Back in the early 1970s, when feature animation was believed to be in its final days, a new feature operation with dreams of challenging Disney almost started up in New York City.
It would have been run by perennial maverick Ralph Bakshi, who had the rights to R. Crumb’s underground comic Fritz the Cat and was also developing a more personal project called Heavy Traffic. Those films were, of course, made, but in Los Angeles instead of the artist’s beloved home base.
Back in 2002, I spoke with Ralph about why he went Hollywood (at least in the physical sense):
“I got this very low budget Fritz the Cat, I only had a million dollars, and it’s the first New York feature film. I’m paying the animators, in-betweeners, assistant animators, and the background painters union prices. But the inking and painting I wanted to ship out of the country to get a price per cel. If I painted the stuff in the shop, I couldn’t afford to do full animation. So I go to the union and tell them I’m shipping the painting, and they said, ‘No, you can’t,’ and now they’re starting to strike the place. So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m in trouble, I don’t know how to do the picture.’ And [producer Steve] Krantz says to me, “Why don’t we go to California?” And I froze, because I didn’t know any animators in California, and I couldn’t bring any of my guys. I was very awed by the California animators and their reputations.”
Despite his intimidation, Ralph pursued the idea and discovered that, unlike New York local 841, L.A. Local 839 was more open to striking a deal than striking his studio.
“The California union basically said that they would allow me to paint out of the country, they would make it easy for me, they would make sure I got the right animators. I didn’t want to get into inter-union fights so I just said [to New York] ‘Guys, for the last time, if you don’t let me paint out of the country and keep the animation here, I’m moving the entire studio to the West Coast.’ They told me I was full of shit and they voted against me, and the next day Steve and I closed the studio down and we flew out to California. The California union sent out Irv Spence, Virgil Ross, Manny Perez, and when I came in and said, ‘Well, uh … ‘ I was still very shy with them. Manny and Irv calmed me down and told me what I was doing was amazing. I had a big mouth, and they really made me feel okay, that they were going to take direction from me, that I had something to teach them.”
Ralph also told me he still kept his door open to his former New York crew for freelance work. But how did the veterans on either coast react to the X-rated subject matter of Fritz the Cat?
“The animators were wondering what the hell I was doing because it was pornography, they thought. But when they saw Fritz they liked it, because everybody else liked it. I could only say to those guys I love them and they’re the greatest.”