Ralph Bakshi on the recent DVD release
www.foxmovies.com (to order the DVD
An Exclusive Interview
by Stephanie Simmons and Areya Simmons
Ralph Bakshi is the master
animator/director from a generation of character animators who took pride in
what they did, and honored their passions. He's an artist's artist. Recently, I
spoke with Ralph about his passions in light of the fact that
"Wizards", his cult masterpiece, will be released on May 25. We discussed his feelings about that project,
as will as some of his impressions about other projects of his from that
period, including his adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings", which is
out on VHS and DVD. We also talked about
his future plans concerning a continuation of films whose whole story has not
yet been told……..
SS: Hello, Ralph! This is
my daughter Areya...
RB: Hi Areya! How are
SS: Ralph, I am so
excited about "Wizards" coming out on DVD May 25. This is really the answer to a prayer...
RB: Well, it's the
answer to a petition that a lot of wonderful people were filling out...I
actually found a "Wizards" petition in my email...so I signed it, I
SS: It's wonderful, and,
I think it shows...well, first of all, you have had such an
effect on film makers and animators and of people who are passionate
about the art of filmmaking. Many young
people my daughter's age are not as familiar with you as they should be, and I
think "Wizards" is a great opportunity for them to become very
familiar with your work.
RB: That's very nice,
SS: And I noticed that "Wizards"
is being released May 25 which is the same day as "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", and that
should be a great group to pull in. Many
are already familiar with your work, and of course your work on "Lord of the Rings" in 1978...
RB: Yes, we'll that's
what Fox thought. I said at the meeting this would be good, and they basically
said what you said. You know, when we
released "Wizards" the first time, it was two weeks before "Star
Wars", and it was doing fantastic for an animated film out there, especially
in the fantasy film genre that wasn't Disney, and "Star Wars" started
going right through the roof, and Fox wasn't prepared for either
"Wizards" or "Star Wars" to do so well, so they pulled
"Wizards" to make more room for "Star Wars". I'm not complaining, I just wish they had been
more prepared, but with the science fiction/fantasy genre...then I ran into
another picture like that when I did "Lord of the Rings" and this
time, the date worked to my benefit. (laughter)
SS: Well, you know that
Peter Jackson saw your film in 1978, and read the Fotobook [This and the
Fotonovel were books that offered hundreds of full-color stills of the film,
pre home video, then added word bubbles as if they were comic books] of the
film, and that was his first exposure to Tolkien's tale, and it certainly would
not have been undertaken without that influence...and I can tell you I was
doing a play at that time of a compression of LOTR and I was playing Frodo
there, and at the theatre while your movie was showing, so it made an
impression on us all. So, here is was
the girl, playing Frodo... (laughter) which I guess by my physical description,
(including short with big feet) I was Tolkien-correct. (more laughter)
RB: Well, that's
incredible because, my girl...for LOTR...the actress...I used a woman to play
Frodo for the film...
SS: That's what I thought
at the time, but I wasn't sure...
RB: Sharon was her name, and I wanted Frodo
to be something other than masculine, and something other than purely
feminine...you know, she came off of "The Mickey Mouse Club, of all things! And she worked out fine for
me; she came off differently than a boy would, she had a different power than a
boy would, and that's where I really got that sort of Hobbit quality by using a
girl. The only mistake on that film may
have been in the producer...but that's another story...
SS: I'm sure. Areya, you had a "Wizards" question, right?
RB: Yes, go ahead.
AS: Explain some of the
creative process behind "Wizards", and what you hoped you were
getting across at that time.
RB: Okay, that's a very good
question. I thought that
animation should say something like themes in "Heavy Traffic"
and Fritz the Cat" which really young people cannot see (laughter) unless
you are over the age of 17, I think. I
basically wanted to say things that were important to me. Most films are made now to be nice to the
audience, and make many people happy and make a lot of money; but, my
intent was to make myself happy as a filmmaker first, and hopefully find
some audience somewhere.
So, in those days, I
was very concerned about progress of technology, and I am still very concerned
It can be a wonderful thing, but if
we sell our souls to technology, or we use it the wrong way, we could
take our humanity away. So,
"Wizards" was really about the use of technology, the wrong way...to
build airplanes, and bombs, and things, and propaganda...the whole
premise was that with too much technology, magic disappears. Magic of course means magic, but, it is also
the human soul.
The premise behind
"Wizards" is that humanity has to be careful that we can't trust
technology to the extent that we continue to trust technology, and of course I don't want to get too
serious but our planet can be polluted through a tremendous misuse of resources
through technology. It's
unbelievable. I'm a great believer in
letting the sun shine.
SS: That's...tremendous. That was one of the things we talked about
last evening; I had my daughter and my best friend's son and a niece, all
around 15 talk about the film, and about that issue. In Mayan tradition we have a story in the
"Popol Vuh" about Hunapou and Guakar the Shark Spirit; the Good Twin,
Bad Twin concept...
SS: ...and there's a lot
to be said about the theme of what is nature centered, and suspicion around what
is man-made technology.
RB: Exactly. Well, the
Navajo and the Apache have stories, and one of their myths is frightening. It is that one day most of all the fresh water
will go away, and humans will be left to fight to the death over the remaining
water. Our oceans are now being polluted to death. You know, the old myths are very much true,
and we have to be careful about how we treat each other.
SS: Yes, and do you think
with the current climate of America so tremendously Conservative, or
that's the spin we are lead to believe...
RB: That's the spin,
SS: I heard you say on
the commentary that you feel that "Wizards" is geared to
children, and this is such a thinking film for young people...there was an
article in the morning paper on TV programming for children not being so bad,
and I'm thinking: Dora the Explorer, Telly-Tubbies, ...and "Wizards"???
RB: Basically, you
just nailed it. My R-rated films were
based on my experiences growing up in Brooklyn; the things that I saw, the
things that I felt. But, I also wanted
to use the animation medium for children, but I was very anti what Disney was
doing, and is still doing, you know, stuff like horses eating apples and
everything, and cats and birds, etc. I
wanted to do a thoughtful film for children because children think. In other words, the feeling that children have
no brains, or have to be catered to a certain way...it's moronic without
description. I can't even begin to get
into it, but...
was my first young family film; in other words, something that I did more for
kids so that they could understand certain things. I tried to get them to start thinking about
certain problems. It is defined in the
rating which is PG; it is a kid's film, and I wanted to do a kid's film where
they could think and enjoy and be taught (maybe taught's the wrong word),
something about the world. Given the
ability to solve some of the intellectual problems of the world, instead of the
garbage that they're given all the time. They have to grow up to become human beings
who are real adults, and if you give them the right information when they're
young, so that when they're adults, they can try to figure it out. "Wizards" was exactly that.
AS: Have you seen the
transfer to DVD?
AS: Well, I think it
transferred very well, and...
RB: Thank you! I was really worried about it! I was afraid to look! (laughter)
RB: I really was...
SS: You know what it
reminds me of?
RB: No, how'd it look?
SS: Like Rembrandt
RB: Really?! That's better
SS: ...because you
could see the brush strokes.
RB: I will look at it
now! (lots of laughter)
SS: It's really
beautiful! It reminded me of what they
were trying to achieve effect-swise in that film with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and
Robin Williams, "What Dreams May Come"...
RB: Right, right...
SS: Where they're running
through the Monet...
RB: Oh, sure; I
remember that one!
SS: Well, here, it's
legitimate. You can see it in Avatar;
you can see it in Weehawk. It's really
really neat to watch.
RB: Oh my God...
SS: ...and it's in
widescreen, and it just sings.
AS: Yeah, beautiful.
RB: You know, I had
nothing to do with that! (laughter) The guys at FOX are a miracle. The whole time they were doing it, they sent
me a copy to look at, and I was afraid to look.
To tell you the truth,
I thought they might have to change it, and I didn't want to complain. I have a hard time looking at my movies...
SS: Really?! Because I love your movie and can look at them
a hundred times. "Heavy Traffic is one of my favorite
movies of all time.
RB: Which movie?
SS: "Heavy Traffic"
RB: I haven't seen
"Heavy Traffic" since I made it! (uproarous laughter)
I have to tell you a
funny "Heavy Traffic” story. We
were doing cartoons that we thought would sound funny. When these people walked out of the
"Heavy Traffic" screening, they looked at me like I was a madman. I mean, these guys who were studio heads
looked at me as if I was out of my mind, and I was on Cloud 9 because the
picture was so depressing. (laughter)
SS: Well, you know,
having grown up in Pittsburgh, in "The Hill", I can
get that! I grew up there in the 50's
and 60's...so I can get it.
RB: So then you know.
SS: I grew up in August Wilson's description, with Walt Harper's
Attic. I used to sit on the fire escape
exit with a brick in the door in the summertime listening to artists like,
Walt, and George Benson, and Ahmed Jamal, and when I was 15, I tried to dress
up like a boy with my saxophone in hand so I could get in an a jam session with
RB: Oh my God, that's
SS: And of course, I was
busted, and he said, "just stay put next to me kid, and drink that ginger
ale, and I let you blow a few notes... (laughter)
RB: Where do the kids
have to go today to do those kinds of things, and learn in that sort of way? Everything is so sanitized, it's just
SS: Well...it's really
reached interesting points. We have
lost, I think, in my generation, and resemblance of safetly and community. For most people, it's gone. And I think one of the important things that
you pointed out in "Heavy Traffic"
and even in "Coonskin"
that even if you have all that noise in the neighborhood, you also have a sense
RB: ...and love.
SS: Exactly, and love,
underneath it all.
RB: There is love; no
question about it, big time.
SS: I realized watching "Wizards"
for the first time in nearly 30 years, that that's what's missing: that
sense of community that pulls itself together even when the world around them
is in crisis.
RB: That's right. Basically, I grew up very poor, but not for a
minute did I feel poor in my neighborhood. And not for a second was I ashamed.
SS: Exactly, not once. And you made "Wizards" for
about 1.2 million dollars, which is unfathomable to most people; they can't
RB: Even in those days
they were doing them for between 14-25 million, and "Heavy Traffic"
and "Fritz" and "Coonskin" were all done for about a
million, but that gave me my freedom. It was very hard
work, but for those low budgets, I knew the studio would not pay
attention to me, so I was able to do what I did. In other words, the minute they give me money
to make films, they'd start getting what's called 'script notes'; they
gave me money and now they would want to watch the films, but at those prices,
it was a license for me to do what I wanted to do. They would call up and say 'how's it going
with the film?' and I'd say, at these prices, you don't even care...and they'd
laugh, seriously. And they'd hang
They wanted to say
what they wanted to say, but when they saw the film, you should have seen their
faces! (loud laughter) I was gettin' even, man. I'd walk out of the room saying that's was
exactly what I want. And it's animation
so you can't recut it; you don't have those scenes to go to, they were stuck
with what I gave them.
SS: How do you feel about
today's animation, anime like "Akira",
today's rotoscoping and motion capture, CGI, etc.?
RB: Well, I've been
feeling different ways. You know, you
have to be very careful with computer. Computer
animation doesn't have the heart and soul of character animation; it works for
toys and fish under water (laughter, at the realization of what films Bakshi
may be pointing this comment to) and inanimate objects that come alive, but it
hasn't yet hit, and CGI hasn't yet the human qualities that the great old
animation does. The Japanese have done
some fantastic things. They're ultimate
craftsmen; they have the biggest range of stories to tell in animation. They do it fantastically, everything is just
so slick. But, I don't know, a lot of
them, moreover, haven't grown up like you and I; they don't understand what
jazz is. They don't know how to
incorporate it into a movie.
Animation is closer to
jazz than it is to anything else. Coltrane
taught me how to animate; so, in the days when I used to go to clubs ... first
of all, the important thing that they taught me was how important their work
was. These guys worked their clubs, how
much were they getting paid? Not very
much, but they played their hearts out. When
I went home, the music stuck. So jazz
had much to do, and had a big impact on my work. I had Billie Holliday in "Fritz the
SS: Yes, I loved that!
RB: I was able to buy
that song by Billie Holliday back then for $35 for the rights. I mean, the masses don't get it...the prices
for these kinds of American geniuses that would be played, like, you know, in
the back room, and didn't get paid anything. They taught me alot, those guys. They taught me about loving your work; work
being the thing, and not the money. Not
the money being the thing, but the work being the thing. If the money is to come, then it comes, but if
money never comes, then that works for me. That's my generation; that's a product of the
50's and 60's. That was before the
record companies and big corporations took over everything. You have these big giants owning everything.
SS: It's gotten kind of
RB: Scary? Scary isn't the word for it. It's past scary. The government has allowed them to band
together, these big corporations, and once upon a time, you couldn't do that.
SS: Yeah, we used to have
Anti-trust Laws that said you couldn't have a monopoly...
RB: They overturned
the Anti-trust Laws; you couldn't have one company owning so much of the media,
and each one of those laws has been overturned, and it's getting scary. You've got no free thought anymore. I've never seen so much quiet coming from the
media, and the media is the life and breath of this country.
SS: Exactly. Some of the points you brought up in "Wizards"...
terrorists, bombs, New York City, anyone listening? I've noticed that the POV (point of view)
for a lot of CGI is very in-organic; that is, the placement of the camera angle
for the action is very unnatural except for the camera view for the CGI, which
is why, and I won't mention any names of directors right now, but some of the
CGI is so dull, I can barely keep my eyes open. And I look at your Point Of View, and it's so
organic and natural and stimulating. How
did you achieve that fresh feel, that ability to get organic, authentic views?
RB: I didn't try to
achieve anything. Seriously. You know, when one writes something, one can
never be sure of where it will take you. I would never lie to an audience. I would never treat audiences as something to
manipulate. If I'm more organic, it's
because I don't care what an audience thinks; I am not trying to figure out how
to lie to them. If I think about
something, then I am going to present something, and I am not going to lie
about it. It's not about what they
think; it's about what do I think. That's
a true film maker. You make a film about
something that inspires you, and you hope the audience gets behind you. If I am more organic, it's because I don't sit
there trying to downtalk the audiences. I'm not trying to entertain them, I am trying
to show them something. I never cared
about the box office, and if that made it more organic, then that may be the
secret. I never sat there and thought
about the view. People spend hours and
years trying to figure out how to please an audience, and see if they will like
what they're showing. When, what matters
is showing audiences the truth. It may
be something that they don't like, but it's the truth. I think that that's the difference. I mean, I
shot God in "Heavy Traffic". I
blew his head off and no one said a word, I thought I'd be dead. But, it was pointed at religion, and no one
said a word.
SS: Yeah, I got that one.
As a teenager (sneaking in
illegally to see your film 'cause I was underaged)... (huge laughter) I thought the character was speaking out
against this institutionalized, control and manipulation of people and
their thoughts and passions is just plain wrong. That's what I got out of it.
RB: That's exactly
what I was saying, and it's still going on. What's happening today is this misuse of God
again. What is going on here?
SS: Well, you just hit
the nail on the head with the POV perspective because the real point of
view isn't what's going on in the film but what's going on with the artist. You were filming YOUR point of view, and I
just had this epiphany, that what's been going on slowly but sometimes
rapidly in some genres has become that the point of view is what will bring in
the most money, and staciate the public rather than educate, or enlighten.
RB: Exactly. That's exactly it. And I've said this a million times, that when
kids living in ghetto schoolyards have to wear $150 sneakers so they won't get
harrased or beat up, to be accepted, then there's something wrong with that. When you can't play in the schoolyard with $2
sneakers, then something's wrong. And
that continues....that continues.
AS: You employed
different styles in the same frame and changed types of animation in the same film
to change emotion portrayed in a given scene. It's a very effective technique. Why do so few major films use this approach?
RB: WOW!!! That's the
hard part. Well, there are these
theories...they are all mixed up, but I'll try and straighten some of them out.
People are terrified to disturb an
audience from their dream. Integration
is everything in my life, integration is everything for the animals and
mankind; it's everything for the planet. I think that there's nothing better than
integrating emotionally, as you said, styles that are right for that emotion at
that moment. I think that audiences will
accept that and understand what you're doing; they're not stupid. I believe what you said, which blew me away basically, that styles
help dictate certain emotions, and there's no reason to be afraid to use them
in the same frame. It's more interesting
than not interesting, and when you don't do it, you're trying not to disturb
the audience. I'm not afraid of making
them feel, and that's definitely a style of mine. I do that in all of my films; I combine
animation techniques to help tell my story. It's ghetto animation; the kind of animation
that people that I grew up with would understand.
SS: It's kind of
animation graffiti, with layers of expression.
RB: Exactly, that's
all in there. I love Brooklyn, I love that town. It's for the people.
SS: Yeah, I've been up
there, and everyone has always been friendly, like Pittsburgh, you can talk to everybody. I never felt uncomfortable there. There were always people hanging out in the
street, neighbors checking to make sure I had enough to eat... (laughter)
RB: Shopping with push
carts... that character is disappearing from America.
AS: The use of shadows
and the mist are so effective in “Wizards". How did you create the
believable effect of characters moving through or passing by others in the
film? This was something that came in
handy when doing LOTR, right?
RB: I was lucky
enough. I apprenticed at a place called
Terry-Toons (discussed in the DVD). I
was lucky enough when I started in the animation business to learn from real
good animators and cartoonists, people who had spent their whole lives in
animation. When I got to LA, and started
making feature length films, I was lucky enough to have some of the greatest
animators in the world working for me. I
can't take credit for everything that's been done; it was the people I hired
around me. In every one of my films, I
worked with geniuses who loved working in Bakshi Productions because they were
wildly free to think...and they gave me everything they had. I worked with guys from all kinds of races, I
had talented people, and I want to be very clear about that.
SS: I know when you
worked on LOTR, depicting the characters as Tolkien described them, and
showing all the shades and all the variations of Middle-earth that was
something at that time that let me know I was in the right place doing the
right thing (when portraying Frodo in a play, as mentioned previously), and
honored Tolkien's vision. I wished that
would have been carried on as comfortably in the recent adaptation by Peter
RB: No, he didn't
really get it. I've been hearing that a
lot from people and it's very nice; a real compliment, and I appreciate it.
SS: Are you thinking about
going back and completing that project?
RB: I've been asked by
Warner Brothers, too. I asked them why
they thought they had the rights to go ahead without me...I'd rather do "Wizards
II" to tell you the truth. I
created those characters, Jackson's done his, so...I don't know how
I feel about it. I really don't know.
RB: I gotta watch the
number of films I do, because I'm 65 now. I don't know, the things we discussed about
technology, and the way the country's going, there are important things to
start screaming about...I'd like to go in that direction. If I agreed to do LOTR again, the studio would
expect me to make a lot of money. (laughter)
I don't think I really want to, I really
SS: I think your dialog,
you and Peter S. Beagle paid so much attention to the detailing, and so much
attention to the visualization, I think it's a different dynamic.
RB: One has to respect
writers. Tolkien is the greatest author
of fantasy the world has ever had. One has to respect what he has done. You know, how could a guy sit down and change
the dialog, you know, how arrogant. The
arrogance that they're going to change Tolkien and the main character in LOTR
to make it a better picture?! Unbelievable!
Anyway, I have a
school on animation that I am starting in New Mexico right now for high school age
students. The next generation that is
coming up is really ready. I gotta do
something at my age other than talking. (laughter)
I loved talking to you, and thanks a
SS: Thank you, Ralph!
See Stephanie Simmons review of the Wizards DVD at:
Simmons is the author of an exceptionally rich and researched book involving
the original J.R.R. Tolkien Lord Of The
Rings books called Regional Cooking
From Middle-earth: Recipes Of The Third Age. It is available through “Emerald Took’s
Hobbit Hole” and you can read more about and order it at:
Areya Simmons runs The Lord Of The Rings website The Revenge Of The Hobbits, which can be
accessed at the following link:
to home page: www.fulvuedrive-in.com