Tom Waits for No One (1979)

So remember when I was going to review ten shorts in one month? Man, I was young then. Anyway, part of the reason Shortstember came to a screeching halt after we covered the sixties was that finding a theatrical animated short released in the seventies is kind of like trying to find a shoe cobbler in 2016. Oh, they still exist. But they’re rare, boy. They are damn rare. By fortunate chance however, today’s short manages to be the absolute apotheosis of everything you think about when you hear the words “seventies animation”. It’s like they squeezed that entire decade of animation history into these six and a half minutes.

Tom Waits for No One was basically a job resume. Directors John Lamb and Bruce Lyon wanted to sell their Lyon Lamb Video Rotoscope technology to Ralph Bakshi, and created the short as a demonstration of what it could do. This probably explains why I can tell you that Ralph Bakshi did not create this short and you still won’t believe me. Hell, I’m not sure I believe me.  It’s the Bakshiest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s also a little NSFW, just so’s you know.

So the short begins at night on a scuzzy street somewhere in America (where? Who knows, the song references places in LA, New York and San Francisco) and we hear some cool, smoky saxophone and the growl of a Balrog, a creature of fire and smoke that resides in the bowels of Middle Earth, the most fearsome of Morgath’s legions…oh wait.

Sorry, my mistake, it's Tom Waits clearing his throat.

Sorry, my mistake, it’s Tom Waits clearing his throat.

The story, such as it is, has Tom growling a stream of consciousness about the dregs of society  stewing in a haze of drunken regret and broken dreams to an exotic dancer (Donna Gordon), who materializes out of his cigarette smoke. Because…what else do you think happens when Tom Waits smokes a cigarette?

She strips for him, but then, just as Tom thinks he might be getting some action, a limo pulls up and she gets in and drives away.

"I trust Madam had an enjoyable evening appearing in the cigarette smoke of random gentlemen and dancing naked in the street?" "Quite. Now home, James."

“I trust Madam had an enjoyable evening appearing in the cigarette smoke of random gentlemen and dancing naked in the street?”
“Quite. Now home, James.”

Lyon and Lamb filmed almost fifteen hours of footage of Waits and Gordon from which they painted over 5,500 cels to produce the final short. Bakshi doesn’t appear to have taken them up of the technology but it did win them both a technical achievement Oscar and first prive at the Hollywood Erotic Film and Video Festival. it’s also notable as being quite possibly the first animated music video. After that it vanished into near total obscurity before being rediscovered on You Tube a few years ago.

As for the animation itself, it’s…not really for me. Rotoscoping has always had an element of the Uncanny Valley as far as I’m concerned and the lip synching at times is quite poor. At the same time, there’s really very little point in criticizing something like this on technical matters when it also happens to be the single coolest thing that has ever been created.



  1. It’s certainly suave, that’s for sure. Though it was weird seeing the camera move almost randomly on the scene- though admittedly, the drunken random movement might have been what they were going for.

  2. I think that the cigarette might not be the only substance he was using that night. Also, I agree with you on rotoscoping, it just always seems a bit off.

  3. I always prefer rotoscoping when it’s not trying to look “real”. Like that Fleischer short where they rotoscoped Cab Calloway to get his dance moves right, but then used them to animate a walrus. Because the walrus isn’t trying to look human, it avoids the whole Uncanny Valley thing, it’s just a cartoon character with some very natural looking dance moves.

  4. Bakshi? Bakshi? Here, hold this paperweight, let me remove this floppy tag, and just wait right here. *Jumps in a fox hole*

  5. I only the character stuff had been a quarter as sharp as the song. Waits sounds like someone who has been there done that (and several other thats besides). His avatar comes off as a cheezy extra sleezy reject from Heavy Metal. And if you are too cheezy for the metal, you have a serious problem.

  6. Well, that is certainly a 70’s rotoscoped cartoon of Tom Waits. Which, you’re right, DOES sound like the most Bakshi thing in the world.

    If you don’t have any existing plans to look at it, I might have to get in on the next charity drive you do to make you review Bakshi’s ’77 film Wizards. It’s… a 70’s Bakshi cartoon, but without the porn of Fritz or the rushed construction of Lord of the Rings.

    Also, the voice actor who plays the lead was the Lorax AND the Mogwai.

      1. Do I need to loan you some AR-15’s? Or maybe just body armor? Got some great pieces by de Boer for you to use.

      2. And I really need to participate in the next one. Last one unfortunately caught me between employments.

      3. Charity Deathmatch would be a great way to return to your regular schedule, once your secret hiatus project is done!

      1. Do you mean they will trick and subsequently capture Robin Hood and enact REVENGE?!?

      2. I’m sure the Mouse doesn’t want me divulging all of his secrets. But I did capture Robin Hood just last night. Had to borrow Amos Slade’s dog, but I got him.

  7. Bakshi is a weird case.

    There is some real talent in him, for animation at least, but going his own way seems to have ensured he never learned HOW to tell a story and he himself has such issues that there doesn’t appear to be any worthwhile story of his own to tell.

    Some great bits here and there, but it never seems to add up, And it is never DONE, in a proper sense, it’s always rushed out in some compromised form that is never his fault. He’s cool when you’re 20, but eventually you grow up, and I don’t think he ever has..

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