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Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi discuss animation (1982)

Here’s a rare treat. Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth discuss the future of animation on Nightcap, a literary roundtable hosted by journalists Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin.

Here Bakshi and Bluth are joined by Larry Elin, who represents computer animation. All have great things to say, much of it still relevant — except for Elin, who essentially claims that computer animation will never create real characters. It’s a great peek into the animation mindset of 1982. What a blast to see Bakshi and Bluth on the same set, grilled by two of America’s most noted writers, talking about, among other things, Saturday morning cartoons. It’s also a reminder of how intelligent talk shows used to be — and perhaps, could be again.

Nightcap aired weekly on the forerunner of A&E, ARTS – when the channel aired as the nighttime programming block of Nickelodeon (pre-Nick-at-Nite)! The whole show is about 26 minutes. I split the episode into three parts for YouTube, but for your viewing pleasure, I’ve compiled them into a playlist below:

(Thanks, Mark Kausler)

  • OtherDan

    That was cool. I wish people still spoke their minds in discussions like that.

  • I think we are going to see a big change in animation, and its going to happen soon. This video reminds me that even though things like cartoon network closing get us animators down, there are still always going to be revolutionary animators that change things themselves.

  • corey

    Awesome find! I love the internet!

  • Chris Sobieniak

    > It’s also a reminder of how intelligent talk shows used to be — and perhaps, could be again.

    This is EXACTLY what cable TV used to be as early as I can remember! Nobody can do this anymore. :-(

  • Trevor

    I think they all have somewhat dated views. Especially Bluth. 2D needs a new approach. Like how the advent of photography fundamentally changed painting forever, computer animation is going to change the approach to 2D. Bluth says he wants to have the audience forget they are watching drawings on the screen. I say we should call attention to the fact that it’s handmade. Make them aware that they are watching a drawing. And the real challenge is to make them recognize and love the characters DESPITE their knowledge of this. We’ve seen it in shorts already, but the real exciting part is what features will bring in the future. Disney needs to get out of their 90s mindset first, though.

  • Where are the Don Bluth’s and Ralph Bakshi’s of today? They’re canon work is debatable when compared to that of Disney but they had some good ideas.

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Isaac

    Listen to Don Bluth. Acting first.

  • That was great, but it was too short. And I wanted more Bakshi.

  • This is great! In my opinion, the most primal thing a man can do before leaving this planet is to make a mark, to draw a line. I think it’s this primal act of drawing that appeals to us and speaks to us in many ways a CG image can never do. If you have a CG character settle into a hold with out any movement at all for a fraction of a second, chances are it will loose it’s life very fast. How ever if you used the same timing with a classical animated character it will take longer for the viewer to register that.

  • kv

    Great stuff. Thanks for putting it out there. I just wanted to point out that Elin really says that theye were not able to create living characters yet but only because the technology wasnt there yet. He goes on to talk about Siggraph and how every year they are working towards getting more and more creative freedom for the artists.
    So it is not fair to say –
    “All have great things to say, much of it still relevant — except for Elin, who essentially claims that computer animation will never create real characters.”

  • Gino_mc

    I guess I saw different clip 3 ’cause not only did he NOT say 3d character animation is pretty much impossible,he followed by pointing out that there large numbers of people with diverse backgrounds working on making that happen. He was stating that the CURRENT technology would be of little use to Bluths approach(thank goodness)to animation.
    – also remember, story issues aside,tron was made using super computers and was pretty much bleeding edge,both in terms of technology and application – vissually it holds up -and thats alot more than can be said of vast amount of crap that followed! -they pushed the technology without overeaching it’s current limitations(that’s one of the many reasons TOY STORY holds up so well)

  • Charles

    Trevor: I totally agree with everything you said. Although, I’m a pretty strong advocate for not looking to disney for guidance.

  • Superdeformed

    Elin was pretty much on the money with that he could not make character animation with the technology of the day. Bluth’s principles of the animator being an actor has always applied well and Pixar embodies this.

    >I say we should call attention to the fact that it’s handmade. Make them aware that they are watching a drawing.

    What are you smoking? This is exactly what is wrong with the animation industry today!

  • Professor Widebottom

    Bluth reminds me of my Disney immersion attitude when I was a kid. But being doctrinaire can lead to needless constraint. Yes, story comes first (as in live-action) but rules are made to be broken. A good director is sensitive enough to allow departures along the way, while nurturing the overall effect. For example, Pink Elephants on Parade in Dumbo didn’t have to sidetrack so deeply into the abstractness that it did, but aren’t you glad it did?! Did it keep the story moving? You could’ve cut it out but in the overall rhythm of the picture it added a huge amount of delight and fantasy and let the medium shine. It seems to me that you use animation for a reason, as opposed to live action… not to mimic live action with rigid characters adhering to prescribed rules based on “classics”. The medium suggests many creative ways to express emotional tone that should be USED.

  • Wonderful show to watch! I felt like it ended way too soon!
    I appreciated that Elin recognized the limitations of computer graphics of that time…and that it’s just a different medium. It’s always fascinating to see what were people’s view on things years ago and see where we are today.

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Ricardo

    It’s funny because what Bluth says is pretty much what has being my criticism over 3D character animations recently, specially on videogames, but also on CG TV cartoons. They’re too formulaic. Too synthetic. And it really stands out when your characters are realistic (although the visual style is different, the animation style is pretty much the same).

    Now Pixar, Dreamworks and even Disney recently have done great jobs on films like Finding Nemo, Madagascar, Ice Age, Bolt and all.
    So maybe the problem is that “Saturday morning cartoon syndrome” of the day, now also affecting videogames.

  • now if only someone would make an animated character of Studs Terkel…

  • Trevor

    Ed Catmull made a great point (and possibly somewhat of a jab) about putting “story” first at last years SIGGRAPH keynote. He said a great story in mediocre hands makes a mediocre film. A mediocre story in great hands makes a great film. It’s all about the people involved in making it.

  • Dave G

    If this show had been done live in the early 1950’s, J. Fred Muggs would have crapped all over everybody right on the air.

  • Mesterius

    Wow, thanks, Jerry, what a wonderful treasure this interview is! Both Bluth and Bakshi would make mistakes in the decade(s) to come, but to hear their thoughts and hopes for animation in such an intelligent, open-minded discussion is great!

    I have to feel for Bluth when he talked about how Tron’s story didn’t get him interested, though. He is SO right, especially when it comes to his way of doing animated films… but only a decade later, Bluth would make a string of movies where the stories didn’t fit together at all…

    Also agree with kv about how unfair it is to say that Elin “essentially claims that computer animation will never create real characters.” Towards the end of the interview, Elin says excactly the opposite thing – that the technique hasn’t yet caught up with the talent (of, for instance, animated acting) – and keeps getting back to the fact that people work on those challenges as they speak. He does say that 3D-characters at the moment wouldn’t be much more than a 3-dimensional Pacman, but also that this is a temporary situation.

    And yeah, I want more Bakshi too, especially in the end…

  • Thad

    Bakshi finally starts with some insight on HEAVY TRAFFIC and … “Thank you for being with us this evening.” WTF? I’m with Mark on this one.

  • Excellent discussion. I’m with Mark though, I wished Ralph Bakshi was involved more. I also wished they had continued further as bakshi was talking about his animators and Heavy Traffic. Make it an hour-long discussion instead of half an hour.

  • Whenever they mentioned the limitations of 3D animation at the time I felt like I had been sent into the past, and wanted to tell them about the wonders that the future held for the medium.

    Also, I’m kind of upset that they cut off Bakshi at the end there…

  • RoboFingernail

    It’s interesting to correlate their film output to their physical appearance. Don Bluth has his tidy, little mustache and clean cut haircut… reflected in his Disney Esque, do what’s expected films. He’s kinda mousey, small rodent-esque..Fievel-like.

    Bakshi’s face is more stout and rough looking, like he could knife someone in an alley and take the money right to a hotdog stand… reflected in his riskier films… He’s more piggish looking, like his big, burly characters..

    err… cool I guess.

  • God…the world needs a few more Ralph Bakshi’s. I’ve barely seen his work prior to Lord Of The Rings but the more I see the more I’m convinced that he was a real artist who used animation as his medium. At the very least, he was doing something that no one else was doing and at the most, he pushed the barriers as to what people expected animation could do.

    Having said this, it’s great to see such a wonderful conversation between five very intelligent and diverse people.


  • ARGH! I wanted to hear what Bakshi had to say at the end! I can never get enough of his stories and insight.

    I love the fact that they aren’t there to plug their movies, and Elin even admits Tron is lacking in some respects. They’re there to talk about animation, rather than sell something. That doesn’t happen as often now.

  • Where are the Don Bluth’s and Ralph Bakshi’s of today?
    In Japan, sorry. :(

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Well, isn’t that obvious!

    Yeah, I hope we can see a latter day version of those greats in our country again one day.

  • Rodrigo

    I’d like to see a modern day Bakshi arise in the midst of so much over-processed animation meat we get served. I personally get sick of every sequel DW pumps out, and even Pixar was starting to taste stale (although “Up” seriously alleviated these feelings.) It just seems like Western animation creatives continue to dig this hole where we expect animation to target only the pre-pubescent, and leave the politically pertinent or the just-plain-fun pulp to live action. So much today is safe, pretty, and tastes like vanilla.

    Also, did you watch this Jerry? Elin was totally on the money as far as I can see.

  • Well, that was weird!

  • Master Toon

    You’ll never see adults talking about animation like that again.

  • WOW. That was AMAZING!
    Right off the bat, Don Bluth, patron saint of everything that is wrong with American animation, opens with the most succinct description of said failings I have ever heard, yet without perceiving them as such…

    “Classical animation is a style”
    See. He actually admits it. Which is more than hundreds of others have been able to do since. He concedes that ‘classical’ animation is a specific aesthetic, and not instead the core from which all other animation derives or deviates…

    “and the style is an attempt to hide the evidence that the artist did it”
    WOW! He actually SAYS that! And he thinks it’s a GOOD IDEA!

    “if we can make the drawings look round”
    “if we can make them look uncrafted”
    “then a layman can get involved in the story”

    (cue disjointed flapping of self involved stage-hog animators, competing for attention on a crowded stage with no eye-line matching, that does nothing to convey a story).

    “you can see that what were trying to do is that the little characters…are really interacting with each other”
    *slaps forehead*
    “so I don’t want to tell you that we drew that”

    and that’s how the show STARTS!!!?!
    man. I better watch the rest of it now…

  • Trevor, I whole heartedly disagree with Catmul on that point. Having little kids you have to sift through mountains of crappy looking material-tv shows, DTVs, books! And, despite all the terrible looking stuff (upon first glance), it’s the story that prevails and ultimately wins one over. And the best stories are the ones you choose to re-watch, and re-read ad nauseam. Whereas, everything Disney-for example, has put out is polished to a degree. Yet, there are films that I really don’t care to watch again.

  • Back in the eighties, a bunch of us were lucky enough to enjoy a conversation with Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi at UCLA.

    Seeing these guys live was even better than television.

  • Graham

    Great post. Wish there were shows like this nowadays

  • Damn, that sound’s so easy if you think about it.

  • Don Bluth made it his life’s mission to out-Disney Disney, the clear result of which is a legacy of second and third and direct-to-DVD-rate product. The Secret of Nimh was preachy and demented, whatever he tries to claim in this clip. Yeah, I can see his imperative for drawing my “involvement” into his characters because it’s blatantly desperate in this and in most of his other work. It’s more base manipulation than evoking any empathy.

    If the play’s the thing, shorten it Don and make it something at least a five-year-old would want to watch for more than three minutes. Shakespear had to compete with the bear-baiting down the street and you’ve got CG and Japan to worry about. Tykes don’t want to watch a drag-paced sermon on the evils of animal research with demonic critters in it being tortured and maimed. That’s not animation, that’s an expensive excuse for social activism. That’s something neo-hippy New Age yuppy soccer moms force their kids to watch as indoctrination, not entertainment. And it’s boring to kids. Period. I know, I’ve had six of them. They range from 17-28 now, and we’ve repeatedly sat down to watch Ice Age for example even as adults and mixed older children and didn’t spend much time discussing how it lacks proper shading for instance. Couldn’t drag them through a single Bluth flick more than once if that in their entire lives on the other hand. Toy Story–yeah, over and over.

    Ralph Bakshi while not a huge commercial success is in fact a pioneer and uncontested master. Unfortunately his legacy is Family Guy, Metalacalypse and South Park–fart jokes, cartoon gore and unmotivated crudity. On the other hand there’s the Simpsons. There you have fart jokes, gore, unmotivated crudity, and blue humor that’s actually funny.

    Tron, well, in spite of the fact that it was written and directed by people who knew nothing at all about either hardware or software or computers in general, and it’s creators en masse just pulled jargon and concepts out of their arses, it turns out that those little buggers who first watched it were soon destined to sit in front of Doom for days and years on end and there’s no plot or character there at all except shooting things up. It is in fact generational, and it’s not Don’s generation.

    The game industry beats living hell out of the animation industry and has a new release every five minutes that is lapped up. And Disney/Pixar is making a fortune on the aftermath of Tron. What’s Don Bluth done lately?

    Don obviously hasn’t learned anything since 1982 otherwise I wouldn’t have fallen asleep three times trying to finish Titan AE till my daughter put in Cowboy Bebop instead and we watched some three dozen or more episodes in a row where actual characters played through an actual script with all the qualities Bluth pretends to admire but instead just beats you over the head with his virtue in every frame till you can’t take the earnestness any more and stop caring at all about how well he draws. There’s a difference between a director Don, and an acting coach. Acting workshops are only interesting to actors and directors and writers–if you even let writers on the set. Why would you want to animate one though? Is it all just a big, Oh yeah, take that Walt!

    Walt Disney is dead. Stop making movies to impress him. Or your sainted mum who loved him. It’s the Spielberg syndrome: you’re remaking every movie you saw as a kid and haven’t had an original idea your whole career.

    So everyone check out Cowboy Bebop. Take twenty minutes to view any one episode in the series and you’ll have a quick reference where the future of “animation” is and has been for a decade and more now. Check out the BeBop movie. I’d rather watch an artist than a craftsman. I’d rather see and hear a story by a writer than a writing instructor. I’d rather enjoy an hour and a half of a storyteller’s work than suffer through an animated editor’s lecture on how to tell a story properly.

    Thing is, all your sophistry aside Don, you first have to have something to say. Something unique and interesting. Bakshi had that. Tron had that on a few levels, it being the first step in a new process if nothing else. Even Disney stopped trying to be Disney by the late 80’s–and became a festering ground for angst-ridden gay artists working out their father issues through the mass media. But even they had something to say.

    Think about it Don.

    We love you and appreciate you. You are America’s only hope–so I’m told elsewhere on Facebook. Keep trying. You may get one right yet.