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March 11, 2012

Ralph Bakshi recalls ‘Wizards’ and a controversial career

Posted in: Animation,Fans,It's Alive,Movies

"Fritz the Cat."

Ralph Bakshi's "Fritz the Cat" was groundbreaking.

Groundbreaking animator Ralph Bakshi, who caused a sensation with the first X-rated cartoon feature — 1972’s “Fritz the Cat,” based on Robert Crumb’s comic strip — is 73 now. For the last decade, he has lived in a home on top of a mountain in New Mexico. He has a website created by his daughter, teaches animation and makes a good living selling his paintings.

“I am very happy,” Bakshi said recently in a phone interview.

But that wasn’t the case for a long time. “I was working seven days a week keeping an entire movie in my head,” Bakshi said. “It was just so hard. I thought I had failed. Let me be perfectly clear: When I left the business I was burned out. I was exhausted from the fights. So many of my films were cut up, chopped up.”

Bakshi suddenly got emotional when he talked about the thousands of emails he gets from new fans of his films, including his 1977 family fantasy film, “Wizards,” as well as his more urban, anti-mainstream productions such as 1975’s “Coonskin,” about an African American rabbit, fox and bear who become heads of a crime organization in Harlem, and 1973′s semi-autobiographical “Heavy Traffic.”

Characters from Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards." (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Characters from Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards." (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)

“I can show you email from black audiences, black intellectuals and black rappers that defy description on how great ‘Coonskin’ is, and the same thing with ‘Heavy Traffic,’” he said. “I am going to cry because I didn’t expect this.”

Bakshi is coming down from his mountaintop to appear Thursday at Film Independent at LACMA’s screening of “Wizards” at the Leo S. Bing Theater. (“Wizards” will be released Tuesday on Blu-ray.) Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell will talk with Bakshi after the screening.

Made for just $1 million, the post-apocalyptic “Wizards” revolves around a battle between two wizard brothers — one who believes in the force of magic and one who believes in the force of industrial technology. It was 20th Century Fox’s first animated film. “The entire ‘Wizards’ movie was done for [the same budget] of the first minute and half of a Pixar film,” Bakshi said, laughing.

In fact, it was so low budget that Bakshi and his animators couldn’t afford to do pencil tests of scenes, which is considered a key step in the animation process. “I did the storyboards at my desk,” he explained. “Every day I would come into the office and do the day’s storyboards. I would time the storyboards with a stop watch — that was old school — and I would give the storyboards to the layout man. The animators animated it and we went to ink and paint. We didn’t have money to redo anything.”

Bakshi believes that although the quality of animation has improved over the years, artists and studios are less willing to take chances because the films are so expensive.

“My interest is content,” he said. “I grew up with Jackson Pollock, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac. Ideas were important. What was important was what was being said.”

Bakshi worked for a decade as an animator at Terrytoons in New Rochelle, N.Y., which supplied such cartoons as “Deputy Dawg,” “Heckle and Jeckle” and “Mighty Mouse.”

“The first thing that happened to me was tremendous depression and boredom at Terrytoons,” he said. “I just fell apart. I just heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and Bobby Dylan was starting to sing, and people were marching to get blacks the right to vote. Here I was doing ‘Deputy Dawg’ and ‘Heckle and Jeckle.’”

So he left it behind and began his own studio at 57th and Broadway in New York City. He hired fellow animators from Terrytoons and began “Fritz the Cat,” which revolved around anthropomorphic animals, notably a wily con artist named Fritz who was a sexually active tomcat. The film earned more than $100 million worldwide.

But the animation union in New York kicked him out because it thought Bakshi’s work was pornographic. “The union shows up and says I can’t be doing this stuff in this town,” he recalled.

Ralph Bakshi.

Ralph Bakshi. (Courtesy Ralph Bakshi)

He was welcomed by the union in Los Angeles with open arms. “The union leader said, ‘Come out, we want your films. We want your business,’” Bakshi recalled. “When I came out to Los Angeles all of these great animators were out of jobs and I was going to hire them.”

Bakshi acquired the “greatest animators in the world” for “Wizards” “because I had the old guys who had done all the MGM shorts and Warner Bros. shorts,” he said. “I had Irv Spence. I had Manny Perez. I had so many of the old guys who were let go from Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM. Those guys made me proud because they were so professional. They knew what I was up against. I was a kid and they were pretty much behind me. And here 35 years later, we are still looking at ‘Wizards.’”

For more information on the screening, go to www.filmindependent.org/lacma.

– Susan King

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