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Watership Down

Going by the Book

By Michael Barrier

Reprinted (with minor revisions) from Funnyworld No. 20 (1979).

When The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down were released within a few weeks of one another last fall, they attracted more attention than any animated features since Walt Disney’s earliest such efforts, forty years before. Critics who would normally have only nodded in an animated film’s direction devoted many column inches to Watership and Rings, usually treating them as a pair, and only rarely reviewing them separately. Of the most widely read critics, only The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael let the two features pass without comment.

The result of all this attention cannot be called a renaissance of the animated feature. Both films were widely panned, Rings especially. Neither’s boxoffice receipts will rival those of Star Wars, although both seem to have performed respectably enough. If doors, and minds, have not opened wide for those who are proposing animated features to prospective backers, at least they have not slammed shut.

In short, it is almost as if Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings had never been released at all.

That is probably because neither film is really animated. Their directors have been the ones most at pains to point this out, although Martin Rosen of Watership Down has not gone quite as far as Ralph Bakshi of Rings, who told one interviewer: "Stop calling me animation. I hate animation! I want to be real!"

Both Watership and Rings are very stupid movies, of a special kind. That is not to say that the people who made them are stupid, only that the films themselves show no sign that any intelligence was at work in making them. They were both intended as faithful transcriptions of books, and they are both destroyed by a grim literalism that would do credit to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

There are certain people—usually they are adolescents, chronologically or emotionally, and usually they don’t read very much—who become enamored of certain books, and who talk about them, and clutch them to their bosoms, as if they were holy writ. Bakshi and Rosen have talked about the books that were their sources as if they regarded them in just this way, and their films certainly look like the products of pubescent enthusiasms.

Watership Down is the least offensive of the two, because it was drawn, and not traced. Most of Watership’s animators usually work on television commercials in England, and seeing their animation here, in its crudity, and with its graceless execution of even the simplest efforts at characterization through movement, one can understand why Richard Williams (who has done most of his work in England) has gotten in the habit of drawing as well as directing many of the films he makes. If Watership is a measure of the talent available to him, he has had no choice. Watership Down comes to life only when it forsakes literalism—simply reproducing scenes from Richard Adams’ novel—for metaphor. The film’s prologue is the outstanding example of this; Holly’s account of the destruction of the warren is another.

These sequences, and a few other bits and pieces throughout the film, strongly suggest the hand of the late John Hubley, who was director of the film in 1975 and 1976 before breaking with Rosen. The prologue, in particular, is pure Hubley; Michael Sporn, who once worked for Hubley, tells me that its design is rooted in the art of the Australian aborigines. It is jarring to pass from the prologue to the opening scene of the film itself, in which a badly drawn rabbit twitches an unbelievable nose and blinks an equally unconvincing eye.

Rosen has said little to interviewers about what led to his split with Hubley, but what he has said is hard to credit. For example, he told one interviewer that Hubley, after a year of work, had come up with nothing but "a jazz composition score with cute little bunnies with big eyelashes." No one who has seen very many of Hubley’s films could believe that. It seems more likely that Hubley wanted to approach the film in a relatively loose, impressionistic way—as if it were a film, and he a director—rather than in the devotional mood Rosen required. Fortunately, Rosen left enough of Hubley in the film to permit us to gauge how differently the two men approached the film: Rosen’s rabbits merely bleed; it is Hubley’s rabbits, in their few minutes of screen time, who live and die.

Rosen has denied that any of Hubley’s work remains in the film, but our eyes tell us otherwise. Likewise, Rosen has talked of pencil testing the sequence on the destruction of the warren nine times before approving it, but it is difficult for me to believe that the same mind gave us this sequence as well as all of those sequences in which violence is presented so unimaginatively.

"The investors were unhappy, and so was I," Rosen has said of Hubley. "I gave him an ultimatum—abandon the project or start over completely." Whatever the precise form of what happened next, the gist of it was that Hubley was fired. Rosen himself became director, even though he had no experience whatever in animation. The point is, however, that one would not need experience in animation to make the kind of film he has made: a series of tableaux, "scenes from Watership Down," intelligible only to those who have already read the book.

Ralph Bakshi came to The Lord of the Rings with plenty of experience in animation; he has worked in the field for more than twenty years, since joining Terrytoons fresh out of high school. Nevertheless, his version of The Lord of the Rings suffers from precisely the same defects as Rosen’s Watership Down, and has a multitude of shortcomings of its own. Like Rosen, Bakshi has merely pared away chunks of a book in order to squeeze it into a reasonable running time (in this case, a stupefying two hours and fifteen minutes); there has been no effort to make a coherent whole of what is left.

Perhaps we should be grateful that Bakshi did not try to make the material more his own, for there is no evidence that the film would have been improved by the effort. For example, at the start, when Gandalf and Frodo are talking about the fateful ring, and about what Frodo must do with it, Bakshi sends them both out of doors, at night, evidently afraid that leaving them indoors would be too static. This is, in the first place, a pitiful confession of insecurity and ineptitude; a director who cannot keep the screen alive during a few minutes of crucial dialogue is not much of a director. But beyond that, it destroys the effect that Tolkien achieved in the book; there, the meeting with Gandalf takes place in daylight, in a cozy Hobbit dwelling, and the comfort and security of the surroundings are used in counterpoint to Gandalf’s chilling message. Subtleties of this kind—or of any kind—are simply beyond Bakshi’s grasp.

Bakshi is worse at putting together a coherent narrative than he ever was before. The Lord of the Rings is a terrible muddle for those who do not know the Tolkien trilogy by heart. I was re-reading the trilogy at the time I saw the film, and I found that once past the point in the film that I had reached in my reading, I had a lot of trouble figuring out what was going on. Bakshi, typically, has tried to make a virtue of this crippling flaw, by declaring that he made the film for Tolkien’s fans, and not for "the mass audience." But if my experience is any guide, even those who are reasonably familiar with the story had to struggle to keep up. There were devices that Bakshi could have used—titles and, especially, maps—that would have been entirely appropriate (there is a map in each volume of the trilogy), and would have made it much easier for everyone (devotees and non-devotees alike) to understand what was going on.

When the film simply stops, without coming to a conclusion of any kind, it is obvious that Bakshi has not made any effort to give shape to his material, but has simply chopped it off at a convenient spot. I have already suggested that it is Bakshi’s weaknesses as a director that make the film so hard to follow, but this arbitrary ending suggests something more: that Bakshi’s inadequacies are reinforced by a contempt for his audience, to such an extent that they are probably incurable. Bakshi is a talented man, but his talent has been bested by demons whose nature I can only guess at, and it is inconceivable that he will ever produce any films of enduring worth.

The Lord of the Rings was more than just another bad film, however; it was a potentially dangerous film, because of the way that Bakshi made it, by relying almost entirely on rotoscoping—the tracing of live actors. Rotoscoping is already too widespread, and if Bakshi had made more effective use of it, real animation—drawings that originate in an animator’s mind, and not in a photostatic frame blow-up—might have been even more on the defensive than it already is. Fortunately, Bakshi’s use of rotoscoping was just as stupid as the film as a whole, and I know of no one who thinks that Bakshi has opened a road to a new form of "animated film," except possibly for Bakshi himself. (Bakshi proclaimed the uniqueness of his rotoscoping for months—he is an old hand at this kind of hokum—before finally admitting that it was the quantity of the rotoscoping in his film, and not the rotoscoping itself, that was remarkable.)

Although Bakshi’s staff was made up largely of young people fresh from art school, with no experience in animation, most of the scenes involving the main characters were handled by people who had worked as animators or assistant animators. Not that it made much difference, since the rotoscoping is, like the film itself, very literal-minded. The animators traced the action, but they added nothing to it, apart from drawing the characters "on model." For most scenes, an animator named Dale Baer would make one or two key drawings over the photostats, and the other animators would use Baer’s drawings as the guides for their own tracings.

The results are peculiar in many respects. In the Disney studio’s great days, animators working from photostats of this kind would have used them only as general guides, but Bakshi’s animators followed them exactly, no matter how ludicrous the results. We have, for example, a "Dwarf’ who is obviously a tracing of a man who is of normal height, and a "Hobbit" who is obviously a real dwarf.

Bakshi has proved on earlier occasions that he cannot direct actors, and he proved it again in shooting the live-action for Rings. Under the drawings, we can see actors who move only in clichés, because Bakshi can get nothing else from them.

Typically, Bakshi has tried to pretend that such sow’s ears are silk purses. Other animators have caricatured the action in rotoscoping it, he has said with obvious disapproval, but his "animators" were faithful to the action in the photographs. Pressed to explain why this method is superior to simply shooting the film in live action, he has come up with no persuasive answer; the best he can do is to say that rotoscoping gives him a degree of "control" that live action would not.

Actually there is one slender reed that Bakshi could have leaned on. Many of the creatures in the film are fantastic—the Orcs and the Balrog are prime examples—and traced versions of these characters would probably have looked better than live actors in funny suits. However, it is the human and almost-human characters who are traced; the Orcs and the Balrog are presented in a form of rotoscoping that looks like high-contrast live-action photography, but is actually the product of the labors of Bakshi’s young art-school recruits.

Bakshi made a great point, at a press conference in New York just before the film opened, of saying that even the scenes with hordes of Orcs were on cels, as if this meant anything. He was right, though. The high-contrast look was achieved this way: Bakshi’s artists would touch up the photostats with Stabilo pencils, making the outlines more definite. Painters would paint solid white around the forms of the people and the horses, obscuring the backgrounds. These touched-up and painted photostats would then be Xeroxed onto cels; the cels would be touched up to restore lines that had been lost in the painting or the Xeroxing. The cels would then be painted like normal animation cels.

Bakshi has tried to justify this procedure on artistic grounds—"The only difference was whether it was rotoscoped with shadows or whether it was rotoscoped in clean line. Most of the heavies—Orcs and such—I used the shadows, because they were Mordorish"—but plainly costs and not esthetics were controlling. Bakshi could get crowds of Orcs on the screen more cheaply by using touched-up photostats than by having those photostats traced. The effect is ugly, and the effort futile; Bakshi is such a clumsy director that even his scenes with hundreds of extras in cheap Halloween costumes look underpopulated.

Bakshi said in a radio interview that he received 25,000 applications for positions on staff; even given his usual tendency to puff up fact and figures, it seems likely that he did receive thousands of applications, and there must have been hundreds of aspiring young artists who worked on the film (the staff’s size was usually put at around one hundred and fifty, but there was a lot of turnover). One wonders what those young people thought of the work, and what they think of the finished product. And one wonders what they think of Bakshi, the fellow who, in a 1977 advertisement in Variety, offered "creative careers" to young artists.

If The Lord of the Rings has served any purpose, it may have been to make clear just why rotoscoping is so unsatisfactory as an animator’s tool: it makes the indefinite definite, but in a random way.

We do not see people as line drawings; we see them as three-dimensional objects whose outlines may not be at all distinct, unless they are standing against a brightly lit background. Good drawings are necessarily abstractions, because they present human figures as arrangements of lines, and we do not see human beings that way. The lines may be arranged in many ways, to suggest the impression that our brains receive when we see a real person, or as a frankly two-dimensional pattern that has only a tenuous relationship with the ostensible subject. But in each case, the result is nothing like a tracing from a photograph. Such a tracing, even though superficially faithful to the outlines of the figure, is likely to leave out precisely what is most clearly visible to us when we see the figure itself—the contours and textures that can be recreated in line by a skilled draftsman.

Paradoxically, rotoscoped figures—with their crisp outlines—are disorienting and unpleasant in the same way that an out-of-focus film is: we keep straining to see what is missing, and we wind up with a headache. Bakshi’s approach to rotoscoping, using untrained artists and misdirected actors, simply guaranteed that the inevitably poor results would look even worse than necessary.

Bakshi’s retreat from real animation—to which he seemed so committed a few years ago—has now turned into headlong flight, and it’s tempting to wonder why. Perhaps there is a clue in what he said at his New York press conference about the difficulties of rotoscoping characters that are moving rapidly:

"When horses come charging by the cameras, and you look at the photographs, and they blur, there’s nothing there. When masses of men are moving, your eye picks out the details, but the camera does not; they kind of blend into an overall gray, there are virtually no lines to look at when the Orcs are coming over the horizon at you. Fast feet—feet moving very fast, too close to the camera, distort. And very subtle moves on a realistic character like Aragorn are very tough to do. When do you stop moving him? You’re all sitting here, but if you check your motion, it’s very subtle. . . . If I did this scene here in animation, and held it as still as you’re all sitting, somebody would say it was limited animation, I wasn’t moving anything, I was cheating, when in reality there’s very little motion out there. Those were the problems that I ran into. When do you not move and not make it look cheap? When do you not move, realistically, because realistic characters don’t move all the time. If you kept it moving, like the old rotoscope methods did, it would move endlessly. We don’t move all the time, and that’s a problem in animation; it’s not a problem in photography, but it’s a serious problem in animation."

Setting aside the possibility that Bakshi was talking down to his audience—always a possibility with Bakshi—the ignorance revealed here is simply incredible, especially for someone who has been in the animation business as long as Bakshi has. Bakshi talks as if he were surprised to find that frames of film, can look very different, taken individually, than they look when thrown on a movie screen at twenty-four frames per second. Yet animators must be aware of this, if their work is to come to life; the effective use of stretch and squash, in particular, depends on knowing how to combine radically dissimilar drawings to produce a single pleasing impression.

This does not mean that animators have devised methods to do what the live action camera does automatically; rather, they have had to find ways to make their moving drawings just as "real" as live-action, but in a distinctively animated way. Take the problem of keeping the held pose "alive." This is no problem in live action, because we all breathe and move in little ways that keep us "alive" and moving even when we are sitting still. But because animated characters—even the most realistically drawn—are abstractions, any such little movements would seem fussy. Other solutions have to be found, and depending on the particular case, they can be as simple as an eye-blink or as elaborate as a complex cycle.

Bakshi has in effect discarded all such hard-won lessons from animation’s past and replaced them with a single rule: find the line to be traced. I suspect that real animation is simply too demanding and difficult for him; he has been in over his head, and now, in rotoscoping, he has found his own special kind of kiddie pool.

We are now promised an animated version of The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams’s most recent novel, from Martin Rosen, and two films from Ralph Bakshi: American Pop, another exercise in rotoscoped "animation," and If I Catch Her. I’ll Kill Her, a live-action "socio-political" comedy to be written and directed by Bakshi. Bakshi has not lost his magic touch with studios and distributors; Paramount will distribute American Pop, and Orion—the new company headed by the former top brass at United Artists—is behind If I Catch Her.

The second half of The Lord qf the Rings, if it ever appears, is years away. I doubt that we will ever see it, since Bakshi—after two fantasy films, Wizards and Rings—seems determined to get back to contemporary material like that in Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, the two films that made his reputation. If his live-action comedy is successful, I would not be surprised to see Bakshi forsake animation all together. Such a consummation is devoutly to be wished, but it seems unlikely, because Bakshi’s record as a live-action director is so poor.

I am afraid that animation is stuck with him, however much everyone concerned may want a divorce.

The Lord of the Rings

[Posted March 8, 2011]