would Ralph Bakshi want his audience to feel? "I want to suck them into the story, make them totally forget it's animation," he says. "And I want people to understand I ain't Walt Disney. I refuse to spend the rest of my life talking to children."
As if there was ever any doubt.