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‘American Pop’ is first in NU Film Society’s animation series

NEW ULM — New Ulm Film Society screenings are about to become more animated with a showing of the 1981 film “American Pop.”

The screening starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14 at New Ulm Public Library. “American Pop” is the first film in its animation series.

The film tells the story of four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family. Their story is linked across the decades by popular American music.

The story begins with a young immigrant boy named Zalmie escaping Russia for America with this mother. The story follows Zalmie’s, his son, grandson and eventually his great-grandson and the influence of music on all their lives.

The title: “American Pop” has a double meaning. It is a story that follows the development of pop music in American history, but it also references the different fathers linked throughout the story.

The film was directed by Ralph Bakshi who is famous for its alternative animation style. While most animated films were intended for children, Bakshi was creating cartoon movies for a more mature audience. His debut feature was “Fritz the Cat” the first animated film to receive an X rating. He was also well known for his animated adaptation of “Lord of the Rings” in 1978.

Bakshi was famous for using the rotoscoping method of animation. This is a technique in which animators trace over live-action film footage to create realistic animation.

This technique was used on “American Pop.” All the actors in the film were recorded acting out the scenes and then animators drew overtop of the images frame by frame.

Actor Ron Thompson not only provided the voice for two of the main characters, Tony and Pete, he also physically played the characters. His performance was covered by the animation.

This animation method is also allowed other famous film sequences to be rotoscoped into the movie. A few scenes from 1931’s “The Public Enemy” were traced over and used for the movie. James Cagney and Jean Harlow can be seen dancing in one scene.

The benefit of rotoscoping over traditional filming is the artists can draw in any type of background they want. “American Pop” takes place over 80 years of history. In a traditional film set, designers would need to create authentic-looking sets to match the historical period, but in animation, a background artist can draw in any setting.

Rotoscoping would fall out of fashion as new digital effects were created in the film. Computer Generated Imagery began to replace rotoscoping. Other animators tried to distance themselves from rotoscoping. Some viewed it as a less artistic version of animating. It also concealed the actor’s facial features, which could hurt the performance.

The production company behind “American Pop” initially denied rotoscoping was used in this film.

“American Pop” was Bakshi’s attempt to tell a more personal story. The film is not based on a true story, but themes and elements are borrowed from people he knew as well as famous musicians.

“American Pop” is famous for use of an extensive soundtrack of popular American songs. Normally, filmmakers struggle to acquire the film rights to songs, but Bakshi’s reputation helped him secure the rights at a lower cost. The soundtrack features songs from Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Doors, George Gershwin and Lou Reed among others.

“American Pop” was a success upon its initial release and received positive critical praise, but due to the musical rights, the film did not secure a home video release until 1998, making it difficult for fans to view the film for nearly two decades.

Frequent replays on cable channels helped maintain an audience. “American Pop” is now considered a cult classic with animation and musical fans.

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