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.
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