I Just Want Them to Wake Up: A Birthday Interview With Ralph Bakshi


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.

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.

This interview appeared in Cartoon Brew

Looking Back at Animation’s Future, With Ralph Bakshi

In Praise of Ralph Bakshi, Animation Pioneer

MorphToons: October 2015