"A Conversation with Ralph Bakshi" By Jason Anders

Ralph Bakshi is an animation rebel. A hero. An fearless innovator. And just damn cool. When he brought Mighty Mouse to CBS in the 80s, he said that he "wanted to create a Saturday cartoon show so hip you could show it on Saturday night." One of Bakshi's biggest influences was George Herriman, the cartoonist who created Krazy Kat, and the result of that influence is a body of work that not only redefined modern television cartoons but also revolutionized animation in film with pictures like HEAVY TRAFFIC, AMERICAN POP, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, WIZARDS, and the movie that Quentin Tarantino calls "hands-down the most incendiary piece of work in the entire blaxploitation genre," COONSKIN. In the words of Tarantino, "serious treatment of this very fearless satirical artist is long overdue."   

Jason Anders: Where do we even begin... 

Ralph Bakshi: One of the things that interests me is that here I am, 71 years old, my films are still hanging on by their fucking nails, and people are still interested when they were done so cheaply and so fast. It's hard for me to believe.

I don't see too many new films today as it is - just sitting in the theater and watching all of that money on the screen, wishing that I had even a tenth of it to do some of the things that I wanted. It's just a hard pill for me to swallow. On the other hand, thinking about a place like Pixar having to spend $150 million on a film is another hard pill for me to swallow. I don't think animation is worth that kind of money. I think it's part of the problem. With everything that's happened to this country, where do we come off spending that kind of money? Are Pixar films good? Yes, they're very, very good! 

All of the guys on them, I trained (laughs). I'm only kidding. My whole animation career started as animation was dying. I got into the business when all of the shorts studios were closing down on the East Coast... that's when all the animation in television was just starting. The animation was just so limited.

I was working at a place called Terrytoons where we didn't have pencil tests to make our films - no one would believe that today or understand how we put them together. I'm not putting Pixar down, but how many Pixar people out there would believe that Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Wizards were all done without pencil tests? Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures was done without pencil tests. I figured it out last week - the first three and a half minutes of a Pixar film equal the entire budget for Wizards.

When I worked with the Warner Bros. and MGM shorts guys, they grew up with the history of animation where you just drew it yourself and flipped it - but that's all gone now! The kind of money they spend, the expertise, and the various departments they have is startling. Those films better be good or they're wasting a lot of money. I think that Pixar is the best studio in town.

JA: Speaking of Pixar, what was it like working with Andrew Stanton on Mighty Mouse?

RB: He was very dedicated to what he did. The guys I usually hire are very dedicated to what they do. They come to work with me because they're not afraid of me. When you come to work at Bakshi Productions there's really no place to hide. In other words, the guys sit down and they draw, and they have to draw well. They have very little that I gave them because the budgets were so short. Stanton was a very serious, young cartoonist. Wonderful to work with! 

All the guys I worked with were wonderful. What he's doing now makes me extraordinarily proud of him. All of my artists were very young, but I was very young at Terrytoons so I knew how to handle it. I got involved way over my head when I was young. The way you handle young guys is to make sure they know that they can do it. If you tell them they can't do it, then they won't do it. If you tell them they can do it, then they will do it - John Kricfalusi was that way. I let him direct because I knew he could do it.

JA: Did you know John before the show?

RB: Before Mighty Mouse I knew John for many years. I don't know if anyone knows this, but I was doing Fire and Ice and John and Tom Minton walk into my studio as young kids and say they want me to do shorts. I just kind of look at these kids (laughs). I gave them a room in the back to do storyboards to show me what they're talking about. So they started to draw storyboards and I just said, "I don't know what I'm going to do with these boards, but go ahead and make me laugh." 

In a way, they were doing me a favor, because I was sick and tired of doing that realistic shit. So every day I would come back and see their boards and boy they were funny! They were basically Tex Avery, Warner Bros., and... you know, wolves in bars chasing girls and stuff. I got to know John very well and had a lot of faith in him. He always knew what he wanted to do but he wasn't quite sure how to get there. I knew that he was extraordinarily talented and I was very tired.

So by the time I gave John the opportunity to direct the Mighty Mouse series I had worked on a lot of stuff with him. I would be over at John's house on Friday nights, looking at his comic book collection and stuff, and he became a very good friend of mine.

My job on Mighty Mouse was to back him up. My job was to let him do what he does, and make sure he got finished. John had a certain disdain for production managers. I've told him all the time and I'm telling him now that the production is crucial- if you can't get it out on time then people are going to start shooting you. All of us would love to take longer on stuff. 

John and all of the guys who worked under him were brilliant - and John's a pleasure to work with. He's an absolute genius. He's one of the best directors in cartooning I've ever seen in my life, and also one of the best designers I've ever seen. For his work he's extraordinarily commercial, everyone likes what he draws, everyone loves his characters, and I think that basically the industry has beat up a good man. But what else is new? I don't like the way he's been treated by other people. Even though some of it may have been his fault, you've got to give a little license to a guy whose got all of that ability. If I was running a station I'd play everything the man ever showed up with. I mean, he created The Ren & Stimpy Show, how good is that? He's an absolute brilliant cartoonist and it's great to have him in the business. When John found me I was exhausted from all my battles and fights, I was on my way out.

JA: What did you think about the he came up with for you in Firedogs 2?

RB: Well I didn't work with him on that, I just came in and recorded some voices having no idea what he was going to do with it. That was totally his idea. John always did cartoon caricatures, and he was dying to animate me. He thinks I sit in the bathroom all the time. John thinks he has me nailed, but it's wrong (laughs). I'm a very sensitive, delicate individual and John keeps seeing it otherwise. It was great to see him after all those years. He kept yelling at me during the recording to be more 'Ralph'!

JA: Elaborate on a story that John has told...

RB: John exaggerates a lot, so let's hear this story...

JA: It's the story of selling the show to the network when you didn't even have the rights to Mighty Mouse- was that just a slip of the tongue, or did you go in the meeting planning to do that?

RB: Oh I didn't go in planning that! We went in to pitch other stuff and she didn't like it, which by the way Ren & Stimpy was one of the things we pitched. John had a presentation with him and when Bakshi Productions wrapped I let him take it with him. When it was over we had nothing else in the house. I had worked on Mighty Mouse when I was a young man at Terrytoons. So I was sitting at CBS with a daytime programming woman and thought, 'how could she say no to Mighty Mouse?' I was basically being sarcastic, but no one knew that. After her turning down so many of the greatest shows I'd ever seen in my life, I went back to something so fucking corny because I knew she'd buy it. It's a no brainer with people like that. She flipped, she went head over heals backwards she loved it so much. John just looked at me (laughs). So yeah, that's a true story.

JA: And how about the controversy that got the series cancelled?

RB: Well John had full control because I had full control when I was a young man, and he did this flower crushing scene where Mighty Mouse crushes up a flower and snorts it. My production manager called and said to me, "this thing looks dangerous," and I agreed. I told him to cut it out of the show. John called after that and said, "you can't cut it out!" So I said okay, put it back in. I told John though that it was extremely dangerous... the guy that caught it was a right-wing nut, he was an asshole, but that was the joke. The production manager actually quit because he was furious. 

We had stuff equally as bad in the show, though. I was forced to let John go by CBS. It did cost us the Mighty Mouse show. The joke was just too close for comfort, even though it could have gone either way. It's not like it was nighttime or prime time, it was a Saturday morning cartoon. It was a mistake I allowed him to make, and in the scheme of things it wasn't really that important of a scene. I'm not angry at John, though, because we always pushed the envelope. It was a bad mistake on all our parts really.

JA: What are your fondest memories of working on that series and with the artists at Terrytoons?

RB: Normally when I worked at Terrytoons I was a little ahead of the guys so I never felt much pressure, but these guys were really on my tail! If something wasn't funny and I thought it was funny, they'd jump all over me. It was hard for me, personally, because they were so good. I wanted to impress them with my versatility, but it was hard to impress them! 

We had a great time because they all came from bad studios that were boring, so they were very happy there. We watched cartoons all day and it was a very free place. John was always bringing films in. It was a good time and the guys were geniuses, they put a lot of pressure on me to be cool at meetings and say something that was intelligent. They really stretched me out! It had been a long time since I had that kind of feeling, because before that I was running my own studio making R-rated films. The same way I was trying to catch up to speed on their humor, which was really making fun of television, I was making fun of people. They learned a lot from those films of mine. It was a good relationship and I have nothing but fond memories about it. That includes just two seasons - I couldn't believe how little of money we always had, which is why I finally quit the business. It was just too hard to make those films with our budget.

JA: What do you believe makes a great cartoon, and do you have an all time favorite short?

RB: That's a tough question. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is a great cartoon. There's so many I could mention. There's also so many bad cartoons that I could mention. I don't know what makes a great cartoon, other than you really wanna watch it from beginning to end. 

Most cartoons when you're a young adult you don't want to watch. I don't have a favorites list, I'm not a cartoon buff. I love animation and I love to animate. Growing up in the '50s and '60s there was no way to look at these old cartoons. I grew up in a very small area of Brooklyn and we didn't see anything. 

I was a comic strip fanatic in high school, I studied all of those artists and love them dearly to this day. That's what I wanted to be was a comic strip artist. So when I came to Terrytoons we were shown a 16mm print of a Warner Bros. cartoon and we got up and single framed it on the head of this reel to see how the animators did it. You can actually learn animation by looking at something single frame and blown up. You know, through an editing machine we tried to figure out how many frames it took to zip the Road Runner in.

The only cartoon I had seen of Disney's as a kid was Pinocchio and I loved that dearly. I was crazy over that film. That was the only animated theater film I had ever seen, so I didn't have any favorite cartoons. I hated Terrytoon's Mighty Mouse. It didn't take me anywhere. Later on I saw Coal Black and thought it was absolutely great! Then I started seeing Tex Avery's cartoons and thought they were great. I was so busy all the time trying to learn how to do all of this stuff that I didn't have any time to look at it. You couldn't find these films easily - now you can find everything you want.

Popeye! There we go, the Fleischer shorts were wonderful and I loved them very much. I loved the cartooning in it. I think Popeye is a great character, and paired with Olive Oyl they're sensational. There just wasn't any way to see these films back then. They weren't around. Now you can just punch a button on your computer and see extraordinary events. 

Now I did have a full knowledge of comic strips from 1900 to the 1960s. That was easy to study. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. They were so easy to get and look at, so I was always studying them. The Spirit was a wonderful comic when I was a young kid, I thought it was extraordinarily drawn. That might have been the most famous comic strip of all time when I was a young kid- just the drawings and the shadows, as a kid I would look at those guns, girls, and layouts, and all of that water dripping... it's absolutely stunning. Especially compared to Mort Walker and Beetle Bailey.

JA: Tell me about working with legendary artist Rod Scribner on Fritz the Cat.

RB: First of all, those old animators are the greatest guys in the world. No pencil test, just telling them what I want and them going out and doing it. I mean, doing it better than I even wanted. 

Rod Scribner was a sad story; He came to work on Fritz the Cat and sat down with me saying, "Ralph, I can't do this anymore. I love what you're doing, and this is going to be the greatest studio in the world, but I just can't do it anymore." I don't know what was wrong with him, but he was crying. He handed me back his scenes. I looked at his drawings and thought they were absolutely hideous, it was like something was wrong with the man. He died a few months after he left. I knew he was in trouble because he wasn't handing anything in, but I didn't say anything to him. Everyone was a little nervous and thought that he could pull something off, but he just couldn't do it. When he walked out of that studio it was the saddest day of my life.

The old animators are just unbelievable men, and when they all died I left the business too. They couldn't believe what we were making. They would always come up to me and say, "Ralph, do you really want me to do this?" I'd say yes. They'd smile and say, "I love this studio," and they'd walk out. Here were guys who were sick and tired of the stuff they were doing, and I'm letting them run around animate the sheriff's daughter fucking some guy in bed... they couldn't believe that. So yeah, it was a good time as long as it lasted. I have nothing but good things to say about those guys. When I grow up I wanna be one of those guys.

JA: I love all of the painting you've been doing lately and wanted to ask you about how your artwork ended up in Vanilla Sky.

RB: Well the art director from that movie called me and said, "We want your paintings in the movie. We have a bunch of paintings here, but Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise hated the paintings so I mentioned your name and showed them your work." That's how that happened. Very peculiar.

I love painting, particularly because there's no issue of budget. It's hard to explain how much I wish I had some of the budget those guys have today. It's really something. I'm glad these guys at Disney and Pixar have all the money and help they need. 

I am just trying to get people to realize the conditions that we, the generation before, worked under... when animation became popular again.

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