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Not for the Pixar Crowd: Ralph Bakshi on "Last Days of Coney Island"

At 77 years old, Ralph Bakshi remains a fiercely independent American animator. "Last Days of Coney Island," a new 22-minute short film directed by Bakshi, was financed with money raised on Kickstarter, and was be released exclusively on Vimeo-On-Demand on October 29, completely bypassing a theatrical release. This eccentric production and distribution strategy makes sense when you take into account the history of creative interference that Bakshi has run into throughout his career, from the X-rating that was used to advertise Bakshi's adaptation of Robert Crumb's "Fritz the Cat" to the controversy that Bakshi courted with his parodying of blackface and racial stereotypes in "Coonskin." We spoke to Bakshi about using computers to enhance his uniquely un-polished, hand-drawn animation style, talking to hippie girls, dreaming about a sequel to "Wizards," and much more. 

When you talked about making "Last Days of Coney Island" during a Q&A at BAMCinematek, you talked about how you essentially wanted to degrade your animation style so that it was very rough, and unpolished. Is that fair? And how did you achieve that characteristic rough-ness? 

I probably said that, but it's not exactly what I meant. Using computers for animation is such a big deal. And there are so many animated movies being made with computer animation. Some of them are brilliant. But if we're going to go back to using hand-drawn animation, it frees us to use hand-drawn animation. In the old days, when you'd do hand-drawn animation, you'd try to make your line very slick. It wasn't with a computer, but you'd try for a certain slick-ness, a certain clarity, which all animation did: Disney, Warner Brothers, UPA. But the computer has freed us, I feel, to get closer to what painting is. We don't have to be slick any more. Hand-drawn animation could never out-slick a computer. So now we can go the other way, get more life than a computer can get, get more energy than the computer can get.

Was "Last Days of Coney Island" the first film you drew using computer programs? 

For me, it's new. I still do hand-drawn animation. But the computer, which is a new technology, is doing the entire back-end of the film—the coloring of the animation, and adding to the live-action background of the animation. The computer is doing amazingly well what I did in the studio the old days at tremendous cost and manpower. So it's still a totally hand-drawn film. But all the stuff that we did on the computer cut the cost down to nothing. 

"Last Days of Coney Island" was made using funds raised by Kickstarter. Artists often say that a lack of creative restrictions, or a lack of walls to bounce off of, makes them antsy. But is that true: is it harder or easier to make the film without semi-strict creative restrictions to push back against? Or is that an unrealistic assessment of how hard it was to make "Last Days of Coney Island" your way?

Pictures tell you what to do. If these other guys get antsy, they're antsy about what the picture is trying to say to them that they can't get to, or that they don't want to face. I love the freedom that Kickstarter gives me. I love any kind of freedom you can get. I'd have paid for it very dearly when I was young. So what I'm saying about these guys that don't understand ... because facing the truth of what you're trying to get to is what art's all about. Not what Hollywood's all about. But I'm coming from movies from the '50s and '60s, from jazz musicians, Jackson Pollock, and abstract expressionism. So, where I'm coming from, soul is everything that you're trying to get to. Maybe today's kids get antsy when they get freedom. Not me! I love it. 

I'm also opening ["Last Days of Coney Island"] on Vimeo. This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to independent animation. I'm an independent animator, on top of everything. But I still had to deal with the studios to get money, and distribution. I get beat up, and I pay the price for that. When I went to Kickstarter, I got money for a five-minute short, just to get warmed up again. But when the picture started, it started to grow. So I started to put my own money into the film. Still, the point is, there is a hump that I'm overcoming by releasing the film on Vimeo. I own the film, so I could play it for the next 100 years. It's marvelous: the computer, Kickstarter, and distribution we have—I think it's a new day and age for animation. I'm very excited.

Another shocker: I'm not showing ["Last Days of Coney Island"] before it comes out, because the ending comes out of left field. And the whole film is based on that ending, something I had to get off my chest, something we ran into in the '60s. It's been bothering me for a long time. ["Last Days of Coney Island"] is a movie that's very close to me. Technique is really secondary. 

Let's backtrack for a moment to some of the formative experiences that led you to appreciating what Kickstarter can do for you. For example, [exploitation cinema producers/distributors] Cinemation's emphasis on "Fritz the Cat's" X-rating during their ad campaign was a sticking point for you. How hard was it to just focus on doing what you felt the material required—that is, being as graphic as you felt the film needed to be—and ignore the idea that eventually, the film will need to be presented to a group of censors, distributors, audiences? 

I was brought up a certain way. One of the ways I was brought up is I was very poor. Now, I didn't know I was poor. My parents were immigrants living in Brownsville in Brooklyn. Having money, or not having money was never an issue with me. I was never trying to get rich. So when Warner Brothers bought ["Fritz the Cat"]—before Cinemation, Warner Brothers offered me $250,000 to do the film—they wanted to see twenty minutes. What I did was the Big Bertha sequence, which is the raunchiest sequence in "Fritz the Cat." She's running around with Fritz between her breasts, and Fritz is trying to go to bed with her, but he has a small penis. I did that sequence because I wanted to make sure they knew exactly what I was doing. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been done. In a sense, I went right there to protect my film. I could have done any number of sequences, like Fritz in the park with the girls, or anything that would have been very safe, and very hip to them. That would have been very "Wow, way out" to them. "Fritz singing a folk song, wow, is that hip." I could have done that, and gotten by the first screening. But they never would have allowed me to make the film. 

When they found out what I was really up to, they threw me out of the screening room. [Laughs] They fired me, they threw me out and I went home. But I got that sequences, even if twas just a picture. That's the kind of guy I am. Those things never bothered me. Eventually, I met [Cinemation co-founder/producer] Jerry Gross, who was making a fortune with two very good films: "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" and "Johnny Got His Gun." Gross happened to be in the same building that my animation studio was in. You don't know how lucky I got. I met him in the elevator, and started talking to him about the movie. This is a true story! I You can't make this stuff up. And he loved it. I showed him the sequence, and he went crazy. He loved it because he saw the money in the X-rating. He saw everything about it. I just wanted to get what was correct about adult animation on the screen. I would have done anything to get that stuff made. 

Roger Corman has said that he found it hard to exploit his own "The Intruderbecause it was about race. When you made "Coonskin," did you similarly find that there was resistance to the very idea of doing a movie about race, let alone one that used blackface, and other stereotypes taken from minstrelsy?

Corman, and all these guys—they're fine. They all want to make money—everyone wants to make money. I want to make money, you know? But I don't go out there to make money, I go out there to make a movie. These guys, in the '60s, race was there to be spoken about. If you want to avoid the truth, you can hide with Patti Page and do all kinds of Elvis Presley movies. But they won't last as long as "Coonskin" or "Heavy Traffic." I'm not putting those films down. But the thing about my films is my audience is still so young. The New York Times said that they were going to find a reviewer to write about me that remembers me, and is my age. I said "You have no idea how young my audience is." 

My audiences are as young as they were when I first started. And my older audiences are still my fans. What I'm saying is—the films are still relevant. And race was such an issue in the '60s, as it is today. How could you avoid talking about it? I was watching all of these black revolutionaries care very little about the people they were trying to save: they just wanted to make as much money as they could. All these kids running around, trying to get laid, playing revolutionary. But when the shooting started, they ran away. It was all over the place. And my job was to document it, and be part of that life. So, again, wherever it took me, it took me. People have always yelled at me about making my movies, so that wasn't anything new.

But you didn't just document race relations, you took a rather daring approach. Just to give another example of an approach that's rather novel and ground-breaking: you recorded real life conversations for use on "Fritz the Cat's" soundtrack, like the ones of Black Panther members talking in a Harlem bar. How hard was it to unobtrusively record those kinds of conversations?

That's a very good question. This is my learning curve: by increments, and increments. In other words—I was trying to find a way to express what I felt about living on the streets, growing up in Brownsville, having the experiences I had. And animation was always very ... storyboarded. You would walk into a studio with live actors, and each guy would say one line at a time. And if the guy slurred, or spoke over another guy, the sound recorder would cut the scene and say, "No good, we gotta keep all the lines separate." So I slowly was trying to break that down, and learning as I went. I took photographs of New York City, and I traced the backgrounds of the East Village for "Fritz the Cat." Now, that's nothing today, but that was amazing then! Because suddenly, animation was on location. These are the real streets we walked down. I was trying to get to a certain documentary realism with the sound, and everything.

The Black Panthers, and those guys: I bring them up to my studio, I turn on the tape recorder. We have a lot of drinks on my table. And we talk, and I edit the tracks. That's like old-time radio. I grew up with radio; we couldn't afford one. Radio was fantastic, with all those old stories retold. And I knew that you could edit tape to do whatever you want, to cut that line out, or cut those lines together. It was part of jazz, part of the improvisational nature of the film. It's like what the street photographers would do in their day. It was all part of my life, those textures, and those feelings. You want to get some hippie kids to talk in "Fritz the Cat"? Go find some hippie girls in Washington Square Park. Give 'em five bucks, and they'll talk your head off. [Laughs] Maybe even get laid afterwards, I don't know.

On "Coonskin," I recorded people singing and screaming in a church. The sound engineer quit. "I'm not putting my name up on that crap," because the sound was so natural. I said "What are you talkin' about?" And he walked out of the room. I had to get them all to sit down, and re-record them. Those are the kind of problems I had. It was funny, really funny. I was a young man; I was hot-headed.

Let's move, to use your phrase, to on your "learning curve" to "Lord of the Rings." You get even more audacious with that film with your "moving paintings" approach. You had already worked with a live-action cast in short sequences from "Coonskin" and "Heavy Traffic." But you only animated your "Lord of the Rings" adaptation after filming it with a live-action cast. Can you describe the challenges and the rewards you got from that "moving paintings" approach?

All right, so first of all, the learning curve is still working in my favor. There were two shots in ["Heavy Traffic"], in "Coonskin," and so forth. Each time I take another step, I try to learn from that, and adapt. Pixar, and the other great animation studios at Disney, and Dreamworks do what is now called motion control, which is animation, and live-action filming for animation. We called that rotoscoping because we didn't have computers. It's the same technique, only motion control isn't as complicated as rotoscoped movies. You shoot everything live, and then take the frames of the film, and turn them into 8x10 photographs. The animator would use photographic action as a basis for the animation. Now they put wires on everyone, and as the actors move they—Dreamworks and all the other companies—see the image move on a computer, the skeletons of the motion. It's the same thing. But they don't have the cost of 8x10 photographs, which were very expensive. 

That was, again, trying to tell a story in a painfully realistic manner. It was a way to continue to try to tell the types of stories I tell—I wanted to do "Lord of the Rings" because I loved the books—and using a technique that will allow me to do that. For me, to ask an animator to sit in a room, and draw nine Ring Wraiths on horseback, charging across a field, chasing Frodo on a horse? They'd still be doing it 30 years later. So I had to find techniques to push the medium along.

Another funny story: I'm in Spain shooting a battle sequence [for "Lord of the Rings"] inside this 14th century castle. And everybody's in costumes, and we're shooting live-action the scene where hundreds of men are charing the walls of a castle. The next day, the Spanish were developing the film in Madrid. So the next day, the producer comes to me, ashen-faced: "The entire Spanish laboratory has quit the film." Here we go again. Why'd they quit the film? "Because the director doesn't know what he's doing!" And why does the director not know what he's doing? "Because there are telephone poles, and airplanes coming into scenes! And cars, and trucks!" That didn't bother me. That stuff was going to all be whited-out. I just wanted the action. But they quit! I had to talk to them for hours to convince them. Because that's how good the costumes were. But if you looked at just the action? It was spectacular! But they were fixating on cars driving down the street. Those are the kind of fun times I had. I was laughing so hard I thought I'd die. They finally came back to the film. But they never trusted me again. They made sure of what I was doing.

Max Fleischer developed that technique. Disney used it because Fleischer never admitted it. Max Fleischer developed rotoscope on [the influential 1920s cartoon] "Koko the Clown." I knew that Disney had used it on "A Night on Bald Mountain" from "Fantasia." I knew the animator, Bill Tytla, from when I worked with him at [formative animation studio] Terrytoons. He told me about filming "Night on Bald Mountain" with Boris Karloff [Editor's Note: Béla Lugosi was actually used for the "A Night on Bald Mountain" sequence, not Boris Karloff]. Disney wanted to keep that a secret, but it was Max Fleisher.

Further along on your learning curve: talk about working on "Spicy City," an animated series you developed for HBO [in 1997]. What kind of feedback did you get from the people you worked with, and how would you characterize your creative process at the time?

Big question. That's a big question. I won a lot of fights, and I lost a lot of fights. I had come back from New York, and was burnt out, tired from all my fighting. And on 2nd Avenue, in the '80s, there used to be a theater. Sam Shepard got his start in that theater [Editor's Note: Bakshi is referring to Theatre Genesis, located at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery]. I used to hang around that theater, on 2nd Avenue. They would do very great plays. A lot of writers were hanging around. When I sold "Spicy City," we sold a pulpy detective series where each episode was a separate story. I wanted to get a new bunch of writers in, writers who never wrote screenplays before, writers who never worked for Hollywood or television before. 

So I hired Asians, blacks, transvestites, guys out of jail who were great writers. I put together a sensational crew of guys who lived on the streets, understood everything, and never wrote. They were poets, mainly. They used to hang out at this bar that used to have poetry recitals once a week. I met a lot of the guys there. And I hired them! I paid them $1,500-2,000 for 30 pages. And they delivered some of the greatest stuff that I've ever seen in my life, easy. I had one transvestite who came from some Asian country—it was unbelievable. And they wrote these stories. They animated these stories back in Hollywood. I was just working with the writers to go over the animation—the storyboards—with them. Because at that point, I had given up my animation studio since I didn't really care to be pushing animation anymore. I was too tired.

And we had a #1 hit show. There was this great comic on HBO at the time, I forget his name. And we whipped his ass. He was the highest-rated comic on HBO [Editor's Note: Bakshi is referring to Chris Rock]. And we just blew him out of the water on ratings, which everyone was shocked at. We were a #1 show, right? Then came the second season. I was excited as hell to put together this second season. These guys are delivering what I knew they could: creativity unheard of! All their ethnic prowess was coming to the fore. And their lives, which had nothing to do with he lives of Hollywood writers, were the lives that they were writing. It was incredible stuff. So the head of HBO comes to me, and says that I have to fire all my writers, and use Hollywood writers, so they could control the series. That's exactly what he says.

I say, "What are you talkin' about? Fire the guys? But we have a #1 hit show!" He says "That's why we want to control the series. It's too big for those guys in New York to write. They're not professional, they don't know what they're doin'." So I quit, and the show got cancelled.

Speaking of great disappointments: is "Last Days of Coney Island" still going to be your last movie? You retired before in the '80s ... will it stick this time, do you think?

Nah. Well, two things happened. First of all, the freedom given to me on this film from working with Kickstarter, and the kind of things that happened to me that I told you about—and about a thousand other things I haven't told you about—should give you an impression of how difficult it is to try to do anything. The freedom I've got now ... I love the movie I've made. It's structured unlike anything I've ever done, it says all I've ever said, and I've had none of my old problems. I wasn't looking over my shoulder all the time, I was sleeping well at night. I wasn't drinking; I started drinking because I got so depressed in Hollywood. So my feeling is that I would love to do more. I'd like to do "Wizards 2." I'd like to keep going. Of course, I want to see the reaction people are gonna have to ["Last Days of Coney Island"]. I'm very curious about what people will say. The guys I work with, the guys I respect. I'm not looking for the Pixar crowd to love it. 

Last Days of Coney Island from Bakshi Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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