‘American Pop’… Matters: Ron Thompson, the Illustrated Man Unsung

In this, the Pixel Age, nothing is more cutting edge than “motion capture”, the art of digitally recording actors’ movements to bring animated characters to believable life on screen. Today such dramatic contributions to the mix of the realistic and the impossible are rewarded by moviegoers and lauded by critics. Andy Serkis, for example, has been (none too facetiously) rumored to be an Oscar contender for his motion-captured roles as Gollum, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ Caesar.

It’s hard to imagine such creators not getting their due today, but a generation ago, motion capture’s older cousin, known as “Rotoscoping” was not so lucky or so praised. The actors who went through a much more literal capture of their performances were minimized along with the craft itself, in deference to studio wishes and the implication that the animators were simply “that good”. With the Pixel Age also being the Information Age, many of these “over-drawn” performers may finally get their due recognition.

The year was 1979 and famed animation director Ralph Bakshi was fresh off the heels of his successful, yet problematic The Lord of the Rings (1978). After that labor of love and Bakshi’s equally epic prior film Wizards (1977), the director looked for a more personal and adult-oriented project much like the urban animated films he had created before he delved into epic fantasy. Thus the director of Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin pitched American Pop to Columbia Pictures. In Columbia, Bakshi found his funding and distributor, in the music of The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and more, Bakshi found his backdrop and in Ron Thompson, Bakshi found his star.

Thompson was hardly new to acting, nor was his an unrecognizable face. After arriving in New York in the early ’60s with only a few bucks to his name, Thompson spent his 21st birthday doing live television for CBS’ Armstrong Circle Theatre. At the same time, “Ronnie Thompson” as he was originally billed, tried his hand at the recording industry, releasing singles that led to his casting as a rock singer in the 1967 film Brown Eye, Evil Eye. It was his performance in Charles Gordone’s ground-breaking and Pulitzer Prize winning play No Place to Be Somebody that brought him to great acclaim and to the West Coast. After his Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award-winning turn in the play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie, Thompson became a notable guest star on TV dramas, most recognizably as Tony Baretta’s sidekick Detective Nopke on the popular cop show Baretta. It was this wide experience that made Thompson an immediate standout to American Pop‘s director.

Originally brought in to read for the small part of one of the finalé’s band members, Thompson recalls, “I read my one or two lines and Ralph [Bakshi] stopped me and he said ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ And I told him. He looked at me and he said ‘I want him to read Pete!’” With one exclaimed line “PIZZA MAN! WE DELIVER!” Thompson was hired on the spot to play Pete, the penultimate character in this generation-spanning saga of the fictional Belinsky family of musicians. It was Thompson’s rotoscoped visage that would soon grace American Pop‘s movie poster.

For the unfamiliar, “Rotoscoping”, similar to motion capture, is a process in which live actors are filmed and the subsequent footage is used by animators to create realistically moving cartoon characters. In Thompson’s own words, “This movie was shot on a sound stage. Actors in costume, makeup. Minimal set. Very minimal set. If we had to go through a door, there was a door there but there probably was not a wall. This was 1979, before computer animation. Live animators were still working. They would blow up the photograph, they would then trace the actor, his physical appearance, his movement, his expression, everything, then draw in the background. They would do that 24 frames per second. [It] is not just the actor’s voice, you’re seeing the actor’s physical likeness, and total performance, facial expression, everything! Sometimes they would exaggerate something here and there but for the most part you’re seeing the actual actor.”

It was the actual actor that Thompson was, well before any post-production embellishments, that expanded his contribution to the film beyond the role of Pete the rock star poster-boy. Three weeks after his casting, Thompson was called in to meet with Bakshi who asked him to consider taking the lager role of Pete’s father Tony, in addition to that of Pete himself. “I said ‘Yeah, you know, I can play the girl’s part, too, if you want!’” laughs Thompson at the memory. After basing Tony’s Long Island accent on an agent of his, Thompson performed portions of the script for Bakshi and was immediately given both parts, granting him top-billing in the process. This casting, coupled with an extraordinary working relationship with his director, allowed Thompson the almost unprecedented chance to help create his best known character in adolescence. With the role of Tony, Thompson was on set with Eric Taslitz, who played the young Pete. “It was my idea to teach [Eric] how to do a ‘Pimp Walk’. It’s very shocking when you see this little boy walk down the street with these glasses on, moving like the older Pete.”

Regarding his own performance, Thompson incorporated various homages to James Dean and Marlon Brando into the characterizations of Tony and Pete, as well as drawing on his own experiences. Not a guitarist or piano player himself, Thompson based many of his concert moves on his good friend and mentor, Rock-A-Billy singer and songwriter Ersel Hickey. “There’s a movement that I do at the end of the movie that Ersel used to do. He takes the guitar and he hits it. I used that at the end for [Pete]!”

More than just a rock performance piece, American Pop is an engrossing drama with a pathos that burns through the animation cells in certain scenes even to this day. Thompson’s portrayal of Tony Belinsky runs the gamut of emotions and the fact that these are all evident (even in his non-speaking moments) is a credit to his acting and to the rotoscope artists who cared enough not to cover up his performance as they colored it. These great moments are also a credit to Bakshi as a director who allowed improvisation and interpretation in this personal piece. “I just did it!” recalls Thompson. “You know, pretty much every scene in the movie we did in one take? I really can’t ever remember doing a retake, we just did it!” This includes a pivotal moment for Tony in which he runs across the top of a moving train. “I was on about a 20 foot platform and [Ralph] just had me run across it… which I had never done before.”, Thompson jokes. “The animators drew this fantastic train right under me and I’m running across this moving freight train.”

Thomson’s eyes still grow wide and wild as he recalls these exciting moments, both on the minimal set and in seeing the fully animated outcome in which he is literally turned into a cartoon character. He gets a little teary-eyed, recalling the aftermath of the film’s release. “I was pretty much told that everybody was going to know my participation in the movie. They were going to know that this one actor played these two characters, father and son, and did a pretty good job in doing it. And… that’s not the case.”

Before the release of American Pop, when promotion of the film was underway, Columbia Pictures opted to promote it as a purely animated musical extravaganza. Each actor was a voice. Each physical presence was, if acknowledged at all, nothing more than a model. “They didn’t want anything known about what I was doing or what the other actors, who were all very fine actors, did in this movie.Columbia Pictures played it all down. And that’s the way it was.” Although his name appeared first in the opening credits, his contributions were minimized and went unrecognized by the movie-going public outside of Hollywood itself. “People that knew me recognized me immediately. I had people who went to see the movie and didn’t realize that I was in it. They would say ‘That guy looks like Ron. He walks like Ron.’ I ran into Richard Dreyfuss and he said ‘I watched the movie and I said I know that guy!’”

Hollywood friends aside, Thompson’s recognition was yet to come. “My heart was broken at the time. Six months after the movie was out it became very apparent to me that the movie didn’t make it and nobody knew who the heck I was. They might have known that there were some actors who did some voices and were pretty good, but nobody knew anything about me.”

For the studio and the marketing department, the real stars were the featured songs of everyone from Cole Porter to Benny Goodman to Sam Cooke to Lou Reed to Pat Benatar to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Sex Pistols to Bob Seger. “When the movie came out, they promoted all the music. The Jimi Hendrix, the Janis Joplin. It seemed like it was a two-hour MTV video the way it was advertised in the trailers. So all these kids came to see it and they were disappointed! They didn’t want to see no damned story about the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s. The people who would have liked the movie didn’t go see it because they thought it was just a bunch of loud music and MTV stuff.”

After American Pop,Thompson continued to act on stage and screen, occasionally noticing some small legacy of his film and always recognizing rotoscoping and the unsung actors trapped behind the animation cells. After another few years, the man who had worked with Robert Blake, Henry Fonda, William Shatner, Richard Dreyfuss, Jack Klugman, Tony Todd, Ron O’Neal and Strother Martin (to name a very few) was now faced with an acting career that was, as he puts it, “in a severe coma”.

However, as his career wound down, he did miss one important thing… American Pop found its life and audience on cable television and home video. Music fans, drama fans, animation fans and more all rediscovered American Pop and began to talk about it. This word-of-mouth helped the small film that “didn’t make it” to become a Rock and Roll cult classic! It seemed that just about everyone started to recognize the cover image of Pete with his guitar as something of a rock icon just as they realized American Pop‘s impact on movies, music and music videos. Everyone, that is, except for its star, Ron Thompson.

It was almost three decades after the release of American Pop that the man who brought its two most iconic characters to life finally caught wild wind of the film’s impact. A chance encounter with a friend informed Thompson of the IMDB.com message boards devoted to discussing him and his career. “I discovered that there is a whole group of people who actually like this movie, know who Ron Thompson is and even know what rotoscoping is. It blew my mind!”

It’s worth noting that Bakshi didn’t invent rotoscoping, nor was American Pop his first (or last) rotoscoped film. The process itself was patented by the great Max Fleischer back in 1917 and has been employed in everything from Walt Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the popular Superman cartoons of the 1940s to parts of Yellow Submarine and American Pop’s fellow 1981 edgy rocker Heavy Metal. Bakshi himself utilized the technique in Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice and even his latter-day studio picture Cool World. As a visual effects technique, rotoscoping has been used in non-animated fare as well, lighting the sabers in the original Star Wars trilogy, deepening the comic book frames of the Sin City feature film, adding color, frame by frame, to the original Tron and even adorning a great many frames of Avatar, not only a motion-capture based film, but also currently the biggest-selling motion picture of all time.

Motion capture today owes a great debt to rotoscoping and the actors who were, quite literally, motion captured for rotoscoped classics like American Pop, even, and especially, if such recognition is rarely granted. American Pop itself has had a direct impact on American pop culture. The film is a classic among movie and music fans and its influence is written all over rotoscoped music videos like Aha’s “Take On Me”, INXS’ “What you Need”, Linkin Park’s “Breaking the Habit” and Kanye West’s “Heartless”. “Heartless”, as directed by Hype Williams, takes direct inspiration from American Pop, placing West in many of the same scenes and backgrounds that Pete walks through toward American Pop‘s finale.

Photo of Ron Thompson by J. C. Maçek III

Only now are American Pop and the actors behind it getting their notice and while that didn’t quite come soon enough for Thompson, it could also never come too late. For all of the hurt feelings surrounding American Pop, its star still looks back on it with great pride and has nothing but praise for Ralph Bakshi. “We had a wonderful working deal together. It was, for me, a very creative experience to do this movie. He totally trusted me and whatever I wanted to do. He just set up the camera and let me go. God bless him, that’s the kind of guy he was! It was a very creative set!”

Thompson similarly holds back no praise for his fellow actors or even the animators who carefully kept their captured performances intact. “Jerry Holland the old Burlesque guy, Jeffrey Lippa who played my grandfather Zalmie and Marya Small, who played what I call ‘the Janis Joplin character’, Frankie, [were all] quite good. Lynda Wiesmeier (Pete’s mother) is a perfect example of the accuracy of Rotoscope. She looked exactly like she does in the movie.”

Although he led the cast of American Pop, Ron Thompson never forgets that he was not the only thing that made the film great and is ever-ready to share the spotlight with his fellow cast and crew, even though he was, himself, denied the spotlight he deserved for so long. With tributes coming from such seemingly unlikely sources as Kanye West videos and rotoscoping making a comeback in features such as Titan A.E. and A Scanner Darkly, recognition is finally coming back to the little rotoscoped film that seemingly “didn’t make it”.

Are the actors, actresses and creators of this surreal and much-more-literal form of performance capture finally getting their due? As the pixel age meets the information age, are more people seeing that American Pop matters or will the illustrated man remain unsung? Maybe these films are due another look and you can tell me. Until then, I’ll see you in the next reel.