Interview: Animation Pioneer Ralph Bakshi and The Battle To Make 'Wizards'

Animator, director, and all-around firebrand Ralph Bakshi is still astounded that 35 years ago he was able to get his fantasy feature Wizards made (my review). Made for a then fairly steep animation budget of a cool million (part of which Bakshi had to front himself to finish the film), a victim of studio politics when distributor Fox went through a regime change, and released directly against Disney's Fantasia, the road to the big screen for Wizards wasn't an easy one. "The fact that it's still around after 35 years is absolutely shocking and amazing," Bakshi tells me.

But it has survived and if you haven't seen the movie, there's still a good chance that you've seen the distinctive cover art featuring assassin-turned-hero Necron 99/Peace astride one of the strange beasts that populate Wizards' post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape. Or maybe you've seen some of his other animated work, all of it in way way or another subject to a cult following: Heavy Traffic, or the brilliant homage to our homegrown music, American Pop. It's likely many of you have seen his Lord of the Rings, for which Wizards was kind of a dry run.

Over a good half hour, I spoke to Mr. Bakshi, who was vacationing in New Mexico a week before WonderCon, about the continued legacy of his work, getting the damned movie made in the first place, and his hopes for revisiting the Wizards universe in a sequel.

To hear Bakshi tell it, the biggest obstacle to getting Wizards made wasn't the fantasy high concept, or the Disney's own big-budget musical fantasy that was set to release in '77—no, that honor went to producer Alan Ladd Jr. Ladd was producing both Star Wars and Wizards at the time, and Bakshi talks about how both he and George Lucas would have to go hat in hand to Ladd for additional funds to complete their ambitious features. Towards the end of the production of Wizards, Bakshi says that he was short $50,000 for various labor fees, and reached out to Ladd who not only turned him down, but threatened to sue the director if Wizards wasn't completed. Lucas also approached Ladd for completion funds for Star Wars, Bakshi says, but the producer balked at the number: a cool $25 million. Lucas used some of his American Graffiti money while famously renegotiating his contract to control all of the licensing for Star Wars.

To be fair to "Laddie" as Bakshi calls him, the producer did back similarly risky projects like The Right Stuff and Blade Runner, and at the time, animation wasn't the moneymaker that it is today. Bakshi tells me that studios were closing down left and right and the creative output of the biggest competition in town, Disney, was sub-par with titles like Robin Hood which notoriously recycled animation from The Jungle Book.

Bakshi still had the problem of finishing his movie, though. He still had the final battle sequence and couldn't afford to animate the whole thing. "I was kind of lost as to how to do this without going back to drawing illustrations, which would kill me or kill the film." It was then that he struck on the idea of using rotoscoping, the process of using hand-drawn animation to trace footage or real actors. The technique had been around since the beginning of animation, but Bakshi was able to use it in a pretty strategic way for his own production, capturing stock footage battle scenes from medieval films and WWII newsreel footage to give Wizards its distinctive mesh of styles.

That look was later used in his version of Lord of the Rings which he credits with making Peter Jackson's version of the Tolkein's books possible—and Bakshi insists that Rings wouldn't have been possible without the groundwork he laid with Wizards. "There are billions of dollars that the industry has gotten because of Wizards, as far as I'm concerned. My version of that history," he concedes.

According to Bakshi's history, and I tend to believe it, his version of Lord of the Rings was intended to be no less ambitious than Jackson's version, albeit in animated form. The original contracts with studio United Artists called for a three-picture deal based on the books, but there was pushback from fans who were, at the time, resistant to not getting the complete story in one picture. Plus, the actual technology at hand when he and his team attempted to make the film was possibly the best they could hope for at the time, but still not sophisticated enough for the scope of the story of Middle Earth. Plus, Bakshi was worried about managing an $8 million budget when comparable projects from Disney were getting healthy $24 million budgets. His team was shooting the live action segments in Spain while animators in L.A. would handle the rotoscoping work.

Bakshi walks me through the how and why of getting the movie made, after director John Boorman's treatment of the film—a single live-action movie encapsulating the entire trilogy—fell through. As a boy, Bakshi read the novels "with a passion," and in the late 70's he went to United Artists producer Mike Medavoy with a pitch to animate the story. He says Medavoy and the studio pushed back—no one there understood the movie and no one had read the books, and pretty much gave the rights to Bakshi for nothing. Bakshi promptly walked across the hall to MGM, which shared the building with UA and pitched the movie to producer Dan Melman who was a fan of the books.

Bakshi credits this experience, in part, with his first departure from animation. "I left crawling, I left beat up," he says. "I have mixed feelings about the whole thing mentally and physically, it was quite difficult."

I asked him how he could keep coming back to an industry that he felt would keep beating him up. Well, first and foremost, he credits the creative freedom that he's had during his career, which has allowed him to put things on the screen that more mainstream productions might not otherwise touch. Bakshi wasn't afraid to go into the inner city with his stories, or have his characters curse or have sex, or get bloody. "I'm not ashamed of the word 'artist.' I started the business wanting to be an artist." Why was all of the heartache worth it? Because as an artist, he was still able to get his vision on screen and in front of viewers.

He actually says that the sort of salutary neglect by the studios ("They didn't give a g**damn what I was trying to do") was sort of liberating at the time and part of what kept him from bailing. "I kept going because I had [the studios] over a f****** barrel. They had no idea what I was doing, they thought what I was doing was [just] funny animation." Bakshi didn't have to answer to anyone for rewrites of test screen his projects for prospective audiences. Since no one especially cared about the animation industry, Bakshi says that he was free to just do what he wanted.

When things were at their darkest, though, when something like Wizards might not have gotten finished, Bakshi says that animation vets like Burt Spence, Manny Perez, older animators from the Warner Brothers and Disney shorts days came to his rescue and provided further impetus to keep going. Bakshi told me about how Spence, who did his time at Disney before finding himself without steady work in the 70's, came on board one of his projects: he says Spence came into his office and asked if Bakshi really wanted him on the project and Bakshi said "yes." Spence asked if Bakshi would let him do some of the more outrageous elements from the movie, and Bakshi said yes again, and from then on the senior animator was on board. Bakshi says that these animators—who were all in their 60's and 70's at the time—were excited to be working on adult-oriented projects and getting paid for it.

Another part of what kept him around was providing sometime different to viewers raised on nothing but a steady diet of Disney product. The heavy doses of sex and politics in Coonskin and Heavy Traffic were antidotes to what Bakshi saw as safe, antiseptic product. "That was a tremendous aphrodisiac to get me going." Bakshi would seem to have nothing but disdain for most Disney product, particularly the studio's unwillingness to touch on real-world issues.

He calls Disney's refusal during WWII to directly address the horrors of the war and the holocaust "madness." I ask him if maybe Disney's strategy at the time was a conscious one to provide a counterpoint, a relief in the face of the war but Bakshi says that this defense is simply a cop out. "You don't need relief, you need to tell the truth... every once in a while, you've got to take a stand as a producer and director." Bakshi conceded that this doesn't put him in the absolute right, but he says that the way he was raised, he was taught the value of personal accountability and didn't see that back then with the major animation studios in the face of tremendous social upheaval (although he does understand that Disney was attempting to run a profitable business and certainly had had to think about keeping the lights on). Today, he says, the whole country is falling apart "because we don't care about one another."

While he says the fights at the time to get the movies made or their initial critical responses were bruising, it's worth it now thanks to college-age fans who are just not discovering and embracing his work. Bakshi says that with the Blu-ray release, it's the first time that he feels the studio is actually behind the movie in its 35 year history. "They've got me , LACMA, we're doing WonderCon," he says. "The new kids know how much Wizards is loved on the Internet." Nonetheless, he's taken aback by the support the movie is getting from Fox after all these years, "There seems to be a whole different feeling about Wizards [at Fox] than I've ever felt before... They're spending bread—they never spend bread on Wizards!"

He hopes to capitalize on that interest by potentially getting a sequel for the movie off the ground, ending his retirement from the industry.

Given his passion for injecting a healthy dose of the political into his work, I asked him how he imagined getting a Wizards 2 off the ground at Fox. He says it's the politics of the studio itself that are the greatest obstacle to getting a sequel made, describing himself as "an old face," that maybe some of the younger animators or producers might not have any interesting in working with.

He says at this point, he'd like to just walk up to current Fox head and pitching Wizards as a potential Lord of the Rings-level franchise for the studio. Bakshi believes that at this point, the technology has caught up with his vision for the Wizards universe. He joked, "and if [Fox would] just give me the 50,000 you owe me, then I'll just make it." He kids, saying that in spite of everything, he'd love to work on the proposed sequel at Fox, but he owns the characters from the film and would just as happily work with any studio interested in producing the film.

I ask him why not just find a way to create something like digital shorts or some other low-cost solution to getting them made and he brightens up. "I think that's a great idea," he muses. Again pointing the constant positive web response that his work has received, he says that he'd love to work with the young animators who write to him encouraging Bakshi to create a sequel.

If you'd like to check out Wizards, it's on Blu-ray now and getting some special screenings across the country now.

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