36. Ralph Bakshi

“Send your wife to work!”

About half-way through my crash-course in Terrytoonery I became aware that I was being followed.  It wasn’t one of Bill Weiss’s Goons looking for ways to unseat me – that came later.  No, it was a post-teen newby from Brooklyn, trying to figure out how movie cartoons were really done.  He was freshly hired by production manager Frank “Sparky” Schudde, who generally put on the cel inkers & painters.  In those days, long before computer scanning and coloring, animation production still involved real plastic sheets called “cels,” onto which the animators’ character drawings were hand-inked onto the front side, and hand-painted on the back.   The entrance level guys & gals who did this work made up the largest personnel group in most animation studios in those days.  Doing this work required skill, precision, and care, but not necessarily creative talent.  It was considered “donkey work,” and thus not necessary for me to hire them, so I delegated that to “Sparky,” whose main criteria in hiring them was to sniff out people who could be depended upon to arrive promptly each morning, sober, and willing to sit at their desks during the entire work day, allowing only short toilet breaks, and diligently turn out the thousands of neatly inked and painted cels necessary for the productions in progress. And there was another work level even lower than inking and painting.  It was cel-polishing, which involved just wiping the dust and fingerprints off the finished  inked and painted cels. That required zero talent, and it was young Bakshi’s job.  Putting Ralph Bakshi in that lowest of the low jobs was the rare example of where Sparky Schudde slipped up.

I found out later that young Ralph was already a skilled painter and chock full of Brooklyn moxie, In his early school years he’d been thrown into an otherwise all-black classroom, and grew up not only with Brooklyn Street Smarts, but also a caricature Brooklyn accent. Myself coming from a Southern Californian beach culture, that accent alone would have led me to put Bakshi down as a studio loser.  That would’ve been a mistake!

The thing is, instead of sitting all day at his desk, polishing cels, I began to notice that he was following me around through the studio as I touched bases with the creative groups in the animation, story, background painting. music composing, sound recording, and camera sections.   Wherever I went, somehow there was young Ralph Bakshi.  Not wanting to alienate the personnel any more than I had to,  (They were already waiting for a wrong-footed move by me,)  I just asked Sparky, “What’s with this kid, tailing me rather than sitting at his  desk, doing his job?”

Sparky said he was keeping tabs on Ralph, and said that Ralph already finished the stack of unpolished cels he’d been handed on that day. “He’s a feisty kid,” Sparky said, “who wants to learn everything he can, to qualify for an upgrade in his position,” I had to admit that I’d also been a workplace nuisance in my own early jobs, and that ambition should not be discouraged.   So I began to recognize his presence, and explain a bit about what I was doing.  But with that Brooklyn mouth and crude taste, he still seemed to be more joke than promise.  After all, I was the highest paid; the creative leader of the studio, and he was the lowest and most inconsequential member of the staff.  So imagine my surprise when just over year later, when I was kicked out of CBS-Terrytoons by the Wicked Weiss of the East, and it was that same Ralph Bakshi who was named to take my place!

But Ralph’s greatest mark in animation history came in his later years as an independent producer/director/writer. I had thought he was a corny/vulgar guy. He calls himself a corny guy. I couldn’t/wouldn’t do what he does/did. I prided myself as one who pushed the envelope. Ralph Bakshi tore the envelope to shreds!

I have a subtitle to my book, “How To Succeed In Animation” – My subtitle is “Don’t Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!” Ralph Bakshi reveled in his failures.  He tried things that no one else dared to try.  His ideas and productions were often outrageous. He rattled the accepted norms.  He may have been “bad,” but he was never boring. He continued to surprise and amaze with his censor-whacking output.

He came up with the obvious advice for animators whose ambition is to be one of the 5,000+ high-salaried names on the feature-length credit titles at the end of SHREK 15. “You don’t need a conscript army to make a good animated movie.  You need a great story, and maybe a half-dozen great animators.  Everything else is done by that electronic box on your desk.”  If your story is great and your attitude is as cock-sure as Bakshi’s, you can find the reasonable financial backing you need, and you can find a distributor, and get an Oscar nomination at least!  How’re going to eat in the meantime?. With his ‘hood-honed Brooklyn twang, he says: “Send your wife to work!”

Ralph, as a young, feisty studio snooper.

3 thoughts on “36. Ralph Bakshi

  1. I’m justt looking for info about Frank (sparky) Schudde for my son. I am is grand-daughter, he passed away before my son was born, but I thought it would be nice to have him research his great-grandfather for his project since he never met him.

    • I’m so happy to hear from you, Robin! Sparky Schudde was the most important person on the Terrytoons staff when I went to work there, and was very helpful to me. But he, as all of us there, were under the dominance of the ruthless studio chief, William Weiss. When I was crushed by Weiss, Sparky couldn’t help me. It was not just I who was crushed; Weiss’ action led quickly to the destruction of the entire Terrytoons studio. He couldn’t see that the end was coming. He didn’t have the foresight to see what had to be done to save it. With Sparky’help, we were making history, but were cut off just before the digital revolution that was coming. I liked Sparky, and felt sorry for him, in his impossible situation. But over all of this, in those days, Sparky Schudde was the man who knew every aspect of the productions in work, and made sure everything worked. He was everywhere in the studio, and knew what everyone was supposed to be doing. He kept me informed on the progress of each film in production, and would help me get what I wanted into each of them. He was the person I could rely on to get me the information, personnel, equipment, supplies, contacts… any thing I needed to get my job done. I have worked with many production managers, but Sparky was the king of all of them! I remember Sparky, and I send my best wishes to you and your son. Is he interested in animation?

      Regards, Gene

  2. Marvelous! I worked for Ralph in the eighties and nineties. There was never a dull moment. I used to ask Ralph a lot of questions about his animation and projects too, and he’d always be happy to talk. I’d talked to him a lot about your time at Terrytoons, and he always had great stories.

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