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Ralph Bakshi: Past, Present and Future

By Yasmin Nissim on September 26, 2012

Take One by Yasmin Nissim

Ralph Bakshi is a lot of things. He’s an award winning animator, a director, an artist; he’s the man behind Fritz the Cat, one of the most successful independent animated films ever made, along with countless other notorious features that have pushed boundaries and offended the conservative sensibilities of the unimaginative. Most importantly though, Ralph Bakshi is a self-professed stubborn old man who will never compromise what he has to say in favour of slick, big-budget production.

Several of Bakshi’s works were screened last week during The Ottawa International Animation Festival that wrapped up on Sunday, including WizardsCoonskinHeavy TrafficFritz the Cat and a one-on-one with Bakshi himself. Those who attended the screenings were regaled with stories that presented undisguised commentary on environmental, economic, social, racial and political fault lines prevalent in 1970’s American culture. Funny thing is though, after having watched all four films, it seems that nothing has really changed. Sure, the names may be different and the wars may be happening in different places, but the core issues are still the same – in some cases things have gotten worse. It’s not like our carbon footprint has gotten smaller in the last 40 years.

This point was driven home clearly during his one-on-one in which Bakshi discussed the value of having something poignant to say. He stands by the idea that without a real message, animation is just pretty pictures.  In his 1975 film Coonskin, there’s a scene with a homeless black man, Old Man Bones, who gives a monologue about how great the “trickle-down” is (think trickle-down economics) as he’s rooting through the garbage of white people and, much to his delight, finds a real “natural cotton sweater”. By simply adding a modern political reference, this scene was transformed into the short clip Trickle Dickle Down which takes a clear shot at Mitt Romney and his classist prejudices. By employing a bit of “reuse animation”, Bakshi has taken a scene almost 40 years old and added just enough modern reference to reinvigorate the scene’s commentary on economic disparity (to say nothing of the racial undertones)

This, I think, is the key to Bakshi’s continued success and influence in an industry he’s been part of for over five decades. Time passes, technology moves ahead, but the issues never go away. There’s no subtle messaging wrapped up in metaphor and simile.  His images and stories are a direct unapologetic, unrestrained barrage of shocking images that try to wake you up to the crazy world we live in. Bakshi remains relevant, provocative and completely inspiring. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Take Two by Chris Cline

Fans of Ralph Bakshi will know that he is one of the animation industry’s long-standing veterans. During his one-on-one discussion at the National Arts Centre, he spoke at length about how he got his start and the changes he’s seen in his 54 years as an animator. Bakshi was able to bring some welcome perspective to a crowd full of aspiring animators eager to get their own start in the business.

“I’m kind of shocked about what can be done with technology,” said Bakshi. “What I can do now on a computer in my house used to take 150 animators in a studio.”

But the prevalence of simple-to-use technology hasn’t negated other changes that now make it more difficult for animators to ply their trade in an interesting, engaging way. Bakshi spoke about how easy it was to license music for animated films in the 1970s.

“I could license Billy Holiday songs for 25 bucks,” he said. “Nobody was doing it at the time. Now it’ll cost you 150,000.”

What was most striking was that he’s managed to stick to at least one stalwart conviction, namely that independent animators have a responsibility to say something of substance in a world full of conflict. It was a shot across the bow of industry giants like Disney, who have a history of delivering aesthetically pleasing, expensive productions that avoid referencing real-world issues.

“If you have nothing to say, you better make it pretty because that’s all you have,” he asserted.

In contrast to the Disney approach, Bakshi, has always worked under the threat of financial oblivion. It’s a condition that has forced him to sacrifice production values in order to finish his films and get his message out.

“The idea is more important,” he said. “Never let not having enough money, never let crude animation, never let anything stand in your way of putting down what you feel you want to say. That’s the most important thing.”

Bakshi’s message certainly resonated with the crowd.

“This has been one of the most inspiring sessions of the whole festival,” said one young animator at the conclusion of the one-on-one. Judging by this and other passionate reactions, it will be interesting to watch what kind of productions come out of the local animation scene in the wake of Bakshi’s visit.

The Ottawa International Animation Festival wrapped up on Sunday, and winners of the competitive portion of the festival include Junkyard by Dutch director Hisko Hulsing, Arrugas by Spanish director Ignacio Ferreras and more.