Interviews

‘I Love Animators, I Just Want Them to Wake Up:’ A Birthday Interview With Ralph Bakshi

Legendary animation outsider Ralph Bakshi celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday with a defiant cartoon comeback called Last Days of Coney Island.

Premiering exclusively on Vimeo on Demand, the 25-minute, $3.99 Last Days of Coney Island screens perhaps even too profane for midnight animation distributors like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — which arguably wouldn’t exist without Bakshi’s foundational 1972 X-rated feature, Fritz the Cat. That fractured collaboration with underground comics standout Robert Crumb — along with the influential Bakshi’s streetwise follow-ups, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, as well as his more theatrical crossovers like The Lord of the Rings and American Pop — mainstreamed the mature animation continuum we take for granted today.

Starring an uncompromising cacophony of hustlers, outsiders, and antiheroes, Last Days of Coney Island is something of a throwback to the freewheeling animation styles of Golden Age New York animators like Jim Tyer and Johnny Gentilella, the director told Cartoon Brew in a wide-ranging, hilarious bellow by phone from New Mexico — where he now paints atop a mountain when not making animated films. Taking place in the same politically and socially charged ’60s which destabilized Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin’s early ’70s hangover, Bakshi’s new short also time-warps through his cartoonish ’80s, spent mentoring upstarts like John Kricfalusi and Bruce Timm, and into our internetworked present — where younger fans can suddenly fund an old animation legend’s next film and reignite his fire.

“I did 98 percent of all of the animation, and all of the backgrounds and in-betweens, which was hard for a 77-year-old guy,” Bakshi explained of his transgressive Last Days of Coney Island. “At my age, I wouldn’t release it if I thought it didn’t work.”

With detours to monoliths like Disney and Pixar as well as painters like Bacon and Pollock, the unabashed Bakshi spoke at length with Cartoon Brew about his crowd-funded comeback, why animators should stand up and fight for their names as well as let go of their work, and why the first rule of cartoons is that there are no rules.

Ralph Bakshi.
Ralph Bakshi.

Cartoon Brew: Welcome back to animation. Should we thank your family and the Internet?

Ralph Bakshi: My youngest son, Edward Bakshi — who produced Last Days of Coney Island and also started an animation course at a university in New Mexico — grew up in an animation household. He’s very much into the Internet, so he told me how much email he’s getting from young people asking about his father. He also told me how we could raise money on Kickstarter to do a five-minute short, which I thought was great. I wanted to do it if he wanted to do it, because I love animation, especially if it can be done without having to hand in scripts.

So we went on Kickstarter and got the money, but when I started to do the five-minute short, the old feeling came over me again, because the story I was trying to tell was bigger than a five-minute short. It kept getting bigger and bigger, so I had to put my own money in, but to keep costs down I decided to do the animation and backgrounds myself. That way I could keep the money for people I did have to pay, for editing, painting and inking cels, and all of the computer work. We made it by hand-drawing, but the whole back end was done on the computer.

It turned out to be the best time I’ve had in my life. A 77-year-old man fully working on animation, in-betweens, backgrounds, layouts, character design, and everything else? That’s the kind of work I did when I first began working at Terrytoons, before I started to direct The Mighty Heroes back in the ’60s. So making Last Days of Coney Island was like going back home as an animator, and I can’t tell you how much I love that. It was a hard thing to do, especially the in-betweens, but luckily I learned from a lot of great animators, like Jim Tyer. I was able to have a conversation with them, though they are gone now, through my drawings. It took two and a half years, but I’m happy it got done.

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Last Days of Coney Island is a hell of a way to come back to animation. It’s the violent and defiant return of a rebellious outsider.

Ralph Bakshi: Let me say a few things. First of all, I don’t set out to startle anyone, or show people how bad I can be. I set out to find out what I’m thinking, to find out what’s bothering me. My films are personal; animation is my art form. On some levels, Last Days of Coney Island is the strangest, funniest, and darkest film I’ve ever done. The combination is brand new, even for me.

Sure, it’s all about the ’60s and done in old-fashioned cartoon animation, which I love, but because of the computer, it’s also slick. Now, Pixar and Disney have done some beautiful, awe-inspiring things with computer animation, but I was able to go against that and make old-school hand-drawn animation that we used to try to make slick, when there were no computers. It allowed me free reign. In other words, I don’t have to be slick now with hand-drawn animation; that’s ridiculous. The computers are slick enough, for everybody. So I was freed up to use different kinds of lines, and approaches to the backgrounds, color changes, and all of the things that used to bother us, and it worked. It wasn’t just done for the sake of doing it.

How about the story, which is stuffed with antiheroic outcasts?

Ralph Bakshi: The story construction was different than anything I’ve done. I put as much information into The Last Days of Coney Island’s 25 minutes as I did in all of Heavy Traffic. I had to find a new way to do that, to compress a feature-length story into a 25-minute short. So I basically got rid of the boring scenes that explain who people are, which take up so much of a movie’s time, because there were tons of characters coming and going. I’m talking as a director now, and telling you stuff I wouldn’t normally talk about to, say, the New York Times. I did away with exposition, certain story structures, and how you handle backgrounds. But I did get an original jazz track from a brilliant musician, Mark Taylor, who lives in Harlem. I got lucky with him. As an animation director, these are the things that I am most proud of.

And I learned so much, that now I’m dying to do a longer movie. Every movie I do is a stepping stone to the next one; I’m not trying to copy what I did on the last one. I could never be the guy who worked for Warner Bros. or MGM that made 300 Bugs Bunny shorts, one right after the other. That’s a recipe for shooting yourself in the head. The thing to do is to keep moving forward. Last year’s stories and techniques belong to last year. Yeah, animation is an art form that people want to use as a commercial medium to make money, but I like to do it all. I think animation is too wonderful to bastardize.

And I love animators! I credited all of the old-timers that taught me, who are all dead now, at the end of Last Days of Coney Island. Every animator who I’ve ever worked with (or worked with me) who is now gone rolls up, because I want to see their names again. For good or bad, everything that I ever did on the screen happened because of what those guys taught me, and I’ll never forget that. The guys who drew my old films, with no pencil tests — Irv Spence, Jim Tyer, Virgil Ross — these guys saved my life. As crude as the animation could be in my films, because I never had any money, these guys drew them without pencil tests, first crack. I love them, and I’m sorry they’re all gone. I miss them.

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Last Days of Coney Island also seems like a throwback to your New York upbringing and time at Terrytoons, as well as your street films from the early ’70s like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic.

Ralph Bakshi: [Whistles] You nailed it. Last Days of Coney Island has to do with my love of Tyer, Terrytoons, the crazy slapstick of Fleischer’s Popeye, Johnny Gent[ilella], and that great style of old cartooning and characters. But it also warps forward into my sensibility, which those guys never worked with. So it’s exactly what you said: It’s a throwback in animation style and characterization, but it’s also a tremendous rush forward to where Fritz, Traffic, and Coonskin left off.

The combination is unusual, even for me, because Last Days of Coney Island is the funniest and most serious film I’ve ever made. There were moments in Fritz the Cat that approached it, but I’ve never done a pure cartoon animation with such a serious tack. That’s a step forward, for me. I’m not preaching and I’m not selling, I’m just letting people know that those are the things I was trying to do. They have to decide when they see it whether it worked or not.

Are you concerned about Last Days of Coney Island’s reception?

Ralph Bakshi: What I’m doing right now as an animation director is more important to me than how audiences will feel about it. Of course, I want everyone to love it, but that’s not how I approach movies. If this is going to be my last movie, then I better do something that I want to be really honest about. That’s pretty much how I approached most of my movies, except Fire and Ice and Cool World.

You seem more comfortable than ever to challenge audiences, which you don’t see much in today’s marketplace. Your animation demands audiences take a stand, rather than forget it the minute they walk away.

Ralph Bakshi: I am only about the art of animation. I’m not about the art of repeating myself. I don’t do it to show off, I do it because otherwise I’m bored. That’s why I didn’t do the sequel to Fritz the Cat when everyone begged me to. Fritz was enormously successful, and they were throwing millions at me to do Fritz 2. But I wouldn’t do it; I wanted to do Heavy Traffic! You know, what am I learning? That’s just the way I was born, I can’t help it. You grow up poor, you stay poor. What’s the big deal?

You know, I was shocked when all those old hand-drawn animators were let go from Disney. In my day, guys like that would be worth a billion dollars each, how good they were. If I had the kind of money that Disney and Pixar had, I’d keep those guys in a room animating shorts, even if the shorts barely broke even. How do you let guys like that go? In my day, if you let guys like that go, you were cheating yourself. I was lucky that when I came into town, the business was dead. All of the shorts guys were out of work, so they started pouring into my office. How do you replace great animators like that? You don’t.

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You have to fight for your work.

Ralph Bakshi: One of the biggest fights I had as a young man was against producers, who were the ones that got all the credit. I kept screaming, “Who animated Pinocchio?” and “Who directed ‘Night on Bald Mountain?'” One of the biggest fights, that I won, was to become one of the first directors working for a very strong producer that got credit for his movies. Few understand that: Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic had the producer’s name all over them, trying to take the credit. They were standing up in meetings and bullshitting about how great they were, but I would go into the room and say, “I made the movie!”

I fought for animators a long time ago, but now we’ve slipped back to the producers. In some instances today, I’ve never seen so much good work, but I don’t even know who directed it. So we’re back to where I fought very hard to get us away from, but it’s not up to me anymore. I’m not going to get back into that ring again, I’m telling you. It’s up to today’s animators and directors.

You know, a lot of animation critics, and Disney guys who can’t stand me, never got that I wasn’t just trying to free myself. I was trying to free the directors, animators, and writers. They are the ones who make the films, not the guys with their names on the studio doors. I won that battle for myself and for some others, but now they have to fight it, to protect themselves and get the credit they deserve.

Speaking of freedom, Last Days of Coney Island seems free from the bounds of animation. Lines, action and sound are coming loose but still holding together, which I thought was expressively bold.

Ralph Bakshi: Being an old man, you learn a few things, and I learned a lot from painting. I learned a lot from Francis Bacon and other painters I like. Painting can teach you things that animation can’t. Looking only to animation just freezes you up; you’ve got to get involved with all of the arts. I’ve always said that, but I do that, and some people don’t believe I do.

I’m not an animation buff; my library is filled with art books. I don’t have reels and reels of animation here, because then I’m just looking at what other animators have done. Jim Tyer taught me everything I needed to know about animation at Terrytoons; I loved him so much. His attitude about approaching art and animation was so loose but so brilliant. It’s all about attitude. When I was a young man, I used to sit on a wastepaper basket next to his desk and watch him draw with my mouth open. That’s what I did on Last Days; I animated straight ahead, with very little in-betweens, which can bore the shit out of a piece of animation.

And I tried to avoid all of those great poses that everyone tries to hit in animation, which always seemed to me like turn-of-the-century overacting. Great poses take away from the story; great poses make you keep looking for great poses. If you’ve got a dumb, fat cop, he’s not going to do a great pose. He can hardly fucking walk! [Laughs] As an animator, you’re taught to work on your fucking pose and silhouette, and make sure everything is perfect — and boring, and wrong, and unreal.

I mean, who’s better than George Herriman? Look at his pen and inks, look at his scratchy drawings on Krazy Kat; what a brilliant artist. Now there’s a guy who taught me a lot about making unpretentious art. Animation is art, but it’s got to be wrested away from the producers again. But I’m too old to do it; it’s got to be someone else. Didn’t I teach anybody anything? [Laughs] That’s why I like Cartoon Brew. I think you guys do a good job.

Thanks, Ralph.

Ralph Bakshi: I like what you do, and what you cover. You’re very important to me. That’s why I want this to mainly be about animation. I’m not necessarily looking to get people who aren’t into animation to watch my movie. I want animators to see it, and to understand that hand-drawn animation isn’t dead.

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I think animators respect you. I’ve seen some technical complaints, especially about your lines, but that’s missing the point. You’re not coming back as sweet old Uncle Ralph.

Ralph Bakshi: [Laughs] Listen, you’ve just said a mouthful. Let me tell you what it’s about. It’s not about the line. It’s not about the animation. It’s not about the backgrounds. That’s all bullshit. It’s about the movie. How do you feel about the movie? You don’t like the line? Excuse me, that is bullshit. That’s missing the point. Give animators something to move, and they’re happy. That’s not what it’s about; it’s about what you are saying, goddammit. What are you saying? Are you saying the same old thing again? You love the lines, and you love the colors, and you love the poses, but it’s nothing but the same old thing, again.

I am as sloppy as a Jackson Pollock painting. I am as sloppy as a Francis Bacon painting. I’m about what I am saying, and unless animators think that what they are saying is as important as what they are moving, then we’re going to have this endless repetition of Toy Story 12. I’m serious! You can point at my lines or my colors or my sloppy in-betweens, but it’s all bullshit. At the end of my film, you’re going to feel something.

Animation that makes a statement beyond technique. It’s form versus function.

Ralph Bakshi: That’s what I’m about, and it’s a lot more fun than worrying about how slick the line is. I don’t read those Disney books that those guys write about great poses. They make you afraid to draw! [Laughs] Every fucking thing in them needs a reason, and a purpose, and a that and a this. It doesn’t. It needs a feeling; it needs an expression. Animation has got to move past the line being too shaky. He’s a shaky character, asshole! [Laughs]

It’s ridiculous, but I love to yell about this. A lot of guys who’ve worked with me get it, including a bunch who are directing now for Pixar and others, like Andrew Stanton. I could give you names of animators who have worked with me who have heard me yell about it. And they’re doing quite well, even though they’re working with overbearing bosses. It’s not easy for them. It’s hard to fight the kind of money those pictures make. But that’s learning; I’m not yelling at these guys, I’m trying to teach them to get off of it, get out of it. Drop that bullshit. It’s 100 years old; it’s over and done.

Speaking of Stanton and other guys you mentored like John K. and Bruce Timm, especially on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, when I watch their work, I know immediately whose vision it is. Like you, they have an instantly recognizable style.

Ralph Bakshi: Absolutely. Those are the guys I yelled at, like I’m yelling at you. I like to yell about it when I get the opportunity. But don’t get me wrong, they are the ones with the talent. I had nothing to do with their talent; they learned all of that on their own. But how to think about what you do is what I used to yell about. It’s not about lines.

Most painters I love say their paintings are never finished; they just had to let them go. That taught me a lot. Let it go, man. Let it go. I mean, Richard Williams could never let anything go. Some animators can’t let anything go. What are they afraid of? They think it’s not right, but so what? What does that mean? Heavy Traffic plays as good today as the day I made it. Why? Because the animation comes and goes, at varying levels of quality, but the characters stay as firm as ever. That’s what lasts, and why it’s still playing decades after I made it.

That’s why I’m alive. I’m not alive because of Last Days of Coney Island. I’m alive because of all the young kids who have seen my movies. I love animators; I just want them to wake up.

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