Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Importance of Richard Williams

It is easy to forget that there are real artists who take enormous risks to create quality animation.  That is mainly because in good animation feels real, it envelops you in the world of the characters and you forget that someone created this.  Over the next few days I will be chronicling some important figures in animation who have contributed enormously to the art form.

Richard Williams is part of the same generation of animators as Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth.  He started near the end of the Golden Age of Animation and was one of the few artistic voices during the Television Era of Animation.  Williams, like Bakshi and Bluth, was a figurehead that people were looking toward and while his career is marred by artistic struggles, Williams showed an unwavering commitment to quality and his dreams.

The Little Island (1958)
Williams' big debut was as the writer, director and producer independent half hour short.  The short does not use words and is a philosophical argument.  The Little Island can be a tough sit as it is much slower paced than mainstream cartoons.  However its deliberate nature, thoughtfulness and lofty goals are incredibly admirable.  It is a great showcase for Williams' talents as an artist and his independent nature.  The short was rewarded with a BAFTA award.

Title Designer and Animator (1965-1976)
Williams made a few more shorts but he found consistent work in an area that offered quite a bit of work to talented animators in the sixties and seventies: title animations.  He either designed or animated the title sequences for live-action films such as What's New Pussycat?, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Casino Royale, Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again.  A title sequence may not seem like the greatest artistic endeavor, but a lot of movies of the time put a lot of effort into their openings.

A Christmas Carol (1971)
A good amount of Williams' artistic clout came from a television special that earned an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film after a theatrical release.  This Chuck Jones adaptation of Dickens' ghost story really holds up.  It takes a standard approach to A Christmas Carol, no real cartoony gimmicks.  It is hauntingly designed and condenses the story really well into a half hour.  The short also views the apparitions from Scrooge's perspective and shows some real growth from his character.

Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
In the 1970s mainstream studios made some attempts at feature animation.  This was on of the few American non-Disney animated films created before the animation renaissance.  The movie was hurt by studio interference who insisted on it being a musical.  Williams also went over time and budget on the feature.  It is an uneven movie, but it does feature creativity and competent animation.  After this Williams directed an Emmy winning Christmas special, Ziggy's Gift (1982), based on the Ziggy comic strip.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Williams was chosen as the animation director of this classic, game-changing film.  The team of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams is an incredibly impressive artistic line-up.  The animation in Roger Rabbit worked with the live-action so seamlessly and really has yet to be topped in terms of clearly animated characters inhabiting a real world.  Williams' efforts earned him a special Oscar and enough prestige to attempt to complete his dream project.

Williams also voiced classic Tex Avery character, Droopy in the film and the follow-up short Tummy Trouble (1989)

Thief and the Cobbler (1993)
It is impossible to go into the detail that this movie deserves.  The story behind its production is incredible and heart breaking.  Williams began working on this in 1965 and worked on it independently until he Warner Bros. helped financed the project in 1988.  After failing to complete it in time the production was seized and finished cheaply without Williams.  Miramax acquired the movie and reworked it into a lazy Aladdin knock-off, titled The Arabian Knight. Williams had disowned the film for many years after that and refused to talk about it (although Roy E. Disney was interested in helping to finish it before his death).  On YouTube there is a re-edit titled The Uncobbled Cut, that utilizes unfinished pencil tests to show a film that is closer to Williams' vision.  Williams showed a director's cut of the movie in 2013.

Williams intended this movie to change animation and had it been released in the sixties it likely would have.  This is creatively designed and painstakingly animated.  The storytelling is unlike any other animated movie and has an incredibly visual focus.  Williams should be commended for his efforts and lofty goals.  Even if his perfectionist tendencies 

The Animator's Survival Kit (2002)
Although his intended magnum opus did not turn out Williams continued to influence animation with this book that has become somewhat of a new standard in learning animation.  The book holds the subtitle: A Manual of Methods, Principles and Formulas for Computer, Stop-motion, Games and Classic Animators.  The book was even updated in 2009 to include internet animation.  Chris Wedge, the director of Ice Age, called the book a revelation.  Throughout his entire career Williams has been training animators, he now has written a guide for animation students.

Circus Drawings (2010)
At 77 years old Richard Williams created a short based on his experiences of living near a Spanish circus in the fifties.  The short has screened at festivals and received acclaim.

Williams represents the type of voice that is difficult to find in animation.  He was never in it to make money or follow what others have done.  He took chances and was constantly perfecting his skills as an artist.  Williams may not be widely known to the general public, but he did influence an industry at a time when there were few others taking chances.  Richard Williams holds a high level of artistic integrity and an unwavering commitment to his passions.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of Ralph Bakshi

It is easy to forget that there are real artists who take enormous risks to create quality animation.  That is mainly because in good animation feels real, it envelops you in the world of the characters and you forget that someone created this.  Over the next few days I will be chronicling some important figures in animation who have contributed enormously to the art form.

One of the names most familiar to fans of American animation is that of Ralph Bakshi.  He may not be as well known today, but Bakshi is the one who really pushed the idea that animation can do anything. He was a pioneer in adult animation and took some risks on some incredibly controversial films.  He also really perfected independence and quality outside of the studio system.  Bakshi was ahead of his time and was a voice that the animation industry really needed in the doldrums of its dark age.

Terrytoons (1957-1967)
This influential animator got his start at one of the least creative studios in the Golden Age of Animation.  That is not a slam on Paul Terry's studio, it was not trying to change the industry it was trying to make a buck off of serviceable cartoons.  Bakshi worked his way up from polishing cells to directing Sad Cat shorts.  At Terrytoons Bakshi pitched a series to CBS, The Mighty Heroes.  The Mighty Heroes stood out as having better humor and quality than most of the assembly line cartoons of the 1960s.  Bakshi even became head of Terrytoons for eight months before it was shut down.  Bakshi find work on the TV series Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-Man.

Fritz the Cat (1972)
Bakshi's breakthrough and most important achievement was Fritz the Cat, an adaptation of Robert Crumb's comics.  The production had an incredibly tight budget, but it was worth it.  The movie, which was marketed towards an exploitation audience, became the most successful animated independent film of all time.  The movie received an X-rating, although as Mark Hamill says on the film, "there are worse things on Family Guy."  There is plenty of controversy surrounding the film and many in the animation industry did not respect Bakshi for his "filth."  But a cartoon that was just for adults was huge step forward for an industry that was only cranking out uninspired and unartistic distractions for children.  The adult animated features that followed have not received nearly as much success, but this did create the adult animation industry and was a risk that animation needed to take.

More Adult Feature Films (1973-1982)
The next movies made were for similar adult audiences.  They did not reach the same levels of success and had varying levels of critical reception, but it shows Bakshi's dedication, experimentation and artistic voice.  Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner city New York, was released in 1973 with an X rating was a huge critical success.  The movie was based on Bakshi's own experiences.  Coonskin was a gritty take on Uncle Remus' that was a statement about racism.  The movie was very controversial and misunderstood by many in its intentions, but it remains Bakshi's favorite film.  Hey Good Lookin' had a troubled production and was not released until 1982 although production began in 1973.  His final animated feature for adults was 1981's American Pop, which he utilized the process of rotoscoping to create.

Fantasy Adventures (1977-1983)
Bakshi really branched out by creating three fantasy films.  Bakshi wanted to make a family feature that could carry the same impact as his adult movies.  He utilized rotoscoping to animate these movies.  The first was an original futuristic fantasy Wizards (1977).  This was followed by Lord of the Rings (1978), the very first adaptation of Tolkien's books and the one that introduced Peter Jackson to the franchise.  Then the cult classic barbarian movie Fire and Ice came in 1982, based on the art of Frank Frazetta.  None of these movies received much financial success or critical acclaim.  The process of rotoscoping was criticized by some in the industry as Bakshi was only teaching his animators how to "trace."  It is interesting to note that these and other high fantasy movies of the eighties (such as Last Unicorn and Black Cauldron) all struggled with maintaining quality and finding audiences.  People seem to be more accepting of a lesser feature when it is live-action.  

Television (1987-1989)
Bakshi produced one of the most important TV cartoons of al times, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, an update of the classic Terrytoons character.  The cartoon featured an incredible staff, including John Kricfalusi, who would later create Ren and Stimpy.  This series was leagues ahead in terms of quality of other cartoons of the eighties and the animation industry took notice.  However the series sparked controversy with a mother who did not like Bakshi's previous career with adult entertainment which unfortunately caused CBS to cancel the series.  Bakshi also created a pilot that aired on Nick at Nite, Christmas in Tattertown (1988) and directed an episode of PBS's Imaging America (1989).  Bakshi then directed a TV special based on Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book (1989), which Theodore Geisel was heavily pleased with.

Last Days of Coney Island (2014)
Bakshi's final animated movie was Cool World which was released in 1991 and suffered from a lot of studio interference.  Bakshi worked sporadically after that, but he had essentially retired.  Currently Bakshi is working on a project that has been long in development called The Last Days of Coney Island.  The movie is being funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Ralph Bakshi has a varied career with many ups and downs, but he definitely has never been afraid take risks.  He is a figure that is hard to ignore.  He is outspoken and committed to his art.  He changed the way that people saw animation with Fritz the Cat and pushed the animation renaissance forward with Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.  Ralph Bakshi never let others dictate what he could do, he made the animation industry take things on his term.  Cartoons are better because of him.