Adult animation is nothing new to modern film and TV viewers. With explicit topics and themes that are complex and integrated into our society, adult animation has found its home in the mainstream with Adult Swim, HBO, and Netflix providing a healthy lineup of shows like The Boondocks, Rick and Morty, Harley Quinn, Big Mouthand BoJack Horseman

Thanks to the rise of streaming, animation that targets adult audiences didn’t have to premiere at midnight. Instead, they can be watched whenever and wherever. 

The scene for adult animation looks much different today than it did just a few years ago. While it is often one of the most successful genres of entertainment, adult animation used to be dominated by Disney. Audiences were used to the wholesome hijinks of Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy until an X-rated cat named Fritz rampages through New York’s underworld in the 1972 animated cult classicFritz the Cat

The success of the low-budget animated film asserted that animation could be for adults too, influencing a change in the industry that also showcased how films outside of the traditional studio system could be successful, too. 

How did this film lay the groundwork for the success of adult animation, and what can young animators learn from the indie animated film’s process? Let’s break it down.

Why an Animated Cat?

The animation establishment in the late 60s was undergoing a period of change, just like the U.S. Independent and experimental films were gaining steam in the post-war period, creating a new conversation around the backdrop of moral policing and policy. 

Around this time, the National Legion of Decency, a Catholic pressure group dedicated to identifying morally egregious films, tried to blacklist anything and everything from Rififi to Luis Buñuel and Roberto Rossellini films, while the decades-long Hays Code was still clamping down on films that were sympathetic towards the “crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin” of societies. 

Antitrust legislation, the blacklisting of prominent screenwriters, and the emergence of television helped dissolve the dominant studio system of Hollywood’s Golden Era, and filmmakers were looking to the future of what stories they wanted to explore. 

Filmmakers started to make films that spoke to specific communities and their hardships, and the social attitudes towards these films encouraged artists to make something about and for those communities. Even genres that were not well defined or experimental were pushing the boundaries, often landing them an X-rating, which often made audiences believe that these films were pornographic when they were really just too explicit for anyone under 17 years of age.  

How the first x-rated animation film laid the ground work for modern adult animations.'Fritz the Cat'Credit: Cinemation Industries

"While adult content had already made its way into several of Golden Age Hollywood cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s," Dr. Christopher Holliday, Lecturer in Liberal Arts and Visual Cultures Education at King's College London, tells BBC Culture, "the playful eroticism of characters like Betty Boop was dialed up by the outlandish 'rude and crude' style of Bakshi's animation, and particularly in his adaptation of Robert Crumb's X-rated adult comic."

For young people who were starting to see themselves as teenagers and students with rights, Fritz the Cat arrived to deliver something gritty, obscene, and real with its commentary on urban life in post-war America. 

"Fritz is like Impressionistic painting; he let the edges show," animation historian and critic Maureen Furniss told the BBC. "[Bakshi] defied people to say, 'that's cheap' or 'that's rough.’ That was what he wanted. It's gritty, and that's what life was like, and that's what teenagers were feeling at the time: 'This is authentic'. So you have to look at it from a larger perspective of experimentation."

Robert Crumb’s creation was part of the underground “comix” movement of the 1960s, and his stories often had a meandering, conversational social focus that leaned closer to life in the U.S. than Marvel or DC comics. Producer Steve Krantz was able to get the rights to bring Fritz to the screen despite Crumb’s reluctance to sell his beloved creation. 

The journey to get Fritz to the screen proved to be a challenge with a budget of less than $1 million, yet Krantz and Bakshi found a few creative solutions to get their indie animated film out there for the public to watch. 

Animating on a Budget

The animation was produced with very few resources, and the team often had to find creative solutions to cut costs while delivering the best product possible. 

Led by Bakshi, who did not attend art school but was instead self-taught and influenced by the Ashcan school, the Abstract Expressionist, and jazz, the team on Fritz the Cat had to completely omit pencil testing, the early-stage in storyboarding an animation feature that ensures quality and timing, resulting in the film’s rough-and-ready style. 

Inking and painting the cells caused a clash between Bakshi and New York’s animation union, which insisted on $10 a cell. Bakshi, who could not afford this fee, contracted a Mexican company and then completed the film in California, where many experienced animators were out of work.

The budgetary constraints did not hinder Bakshi’s style. Instead, he saw the low budget as a blessing since it forced him to innovate within the limitations that were set for the film.

How the first x-rated animation laid the groundwork for adult animation.'Fritz the Cat'Credit: Cinemation Industries

The "Found Sound" and "On-Location" Processes

Bakshi was able to find other creative ways to work within the budget of the film and pay everyone for their work. 

Unable and unwilling to pay the fees of expensive voice actors, Bakshi turned to the real people of New York to voice many of the characters in the film. 

"I said, 'the hell with that,'" Bakshi said about the costly fees of professionals. "'Just get real people.’ I used their voices because, first of all, it's dirt cheap. But a lot of times I just let the recording roll, and they were talking about whatever they were talking about. I got a lot of great stuff, and it dawned on me that this was sensational. When I heard the natural sound, the traffic in the background, and what they were saying, I absolutely loved it." 

This technique, known as “found sound,” lent itself to the film’s quasi-documentary style. 

The use of “found sound” was novel to animation at the time. The U.S. animation studios had neither recorded nor animated the voices of people outside of the entertainment industry, often disregarding the voices of Black Americans in commercial U.S. films and cartoons. 

How the first x-rated animation film laid the groundwork for modern adult animations.'Fritz the Cat'Credit: Cinemation Industries

The voices of everyday Americans were accentuated by the backgrounds designed by New York animator Johnny Vita. Rather than design whole cityscapes from scratch, Vita traveled through Greenwich Village and Harlem with his camera, then traced over the images, then colored the images with Luma dyes.

This rotoscoping effect created a realistic yet slightly off-kilter, cartoonish, dreamlike work that was further defined by animator Ira Turek drawing over the images with the same kind of Rapidograph technical pen used by Crumb. 

Preserving the location but transporting it into a cartoon version that accurately reflected New York gave the film its gritty “on location” energy that is still impressive today. 

Many of these groundbreaking and representative techniques were new at the time and were simply created to work within the budget, but the effect is everlasting as it blends reality into animation rather than dismissing the beauty and brutality of real life.  

How the first x-rated animation film laid the groundwork for adult animation.The backgrounds for 'Fritz the Cat'Credit: Cinemation Industries

The Infamous X Rating

Beauty and brutality are two words that sum up the plot of Fritz the Cat. In fact, the film shocked American audiences with its drug-fuelled orgies, guns, corrupt cops, race riots, and eco-terrorism. 

These outrageous moments would push the boundaries of the grindhouse exploitation films of the time, making Fritz the Cat the first X-rated animated film. 

I should be clear and tell you thatthe rating category hadn’t been around for long and would change to NC-17 in 1990, and oftentimes the rating system is broken and misguided. 

What landed the film this rating that Bakshi fully embraced (jokingly making the film’s tag-line, “We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!”) was its “grotesque subversion of the Disney ethos,” said Dr. Noel Brown, senior lecturer in film at Liverpool Hope University.

For Bakshi, he wouldn’t change the film at all. This was his reality growing up in New York and showing the flip side of the American Dream that Hollywood was desperately trying to hold onto. 

How this x-rated animation laid the groundwork for adult animation.'Fritz the Cat'Credit: Cinemation Industries

While adult animations today are staples on TV. They poke fun at American ideologies or the insecurities of the nation, Fritz goes further with its representation, effect on mainstream culture, and its radicalization of animation.  

Fritz the Cat can teach us that the limitations of budget or distribution are only breeding grounds for creativity and innovation. People want to support projects that challenge the mainstream culture and speak to a larger problem that we can all feel, so don’t be afraid to create a project that speaks to a subject that you want to bring to the screen. You never know if your project could revolutionize an entire genre or serve as inspiration for another person’s project. 

What are your thoughts on Fritz the Cat? Let us know in the comments below!

Source: BBC Culture