RALPH BAKSHI sprawls on a couch and starts his rapid-fire monologues on the art of animation. "I never started out to make mass appeal films and they're certainly not going to endear anyone."
The wise-guy accent and defensiveness learned in New York's tough Brownsville section come through time and again, punctuated by high-pitched laughs whenever he's said something . . . excessive. "I could have done 'Taxi Driver' or 'Raging Bull,'" he insists. "Animation is just a different way of looking at something. It's the same reason why someone paints a picture instead of taking a photograph."
Bakshi, an intimidating bear of a man, has just completed his new, $4 million animated feature, "American Pop" (it opened here Friday) and he is now pointing out the difference between what he does and what other people do.
"The last two pictures I've done ('Pop' and the $8-million adaptation of 'Lord of the Rings') I've called adult animation," he says. "All I'm trying to do is separate it from the confusion with children's -- or poor -- animation. It's a very difficult job to get people into theaters who resent animation, to educate the public that they might like animation if they're past 16 or 17."
As Bakshi sees it, audiences need to supress their learned responses to the traditions of Disney animation, television cartoons, the whole child-oriented set-up. "People grow into it and right out of it because the stuff's so putrid. It's a problem I've tried to bridge with 10 years of hard work."
Bakshi's contributions to the development of animation originate from a renegade point of view. He points out that live action films started off with the Keystone Kops, "that crazy, pantomime started. But animation never left that; live action has moved on. Just making a character move -- those days are finished." The live action analogies crop up throughout any conversation with Bakshi, and it's obvious after a while that his whole independent career has been geared to the development of "live action animation."
A process incorporating both those concepts was developed by Max Fleischer in 1915; it's called rotoscoping and is at the core of "American Pop." "Lord of the Rings," which Bakshi made in 1978, was the first film done entirely by rotoscoping, in which a live action version is shot first, with images then drawn on action blow-ups frame by frame, creating the illusion of real life, through fantasy images. Fritz and Friends
Bakshi first made a name for himself in 1972 with his full-length adaption of comic artist R. Crumb's counterculture creation, "Fritz the Cat." The film, made for $700,000, achieved instant notoriety when its frenetic message of sex, drugs, violence and revolution earned it the distinction of becoming the first "X-rated" cartoon. He followed that with "Heavy Traffic," in 1973, a very personal piece of animation that's sometimes referred to as "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cartoonist." In 1977, he made "Wizards," a $1.2 million sci-fi fantasy adventure that has joined the other two films as staples of the lucrative midnight movie circuit.
The 1978 "Lord of the Rings" was not only the longest, but also the world's biggest grossing animated feature, despite disappointing millions of Tolkien fans and only taking the story to the halfway point (the second part, according to Bakshi, is "in limbo"). Bakshi also made two films that have not seen the light of arc lamps. "Hey Good Lookin," a '50s period piece mixing animation and live action, is still unfinished after four years and $800,000.
The $1.2 million "Coonskin," on the other hand, died a quick death in 1975 after the Congress of Racial Equality organized a major protest when it was first shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art. CORE objected to Bakshi's transfering of the already suspect Uncle Remus stories to the violent atmosphere of Harlem and to his overly broad caricatures of blacks -- rubber-lipped and rubber-legged and totally lacking in any redeeming social skills. Oddly, there had been no protests over the same characterizations in "Fritz" or "Heavy Traffic" -- Bakshi's stereotyped vision has always extended to his characters, whites included.
"It was a stupid defenseless title," Bakshi admits now; at the same time, he's planning to revive the film in two months. "The climate was never wrong," he insists. "It's just that the distributor backed away after 30 demonstrators destroyed the screening by running through the aisles, screaming from frame one at a film they'd never seen. Those cries of 'How can a white animator draw black characters?' is pure racism to me." It's interesting to note, though, that black characters have all but disappeared from Bakshi's films. Drawing Room
Born in Palestine in 1939 to Jewish emigrants from Russia who came to America shortly after his birth, Bakshi grew up in an ethnically-mixed Brooklyn ghetto. That may account for the generally dark vision that permeates his work, though Bakshi says, "I love people. But I try to show how difficult lives are and how tough it is in certain areas, what people are up against. I do not paint the patronizing, happy picture. I'm a realist, but I've never lied."
Bakshi's skills as an artist took him to the Manhattan High School of Industrial Art; when he graduated, he wanted to develop a comic strip. Instead, he wound up with a job at Terrytoons.
It was 1959, the studio -- one of the biggest cartoon factories in America -- was desperate for animators and even though Bakshi had no practical experience, he volunteered and became an inker. In 1963, his talent and ambition led him to direct his first cartoon -- "Deputy Dawg."
"I hated working there," Bakshi says. "Not the first two or three years, when I was learning. But then the tremendous hate set in for what we were forced to do every day, which was trash, the worst kind of demeaning of the medium." Studio budgets already were stifling the creative possibilities for cartoonists, who had to direct their work strictly to children.
Having drawn "Popeye," "Mighty Mouse," "Heckel and Jeckyll," "Little Lulu" and "Casper the Ghost," Bakshi graduated to his first theatrical cartoon in 1964, "Goodmouse the Apprentice Good Fairy," featuring Sad Cat, once described as the dreariest character ever created at Terrytoons.
He also developed different series: "James Hound" and "The Mini-Squirts" ("kids acting like adults . . . I was going to slip some innuendos in there, but there was no way that was going to work"). By 1966, he was supervising director at Terrytoons, developing more grandiose series like "The Mighty Heroes" (Tornado Man, Rope Man, Cuckoo Man . . . even Diaper Man) which helped satisfy the craze for super-hero cartoons.
"I was biding my time, trying to find out who I was," Bakshi says now. "I nearly left animation because of Terrytoons. Sometimes in the morning in Los Angeles, I'll turn on the television. Anything ever done in animation is shown forever and a lot of those old cartoons are racing by. I stare at them in disbelief . . . and I remember the day I drew some of those things. If I got near 'Deputy Dawg,' I'd probably regress to a babbling, incoherent 18-year-old kid. It brings back too many harsh memories."
In 1969, he left Terrytoons to become Director of the Paramount Cartoon Studios in New York. "They told me I could do whatever I wanted," Bakshi sighs, "which I later found out meant 'as long as it's still in the children's market.'" His frustration was muted six months later when the studio closed and he found himself out in the streets. "I got very excited about not having any responsibilities. . . ." and work started on "Fritz."
The film's coarse language and street humor -- it dealt irrevently with sexual, political and social revolutions -- set the paramaters of Bakshi's subsequent films; critics tended to either love him or hate him. Bakshi insists he's beyond those worries. "There's a tremendous Bakshi following," he says with characteristic humility, "which is the only thing that keeps me going. It's allowed every one of my films to make a profit."
Bakshi is obviously proud of the core crew of 30 to 40 animators who work at his Los Angeles production company; he also had the preverse satisfaction of seeing 25 of his "Rings" crew depart for the job security of the recently revived Disney Studios. The average age on the "Pop" crew was 24, all trained by his company; some of his key animators, however, have been with him since "Fritz."
"There's no way to fake drawing in animation," Bakshi says, which is why he puts a premium on draftsmanship for his crew. "If they can't draw, they can't animate." There are different levels of proficiency, and, as in live action, A and B crews. The B crews concentrate on fast-moving action, while the more experienced A crews work on the personality scenes. It's those scenes -- with subtle nuances of facial expressions and body movement highlighted by cutting patterns not usually seen in animation -- that Bakshi is most proud of. "My animators create motion where there is none," he emphasizes. "They do what they were born to do. The motion on the screen is theirs." Pop and Beyond
"American Pop," which covers four generations of a single family and 80 years of American music, took 2 1/2 years to make. It's obviously targeted at the post-war baby boom that grew up listening to rock music and whose children, in turn, grew up watching cartoons on television. Bakshi expects "Pop" to be his biggest film.
Bakshi already has drawn out the basic curve of future projects, and says he will do only four more films. "I'm getting older and take longer," he says, grabbing a handful of belly paunch. "I don't know what it is. Must be aggravation."
He'd like to do a film with fantasy artist Frank Frazzeta, as well as an "Adult Comics." ("I want to make people laugh hysterically. I'm excited by people laughing. The other side of pain is humor and I may be ready for a laugh myself.") First, though, there's the promotion for the film and a special international animation conference he's trying to set up in New York sometine in the next six months. Bakshi hopes to draw animators from all over the world to discuss the "business of animation" and how the art can expand both its influence and distribution.
"Animation's been very good to me and I want to take this great art movement, collate the energies, share trade secrets, tell them they're film-makers and don't have to sit around in garrets unless they want to."
Bakshi Productions, the largest independent animation company in America (precariously so, but going), is also a major concern. Over the years, Bakshi has had his share of business problems; "Coonskin" opened the studio and its subsequent problems almost closed it, and he's had run-ins with producers and distributors. "It's an old story," he grumbles. "I'm too anxious to do movies and not anxious enough to do business. I resent not getting paid for some of my films. You can leave it at that."