A Different 'Toon
By David A. Fryxell
If you wanted to re-create as an animated cartoon the movement of Jess Gorrell's arm, reaching to retrieve a painted cell from the movie Wizards, you might have to make a dozen drawings. The sweep of her arm looks so simple, takes barely an eyeblink to accomplish, but full-motion animation requires 24 frames for every second. Even the more modest animation projects undertaken by students here at the Bakshi School of Animation in Silver City demand 12 frames per second. Figure some sequences can be recycled, each drawing might be "held" for three or four frames, and you're still drawing maybe four pictures for every second of screen time.
The short animated film that the current class has been working on since June runs two minutes. That's 120 seconds. You do the math.
And these are kids, ages 10 to 15, an age not renowned for patience with painstaking work.
"It takes a lot of patience, but they've been amazing," says Gorrell, an arts instructor and photographer who's recently opened StudioSpace, 109 N. Bullard, a gallery that doubles as the animation school's new home. "They just sit there and do it."
"They've been really dedicated," says Eddie Bakshi, who teaches the technical side of animation. His father, Ralph Bakshi, is the school's namesake and one of the leading lights of traditional, hand-drawn animation over the past 40 years or so. The painted cell that Gorrell holds—depicting a vividly orange-bearded elfin character—was among the zillions crafted for Wizards, the elder Bakshi's 1977 warm-up for his animated version of the first part of The Lord of the Rings—decades before Peter Jackson's recent live-action film trilogy.
"Patience" would be a good byword, too, for the on-again, off-again history of the Bakshi School of Animation, which is officially "on" again with three new classes, including one for adults, beginning this month and running through March. The school was a dream of Ralph Bakshi's when he and his wife Liz moved to the Silver City area in 2003. Part of that dream was a desire to pay something back to the art of animation for "saving his ass" almost 50 years ago, when doodling at his desk as a bored high-school student led to courses in cartooning at Brooklyn's High School of Industrial Arts. "Animation has always taken care of me," he told Desert Exposure in a July 2003 interview.
Ralph Bakshi, whose paintings have been shown by Leyba & Ingalls Arts gallery in Silver City, initially opened the school in studio space the gallery had on Texas Street. "Eddie and I were living in LA," Gorrell says, picking up the story, "and Ralph and his wife thought we'd like it here and that we could help." She had a background in writing and educational work for an arts organization in Nantucket, Mass., and had also worked in film.
The school went on a six-month hiatus after the inaugural Texas Street classes, but the parents of four of the young students—Rachael, Nate, Abbey and Josh Sievers—wanted more for their kids. So Gorrell resumed classes out of her home in Cliff, and Eddie Bakshi rejoined her here to teach the technical side and to help with his dad's next movie.
With its new space in downtown Silver City, the school can once again have more ambitious offerings, including a Wednesday after-school course in "Children's Art and Beginning Animation." Sunday mornings, Gorrell and Eddie Bakshi will teach "Advanced Junior Animation." An "Animation Studio for Adults" course will also start this month, with meeting times to be determined once the group is assembled.
Ralph Bakshi's route to founding an animation school in Southwest New Mexico, of all places, reads like a history of cartoons in the second half of the 20th century. After graduating from high school, he took a job as a cell painter and then an animator at Terrytoons in New Rochelle, NY, bringing to life such familiar characters as Mighty Mouse, Deputy Dawg and Heckyll and Jeckyll. He soon became creative director of the studio. In 1966, he created and wrote "The Mighty Heroes," a cult-favorite superhero spoof.
Next, at Paramount Cartoon Studios and then working with producer Steve Krantz, Bakshi hired and collaborated with some of the biggest names in comics. He directed an animated "Spider-Man" TV series, long before the current live-action Spider-Man films.
But Ralph Bakshi's breakout work was a very different comics adaptation, the 1972 Fritz the Cat, based on Robert Crumb's "underground comix" character. Besides being Bakshi's first full-length film, Fritz the Cat was the first X-rated animated cartoon. Bakshi followed up with two other adult-oriented cartoons, Heavy Traffic and the controversial Coonskin, before switching to fantasy with Wizards and The Lord of the Rings. Two more street-smart cartoons, American Pop and Hey, Good Lookin', came next, followed by Fire and Ice, with famed fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta.
Returning to his roots in TV cartoons, Bakshi did "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse" with John Krisfaluchi, who went on to create "Ren and Stimpy." He made "The Butter Battle Book Special" with Dr. Seuss, and "Tattertown" for Nickelodeon. Then came another feature film, Cool World, combining drawing and live action and starring Kim Basinger, and a science-fiction detective series for HBO, "Spicy City."
But by this time Bakshi had begun painting, sketching and creating constructions for art galleries. After the HBO series, Bakshi shifted his focus even more toward painting, with shows at two New York City galleries.
Weary of the "war" in Hollywood and sick of "snow, paying tolls, traffic and mobs of people," Bakshi and his wife Liz started to look for someplace to semi-retire. "When we lived in LA we used to drive out to the desert, to Death Valley. Even Palm Springs seems like a desert to a guy from New York. I always felt better, happier in the desert. I told my wife I thought we ought to move to the desert, but she hates the desert. So we decided to find a place where if I turn right, there's desert, and if she turns left, there's pine trees."
On a nature-photography trip, Liz Bakshi met a man from Silver City—"God's country," the man called it. The Bakshis came out and took a look, but weren't quite ready to make the move. First, he says, they checked out "all the usual places—Santa Fe, Sedona. I freaked. It was like living in Beverly Hills, all that yuppie crap!" They raced back to Southwest New Mexico, bought a hunk of land and started building a house.
Meanwhile, Eddie Bakshi was following in the family business, as it were. He'd grown up in Westchester, NY, gone to college at the University of Massachusetts, and moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job at 20th Century Fox as a production assistant—"the first level of the entertainment industry," he explains. Then he went to work in the digital department, first as a scanner and then as a technical director's assistant, helping to add voices, music and color to cartoons. He worked on the Nickelodeon series "Rugrats" and on The Rugrats Movie, then on The Wild Thornberries and Spongebob Squarepants feature films.
Like his father, he liked Southwest New Mexico enough to stay, and now enjoys helping yet another generation of animators learn the tools of the trade.
As Gorrell puts it, "We want to make a place where kids can come and be exposed to animation. A couple of these kids already say this is what they want to do as a career." She smiles and adds, "Of course, they may change their minds a million times as they grow older."
Teaching the art of animation begins with the basics—showing the students painted cells like the sample from Wizards and demonstrating how a series of drawings, each slightly different from the one before, can simulate movement.
"If a butterfly flies by the character's head," Gorrell explains, indicating the cell example, "it's on a set of separate drawings." The woodsy scene behind the character is also a separate drawing; she lifts the acetate sheet on which the orange-bearded character is painted, to show the background beneath. "Conceptually, it helps to hear about the traditional methods."
To show how animation creates the illusion of movement, the classes start with the familiar "flipbook." Says Gorrell, "It's one of the very first lessons. They need to understand the sequence of movement."
Today, computers are increasingly used to create the "in-between" drawings required for animated action—called "tweening"—but the Bakshi school shows students the traditional methods. "We're teaching them to do them all," she says.
Each student tackled an individual project as well as collaborating on a joint effort, a two-minute short called "Jack Attack." It's about a boy, an octopus, a shark and a fishing net. "Most of it was drawn right in my basement," says Gorrell. (The new StudioSpace is equipped with drawing boards, so students have a place to work.) The school brought in another teacher, Jan Fell, to drill the students on drawing basics.
Scanning the plain, uncolored drawings into the computer allows for instant feedback on whether a sequence is working right—no more waiting for film to be shot, developed and screened. "They had to learn to do revisions," says Eddie Bakshi. "They had to redo scenes. Sometimes there's a part missing.
"The original characters are painted white so you can see if the movement's correct," he explains. "Then, once it's all correct, you can add the color." A computer process called "vectorizing," he says, "lifts the paper away from the lines." Any gaps in the lines must be closed on the computer screen, then the shapes—the oval of a character's head, the extended balloon of a leg—can be colored in using a tool similar to the "paint bucket" of computer art programs such as Photoshop. The program used by the school is made by the same company that makes professional animation software, so the students experience something much like the real thing.
Scanning drawings into the computer for colorizing has made traditional cell-animation like Wizards or the Disney classics extinct. But there are artistic advantages to the new technology, Eddie adds: "With cells, you could only have about four layers before the camera started to pick up little rainbows of reflected light from all the layers. With the computer, you can have as many levels as you want. You can make scenes much more intricate."
The school is not, however, teaching fully computerized, 3D animation like that popularized by Pixar productions such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo. The images still all start out on paper, not as pixels on screen. "We work in the old school of animation with 2D and the Bakshi method," as Gorrell puts it.
Learning the 2D basics and the essentials of storyboarding—planning an animated scene—are essential, though, to understanding computer animation. So the school's lessons are good preparation for an animation career, regardless of the tools ultimately employed. "It's important to master the bones of it before moving on to 3D," says Eddie. Gorrell also hopes to bring in a 3D computer animation expert for an intensive seminar, and to someday host weeklong seminars that could draw students nationally.
Once the drawings were all scanned and fine-tuned for the class project, "Jack Attack," the students worked with a local actress, Frances Trotta, to add voices to the cartoon. Gorrell says, "They directed her on voiceovers. They are very talented kids, very professional about everything, very in control of their creative stuff."
Ralph Bakshi also supplied one of the voices for "Jack Attack," she adds. "He's not involved day-to-day, but he knows what's happening with the school and is very excited about it. He's a great speaker, and will come in and talk to the class."
Colorizing "Jack Attack" will be one of the first projects for the new class session starting this month. The students also will create animated credits for their own names. The finished short may ultimately be shown locally or made available on the Web.
"Jack Attack" isn't the only project to come from the Bakshi School, however. One of the original session's adult students, well-known local potter Kate Brown, has completed an animated short, "Ursa Dream." Produced by Michael Mideke and with music composed by Eric Sbar, the six-minute hand-painted and animated film "tells the story of a young girl's introduction to the power and potential dangers of creative self-expression." Visualized in a soft, appropriately dreamy style with figures reminiscent of a cross between Matisse and Thurber, "Ursa Dream" is a highly sophisticated "cartoon."
Says Gorrell, "In the adult classes, you can really animate almost any type of art, anything that involves image and form. It can be really interesting creatively. Kate's work is really her style of artwork translated into an animated piece."
So animation doesn't have to be "kid's stuff," whatever the age of the animator. Just look at Ralph Bakshi's career, which has ranged from Deputy Dawg to Fritz the Cat: Animation lets you create and put into motion anything you can imagine.
One frame at a time.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.