Following scuffles with various studios over the fallout surrounding Coonskin, Ralph switched gears and launched a project he hoped would both salvage his reputation and demonstrate his breadth and versatility as an artist. Drawing equally on Tolkien, Frazetta, and his own early sketchbook artwork, Ralph crafted a futuristic, post-apocalyptic fantasy universe populated by demons, fairies, elves and subhuman, biotoxic mutants – then used it as window-dressing for a blistering cautionary tale about nuclear war, the military industrial complex, and the scars left by the Nazi genocide. Paradoxically, Wizards (on Blu-ray now) was Ralph’s first film for family audiences – a decision which, he explains, reflects his faith in younger audiences to intuitively understand and appreciate complex ethical issues, rather than just being fed “age-appropriate” pabulum.
Additionally, Ralph discusses his early days as an animator at Terrytoons, working on popular animated series’ like Deputy Dawg and Heckle and Jeckle, dishes some dirt on Robert Rodriguez’s planned Fire and Ice sequel, and explains what the hold-up has been with the proposed CG and cell-animation combo project Wizards 2.
So it was that backlash from Coonskin that made you decide to do more of a family film.
Exactly. You’re right.
It’s interesting, though, because it’s your first family film, Wizards. But in a lot of ways, it really has the darkest themes of any movie you’ve made. It’s basically a children’s movie about genocide.
Yeah! Atta girl, keep goin’. What?
I know that you’ve said – and I think it’s interesting – that you wanted to make a children’s movie that respects children, for being able to deal with serious issues. I just thought that was a really interesting way to approach that.
There was no other way.
Right. Because people kind of treat kids like they’re just these empty vessels to accept whatever ideas…
There ya go! Keep goin’, keep goin’! [Laughs]
[Laughs] …to accept whatever ideas are given to them, and their parents should just be able to tell them whatever ideas they think are appropriate for them. And kids really have their own ideas and their own preferences from when they’re really young.
There was one thing I really just wanted to tell you, actually. I saw Wizards originally – it’s still my favorite one of your movies, because I saw it when I was a really little kid. And I saw it when I was such a little kid that I actually didn’t know about the Nazis or the Swastika or anything at all. And later, when I started seeing the Swastika in other places, I immediately connected it with Wizards, and it was like, on this deep emotional level – also with the footage of the Hitler speeches, and that stuff – I saw that, and I immediately understood what it represented, and what it was about, and how bad it was. And I think that’s so great that you made something like that for kids.
I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. There are three things – and first of all, I love what you’re saying. There are three things – everyone who’s ever run into me who loved Wizards as a kid has said to me that the thing they loved most about it was that it had ideas in it, that they understood that it had ideas in it, and though they didn’t get all the ideas it had in it, they understood that it was forcing them to think. That makes me go nuts.
I think Wizards, for me, was the first movie – because you get older, and you learn to do this more – but it was the first movie I ever saw where it upset me, but in a way that I liked and was comfortable with. Because I knew, like you say, that it was about something. And I wanted to watch it over and over again because of that.
I love that. I love what you’re saying. You’re making me very happy. I’m an old man, I can say that, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not conning you for any reason. This is great.
Three things – I did a children’s film because, like you, I respect children, meaning children are little adults. They always are, from the moment they’re born. And the whole learning process is about using their mind. And they’re not stupid, and it’s only people like Al Ruddy that think kids are stupid. That’s why I’m so furious about what Disney didn’t do, because this continuing commerciality of safety and wishing upon a star isn’t the way to raise kids. They have to understand the world they’re heading into, and they have to think.
I also wanted to prove to those idiots out there in Hollywood that I wasn’t just doing films that were about encouraging sexuality – because my films certainly did have some sexuality! [Laughs] But it’s about – animation can produce ideas. And if you take away, by courtesy, all the rough language, you’ll see that Heavy Traffic still has a lot to say about father-son relationships – racist fathers who don’t want their kids hanging around with black girls. And young kids who, even in their twenties, haven’t had sex yet, and what a problem that is! Because Michael eventually goes out and kills someone to prove he’s a man. You know, so he can get laid. And that’s basically what the whole film is about. That’s why Michael gets killed.
I think a lot of it goes back to that really frustrating idea that seems like it just won’t go away, that animation is a “genre,” that’s supposed to have a certain demographic or a certain tone, and it’s hard sometimes for people to break out of that. I think even a lot of the problems that South Park, for example, has had are because people don’t understand that it’s not for kids, just because it’s animated.
That’s always been the battle, and that was of course started by Walt Disney. I’m not putting him down, he has a business to run. I’m just saying that he used publicity, and that was what he sold. He sold quality – “We’re the best. Anything less than us is garbage. And we’re gonna make you happy, and it’s safe to send your kids to theaters – we will take care of them. We will baby-sit for you. Meanwhile, we’ll merchandize the hell out of everything,” and they made all the money they could. So that’s what you were selling, for years. It was ingrained in Hollywood’s mind. There were no animated features except for Disney! You gotta understand, look it up. I’m the only guy that did features after Disney. Occasionally another picture would come out, but there was no other company like mine or Disney’s that continued year after year to make ‘em.
Al Ruddy cost me my company. When you have a small company like mine, totally independent, doing a whole bunch of films, that left two films unreleased – that’s a company that’s flat broke.
I just don’t know how to die easily. Most guys would’ve folded up their tents at that point, you know? I kept fighting.
So did you eventually decide – because I know you’ve had this really successful fine arts career – did you decide to get out of animation for that reason, because it was costing too much, and the bureaucracy was too much of a hassle for you? Or did you just decide that you would rather paint?
I’ll tell you – because I love you for some reason. Listen, I got out of animation because I was dead. I got out of animation because I was fighting for twenty years, working seven days a week in a studio, trying to support it, getting every bad break that ever happened. Having to defend myself every ten minutes, not only from idiots, but from the Disney company. When I opened up Wizards in a multiplex theater, you know what Disney’s company opened up in every theater I opened in?
Exactly! Tryin’ to kill me! They were really worried about me. So it was hard. And everybody was calling me a pornographer, and everyone was calling me racist, and everyone was calling me “idiot.” And I had no money, and I was broke, and I owed money. I left broker than I started out. I nearly died, physically. I was very young and very strong, or I’d have gone out earlier. I was drinking a bottle of scotch a day, and maybe more at the office. It got rough.
So I left because I was burnt out, depressed, beaten up, had said an awful lot, and hey, it was time to leave.
Being an artist, I knew there was an outlet for me, which I loved, which was drawing and painting. So when you’re depressed and you’re dizzy, you know, “Why don’t you just go home, Ralph, and paint? This is bullshit.” And that’s what I did.
But I didn’t go because I didn’t love animation. I was beaten up, that was true. And I thought I was stale! What happened years later was beyond my understanding, that kids are still watching the movies, I’m still getting e-mails, they’re still loving it. That Warner’s is spending a fortune re-releasing Wizards after thirty-five years. I mean, every young person, like yourself – and look at you, you’re twenty-six, you’re just a kid! I mean, what do you know about Wizards? This is a thirty-five-year-old film, and you’re talking about it like you saw it last week. So I guess I made it!
But when I left the business, I thought I was ruined. I was embarrassed of who I was. I even evaluated whether I should’ve taken it easier, you know? Whether I went too far. You know, better to be rich than poor broke! You know, “I coulda been drivin’ a Ferrari! When everybody else is making money in Hollywood, why do I have to take things so f*ckin’ seriously?” I left with all those thoughts. I went back, took a deep breath, and decided I was okay after awhile. But it wasn’t easy. Anyone who thinks it was easy or glorious, it’s not. That’s not right.
I love that story, early on when you were at Terrytoon’s, where you just picked up your desk and put it in the animation room, when you’d been inking cells or whatever –
[Laughs] I really wish you wouldn’t have told anyone!
I feel like that’s kind of your whole career – like, “F*ck this! There’s no reason I can’t just do it the way that I wanna do it!” I just love that.
That’s my message. That’s my message to young people. Whatever you think about, you can probably do. As soon as you get afraid about it, and you start thinking, then you won’t do it.
Maybe more importantly too, it makes things change. The Union people, if I remember, were really upset, and then the people running the studio ended up saying, “Well, he’s kind of right. He’s doing a good job, maybe some of these other people should get promoted too,” and then everybody was happier.
That was the negotiation, to keep me at my desk downstairs. There was a director, an animator who I loved very much – he was about seventy years old when I came to Terrytoons. His name was Connie Rasinski. Now, Connie Rasinski was a clown. He was a hobo. He was a boxer. He rode the rails. He did all those things, as a human being, before he became an animator for Terrytoons, the black-and-white days. He was the desk director, and he stood up for me. He said, “He’s animating! He’s doing a good job! What do you want from me?”
He’s the guy, when I carried the desk downstairs, I went to him and I said, “Look, I’m here to animate, give me a scene.” He looked at me for three minutes, and he knew exactly what I was doing. The only thing that stopped him from busting out laughing was, he leaned over, gave me a scene, and said, “Here, do this and bring it back when you’re finished.” He knew exactly what I was doing.
I spent two weeks down there before the production manager found me! [Laughs] Which I knew – because this guy was an idiot. This guy couldn’t find anything. I realized it would take him awhile to realize I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
He comes to Connie, and he says, “Connie! What are you doing? What are you doing with Ralph? What’s he doing down here?!”
Connie says, “He’s animating.” And then Sparky, the production manager, comes at him and says, “He can’t be animating, he’s not ready yet!”
Connie says, “Well, he’s doing a good job for me!” And no one’s going to go against Connie – nobody is going to fight Connie. You know, Connie ran Terrytoons. So that’s when the Union came in, and everybody started to scream, so the compromise was that they were gonna promote a lot of guys who were ahead of me.
The Union has regulations – you couldn’t get ahead unless you were on a different time period. With my time period, being a Jew, it would’ve taken me about forty years before I animated, because they were all Italians! [Laughs] I’m serious, I’m dead serious!
So they promoted all these guys. The first time I went out in the parking lot, the studio was gonna kill me. These guys were all out there with bricks – they were gonna beat me up. Until they realized they were gonna have a fight on their hands, and then they stopped.
And then they’re out there shaking my hand two weeks later, because I had gotten all these guys promotions and everything. And I stayed, and animated, and became a director.
But that was Connie Rasinski. He looked at me, and – he didn’t have any kids, Connie. He died of a heart attack a few years after that. I loved him very much and he was my first director, but he knew what I was doing, and he stuck behind me, which was very unusual. My animation wasn’t that good, it’s just he liked what I had done! [Laughs] He liked what I had done, you know?
And I was sitting in the hallway. There weren’t any rooms down there, so I was down the corner, in the pipes, next to the bathroom. I spent two weeks drawing there before the f*cking production manager decided to see what I was doing down here. I said, “It’s easier to get to the bathroom!” [Laughs] He looked at me, he thought I was serious! Because the bathroom was like, ten feet away, the Men’s Room. So I said, “It’s easier to get to the bathroom.”
Anyhow, that’s Brooklyn. That’s Brooklyn. [Laughs] I mean, that’s how I learned to grow up. It was the best time in my life. I couldn’t believe when I picked up my desk during lunchtime, everyone was out to eat. But it wasn’t a desk, it was a drafting table. It wasn’t a real desk. Then I had to go back and get the chair! [Laughs] And was I happy! And I pulled it off, you know? I got everybody a promotion.
Yeah, that’s kind of what I mean – you weren’t maybe thinking about that, but there’s moments in life like that where, just for yourself, if you just say, “F*ck it, I’m just gonna do this,” it ends up really starting something and being great.
I couldn’t wait anymore. I could not wait. I was gonna quit. I was either going to animate or die. I mean, you’re watching, and you’re waiting, and you’re waiting, and you see all these guys ahead of you, and it’s all just ridiculous, to my mind. These rules that put mediocrity first. “You gotta go ahead whether you’re good or not,” and I wanted to animate so bad I could taste it. I could eat it. I was in love with animation, I still am.
I’m trying to get Fox to do Wizards 2.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that, because that’s something you talk about on the commentary track. I wondered if that was something you’re still working on or not.
Well, here’s what’s happened – it’s very interesting, since people like you have shown up. All these years, FOX has done nothing and was very quiet. Suddenly, these young kids, kids your age – young kids, and mainly women, I guess – have come into FOX with an understanding of what Wizards is, and how much people love it. And really, for the first time, FOX has woke up. They got me interviews, they’re releasing the Blu-ray, they got the L.A. County Museum to screen it, WonderCon it’s their premiere film – on Saturday night, they’re screening it. They’re spending a lot of money on the booth, they’re flying me out, which is impossible – putting me up in a hotel. For the first time, there’s a bunch of people at FOX that understand what you understand – that Wizards could be a sequel, with the technology today. That they’re sitting on something that’s a non-brainer.
So for the first time I felt a tremendous amount of activity. So I’m saying now to everyone I talk to – “I’d like to do Wizards 2!” And I’m telling you, I’m going to go to the President – the President of FOX, the guy who runs the whole place – I’m gonna walk up to his office, and I’m gonna say, “You gotta do Wizards 2.”
Because I can’t get past all these animators who are doing all this Ice Age stuff. Nobody wants me around. Know what I’m saying? I’m trouble, to their minds. I’m trouble to Al Ruddy. There might be some politics involved with their own animation division. I never had to worry about animation divisions, but every studio now has got an animation division, and the people who run that, I don’t think they want me around. So I’m gonna have to go to the President, and just lay my cards on the table.
There’s absolutely no reason not to do Wizards 2. If Wizards led to Lord of the Rings, and my Lord of the Rings led to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – because nobody would’ve done the picture if I hadn’t shown it was possible. The books were just too dense. And I brought billions into the industry, because of Wizards. Wizards brought billions into the industry.
I’d be excited to see what you’d do, because you’ve said you want to use some computer effects. Which would be really interesting, because your style is always so collage-y, and so much about contrasting different visual elements. Would you want to do most of it line-drawn, and just incorporate some computer animation into the backgrounds, or how would you want to do that?
Well, the metaphor is kind of thought out already. You can put this in print – the metaphor is technology versus magic. You know what that means. All magic is not good, and too much technology destroys magic.
I’m a very big believer in going back to the land, and not heating up the planet, and not killing every fish that swims in the sea, et cetera, et cetera. So if you extend the metaphor, it’s all great, if you get the computer animation. The hard-edged stuff for the technology, and it’s up against these sweetly drawn characters, which is my old style. The metaphor is set. There it is, visually. Cute, round drawings of Avatar and Eleanor and all that, against these hard-edged computer – you got a mind-bending visual that says what you’re gonna say with the story, and now you’re off saying the things you have to say.
That’s exactly what I wanted to say, and that’s why we used the rotoscope work, because it was the same thing.
Yeah, I actually really wanted to ask you about that, because I was re-reading the section of Unfiltered about Wizards, and I didn’t realize this, but I guess you actually invented a new rotoscoping technique with Xerox machines, right?
That’s right. Well, it’s the same thing, when you have a computer – put this down. There were no computers. I was reaching for other stuff, so the technique I came up with was, I didn’t have money, but I did have a head on my shoulders. Meaning, I’m an artist, I think strange thoughts. And I thought that, instead of drawing, because that takes money – instead of drawing the photographs, which is traditional rotoscoping, where you put the paper on the photograph – that I could somehow take the photograph and take it to the Xerox machine, live action, and do a cell, and paint the back of the cell, and it would move.
Now, what I wanted to do – because the Xerox machine could not handle all the grays. A photograph has millions of grays, from black to white, the gradation, and it was destroying the motion. So what I did was take the photograph and White-Out on the photo all the subtle grays, with just that stark black left for the photograph, and everything else was white except for the black outline. And when I did that to all the photographs, and painted the back of it, my God, the plates moved! And I put red dots in the eyes for the Demons, and I was off and running. And yes, that was a new technique.
I would use that today. I’ve responded to the computer, because I think it’s a tremendous use of that, and of course all the CGI today – that’s a very primitive CGI technique. That’s what CGI does. They scientifically compute all the shadows, and all the parts, and all the points. That was the first CGI in the world, and if you want to say that, you would be standing on good ground. That was CGI without a computer. Ha-ha. Shows you what I can do from Brooklyn. Ha-ha!
It was the same thing for Lord of the Rings. All those scenes – because I didn’t have any money for Rings either. All those scenes – the Inn at Bree and everything, the Arachnids – take a look at it. It all started – and then I was able to do that film. The Ring Wraiths in Lord of the Rings were all that technique. I shot these guys running around on horses, and shot them, and put them exact, right on film. And look at the motion – they were flying. And I could also take out some cells and put some animation reactions in, you know, and I could do that too.
I’m really excited to hear that you’re still pursuing the Wizards sequel and trying to get that made, but since you mentioned it, I also wanted to know if you’d heard – last year at Comic Con, the director Robert Rodriguez announced that he’s been in touch with the Frazetta estate, and he’s planning to remake Fire and Ice. I just wondered if you had been contacted about that, or what your opinion is.
Oh sure, sure. The Frazetta people don’t have the rights to Fire and Ice, I do. Robert Rodriguez and his guys came over, said they wanted to do the film in live action and they wanted me to be involved, and I said, “Look, you go do this film, but if you get the film made – ” I gave them the rights to do the film. If they get the film made, they owe me a payment. If they don’t get the film made, there’s no payment. So I’m looking forward to the money.
I would not get involved without Frank. You know, Frank died, and he’s a good friend of mine. I wouldn’t have done the film except for Frank Frazetta. I wanted to work with Frank. And I was going to leave the business – I left the business after this film. I knew that was my last film, and I didn’t care. And I wanted to work with Frank, who was a very good friend of mine from Brooklyn, and one of the world’s great Fantasy artists. But he died, like an idiot.
And I wasn’t gonna do it – I told Rodriguez, “I want no part of it, but you can certainly pay me.” He huffed and he puffed and everything, but he did get the rights. So I don’t know what’s happened since. It’s been very quiet. I thought he would have sold it by now, with his reputation and everything. But I haven’t heard a word. I might have gotten him angry, too, by saying I didn’t want to be part of it.
So it’s live action, they’re not going to try to rotoscope it again? That seems like kind of a weird choice, actually.
Well, I guess he looked at Avatar – I think he was looking at Avatar and he wanted to do the same thing. Thinking, “What can I do that’s like that?” That’s why I don’t wonder he’d do it, I mean, what are you gonna do with Fire and Ice that, to me, is worth spending a year and a half on? With the political, you know – I just don’t know why you’d want to run around chopping people’s heads off for a year and a half.
He may do something brilliant. He may do something brilliant, don’t get me wrong, I’m just saying, you know, I copped out. Life’s too short. I’d rather paint than do, you know, people running around in the desert shooting half-naked girls. Don’t be ridiculous.
Yeah, well I guess Fire and Ice actually has a really big following. It got probably, of all your movies, the biggest, fanciest DVD release from Blue Underground. Honestly, I like Fire and Ice, but it’s not my favorite one of your movies. But I know there are some people who are obsessive about Fire and Ice.
I don’t like Fire and Ice. I never have. I don’t care for it.
You don’t like it?
It’s lightweight. I mean, I don’t know. After Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, I don’t know. Of course, Fire and Ice wasn’t personal at all. It wasn’t anything to me, it wasn’t anything personal. I liked hanging around with Frank, and that was personal. But there wasn’t anything I invested in Fire and Ice, as far as ideas go. The writers were comic book writers, and I didn’t care what they wrote. I didn’t have that kind of investment emotionally in Fire and Ice. And unless a director is emotionally invested in a film, you can give him a hundred billion dollars, and you know.
Films are about ideas, and films are about how you emotionally feel, and that’s what holds a film together. The fact that people like Fire and Ice, Jesus Christ, I can’t tell you some of the films people like, also, that I lose hope seeing. [Laughs]
People don’t have the best choice in movies. The stupid sh*t they like, I don’t wanna see. But they have great stuff on Netflix. I tell you, those Japanese and those Chinese make unbelievable movies. It’s staggering! Choreography, costuming, design, camera work. Choreographing of fights, fantasy.
I saw one the other day, a Chinese film, about a guy whose father sold his body, the unborn baby, to forty-eight demons – each demon wanted a piece of the body – so the father could run the world. So the kid, he has to kill forty-eight demons to get his body parts back. Every time he kills one, he gets an eye back, and a hand back. [Note: In case you’re interested, Ralph is talking about Dororo, a 2007 live-action adaptation of a manga series by Osamu Tezuka, which is actually Japanese, not Chinese. Whoops.] Unbelievable! And the visuals were just staggering. And what have they got over here? Anyhow. That’s what’s gonna save the world.
I had one other question for you, which is kind of just a footnote – but the score for Wizards, you talk a little bit about it in the commentary. The composer was a guy named Andrew Belling, and you said that you lost track of him, and you hadn’t really been in touch. And I wondered if, since that commentary was recorded – because I know the commentary track was originally recorded for the DVD a few years ago – have you heard anything about him, or do you know what happened to him?
Yes. Andrew Belling came in with his own money and a synthesizer – and in those days that was a big deal, that was a machine in those days. That was the rage of all the underground, new musicians. Because it was a machine that did a lot of music, and you didn’t need a lot of orchestra. Came in and wrote that brilliant score. Absolutely brilliant, and moody, and perfect. And he’s never done a movie before.
I had a screening in L.A. of Wizards recently, and he showed up, and I went out to drinks with him. And that was still his only movie. [Laughs] But I told him he could do Wizards 2, if I ever get Wizards 2.
Oh, that makes me so happy!
His score was perfect!
Yeah, it’s beautiful. I tell people all the time that it’s one of my favorite film scores ever. I think it’s a really interesting choice, too, because it’s so electronic-influenced, and the movie is so much about technology, and ends up really being about re-appropriating technology so that it can’t be used for evil.
Exactly. You’re right on. The other part of my choice – I was really into Led Zeppelin at the time. If I’d had the money, I would have probably chosen Led Zeppelin, who I think is one of the world’s great rock bands. As a kid, of course, how could you not?
Susan Tyrell, the woman who did the narration, did the single greatest narration I’ve ever heard in a movie either, and she did it in one take. She walked in and just did that, you know? And women narrators were never done in film before, only the men, with the deep throat. You know, that guy who did the World War II films? For the narration back then, men were more serious than women. This was before you were born, kid! [Laughs]
At any rate, Susan Tyrell, what a job she did. Her agent didn’t want her to put her name on the credits, because she was embarrassed that she had to go from live action. She had just got an Academy Award nomination, or won an Oscar, for Fat City. She had played, in the Huston film, a prostitute – great movie, Fat City. She just won that, but she wasn’t eating that well. And she did the film, and she told me afterward that she got more jobs in commercials and stuff, and narration, because of Wizards.
But her agent did not want me to put her on the credits because they thought it would demean her. Now, that shows you what Hollywood’s like, and how they felt about animation. We were like the trash of the industry. Now animation’s the darling of the industry.
I’m sure that’s completely true. And listen, before you go, I just wanted to ask if there’s anything else you’re doing right now that you wanted to talk about. I saw that you did some lecturing in New York recently, and I know you’re always painting, and I also wanted to ask if you teach anymore – because I read that, in the early 2000s, you were teaching at SVA.
Yeah, I taught animation at School of Visual Arts. I wanted to hang around with young kids and teach them, I had a very good time there, and of course they were stunned. [Laugh]
I do stuff. I like to talk, I like to hang around with people that I like.
This was the Bohemian ‘50s, we talked endlessly as I was growing up. The ‘50s and the early ‘60s were all about coffee shops, and talking about art and stuff. There wasn’t any money around, so people didn’t feel very competitive. Especially with the painting world. As soon as the painting world started to get big money, all the painters started to fight and not talk to each other, because there was too much at stake.
I grew up at a time when jazz musicians were playing for five bucks a night. I come from a different generation. I come from a generation that picks up its desk and goes where it wants. [Laughs] Picks up all its furniture, and just leaves.