The following story was originally published in issue 49 of Animatoon (2004), the Korean animation magazine, and was based on an interview I conducted in at the Café Nero in the Pimlico section of London on April 30, 2004. As I noted in the story, I knew Gary when we were both students at the University of Southern California’s Cinema Department; when I came there as a graduate student in 1962, he was finishing his undergraduate degree; however, like a lot of other students, he hung around the department after finishing his course work and though we became friendly, we were never friends — and I had no idea of his interest in animation.
This interest in animation seems to have largely eluded most people who have interviewed him, including Ken P.’s extensive one for IGN. For more on Kurtz’s involvement with Will Eisner’s The Spirit, see Steven Paul Leiva’s behind-the-scenes story at the Los Angeles Angeles Times site here. Kurtz’s sometime partner, Richard Bazley, reports that he is attached as director for “Robot Wars—The Movie based on the TV series and the Epic Trilogy The Legend of the Purple Planet written by Sabina Spencer (Author) and to be Produced by Gary Kurtz.”
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Gary Kurtz is best known as producer of such live-action classics as the first two Star Wars films and The Dark Crystal; however, he has also had a life-long passion for animation. Kurtz here talks about his thoughts on the current state of animation, his past involvement in some legendary projects and his current involvement in the field.
In the early 1980s, while he was producing Return to Oz and after he made The Dark Crystal, Gary Kurtz hired Brad Bird and Jerry Rees to write a script for an animated version of Will Eisner’s comic strip, The Spirit, which Bird was also to direct; this was, of course, years before Bird got involved with The Simpsons, let alone directed The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Using the Fleischer Superman cartoons as their inspiration, the film would have been a dramatic departure from what had been done before, and caused considerable excitement in animation circles. But it was a period when animation was in the doldrums, before films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit started the current boom, and the project never got past the planning stages.
I always felt that had the film been made, it could have changed the course of feature animation, an opinion Kurtz shares. “It would have been a great kind of animation in that time period. However,” he says, “Brad didn’t have a very good reputation. He was always considered extremely creative and had really great ideas, but he wasn’t easy to get along with because he didn’t fit into the machine. As what happened with Iron Giant, he needs to have a good solid producer to be able to protect him. I think Pixar is an ideal spot for him, because it’s a small enough company and they’re interested in really creative people.”
He also recalls “there were two kinds of criticism of the project. One that it was a 1940s film noir and kids wouldn’t understand that. I said, It wasn’t for kids, it was for adults. And they said, Well, no, animation doesn’t works for adults. Of course, that’s totally idiotic, but there wasn’t any real demonstration at the time. It’s a much more conducive time now to do interesting and more adult-themed animation.”
Kurtz subsequently became involved in two other legendary projects, Little Nemo and Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler. Recently, though, he set up two animation companies in England, which are involved in both movies and TV series. In terms of feature production, he is in the process of accumulating private investment for a series of films to be made in Europe.
From Film School to Producer
I have known Gary Kurtz since 1962, when we were both at the University of Southern California (USC) film school; although we were friendly, I had no idea he had any interest in animation. In fact, he did go through USC’s animation program and later worked at Disney on small projects for their Disneyland TV show. “I was not really doing any animation,” he says, “just some messing around a bit.”
His career really started to gain traction with producer Roger Corman, where he worked his way up from cameraman to associate producer on a series of low budget films; it was at this time he got to know other up-and-coming filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppolla and Monte Hellman. After leaving Corman, he got his first producing assignment on Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).
From there he eventually move on to producing several films for George Lucas, including American Graffiti and the first two Star Wars movies. And it was during the production of the latter that he moved to England, where he has lived ever since.
On his own, Kurtz produced The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson and Return to Oz for Disney, which featured some stop motion sequences produced by Will Vinton. “At that time,” he recalls, “the Disney administration was in absolute chaos. Our project was canceled and reactivated at least three different times at a great cost; it ended up costing about $30 million and at least $8-9 million of that was wasted because of that.
Washing His Hands of Hollywood
He was then approached by Japan’s TMS who wanted his help in making a movie version of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. “Winsor McCay has always been one of my favorite people,” he says, “I thought that would be a really great idea. My work on it overlapped that of Return to Oz and I went back and forth to Japan several times. Then I got Ray Bradbury, who was also a big Winsor McCay fan, to do the screenplay.”
“It seemed an ideal project, because it was very surreal and it could be wonderfully strange visually. The Japanese animators really liked the Winsor McCay drawings and they did a very good job of copying his style. But, in the end, the people running the company decided, two-thirds of the way through the development, that they wanted a conventional adventure story. They didn’t like this kind of esoteric and somewhat weird nature of the story we were developing. Then why, I asked, are you basing it on Winsor McCay?” The film was eventually finished by others, but very little of what he envisioned made it into the finished film.
Following this, he says Disney “ended up throwing Return to Oz away, because the new Eisner administration didn’t want anything to do with old projects developed by other people, which is a common thing with studios. Because of this and the Nemo fiasco, I washed my hands of Hollywood and took a lot of time off studying in various ashrams, Buddhist monasteries and places around the world for quite a while. Then slowly kind of got back into working with students and doing both television and feature work here in Europe.” At one point, he even tried to raise funds to get Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler made, but to no avail.
“In the early 90s,” he says, “I worked with BBC-Wales on Global Bears Rescue, an animated TV series for children which we did mostly in Eastern Europe. At the same time, I was developing other feature films, and spending a lot of time away from the business, trying to put together this consortium of financial people to do more in the way of animation.” This is being done through two companies, Startling Imagery and Corsham Entertainment. He reports, “it’s been a slow-going trying to build the confidence of enough people, but it’s working.”
He is currently producing Friends and Heroes [see above], a It’s a 36 half-hour animated “adventure series for children, mixing 2D and 3D animation, set in the first century A.D. It uses religious-based material, with references to the dynamic of the Jews and Christians at that time, who were being oppressed by the Romans as dangerous, terrorist types. “The CGI work is being done by The Character Shop in Birmingham, England, while the cel animation will be done in Korea. Through Corsham Entertainment, he is currently in production on The Tale of Jack Frost [see below], a half-hour Christmas special for the BBC based on a children’s book by David Melling, which he hopes eventually to turn into a series. Animation is to be done in India.
The State of the Art
Asked what he thinks of the current state of feature animation, he says, “I’m pretty encouraged. If Shrek 2 is anything like the original, it will be very entertaining and funny. All the Pixar stuff has worked pretty well. I loved The Triplets of Belleville. And then there’s the fact that Miyazaki’s work is finally being recognized. There’s a lot of potential in animation. It’s just a matter of getting the realization together that animation can be for adults, as well as family audiences.”
As to Hollywood seeming to abandon 2D for 3D animation, he notes, “They say they are doing it because the audience doesn’t like 2D. That’s rubbish. I don’t think that has anything to do with the technique. I don’t think the audience is going refuse to go to a film because it’s in 2D; it’s just that the most recent 2D films that have come out haven’t been very good.”
“If you look at some of the 3D work that’s been done, like Final Fantasy, it didn’t do very well either, because it had terrible script. And even though the animation was fine, why would anyone want to bother trying to imitate human beings so closely that you’re down to doing individual hair strands. It’s crazy.”
“Animation is about an exaggeration of style. You’re not trying to imitate live action. The point of animation is what they did in the Bugs Bunny cartoons in using caricature. I think the biggest question is always, Is this worth doing one? Is it an interesting story? And two, is it worth doing in animation? Because if it isn’t, why not do it in live action?”
Interestingly, he and Brad Bird have not given up on doing The Spirit. When I asked whether it would be done in 3D, he said, “We talked about the possibility of doing toon-shaded 3D, so you get a 2D effect with 3D. The big advantage of using 3D is in your backgrounds; you can do hand-drawn characters, but in a show as complicated as The Spirit, with its complex cityscapes, 3D is so much easier to work with, because you can just kind of move around all the background; it would also be much more economical than trying to have everything hand drawn. But I always saw The Spirit as having a 2D rather than a 3D look.”