Return to: Essay Index
Return to: Ryan j. Noth
Return to: the beginning
April 23, 1999

 

"The art of animation does not lie in the art of animation. It lies in concepts." - Ralph Bakshi(Greco,18)
 

    The designation of the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings reveals an important insight into the film. As director, Bakshi had to make critical decisions that went beyond simply choosing specific portions of the story to adapt, but also involved finding a technique that would turn J.R.R. Tolkien's words into animated images. Despite the importance of Bakshi's role in determining the final look of the film - especially because the film was animated - the source of the script, Tolkien's popular trilogy, should not be ignored. The adaptation process, Bakshi's personal background, and his stylistic choices (specifically the use of rotoscoping) all contribute equally to make the film what it is. Based on these observations, this essay will look at the work of director/animator Ralph Bakshi in order to come to a better understanding of his vision for the project, discuss the difficulties with the adaptation of the original text, and examine the intent and result of some of Bakshi's stylistic choices.
 



 

Ralph Bakshi, Auteur

"My movies are anti-erotic. I hate sex. I always have. My films are filled with disgust of sex, life, everything." (Higham, 19)
 

        After graduation from art school at the age of nineteen, Bakshi became the youngest animator at CBS Terry-toons, a Saturday morning cartoon production company, where he "followed the ethic of art school - be a good boy, draw pretty pictures, make lots of money and shut up" (Bakshi, Kasindorf, 137). After working his way to the top of Terry-toons in only six years, Bakshi eventually entered partnership with Steve Krantz, a businessman who paid Canadian animators to put his ideas (Spiderman) into motion. Bakshi agreed to organize Krantz' struggling Toronto studio and start up another in New York while Krantz ensured Bakshi that he would receive an outlet for the adult cartoons he yearned to create. Eventually the partners hit upon a story that they agreed would be both a good subject for Bakshi and stand a good chance of making money.Fritz The Cat (1972), based on a story by underground author Robert Crumb, allowed Bakshi to explore many of the themes from his childhood - themes that persist throughout his body of work - and was a huge financial success (made for only one million, it has grossed approximately forty million worldwide). His next two releases were the semi-autobiographical Heavy Traffic (1973) and the highly controversial Coonskin (1974, later renamed Street Fight), which was banned because of disputes instigated by the Congress for Racial Equality. Both films added to public and critical sentiment of Bakshi as a true auteur - inciting fierce debate and critical acclaim - continuing to question sex, race and stereotypes.

        In what appears to be an attempt to clear his name of claims that he was both a racist and pornographer, Bakshi turned to the world of fantasy, writing, directing and producing Wizards in 1977. Made for only one and a half million dollars (Bakshi later claimed to do the film right would have cost eight to ten million (Frumkes, 231)), Wizards tells the story of the traditional opposing forces of good and evil through a seemingly random combination of animated action and voice over/still picture that is surprisingly effective. While the narrative and characterization offer some interesting twists, in hindsight Wizards looks like a trial run for LOTR.

    Released in November 1978, LOTR was produced (and funded) by Saul Zaentz, a friend of Bakshi (and producer of the Oscar winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975) for eight million dollars. The majority of the film was shot in live action in Spain and then traced over by 'painters' (a process called rotoscoping, discussed later) in an effort to fulfill Bakshi's vision of the perfect cinematic synthesization of live action and animation. Like the majority of Bakshi's work, LOTR was a huge financial success (in comparison to its relatively inexpensive production) that received uneven criticism. And, although the inferred relationship between Frodo and Sam is questionable, Bakshi essentially laid aside the central themes of his past work in order to be, as he states, "honest to the genre,....honest to Tolkien, because that's my job as a film director" (Eyman, 36).

    After LOTR Bakshi went on to make what many critics regard to be his best film, American Pop (1981), and his worst, Cool World (1992). In between these feature films he tried his hand at Saturday morning cartoons (Mighty Mouse) and other short projects, but mainly took a break from Hollywood in general, spending more time with his family and painting on canvas.
 

    Ralph Bakshi's actions, sentiments and desire designate him as an auteur, and situate him as both a logical and appropriate choice as the director of LOTR.
 



 

Adaptation
 

    The cinematic adaptation of Tolkien's LOTR, a fantastic escapist series, is both an appropriate and difficult assignment. Initially, when we examine the three main points Tolkien uses to define true fantasy literature, we find a direct correlation to film. Shortly before the publication of LOTR, and in defence of The Hobbit, Tolkien rebuffed many reviewers when he conceded the main argument of his critics, that his text was escapist. It is the challenge of a true fantastic narrative, Tolkien claims, to create a self-sustaining secondary world with an "arresting strangeness" (Tolkien, Tree, 50) and strong ties to the real, primary world. Tolkien posits that this process be used repeatedly throughout the narrative to consistently produce hesitation and suspension of disbelief in the reader, thereby creating escape. Film, then, since its inception, unlike literature, inherently engages the viewer in the process Tolkien had to labour to reproduce in his literature. From the moment film flashes on the screen, whether in the theatre or at home, the viewer more or less willingly suspends his disbelief and subjects himself to the world of the film, fine tuned by directors and editors striving for realism. This inherent advantage usually coincides with Tolkien's second key aspect of fantasy literature, consolation, or the happy ending, a trademark of many Hollywood films for years. Finally, recovery, the device that allows the reader (or in this case viewer) to see the world with a renewed sense of sparkle, mostly due to the effects of escape and consolation, is undoubtedly the main reason for the public's infatuation with film. Based on Tolkien's precepts, then, LOTR should actually be enhanced by the act of transforming the series to film.

    Additionally, while the adaptation of any piece of literature to film is not an uncommon practice, the approach undertaken by Bakshi with LOTR is quite unique, in part because the artistic genres that both Bakshi and Tolkien primarily work with actually have much in common. The majority of critics of both The Hobbit and LOTR have ignorantly dismissed the work for its escapist qualities and because of such ignorance Tolkien's work, along with such works as Alice In Wonderland, is often derisively categorised by many as merely 'children's literature.' Bakshi, like Tolkien, was concerned with public sentiment - for which he blamed Disney - that his genre of choice, animation, was the genre of children, and throughout his life he made attempts to elevate animation to a respectable art form for both children and adults, in part by searching for a unique combination of live action and animation that would heighten the realism of the cinematic experience. Unfortunately, cartoons have become so ingrained in the mind of the public as children's theatre that there appears to be virtually no hope to alter such a position, as Bakshi himself grudgingly admits: "Disney's like Coca-Cola. You've grown up with these images and they're tough to shake" (Scanlon, 31). Based on such knowledge, then, it is puzzling why Bakshi would believe he could use animation - and even rotoscoping - to increase the realism of LOTR.

    Problems with the adaptation of LOTR arise primarily because of the popularity of the literature itself. Expectations of the millions of readers of not only LOTR but also The Hobbit play a huge role in determining the effectiveness of Bakshi's interpretation of the epic, as every reader has their own idea of what Middle Earth and its inhabitants look like and will have problems with the elimination of some sequences from the novel. In Bakshi's defence, it is impossible to say not only if one individual's vision is right, but whether or not there should be an emphasis placed on the director's adherence to the original literature (the screenplay for LOTR was actually written by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle). Overall though, the film moves along at quite a frenetic pace and it is easy to understand how someone not familiar with the original books may even become unsure of "who is fighting whom or why" (Asahina, 18). In fact, the expository piece that attempts to set the background for the story only leaves many non-readers of Tolkien with more questions than answers. Like Tolkien, Bakshi faced the stiff challenge of making others realise his vision, but, unlike Tolkien, Bakshi used the tools at his disposal ineffectively.
 



 

The Impact of Style

    In the film version of LOTR, it appears that rather than work together, Bakshi's adaptation and stylistic choices clash with Tolkien's theories on the fantastic. Although Bakshi intended to create realistic creatures through the process of rotoscoping, he merely succeeded in creating "live-action that had been doctored up to look like animation graphics" (Beckerman, Rings, 45). The characters are difficult for audiences to identify with both because they are animated, and because the quality of animation is low, consistently revealing flitting live action figures very roughly sketched over, necessitating a "...suspension of aesthetic judgement ... that is just too great." (Stuart, sic, 38) Perhaps the effect Bakshi desired, and the one he actually presents to the viewer, was simply not thoroughly thought out; Whatever the reason, the intimacy so vital to a connection with the characters of a film is severely lacking in Bakshi's LOTR.

Possibly the only redeeming technical feature of the film, aside from the casting of talented English actors as the voices of the characters, and interesting slow motion sequences, is Bakshi's innovative use of Hollywood conventions within the animation genre. As traditional Hollywood directing and editing favours the establishment of the pattern of long (or establishing) shot, medium shot and close-up, usually then augmented by the shot-reverse-shot system of discourse and reaction, animated films have shied away from such an approach because "...it is a difficult and no doubt expensive procedure" (Asahina, 18). As Bakshi himself affirms, "Animation needs money. It is a medium where the more money you put in, the more return you get." (Harmetz, C17) Indeed, the large number of backgrounds that such a conventional approach requires is often too overwhelming for animators to handle, but Bakshi, unlike with his excessive use of rotoscoping, does a nice job of implementing the technique during significant, appropriate moments.

    The purpose behind the extensive use of rotoscoping in the film is divided, and has consequently become largely responsible for both praise and criticism. The technique, which basically involves shooting live actors and then tracing over them on film, has been around since 1917 when Max Fleischer (creator of Popeye) experimented with drawing on film, but Bakshi's self-proclaimed goal was to combine live action and animation in such a format that the viewer received the best of both worlds: "You have a cartoon character that is not real, so get ready to laugh. You have a live background that is real. You have belief and disbelief at the same time. The mind is relaxed because of the cartoon characters, and has no walls" (Bakshi, Eder, 40). While such ambition is admirable, the underlying intellect is questionable. One problem with Bakshi's approach to animation resides in his contradictory notion that because there is a cartoon character, the audience should expect a laugh. Such an opinion is at odds with Tolkien's notion that in fantasy literature "one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself," (Tolkien, Tree, 17-18) and even with Bakshi's own desire for the acceptance of animation as serious art. Admittedly, in LOTR Bakshi does not take liberties with conventional cartoon sound effects, but Wizards presents a good example of a film that cannot be taken seriously because any seriousness Bakshi assigns the characters is immediately undermined by jokes and sound effects that draw attention to specifically cartoon qualities. And although the result ends up somewhere between live action and animation, it lacks (in both Wizards and LOTR) " the depth of real actors and the spontaneity of traditional animation." (Beckerman, Rotoscoping, 48) Furthermore, "By actually staging his story first, Bakshi has circumscribed his imagination, which must remain tethered to the scale of reality" (Ansen, 79). Relying on the action of live actors restricts Bakshi from using his imagination to create non-realist creatures that audiences have come to expect in animation and fantasy. Unfortunately for the film, the realist tendencies that Bakshi was looking for do not come across as believable action when ascribed to animated characters. An important sentiment that Bakshi appears to have forgotten is that "It is not the character that is the soul of animation - it is the animator." (Beckerman, Rotoscoping, 52) The large battle scenes which Bakshi hailed a success are actually the undoing of the film because they destroy the viewer's crucial suspension of disbelief of both the narrative and the film. When audiences begin to question technical aspects of a film, there are commonly two reasons. The first is because the technology makes the film stand out technologically - that is, the effects present things that people cannot easily figure out; The second reason is because the effects are transparent - they don't achieve their desired effect and consequently make the viewer ask questions concerning the purpose of such effects. One reviewer even commented that the effects in LOTR have "the look of video tape that has been electronically altered to give it an unworldly, unfilmlike quality" (Canby, C21). This result, most obvious in the sequences in the common room of the Bree inn and the many battle scenes, directly descends from moments when characters look too close to being completely human to be animated. The desire to make this effect work is clearly evident, but whether because of technical or economic restraints, the end result does not bear out its intent.

Fuelling speculation that Bakshi was not given enough money to complete his vision, the film ends quite abruptly. Immediately after the release, audiences began to question such an ending and Zaentz and Bakshi's swift response that a sequel was already in pre-production, and was always their intention, did little to alleviate suspicion. If they had intended to create a sequel all along, why choose to compress the literary trilogy into a two part film and eliminate sections of the books? Countless observations have consequently suggested that the film must have run out of money, and that the effects and abrupt ending are indications of such. Whatever the truth, both Zaentz and Bakshi are quite cryptic in any statements concerning the production. The only clues that are available for interpretation come from Bakshi himself, such as, "I don't watch my films after I finish them. I haven't seen any of them. I didn't have the money to do the animation the way I visualised it, so it hurts me to watch them. (pause) I wish I had Disney money to do Heavy Traffic. I wish I had his animators" (Frumkes, 231). This quote, when combined with Bakshi's statement that before Cool World his previous high budget was four million, as opposed to the reported eight million of LOTR, along with information on The Black Cauldron, a Disney project from the time ("The Black Cauldron will have cost close to fifteen million and taken eight years of labor" (Ansen, 81)), offers a good indication of both the importance of money and time (LOTR took just under two years to complete) required to create high quality animation, and raises questions about the effort put into Bakshi's LOTR.

    Since the release of The Lord of the Rings rotoscoping has undergone huge changes and been used with varying degrees of commercial and critical success (most notably with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988), but significantly not by Bakshi himself (Cool World, released in 1992, was basically a failure). Computers have begun to dominate animation, with partially rendered (Jurassic Park, 1993) and even completely rendered (Antz, 1998) full-length features. However, faced with stiff competition on both the genre and stylistic front, from the recent releases of both Star Wars (1977) and Watership Down (1978), LOTR still managed to record a substantial profit and raise discussion in critical circles.

    As Peter Jackson begins simultaneous shooting of a three-part live action trilogy of the LOTR series in New Zealand, it will be interesting to see if he has learned from the past exploits of Ralph Bakshi. Jackson has declared that Gollum, one of the creatures who's essence Bakshi tapped into perfectly, will be completely computer animated, and that the distorted size of many of the creatures will be adjusted by computers in post-production. Hopefully both money and technology will not hinder Jackson's quest to film what has been called by many the unfilmable. A final warning and a bit of encouragement to Jackson, courtesy Ralph Bakshi: "The Lord of the Rings is not a comic book. It is totally realistic. But it wouldn't be believable either in live action with people dressed up in Orc suits, or as a standard cartoon" (Harmetz, C17).
 
 



Return to: Essay Index
Return to: Ryan j. Noth
Return to: the beginning


 

Annotated Bibliography




Ansen, David.  "Movies: Hobbits and Rabbits".  Newsweek 92 (November 20, 1979): 79-81
Compares LOTR to Star Wars and reviews the film on the whole as below average (criticizing the animation techniques) and not as worthwhile (to view) as Watership Down. Discusses LOTR and Watership Down in relation to their place within contemporary animation, specifically toward that of Disney's supposed monopoly over the market.

Asahina, Robert.  "On Screen: Film Fantasies".  New Leader 61, no.25 (December 18, 1978): 17-18.
After devoting half of his article to horror films and Watership Down, Asahina turns to examine the positive aspects of LOTR (the voices, technical superiority) in the second half, but ends up dismissing the film and the Tolkien novels for lacking proper �fairy tale' qualities, and ends with a parting shot about the dreaded possibility of a sequel.

Beckerman, Howard.  "Animation Kit: Rings �n' Things".  Filmmakers Monthly 12, no.3 (January 1979): 45-46.
Beckerman criticizes Bakshi's use of what he declares to be an ancient technique, rotoscoping, but more specifically, the inclusion of semi-live action, and therefore a seemingly half-hazard use of rotoscoping.  While he admires Bakshi's ambition and talent, he suggests that it's about time Bakshi forget animation and attempt a completely live action film.

Beckerman, Howard.  "Animation Kit: Rotoscoping Or, Whatever Happened to Animation?".   Filmmakers Monthly 14, no. 6 (April 1981): 48-50, 52.
Examines the concept of rotoscoping and its past and present use in films.  Explains in what type of film (he uses Bakshi's American Pop as an example) such a technique can work effectively, as well as how the process is actually achieved.

Buckley, Tom.  "At the Movies: A Hollywood Drama in the making of �Movie, Movie.'".  The New York Times 128 (December 8, 1978): C8.
Offers interesting anecdotes on the production and exhibition of LOTR, as well as the progress of a sequel that will finish off Tolkien's original story.

Buckley, Tom.  "At The Movies: Ralph Bakshi, an immigrant's son, looks back."  The New York Times 131 (February 20, 1981): C6.
Briefly looks at the influence of Bakshi's life on his latest film, American Pop, revealing some interesting insights into his life as a teen, as well as his subsequent jobs leading up to the production of American Pop.

Canby, Vincent.  "Film: �Lord of Rings' From Ralph Bakshi".  The New York Times 128 (November 15, 1978): C21.
A critical review that offers different opinions on the film, but mainly reverts back to the idea that the original literature series was nothing more than an out of control children's story, and that the film will only be attractive to devout Tolkien fans, if that, because the series is too difficult an adaption to attempt.

Coleman, John.  "Films: Force of Hobbit".  The New Statesman 98 (July 6, 1979): 28.
Very pretentious criticism of the film (including the live action/animation merging technique) and Bakshi's interpretation of the novel.  Although Coleman claims to have read the novels, he repeatedly seems unaware of some main themes of both the novel and film, allowing his ignorance to negatively affect the review.

Culhane, John.  "Ralph Bakshi - Iconoclast of Animation".  The New York Times 131 (March 22, 1981): 13, 21.
Discusses Bakshi's role as a �survivor' in the animation industry, specifically his ambition to defy the idea of animation perpetrated by the majority of Disney pictures.  Takes a look at the technical production behind his film American Pop and outlines his plans for future projects in and out of the Hollywood system.  Gives an account of Bakshi's main source of inspiration, art history, and the subject he loathes, animation history.

Diamond, Jamie.  "Animation's Bad Boy Returns, Unrepentant".  The New York Times 142 (July 5, 1992): 9, 17.
A retrospective interview with Bakshi concerned with his role in the shaping of animation as we know it today and the concepts he put into his film Cool World.  Repeats much biographical material from other articles.

Eyman, Scot.  "Animation: Three Approaches - The Young Turk: Junk-Culture-Junkie Takes on a Hobbit".  Take One 7 (November 1978): 34-36, 41.
An in-depth interview with Ralph Bakshi about his position in the animation business, his thoughts on his competitors and his staff, the purpose behind pushing the limits of the filming experience, and his latest release, LOTR.

Frumkes, Roy.  "Animation On Laser Disc - Part 3".  Films In Review 43 (July/August 1992): 228-235.
A follow-up interview by a huge fan of Bakshi reveals thoughts on his film Cool World.  The interview also displays the sarcastic sense of humour that enabled Bakshi to produce some of his previous films, as well as the artistic integrity that makes him a true auteur.

Greco, Mike.  "Bakshi's American Dream".  Film Comment 17 (January/February 1981): 18-20.
In a candid interview with Bakshi, Greco reveals many of Bakshi's passionate feelings about the power of animation and cinema, and consequently, his heroes, goals and ambitions -  his take on the purpose of life.  The article mainly concerns itself with the constant recurring themes in Bakshi's body of work, from his earliest drawings to, primarily, American Pop.

Harmetz, Aljean.  "Bakshi Journeys to Middle Earth to Animate �Lord of the Rings'".  The New York Times 128 (November 8, 1978): C17.
Details many of the production figures for LOTR, including the juggling of the rights to make the film, the amount of extras, other anecdotes, and the impact of producer Saul Zaentz financially and artistically.

Higham, Charles.  "The R-Rated Cartoon World of Ralph Bakshi (�Bambi' It Ain't)".  The New York Times 124 (November 10, 1974): sec. 2, 19.
Mainly deals with Bakshi's work in relation to the censors and the large controversy the films have evoked.  Offers Bakshi's response to the categorization of his films as well as a brief biography that helps the reader to better understand the theme behind many of his films.

Jacobson, H.  "Mostly Mozart: As Many Notes As Required".  Film Comment 20 (September/October 1984): 50+.
Although the article does not deal with LOTR directly, it does reveal key insights into the production concepts of LOTR producer Saul Zaentz, the producer of the film discussed in the article.

Kasindorf, Martin.  "A Kind of X-rated Disney".  The New York Times Magazine 123 (October 14, 1973): 41, 134-142.
A very in-depth biography of Bakshi the man, as well as Bakshi the artist, specifically some of his unusual techniques for supplying his films with sound and image.  Lengthy, informative, and intriguing.

Millar, Gavin.  "Cinema: Closed Book".  The Listener 102 (July 12, 1979): 57-58.
Millar admits to not having read the original Tolkien series but then goes on to debate the merits of Bakshi's adherence to the initial narrative; he claims to regret the lack of an alternative ideology that must have been found in the books for them to be so popular during their initial publication.  Finally, he makes an interesting point about Bakshi's choice of recording live action and then colouring it, suggesting that the essence of the Tolkien characters calls for them to have nonhuman characteristics, not to be based on live action.

Orth, Maureen.  "Bombshell in Disneyland".  Newsweek 82 (August 27, 1973): 87.
Discusses the release of Heavy Traffic and the rising star power Bakshi is garnering in relation to his risque animated features.  Brief reaction from Bakshi on the cultural acceptance of Heavy Traffic and Fritz The Cat as well as some history of his life.

Scanlon, Paul.  "Motion Pictures: The Animated Man - Director Ralph Bakshi tackles Tolkien and finds a heightened reality."   Rolling Stone 283 (January 25, 1979): 28-32.
In an interview concerning the release and public reception of LOTR, Bakshi reveals his idea of where he fits in Hollywood as a director/animator, and sets out some of his reasons for challenging the boundaries of animation by, among other things, combining live action footage with animated characters.

Sternman, William.  "Film Reviews: Lord of the Rings".  Films in Review 30 (January 1979): 55.
In this short review of the film Sternman declares that LOTR effectively does what it sets out to do: brainwash its viewer by combining the viewer's point of view with that of the director's.  Although he declares the film enraptured him, Sternman still attempts to disassociate himself from the world of the film/novel because, in his opinion, it is �childish'.

Stuart, Alexander.  "Reviews: The Lord of the Rings".  Films and Filming 25 (July 1979): 36,38.
Stuart presents a very thorough and educated look at the film, noting many of the major flaws (character development, the abrupt ending, narrative compression), and very effectively explains the problem with Bakshi's ill-conceived idea of switching between animated figures and live action.  He ends with the suggestion that Bakshi attempt a solely live action feature in order to come to a better understanding of some of the pivotal needs of a major production.

Svetkey, Benjamin.  "Movies & TV: Defending the Mighty - Here Ralph Bakshi comes to save the day".  Rolling Stone 535 (September 22, 1988): 40, 44.
Gives Bakshi the chance to defend a controversial 3 second scene from Mighty Mouse, his venture into Saturday morning cartoons.  Briefly outlines Bakshi's perspective on the change in animation from the days of his earliest films.


Return to: Essay Index
Return to: Ryan j. Noth
Return to: the beginning