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The Filming of Fritz the Cat, Part Two

From Funnyworld No. 15, Fall 1973.

IV. Coast to Coast Animation

Even if Bakshi and Krantz had had no difficulties with Robert Crumb, or in finding a distributor, Fritz would have remained a quixotic enterprise. Bakshi and Krantz evidently had some doubts themselves about the wisdom of their venture: production was arranged so that the Harlem section of Fritz could be released as a fifteen-minute short subject if the money ran out. Not only was the budget small and Bakshi himself inexperienced in the production of feature cartoons, but the very idea of making a feature in full animation in New York City was folly.

The Harlem BarNo animated feature has ever been completed in New York City, although it has been a center of production much longer than Los Angeles. The fatal deficiency has been the absence of any tradition of quality. Walt Disney and the Hollywood cartoon directors who flourished in his wake had no counterparts in New York; the principal studios in New York during the 1930s, when Disney was on the rise, were Fleischer's and Terry's, and the people running them lacked the artistic drive that was apparent in Disney's cartoons.

The animation that emerged from the New York studios in the Thirties and Forties, and on into the Fifties, is, at its best, broad and vigorous and fully three-dimensional, but lacks the point and subtlety that great direction provides—or that great animators can provide, if they are given the time and the leeway to reshape a scene.

With no leadership from the top, gifted animators and story men and even directors were usually swamped in the prevailing mediocrity. But if conditions were so different on the two coasts, why did they stay in New York?

Ralph Bakshi has said that one reason he went to work for Steve Krantz in the first place was that he wanted to avoid going to California—"it was alien country to me." That is probably as good an answer as any. New York and Los Angeles have always been very different cities, and many people would simply prefer to live in one rather than the other, even at considerable personal and artistic cost.

The Paramount studio (the heir of the old Fleischer studio) closed in 1967, after a long decline; the Terrytoons studio, which had been moribund for several years, finally closed officially in 1972. But long before those two studios closed, the dominant position in New York animation had passed to television commercials. It's tempting to talk about animated commercials as if they contained some artistic advances, just as it's tempting to think that live-action commercials hold the seeds of great feature films. It simply isn't so. Animated commercials must catch the eye, and hold the viewer's attention briefly, and for this, striking designs are much more important than the animation itself. In only a few commercials—most of them the work of free-lancers like Bill Littlejohn— is this emphasis on design mixed with animation that is up to traditional standards. Many TV-commercial studios are crass, fast-buck operations, and in the work of only a few studios is there any concern evident for the art of animation. For the most part, the commercial studios—preoccupied as they are with patterns rather than movement—scorn the "Popeye animators" who were cast adrift by the closing of the studios that made theatrical films.

Such people bear what one assistant animator calls "the stigma of full animation," and it was animators of that sort that Bakshi gathered around him when he began work on Fritz. He dropped most of his old staff—people who had been making commercials and other limited-animation films—and hired cartoonists who were used to working in full animation. Marty Taras, John Gentilella, and Nick Tafuri were the three most important, but there were others, like James Tyer and Larry Riley, all of them veterans of the Terry and Fleischer/Paramount studios. Animation began in June 1970.

The course of production after that was rough. Before animation can begin on a cartoon, there must be a certain amount of preparation—storyboards must be sketched out, voices recorded, layouts made, characters designed, and so forth. The amount of this preparation, and the nature of it, varies from studio to studio, and from director to director, and depends a great deal on the amount of money available. At the Disney studio, directors, animators, and story men have always had the time to get under each character's skin, establishing the characters' personalities and letting the cartoon take shape around them. At other studios—especially those making television cartoons of the Saturday morning variety—planning is often limited to the unavoidable, and at that, a lot may be left for technicians to salvage after the animation has been completed. Many studios of the past and present have fallen in between these two extremes, although in today's studios, steeped as they are in cynicism, the old striving toward the Disney method has been abandoned.

Even if Bakshi had wanted to follow the Disney method on Fritz, that route would have been closed to him; Fritz seems to have been a film on which almost everything was done out of necessity, and not by choice. As it turned out, Bakshi plunged into Fritz with only the most limited preparation. He was still recording dialogue in August 1971, more than a year after animation had begun, and apparently there were never any complete storyboards for the film. Norm McCabe, who worked on Fritz for several months in Los Angeles, remembers, "When a sequence was picked up for animation it would include a few covering story sketches. I once asked him about a complete board and as I recall, Ralph answered, 'In my head,' and it could well be."

Bakshi has a streak of Barnum in him, and in 1971, he was talking about his difficulties as if they were advantages. In regard to the lack of complete storyboards, he said, "I don't like to jump ahead on my films. The way you feel about a film on Day One, you may not feel the same way forty weeks down the road. Characters grow, so I wanted to have the option to change things, and strengthen my characters… It was sort of a stream of consciousness, and a learning process for myself."

That doesn't make a lot of sense, because if careful preparation for a picture has any purpose at all, it is to increase flexibility, rather than reduce it. Good planning for a picture illuminates the opportunities that are available to a director, rather than foreclosing them, just as a good layout—good staging—of a scene illuminates opportunities for an animator, rather than cutting them off. It is during the planning for an animated picture, in fact, that most of the director's artistic choices must be made; once the actual animation begins, barriers begin falling across the paths that were open to him. There is no real equivalent in animation to the improvisation that can take place during the shooting of a live-action film, unless there is enough time and money available to permit the individual animators to expand or contract their scenes. This was true at the Disney studio at one time, but normally the basic decisions about a picture must be made before the scenes are handed out to the animators.

Less than three months after defending his lack of preparation for Fritz, Bakshi offered another, more plausible reason for it: "I started Fritz without much preparatory work because I didn't want to lay anyone off. I had these guys [the veterans of full animation], I was going to hold on to them. Always in the back of my mind was, what if I can't get guys to do it? Steve might go to Europe, or give the picture to another producer, in California. I was really panicked, so I started the thing hot, quick, and then worked around the clock trying to keep ahead of the guys."

What this meant in practice was that Bakshi and his layout man stayed only a few days ahead of the animators, who had to have the layouts to guide them in their work. Since the story had not already been worked out in storyboards, it evolved as the layouts were prepared. Bakshi relied at first on Crumb's comics, to the point that many layouts were taken directly from the panels in the Fritz stories, but by the time the studio moved to California, entirely new sequences were being added, and three or four alternative endings had been considered and discarded.

Once Bakshi had assembled the core of his staff—the most important, in addition to the animators, were Johnnie Vita and Ira Turek, who were the background artists, and Cosmo Anzilotti, who did the layouts—he had trouble adding to it. In both New York and California, some members of the staff did double duty—animators did layouts, Anzilotti did animation, and so on. Not only Bakshi but others who were on his staff remember that a parade of animators moved through the studio, each one working only briefly before Bakshi fired him or he quit. Even highly touted animators for TV commercials could not meet his standards. One animator accepted work on a footage basis—that is, he got paid according to how many feet of animation (on 35mm film) he turned out, instead of by the week—and an assistant animator on Fritz remembers that the animator found his assignments so difficult that he "just about made carfare into New York to deliver the scenes." Bakshi himself has said, of the New York animation, "There was no input from the animators; no one seemed to understand the film I was doing. They tried to keep making Fritz a little pussycat, have him run on all fours, stuff like that."

This gulf between what Bakshi wanted and what he got evidently extended to the layouts as well as the animation. One member of the New York staff says that Anzilotti's staging of each scene "almost invariably" fell short of what Bakshi wanted. Bakshi, the staff member says, "was continually trying to be as free as possible" in depicting both sex and violence, but "Cosmo always tended to be conservative."

Such problems could have been expected, since no one on Bakshi's staff had worked on anything like Fritz before; they must have constantly felt the tug of the old way of doing things. It was not until the promotional film was put together for Warner Brothers that anyone besides Bakshi had a good idea of what the movie was going to be like. "That five minutes of animation did it," one staff member says. "When we saw what it looked like, we saw we'd be able to pull it off… That was like a turning point; we were shooting in the dark until then."

In November 1970, when Warner Brothers withdrew its backing, Bakshi's staff became even smaller; he kept only one animator (Gentilella), his layout man (Anzilotti), his background painter (Vita), and a few others, until the deal with Cinemation had been made and money was coming in again.

Despite all this, after almost a year the animation had been substantially completed, even though almost none of it had been photographed. Something like seven thousand feet had been completed by April 1971, according to animators who worked on Fritz in New York, although the amount of New York animation in the finished film is considerably less than that.

By April, Bakshi had antagonized many New York animators because of his tough standards, and he and Krantz were quarreling with the New York animators' union (which is oriented toward commercials, and not entertainment films) over Krantz's efforts to cut costs. On April 16, a Friday, Bakshi told his staff that he was going to Los Angeles to hire some new animators.

Bakshi and Krantz had considered moving to California before, and Bakshi had actually gone to Los Angeles early in 1970; at that time, The Peg-board, the newsletter of the Hollywood animators' union, reported that the Krantz studio had already decided to move to the West Coast. However, Vikoa, Inc.—a New Jersey corporation that makes equipment for cable television operations and runs some cable systems of its own—had acquired the Krantz company in August 1968, and, according to Krantz, Vikoa vetoed the move to Los Angeles. Late in 1970, Vikoa dissolved its film division—the Krantz studio—and as of January 1, 1971, Steve Krantz Productions was established as an independent company, giving Bakshi and Krantz the freedom to move to California if they wished. Krantz says that Vikoa's opposition to moving the studio to California was one reason for his split with the company; Vikoa says that its film division was becoming a financial albatross.

The new arrangement left the Krantz studio with the ownership of Fritz free and clear, and with the distribution rights for Krantz's earlier films, although part of the proceeds from those films had to be passed on to Vikoa. The market for those earlier cartoons was none too strong, and that, Bakshi said, further tightened the financial squeeze on Fritz.

Although indications are plentiful that Bakshi had been planning a move to California for some time, he insists that it was not until he spent that April weekend in Los Angeles that he decided he wanted to make the move. "I went out here to hire more guys!' he said late in 1971. "I needed help… And then I said to myself, how am I going to control guys animating on the West Coast? I had planned to work by mail. I decided the whole thing was crazy, and I've got to come out here. It happened that quickly."

Bakshi was back in New York on Monday, calling members of his staff and asking them to either come to the coast with him or work through the mail. (Johnnie Vita went west for a few weeks; Ira Turek left, too, and stayed in California; other members of the staff worked through the mail.) By April 23, the studio had closed and the move to California was under way.

There were other reasons besides its abundance of animators that made California attractive. Hollywood animators still work a forty-hour week, whereas New York animators have worked a thirty-five-hour week for years. The Krantz studio also got a warm welcome from the Hollywood animators' union, whose members have been plagued for years with a seasonal work schedule. Most production in Hollywood is geared to Saturday-morning children's TV programs, and since production of those shows is crammed into only five or six months, many members of the Hollywood union can find little or no work for half of the year.

By early in May 1971, the Krantz studio was set up in Hollywood, filling half a floor of a nondescript office building on Sunset Boulevard. Bakshi began hiring animators who were veterans of the great studios of the thirties and forties—Dick Lundy, Norm McCabe, Manuel Perez, Rod Scribner, Virgil Ross—and younger men—most notably John Sparey—from the same sort of background. Although these men came out of a tradition that was far superior to New York's, the facts of life in the animation business in 1971 were not much different in Hollywood than they were in New York.

Animation in Hollywood today suffers from more than the coldly commercial attitudes of most of the studios; it suffers as well from a sickness of spirit among the people who make up the rank and file of animators, story men, layout men, and background painters. This malaise is marked by bitterness, griping, self-pity, defeatism—all the characteristics of trade unionism at its worst. Hollywood animation is heavy with men who are well into middle age or older, and many of them have lost whatever love they had for animation; many of the younger people coming into the field have no affection for it, either, having known it only since the television studios like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation acquired domination over the field. It is altogether too likely that the basic skills of animation—as opposed to the formulas that are used to grind out TV junk—will be all but lost in another ten or fifteen years, saved only by a few dedicated survivors from the "golden age" and a handful of younger men who have refused to surrender to the prevailing cynicism. Like monks in the Dark Ages, preserving and copying manuscripts, these people will be saving part of our culture from a barbarian horde.

Their job will be difficult because an animator's skills are highly perishable; animators must grow, or their skills decay. Many Hollywood animators, their growth stunted by the old studios' closings or by their own sloth, have remained in their traces, slogging through TV work that calls on only a fraction of the skills they once had. Ralph Bakshi found that some of the older men he hired had trouble working in full animation again, after so many years of limited animation for television. "Each guy took at least two weeks before he got anything out that we used," he said about a month after the Hollywood studio had opened. "Some of the guys couldn't believe it. I came in and said, 'It's limited, I don't want limited,' and they looked at me. A guy came in with forty feet the first week; I looked at it and said, "I don't like this footage,' and I threw it out. He looked at me, he walked away, he came back and said, 'You threw it out? Am I fired?' I said, 'No, man, do it again, but do it right,' You know, it was like that."

Late in August 1971, Bakshi dismissed seven of the people on his small staff, explaining that the money was running out and that he would rather keep a few people on the staff for as long as possible than keep everyone on the staff for a shorter period.

With a reduced staff, the film limped toward the finish line, but not without encountering some bizarre difficulties. By mistake, some artwork that had not been photographed for the movie was taken out of the studio for publicity pictures; some of it turned up damaged, and one background painting was found lying in a street a few blocks from the studio. A few weeks later, a fire in the building sent animators scurrying into the street with boxes full of drawings that had not been photographed. Despite these bad omens, animation was finally completed early in December 1971, and Fritz opened on April 12, 1972, at theaters in Hollywood and Washington.

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[Original article ©1973 Michael Barrier]