|Home Interviews Buzz Dixon (conducted by Dwight Jon Zimmerman in Comics Interview #37 - 1986)
Buzz Dixon - photo by Yang-Mi Dixon
Date of Birth: December 7, 1953
Place of Birth: Raleigh, NC
Year Entered Animation: 1978
Hobbies: "I don't have time for any hobbies."
Favorite Food: "It's a tie between cheesecake and sushi."
Favorite Movies: Casablanca, The Seven Samurai, Gone With the Wind, Union Pacific
Kind of Movie Would Like to Direct if Given Chance: "One that makes a lot of money."
When Bob Harras, editor of Marvelís G.I.Joe comics, asked me to do some articles about the new season syndicated series and upcoming movie for the G.I.Joe Yearbook #3, one of the first people I contacted was TV writer and story editor, Buzz Dixon. Buzz was immediately helpful and tremendously courteous and my conversation with him was one of the high points of that assignment. The one thing I was sorry about was that, since my work Marvel was specifically and only about G.I.Joe, I could not ask him about the animation industry and his experiences and problems in it. So when the opportunity arose to ask Buzz all those unanswered questions, I jumped at it. Not only was I well-rewarded with interesting answers, but Buzz proved to possess a wealth of information - some of it highly opinionated, as you shall see...
Female citizen of Cobra-La
Dwight Jon Zimmerman: How did you get into animation?
Buzz Dixon: Well, I literally walked into Filmation Studios about five minutes after Lou Scheimer said, "We need to get a new writer!" I had always wanted to write and to make movies and whatnot ever since I was thirteen years old. I was drafted when I got out of high school. Anyway, I decided to get out of the army after six years. I wanted to go to film school so I applied to USC and UCLA film schools and I was accepted by USC, but I was discharged in February and the school didnít start until October. I figured Iíd just get my feet wet, so I came to LA and I started with Universal and worked my way down.
I got to Filmation and was talking with Arthur Nadel about getting a job as a driver or a gopher or something, and while we were talking he found out I had written short stories and that I had been a newspaper editor for the Army - I was information specialist (journalist). They were having a lot of trouble getting scripts for a series called SUNBRIGHT AND STARLIGHT, and he basically said, "Why donít you leave some of you short stories and why donít you try writing a script?" So I wrote a script for this series and he presented the script and two short stories to Lou Scheimer. Lou looked them over and said, "I donít know which one of these guys to hire, the guy that wrote the short stories or the guy who wrote the script." Arthur said, "Theyíre the same guy." Lou said, "Get him!" So I ended up at Flimation studios with a staff job. CBS decided that they didnít want that show after all, but I stayed on and wrote a number of shows for them, mostly in the action-adventure genre. Anyway, I got laid off from Filmation and picked up by Ruby-Spears. I worked there on THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN and GOLDIE GOLD AND ACTION JACK, both of which had a lot of design work by Jack Kirby. I spent three years with them and then I went freelance eventually winding up at Tokyo Movies Dhinsha to work on MIGHTY ORBOTS.
It was a very peculiar situation. What happened, we usually came in second place up against SMURFS and the first season of MUPPET BABIES. We were never more than six or eight points out of first place - the most successful new show that NBC had. Unfortunately, NBC made some not very wise decisions. They bought a lot of shows sight unseen. They were committed to a lot of shows that had pay-or-play options where they had to run Ďem. ORBOTS just got squeezed out.
Anyway, after that I continued with TMS for awhile and then went to freelance again. I wrote for G.I.Joe. I did five episodes in the first season and I story-edited four episodes because they had a time problem - Steve Gerber needed some help on some of the episodes. I edited the entire second season by myself and I wrote four episodes of the second season.
DJZ: And youíre credited as story editor on the G.I.Joe movie, right?
BD: Story consultant. What happened with that, Ron Friedman was the writer for the original G.I.Joe mini-series, and he write the second and third mini-series as well. Ronís perception of the series did not seem to be going in the same direction that everybody elseís perception was going. Thereís a lot more gee-whiz in Ronís stuff as compared with, like, Steve Gerberís or mine, where we try to put at least a veneer of realism to it. For example, a lot of this stuff is "Roger Moore James Bond" and a lot of the things that Steve and I were trying to do were "Sean Connery James Bond" stuff. The Connery films had a little bit more of an edge and core to Ďem. The Moore bonds, even though they were financially successful, just didnít take themselves seriously and tended to be very flighty and light.
Anyway, Ron wrote an outline for the G.I.Joe feature and they had problems with it, and the more Ron rewrote the outline the more problems they had. It was a case - as anybody who is a writer will know - where sometimes you get off on the wrong step and try as you might you canít get back in step. Ron came up with some very interesting ideas, many of which were incorporated in the film, but he didnít get into the spirit of the whole thing. Steve Gerber came in and did some work on the outline, and the problem was that Steve was trying to make Ronís outline work. They asked me to come in and work on it. I read over it and told them very frankly, "I donít think we can make this outline work. I think we just have to start fresh from scratch." They appeared relieved to hear that and decided that was probably the best thing to do, so they asked me to write the outline for the film. I was given characters that had been designed by Hasbro but had not yet been named, and I was allowed to pick their personalities and names and whatnot. They gave me, for instance, a Hispanic M.P. with a dog. They became Law and Order. I forget which one is Law and which one is Order now - it just slipped my mind.
Anyway, I have to backtrack a bit before we go on to the feature to explain what led up the feature. The second season of G.I.Joe is a significant change from the first season. Basically, itís the inclusion of Serpentor, the Cobra Emperor. When I took over G.I.Joe they had decided they were going to include Serpentor, the new leader of Cobra, but they didnít bother to tell me about it until we had actually gotten into production. I was gonna write the definitive Cobra story. I had a two-parter called, "The Most Dangerous Man in the World" that was about, you might say, the Karl Marx or the Nietzsche of Cobra. It was essentially this philosopher who had cooked up the basic operating philosophy of Cobra in some classroom. The people who founded Cobra heard about him, about this philosophy, adopted for their own; and since they had somewhat perverted the philosophy - as the Communists and the Nazis did with Marx and Nietzsche philosophies - they couldnít have the original philosopher running around loose and saying they were doing it wrong, so they imprisoned him; and he managed to escape in the first part of this and the Joes didnít know who he was but they know that Cobra suspended all of their operations and were tracking this guy down. This must be the most dangerous man in the world if even Cobra is afraid of him. The Joes spend the entire first half of the story tracking him down, and when they capture him heís this little, short, dumpy professor, and they find out that the reason Cobra is after him is because heís the one guy who can take away any claim of legitimacy that Cobra has.
Serpentor - the new leader of Cobra
DJZ: It sounds like a great story.
BD: It is. I had done a premise on it and I was getting ready to outline it when they came to me and said, "By the way, weíve got a new Cobra leader." I said, "WHAT!!!" and they said, "Yeah, heís Cobra Commanderís boss." I said, "Excuse me, but weíve had absolutely no hint in the three mini-series and an entire season of episodes that there was anybody over and above Cobra Commander." I mean if they had thought of something like this originally then there should have been some shady organization referred to that Cobra Commander had to answer to, but instead they just whipped this guy out. So, I had to find a way of including Serpentor in the series.
DZJ: Howíd you do it?
BD: How do you work this guy in? One way is to simply stick this guy in and hope nobody notices, which wouldn't have worked.
Another is that he was always there and nobody ever talked about him before, which wouldnít have worked. The other was to explain how he got there, how he came in, so I came up with two theories. The first was Cobra-la - and I want to apologize right now for the name Cobra-la. You see, a lot of times a writer will create what he calls a place-holder name, which is just a name to refer to a character or device until you figure out what youíre really going to call it. So I figured, well, Cobra was founded by this shadowy organization somewhere called Cobra-la - an obvious parallel to Shangri-La. They sent Cobra Commander out with the order to conquer the world and Cobra Commander fucked up so they sent Serpentor out next.
The other suggestion was that they created Serpentor. Destro and Dr. Mindbender had decided that Cobra Commander wasnít cutting it and they needed a better leader, so they just created a better leader. They robbed the graves of various military dictators from history and took their DNA and combined that into one super-leader, and this was Serpentor.
I submitted both ideas to Sunbow Productions. They submitted them to Hasbro and Hasbro said, "We like Ďem both." We ended up having to figure something out all over again. (laughter) They had not yet done the JOE-4 mini-series, which will be the mini-series that start off the 1986 season, and they went ahead to do the feature. We had already been using Serpentor in the í86 season, and we started to make references to his abilities and why he was in Cobra and whatnot - but all of the time keeping it very hush-hush and secretive.
So that brings us back to the feature. Ron had written an outline and I came in. I looked at the outline and - Iíll be very frank - it was unusable. The problem was that there was no real emotional core to the story. They had a lot of people running around chasing each other, blowing things up, shooting at people, but there was nothing it that the viewer could look at and latch on to say "this is what the storyís about."
Rear exit to Cobra-La
DJZ: This is the way theyíre doing everything these days.
BD: Yeah, I said what we need is something we havenít done before. We need to have a Joe who really screws up as a Joe and throughout the course of the adventure he learns what it is heís done wrong and what it is to be a Joe and he redeems himself. The theme of the movie, so the speak, is redemption. They liked that.
The next thing we talked about was who this character was and why would they tolerate a screw-up like this. If this guy screwed up once theyíd boot him out. Why keep somebody that canít do the job? Well, obviously, heís kept because heís related to somebody who is important to the Joes, something whoís using his pull to keep his son or brother in. my original suggestion was that General Hawk had a son, Lt. Falcon - we originally called him Baby Hawk, but that was a little bit too cute, so it was changed to Lt. Falcon. Then, for some reasons Iím not entirely clear of, Sunbow and Hasbro decided he isnít General Hawkís son but the brother of one of the Joes, who was responsible for getting him into the Joes and for covering up his short-comings until, of course, he made his big, colossal screw-up. That gave us the core to the story, the spine of the story.
Everything else revolved around or played off the main theme in some way. In addition to Falcon, thereís also the group called the Rawhides. They are the new recruits and they have to prove themselves. We have Sgt. Slaughterís Renegades who have to prove themselves. The reason theyíre the Renegades is that theyíre so wild and unpredictable and uncontrollable that they canít be regular Joes, Serpentor is redeemed - not in a positive sense - but he learns about who he is and where he stands in the overall scheme of things. And Cobra Commander has a redemption, too - he somehow ends up helping the Joes. Everywhere we went in the story we always tried to have the sub-plot reflect off this central theme of redemption.
Once we had that the movie was really very easy to write, and I can say with no false modesty that we are going to have probably the most spectacular animated sequences ever done. It will blow people away. Itís going to be just incredible.
DJZ: Well, with the movie itself there are a number of stars that are actually involved who contributed their voices.
BD: Right. Shiro Akune, the Japanese actress, she did Jinx. She was marvelous, a delight. Dick Gautier is Serpentor. We have a number of very famous people. Sgt. Slaughter, of course, play himself. He was a little disappointed that his personal tank got blown up - I might mention that (Laughter). He asked us, you know, if he was going to get another tank, and we assured him that he would. Burgess Meredith is in it. Don Johnson is Lt. Falcon.
We never had, with the exception of minor characters, a number of people in at one time to do the voices. We would usually bring just one person in at a time. A lot of credit has got to go to Wally Burr, who was the voice director, because Wally had to remember not only what this person was saying but what somebody else was saying and how they were saying it. You couldnít just have one person say something serious and the person heís talking to respond like itís a joke, see. You had to keep the emotional level consistent in each scene. Considering that a lot of characters, they might have had only one line in the scene and their characters are scattered throughout the movie - it was very difficult and he did a wonderful job of keeping track of everything.
They read the script very well. It was one of the best recording sessions Iíve ever attended. They really seemed to get into the characters. Youíve probably heard this yourself, there are too many animated shows where the people are going yeah-yeah-wink-wink-nudge-nudge, we know these are just animated characters. They donít make an effort to really act. They do mannerisms and shticks but theyíre not really trying to convey any emotional information through the characters. With what we were doing the actors were really acting. They were really trying to project characterization and nuance and whatnot. They did a superlative job. I canít praise them enough.
Hawk to the rescue!
DJZ: Iíd like to ask you about the relationship of syndicated animation shows to merchandising - thereís been a lot of criticism lately about things like G.I.Joe and Transformers being glorified 30-minute commercials.
BD: There has always been a tie-in between animation and merchandising, or between everything and merchandising, I think, to say you canít do it because itís for children, or you canít do it because youíre going to manipulating the children.
This is baloney. If you have a good product, a product that is interesting to the child and the child wants it, then the child will go for it. If they donít want it you canít shove it down their throats. There are a number of toys that arenít doing as well as HE-MAN toys or G.I.Joe toys or TRANSFORMERS toys. TRANSFORMERS alone out-grossed all the other transforming robots put together two-to-one, I think. The reason, and I donít mean to point fingers or slam anybody - but if you compare a GOBOTS episode with a TRANSFORMERS episode, there a very Saturday-morning mindlessness to GOBOTS, and even though TRANSFORMERS may not be the best of all possible giant robot shows, at least thereís enough idiosyncratic characterization and personal expression coming though that marks it as different from the other types of shows.
The argument is that you put a show on the air and youíre coercing kids to go out and buy the toys. Thatís utter nonsense because if that were the case than anybody who got a show on the air would be able to sell their toys. Itís clearly not whatís happening. Weíll be frank - they put the show on the air to encourage kids to buy the toys. But if the kids donít want to buy it, then theyíre not going to buy it no matter how many shows you put on the air. And if they want to buy it, then theyíre going to go out and look for it. Thatís about the only thing I can say on that.
A lot of the people who have been criticizing these shows as half-hour commercials, you have to understand, are really professional critics. By that I mean theyíre like the Peggy Charrens and the Dr. Thomas Radeckis and whatnot - people who make their living bitching about things.
DJZ: And if itís not this, then theyíll find something else.
BD: Exactly. Two producers that I once worked for had lunch with Peggy Charren and they asked her point blank: If everybody, the networks and the producers, just knuckled in and gave in to you and were going to the show the way Peggy Charren thinks they should be done - would you close up shop and go away? She said no, that sheíd find something else to do. Thatís the truth. These people are professional critics. They make their money by complaining and by getting people to donate money to them and by getting government grants - my money! - and...
DJZ: Our money.
BD: Well, I tend to personify it - itís my money (laughter).
DJZ: Itís a heck of a statement about an individual personality that the way that theyíre making their living is to constantly tearing something down rather than trying to build something up.
BD: Exactly. I have never once seen Peggy Charren produce even a special. Iíve never heard of Dr. Thomas Radecki writing an episode and showing the way it should be done. Iíll give Jerry Falwell, whoís an anti-abortionist, at least this much; at least he went out and did something. He started an orphanage. He started a home for unwed mothers. I disagree with his point of view and he canít solve the problem by himself, but Iíll give the guy credit from at least doing something positive. Peggy Charren and Dr. Thomas Radecki have never done anything positive.
Radecki, first of all, he has an incredibly sloppy scale of rating violence in a show. For instance, he does not differentiate between shaking a fist in anger and taking a shotgun and blowing that personís head off at point-blank range. They are both equally violent in his eyes. He even considers the act of tickling to be an act of violence! Second, as a result, the PTA a few years ago came down on violence on television and they cited a number of shows that you would expected, action-adventure shows, but they also cited DALLAS as being a violent show. Everybody went, "Whatís the violence in DALLAS?" Okay, every once in awhile someone gets slapped and there was the famous JR-gets-shot episode, but the entire season of physical violence on DALLAS doesnít equal, like, a single episode of THE A-TEAM. When the PTA was asked to explain they said they were committing violence against the law. By breaking the law, by doing sneaky underhanded things, they were committing acts of violence. These people are equating embezzlement with forcible rape.
DJZ: It sounds a lot like BRAVE NEW WORLD. You know, you limit things; just eliminate all of the other words and itís either one thing or the other.
BD: Yeah, or 1984. You simply redefine the terms. Itís very ridiculous.
Creature sketch from G.I.Joe: The Movie
DJZ: Earlier you mentioned "Saturday-morning mindlessness." That seems to say, "network restrictions." What is the actual comparison between network restrictions versus what youíve been able to do in syndication?
BD: Well, thereís a very logical difference. Take, for example, the squishy shows like SMURFS, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, MUPPET BABIES, on network television. These shows actually have fewer restrictions that then action-adventure shows, for obvious reasons. There is very little if any direct physical conflict to those shows.
Alvin may fuss with his brothers but he never hauls them off and punches them. Those shows, as long as youíre willing to stay within the parameters of what the network wants, they tend to leave you alone. It is interesting to note, that on all three of those shows - which are or were very successful - the network is not the final authority. They have the right to say no. They may not be able to make you do a show they want, but they can stop you from doing a show they donít want. They at least have a veto power.
This was one of the problems ORBOTS had, was that ORBOTS was created out of necessity, almost. Fred Silverman had a commitment for three shows to NBC. Two of the shows went belly up and nobody wanted to work with him. TMS was trying to get their own shows produced, and so it was kinda like making a deal with the Devil. Fred Silvermanís commitment meant the show would get on the air. But once Silverman got into motion he really didnít understand what he had created, or what he had asked to be created, and the show...it was an awful mess, is all I can say. Michael Reeves deserves a lot of credit for trying to hold that show together. And the network would come in with the silliest damn restrictions. For instance, you couldnít allow a robot to get hurt.
BD: Exactly. Theyíre robots. When we started this show I thought it was going to be great. I was thinking of STAR WARS, you know - R2D2 and C3PO get smashed and crunched and they always get put back together because theyíre robots and everybody knows theyíre robots. Theyíre not flesh and blood. The network insisted they were flesh and blood because the kids, they thought, were gonna react to them as if they were flesh and blood. So that was one problem right there. Also, use couldnít use laser beams.
DJZ: Why not?
BD: You couldnít use a thin beam of light as a weapon, you could use a concentric beam of light, one that widens as it comes out, but a laser beam was considered too violent. You couldnít se any weapons that looked like a gun, which actually worked to the advantage of the show because the stuff looked futuristic. But it had to look, you know, like a non-weapon.
DJZ: And so we have coffee pots shooting at one another.
BD: Yeah, you have a lot of that. Thereís a lot of this attitude at the networks. For instance, for a long time I was the official bad example at ABC. One of the Thundar scripts - the one that was the second season opener - was what they used as an entrance examination for people who wanted to be censors at ABC. They would give them my outline and tell Ďem to go through it and find all the stuff thatís wrong with it.
What happened was when THUNDARR got on air nobody really knew what to expect. It was a very powerful show. It looks wimpy compared to G.I.Joe, but at the time it was a pretty kick-ass show. It was considered too violent by ABC program practices and they made no bones about it that they were going to tone it down for the second season, so Joe Ruby, of Ruby-Spears, asked me to write the second season opener.
The theory was that we would just do an episode that was so horrendously violent, so incredibly violent, that even if they went through and took most of the stuff out they still wouldnít be able to gut it completely, and then we could say in subsequent episodes whenever they tried to make us take anything out, "Hey, you let us do it in the season opener. Why canít we do it now?" The first draft I turned in was so horrendously violent that Joe Ruby just blanched and said there was no way we could send it to the network. (Laughter) So I toned it down a little and the network, of course, freaked out on it completely. I had robots being dropped into big, ducted fans and just Pling! - parts being flung all over the place. As kind of a foresight of the Iran-Iraq War I had little children being used to clear mind fields. I just unleashed everything.
When you jump over to the syndicated shows thereís considerably more freedom, though on G.I.Joe weíre not allowed to kill anybody. Weíre allowed to hurt people. Weíve had characters break legs, be knocked into comas, be burned, be cut - but weíve never been allowed to kill anybody in the show. I personally think that the kids see right through this and they assume that when a tank get his everybody inside it gets incinerated.
There is a certain problem - and I will concede this - with the toy-type film and TV show tie-ins. Whereas they do allow considerably more freedom than the networks, all the toy companies are interested in is that it sells the product. They obviously donít want to go out and blatantly offend anybody, but they donít care whether people like it or not. And the problem there is that theyíre not willing to experiment or take a risk with something different and new. They want to go with a very conventional format.
DJZ: Something they are familiar with?
BD: Yeah. Essentially, thereís, like, one story for the little kids, which is the nice people are threatened by the big blue meanie and they have to go and make the big blue meanie stop. They will go for very standard things. Even the G.I.Joe movie that weíre doing, while itís going to be visually very spectacular and while we do get a lot of depth of character and whatnot in it, as far as the format goes itís not very experimentally different. It follows a very action-adventure format. Itís done well, if I say so myself , but thereís no experimenting with form, with depth, with complexity. We had our nude scene taken out of it.
Storyboard of Zarana's nude scene
DJZ: You had a nude scene in the G.I.Joe movie?!?
BD: Yeah. The way the scene played isÖthis beautiful blonde airhead is driving through the woods and she pulls up to this lake and itís all very pastoral, and she gets out of the car, kicks her sandals off, takes her hat off, and she slips off her sundress. Sheís standing on the edge of this lake and...you have a skinny-dip scene.
She wasnít really nude but topless, and it was storyboarded in such a way that you never saw her nipples. She was topless but you never saw anything. It got all the way to the storyboard page and then somebody at either Sunbow or Hasbro - I think it was Hasbro - got cold feet, so now she keeps a bra on. They werenít willing to take that little extra chance. They are far more comfortable with something that has been done before than they are with something that hasnít been done before, and considering that they want these things to promote toys and merchandise maybe itís unfair to expect them to take risks, but you wish somebody would take the risk.
The main difference between the networks and the syndicators is this: The networks view programs of only tertiary importance. The first most important thing is their profit margin - that they make the most money possible, the largest possible profit off of their advertising time. Thatís what makes or breaks it. You can win Emmys, the Nobel Prize - if you didnít make a profit then youíre out on your ass. The next thing theyíre interested in is ratings and demographics, which enables them to charge the most money for air time. For instance, the COSBY SHOW is very hot because it appeals to a very wide spectrum of people - young, old, black, white. It covers a very large audience and itís very popular. If you advertise on the COSBY SHOW youíre hitting at least a third of the people in the United States, so it becomes valuable.
Conversely, you have a show like SPENSER: FOR HIRE where the demographics show that the audience isnít likely to go out and buy some candy or a light beer but they will buy cameras. The demographics are different and it depends a lot on the demographics. Golf, for instance, doesnít have very high ratings, but one thing theyíve found out - which is absolutely phenomenal - is that the people who watch golf will buy anything. You advertise something during a golf tournament and it gets brought up. Itís just like, "Okay, Iíll go out and get one." So, even though golf tournaments donít do very well as far as rating go, itís very valuable time to advertisers. Thatís why there are so many golf tournaments and thatís why the moneyís so high. But there was one show on the air a few years ago, I forget the name of it, that had great ratings but it got canceled because the audience was very young people and very old people, the two groups that have the least amount of money to spend.
Early version of Cobra airship
The third most important thing is the quality of the programming. They literally donít care about the quality of the programming as long as the correct demographics come in. If you went to them and said, "Weíve got a show called DUSTIN HOFFMANíS PLAYHOUSE; Dustin Hoffman is going to get all of his really great actor friends and theyíre going to do one classic American play every week." - and somebody else says, "Yeah, but instead of doing that we can put on topless cheerleaders and get twice the demographics." - it doesnít take a genius to figure out which show is getting on the air.
Final version of Cobra airship
They pay a lot of lip service to quality, but what theyíre really interested in is what has been called the least objectionable programming: a show that will get the fewest number of people to turn the set to something else. Theyíre worried about offensive not in the sense of being lewd or obscene, but offensive in the sense of boring or stupid or controversial. And while there are some good ideas as far as least objectionable programming goes - you obviously done want to put on a really dull, stupid, boring show - at the same time itís limiting.
For a long time television was very limited in the subjects they could tackle. They were afraid, for example, that people would be offended if they dealt with pregnancy, so for a long time you just couldnít mention pregnancy. Then Lucille Ball got pregnant and they couldnít stop production of I LOVE LUCY, so they had to say the Lucy was going to have a baby. They said that she was expecting. They still couldnít say pregnant, but I LOVE LUCY was a breakthrough show because it did have to deal with a pregnancy. They never bothered to explain how Lucy got pregnant...(laughter) There used to be some good action-adventure shows on the networks. JONNY QUEST is the classic everybody remembers.
DJZ: Theyíre talking about bring that back.
BD: It is coming back in syndication. But JONNY QUEST was not violent in the since of people getting tortured or murdered or stuff like that - yet it didnít take a genius to figure out that some of these people were getting killed in some of those episodes. There was a very good feeling about the show in that there was nothing mean-spirited about it. It was a lot like the American version of TIN-TIN. The violence, itís just done. Itís part of the story. No big deal about it. It was the tone.
Then there was this whole big thing back in the late Ď60s or early Ď70s where they got on this thing about what they called gratuitous violence. At first, youíd say you canít argue with that. Why have gratuitous violence in a movie? Why have someone get killed just for the sake of getting the audience excited? But the argument against gratuitous violence is the same argument against gratuitous comedy and gratuitous sex and gratuitous song-and-dance.
DJZ: In other words, what is gratuitous?
BD: Gratuitous in the sense where there is no intrinsic value to that thing in the story. If by removing that from the story you donít affect the telling of the story, then itís gratuitous. Iíll give you a great example Ďcause this is something they do on MIAMI VICE a lot: the opening segment doesnít have anything else to do with the show. The James Bond movies are the same way - the opening segment really doesnít have anything to with the body of the story.
DJZ: No. Itís a vignette that is complete unto itself.
BD: In most of the Bond movies it is. In a few of them it ties very tightly and actually sets the stage for what happens later. Thereís a lot of MGM musicals which have gratuitous song-and-dance numbers where people just start singing to put something into the movies. Porno films have gratuitous sex. Thereís no reason for it except that itís a porno movie. But when you start arguing with people about what is and is not gratuitous - people who are not creative enough to understand this...
Letís take a good example: DIRTY HARRY. You look at Dirty Harry and say, "Gosh, this is a really violent film. Why does it have to be this violent? Why do we have to start with this killer shooting this beautiful young girl?" You have to see that he is a ruthless son of a bitch who would kill an innocent young girl to get what he wants. It had to be done in order for the audience to appreciate it. "Well, Dirty Harry shoots three guys in the robbery at the beginning that really doesnít have anything to do with the rest of the movie." Well, plotwise it doesnít, but it advances Dirty Harryís character. Everybodyís been talking about Dirty Harry and what a bad-ass son of a bitch he is. We have to see Dirty Harry be a bad-ass son of bitch before we can appreciate it. So at this point we understand that weíve got a very dangerous son of a bitch psychotic killer and a real bad-ass son of a bitch cop, and now the chess game begins. Now these guys are playing against each other, and you spend a lot of time - in this really violent film - waiting for the rest of the violence to happen. Thatís the reason you remember it as a violent film. Then you watch Stalloneís COBRA and people are blown away left and right. None of it makes any sense. None of it adds up. None of it is comprehensible. When you start to think about it you realize thereís no connection. You remember COBRA as a joke, and itís a much more violent film than DIRTY HARRY.
DJZ: Why, since there is so much about it thatís limiting, do you stay in animation?
BD: One of the things that keeps me in animation - besides the obvious, that Iíve not broken out yet - is the fact that thereís a great deal of potential. When I worked at TMS I saw several of the features that they had done in Japan; these are some of the funniest, most light-hearted, enjoyable adventures you could ever hope to see. Anybody whoís ever seen those films is just blown away.
Theyíre just incredible because they can cover so much territory. They can be serious. They can be comic. They can be fanciful and very realistic and have a very strong emotional core. There are some absolutely incredible Japanese animated features. The French have done a number of animated films that were very well done. Thereís been some good English features.
The possibilities, what you can do in animation...there is an awful lot that can be done. Thereís tremendous amounts of room for work to be done. I actually went out and bought GALAXY EXPRESS, which is a Japanese animated science-fiction about a train that travels through space. You do that in live-action and you get hooted off the screen, but youíll accept it in a cartoon. You can create a world of surrealism. You can have characters doing things where the entire artistic thrust of the story is pushed one degree beyond. You can do things with animation that could not possibly be duplicated in any other set of circumstances.
Take FANTASIA. There is no music video in the world that is ever going to be able to compete with FANTASIA. You look at FANTASIA and realize that there are characters in the foreground that are doing something where theyíre carrying on, like the melody, but in the background there are other characters doing stuff that reflects the background melody - and all of sudden youíre just blown away because there is something that is using several different layers, several different levels, to convey the information across. You have to see FANTASIA several times before you can really begin to understand it. There is just an incredible amount of stuff that can de done with animation...but unfortunately for the United States there is an attitude - and television did a lot to create this - that cartoons are for kids and, as a result, they canít carry serious stories and canít be about serious subjects. The same things applies to comic books. In Europe and in Asia comic books are considered just as valid an art form as the novel or the oil painting. Here in the United States theyíre still junk, trash, and most people wouldnít be caught dead reading a comic book.
DJZ: Itís starting to change, though.
BD: But weíre nowhere near the set of circumstances where if a kid were to go into a bookstore and given the choice between a copy of HUCKLEBERRY FINN or an ADVENTURE OF TIN-TIN that either choice would be just as good as the other. Itís the same thing with animation.
Thereís an incredible amount of good stuff that can be done in animation, on networks, in syndication, theatrically, but the only way itís going to improve is if people let the producers and distributors and whatnot know that they appreciate it. As long as animation is perceived of as kid stuff youíre not going to get anything but kid stuff.
Interview published in David Anthony Kraft's COMICS INTERVIEW magazine. Copyright (c) 1986 Fictioneer Books, Ltd. Used by permission under non-commercial license.