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I got an opportunity to meet with Ralph Bakshi before the release of his animated version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I had been warned of his sometimes overpowering personality where he often assumed the persona of the "new" Disney who was going to save animation from the children's ghetto of Saturday morning television or kiddie matinees at theaters.
Meeting him in person for the first time, revealed a man whose quotes might appear blunt and abrasive on the printed page but when he was saying them out loud, he was actually very sincere and passionate about animation and it was easy to see how animators could be seduced by his vision. Nobody ever starts out doing an animated film thinking that they are going to produce a terrible final product. Especially in animation since so much of your life is spent working on it, you try to make it the best you can.
However, some films like the animated LORD OF THE RINGS turn out to be more than mere disappointments. They seem to serve as a tribute to lost possibilities and talented people who wasted those skills. With the success of the live action LOTR trilogy, Bakshi's animated version was re-released and is easily available. One of the major criticisms at the time was that audiences were unaware that the film was only part one of the epic story.
I dug out my old notes from that over two decade old interview so you can read Bakshi's own thoughts about the film before it was released. As you read his words, I can tell you that when I heard them for the first time I was absolutely convinced that Bakshi believed every single syllable and was not in the least trying to hype something substandard.
Ralph Bakshi's rise in animation had been phenomenal. Immediately after graduation from the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, Bakshi began working for CBS Terrytoons. Starting as an inker, he was quickly promoted to becoming the youngest animator on staff, then the youngest director and finally the youngest studio director. He was running Terrytoons at the age of 26.
"In 1956, the Tolkien books were given to me by a director at Terryoons to read. In 1957, I started trying to convince people that the books could be animated and tried to obtain the rights," stated Bakshi. The film rights, held by Walt Disney for ten years, eventually passed to United Artists in 1968 where both Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman failed in their respective attempts to put together a workable screenplay. Bakshi began making annual trips to United Artists to find out when the film rights would be available.
Bakshi soon partnered with Steve Krantz to produce Robert Crumb's FRITZ THE CAT, the first X-rated animated feature film. (During production, some older animators walked out rather than handle the suggestive subject matter.) FRITZ was followed by other animated features which highlighted contemporary material for an adult audience which pulsed with a street energy like HEAVY TRAFFIC (a semi-autobiographical film), COONSKIN (an updating of the Uncle Remus stories) and HEY GOOD LOOKIN' (about life on the streets of New York in the Fifties). For a variety of reasons, these controversial films received only limited distribution and so Bakshi decided to find a somewhat more commercial topic for his next film.
WIZARDS is an entertaining if disjointed version of the classic battle between Good and Evil featuring fantasy characters that might have felt at home in the world of Tolkien. Produced with a limited budget (Only $1,100,00 as compared to the animated LOTR's $7,000,000) and obviously borrowing influences from comic books, WIZARDS became enough of a success to establish Bakshi as a commercial filmmaker.
"WIZARDS was a comic book for a young audience," Bakshi explained, "It was Sword and Sorcery for kids. People accused the film of shortcutting but I really loved it. I felt Mike Ploog's drawings in the beginning were terrific. It was like comic books. I love comic books. I loved that sequence. We also used the rotoscope in WIZARDS but we didn't have the time to put in the detail. I didn't have RINGS in mind when I was doing WIZARDS."
Publicity for the animated LOTR announced that Bakshi had created "the first movie painting" by utilizing "an entirely new technique in filmmaking". That new technique was patented by its inventor Max Fleischer on October 9, 1917 and was called the rotoscope. At its most basic level, the process is that an animator traces live action film frame by frame for later inking and painting.
"I was told," commented Bakshi, "that at Disney the actor was told to play it like a cartoon with all that exaggeration. In LORD OF THE RINGS, I had the actors play it straight. The rotoscope in the past has been used in scenes and then exaggerated. The action becomes cartoony. The question then comes up that if you're not going to be cartoony, why animate? I think it's the same reason Howard Pyle illustrated. Why illustrate? Why not just take a photograph? The reason is that there is an energy there and that's important."
"In THE LORD OF THE RINGS," Bakshi continued, "it is the traditional method of rotoscoping but the approach is untraditional. It's a rotoscope realism unlike anything that's been seen. It really is a unique thing for animation. The number of characters moving in a scene is staggering. In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, you have hundreds of people in the scene. We have cels with a thousand people on them. It was so complex sometimes we'd only get one cel a week from an artist. It turned out that the simple shots were the ones that only had four people in them."
"I didn't start thinking about shooting the film totally in live action until I saw it really start to work so well. I learned lots of things about the process, like rippling. One scene, some figures were standing on a hill and a big gust of wind came up and the shadows moved back and forth on the clothes and it was unbelievable in animation. I don't think I could get the feeling of cold on the screen without showing snow or an icicle on some guy's nose. The characters have weight and they move correctly."
When I asked Bakshi was he was trying to accomplish with this film, he smiled and replied, "What was I trying to do? I wanted to bring another level to animation. I wanted to try to get away from the WIZARDS cartoon work. The goal was to bring as much quality as possible to the work. I wanted real illustration as opposed to cartoons. I visited Tolkien's daughter and his executor and a biographer in England. I spent time in Oxford to find out what her father thought. Of course, things had to be left out but nothing in the story was really altered. Tom Bombadil was dropped because he didn't move the story along. Descriptions were dropped because you actually see it in the film."
"It's not that important to me how a hobbit looks. Everyone has their own idea of what the characters look like. It's important to me that the energy of Tolkien survives. It's important that the quality of animation matches the quality of Tolkien. Who cares how big Gandalf's nose is? The tendency of animation is just to worry about the drawing. If the movie works, whether you agree about Bilbo's face or not, the rest becomes inconsequential."
"No contemporary illustrators inspired me on this film. The major influence was guys like Pyle and Wyeth. It's very classical. Actually, the film is a clash of a lot of styles like in all my films. I like moody backgrounds. I like drama. I like a lot of saturated color. Of course, a big problem was controlling the artists so they drew alike. How do you have 600 people draw one character alike? The tendency is to want to let the artist have some freedom but then someone would leave off a hat or horn on a hat on a character."
"The only joy you get during the year is seeing the background paintings. Johnny Vita has painted the backgrounds on all my films. He's about 65. He does 15-20 paintings a day. He's worked for me for seven years. I met him at Terrytoons. He paints better than Frazetta and Jones."
"Making two pictures in two years is crazy. (The live action reference and the actual animated feature.) Most directors when they finish editing, they are finished; we were just starting. I got more than I expected. The crew is young. The crew loves it. If the crew loves it, it's usually a great sign. They aren't older animators trying to snow me for jobs next year."
"I love the medium very much and when it starts to work, it's fantastic. I'm now interested in building an animation company and I'm certainly amazed at the belief these younger guys had in me that we could do it. I think we've achieved real illustration as opposed to cartoons. Artistically, we can do anything we want. Maybe FRANKENSTEIN. Who knows? I'd like to see ten animated features a year. Ten live action films fail a month but if one animated film fails, there is the belief it failed because it was animated. This film is an awful big gamble. I'm glad it is nearly over."
"The directorial problem was directing an epic. Epics tend to drag. The biggest challenge was to be true to the book. LORD OF THE RINGS was done with honesty. You can't buy the love that went into the project. It's the finest thing I've done. It probably could be the highlight of my life. I spent two years with Tolkien and there's nothing wrong with that."