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.
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 providesor 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 commercialsmost
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 studiospreoccupied
as they are with patterns rather than movementscorn 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 staffpeople who had been making commercials
and other limited-animation filmsand 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 preparationstoryboards
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 studiosespecially those making television cartoons
of the Saturday morning varietyplanning 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
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 layoutgood stagingof 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 staffthe most important,
in addition to the animators, were Johnnie Vita and Ira Turek, who
were the background artists, and Cosmo Anzilotti, who did the layoutshe
had trouble adding to it. In both New York and California, some
members of the staff did double dutyanimators 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
basisthat is, he got paid according to how many feet of animation
(on 35mm film) he turned out, instead of by the weekand 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 ownhad 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 divisionthe
Krantz studioand 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 fortiesDick Lundy, Norm
McCabe, Manuel Perez, Rod Scribner, Virgil Rossand younger
menmost notably John Spareyfrom 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, defeatismall
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 animationas opposed to
the formulas that are used to grind out TV junkwill 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]