The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
the Woodpile Cat
Don Bluth once stated, "BANJO was more than just a picture that eventually got sold to television. It was an attempt to put together all the mechanics that go into making a film. Animation is only a small part of making a film. After you turn your scene into the director, that's it. When you get into overseeing a film, there are many more problems to deal with."
BANJO opens with a chorus singing the title song as the camera views a small farm. It is 1944. As the titles end, chickens come exploding from the coop with Banjo chasing behind them. His sisters, Emily and Jean, tell their parents and Banjo's Papa tries to stop Banjo as the sisters and Mother look on. Banjo stops when he runs headlong into his father. He apologizes and says he won't do it again.
As the song rises again, there is a montage of still and semi-animated scenes showing Banjo still full of mischief including smoking the pipe from a snowman while sitting on its head and seeing his reflection in a Christmas tree ornament. This ends with him and his sisters walking along the roof of the chicken coop. Banjo tells the girls that he has heard that a cat will always land on its feet and that they can prove it by jumping off the roof. The girls refuse but Banjo grabs their tails and all three go sliding off the roof into the snow.
Papa is now very angry and demands that Banjo get a switch from the field for an obvious spanking. While looking for a switch, Banjo feels sorry for himself and threatens to run away from home. At that moment he overhears the driver of the feed truck talking about the good times in Salt Lake City. Banjo makes up his mind to leave and by grabbing a rope on the truck hitches a ride to Salt Lake City. A small musical sting follows Banjo as he watches his home get farther away.
In the city, Banjo finds plenty of excitement, once again largely through a series of stills and vignettes. He sees magazines, tries beer, plays around at a pool hall and other vices. Eventually he runs into trouble in traffic and causes a major collision. This begins a series of vignettes showing Banjo wearying of the city's lights and excitement.
When it begins to rain he looks for shelter. The first location is filled with rats so he leaves, finally ending up huddled up in a small can in an alley. He looks at a puddle and sees his family reflected in the pond. Banjo breaks down and cries.
Suddenly a gravelly voice is heard singing in the distance. It is Crazy Legs who discovers the lost kitten in the can. They strike up a friendship when Crazy tells Banjo the kitten can go back home by finding the truck he originally rode out on. As they begin to search, Crazy suggests they can look for some of the "good times" that Banjo wanted to see along the way
Crazy and Banjo come to a night club that Crazy recognizes so they go inside to look. Inside three cats (Zasu, Melina and Cleo) are singing a Boogie-Woogie style number on stage. After the song, the leader of the trio, Zasu comes over to Crazy and meets Banjo. She suggests that Banjo should go home and the kitten becomes depressed again. To cheer him up, Crazy and the girls break into a musical number ("I'll Stick With You Kid") and Banjo ends up joining in. Afterwards, Crazy asks all the cats to look for the feed truck.
Later that night Crazy and Banjo are going through a dark alley when they encounter some mean dogs. A chase begins and the pair only escape by climbing up a series of boxes. The pair arrives at the singing cats' home and Banjo goes to sleep. Before Crazy goes to sleep, he prays that he will be able to find the truck so that Banjo can go home.
The next morning, when Banjo wakes up, he hears the driver of the truck out in the street. All parties rejoice as Banjo, Crazy, Zasu, Melina and Cleo all go to the truck to say goodbyes. Suddenly, Banjo is sad again. Now it is because he will be leaving his new friends. Crazy and Banjo take so long to say goodbye that the truck leaves. However, Crazy manages to get Banjo on board and the kitten waves goodbye to his new friend.
When the truck arrives home, Banjo leaps off it and into the middle of his family. He's home now, and probably never plans to leave again. End titles.
The story of BANJO is filled with the tales that Hollywood myths are made of: a part time project, done in a garage, that launches a new studio. It's a story full of young talent, personal sacrifice, career gambles and film politics. However, Don summed up the work experience best when he said, "BANJO was an exercise."
Gary Goldman recalls that the birth of the project was at the Disney studio in 1972. "At that time, we kept getting told how someday the veteran animators would be stepping aside and we would be taking their place." The two friends were bicycling around the studio on a break when they stopped to talk about work. They felt that to learn, in just a few years, what the Disney veterans had taken decades to accrue would be impossible.
"Don was the one who suggested his garage," recalled Gary. "He had the concept that we could work in our spare time to speed up our learning process on animated film making. In November we purchased a camera. Don already had a movieola." By the end of 1973 they had added an additional movieola, an editing table and a new member of the team, John Pomeroy.
John recalled, "It really began in 1975. We had been working on another project, a poem entitled 'The Piper,' but it wasn't coming together." The problems with "The Piper" were in trying to get the story into a short enough length. Don likened the short's story to viewing football highlights. After deciding that the venture looked more like a feature, Don and his friends looked around for a simpler idea.
"We decided to pick a nice simple little film," stated Gary. "One that could have a definite deadline. Our first deadline was Christmas of 1977. We didn't quite make it."
The story chosen was that of Banjo, a small cat who wanders away from home. It was based on a part of Don's life on the farm in Utah. The family had a cat who lived in a woodpile near the house. Suddenly, one day the cat was gone. They figured it had probably just gone to live elsewhere. Several weeks later it was back again. This time it stayed. Don, along with brothers Brad and Toby (Fred), concocted a story about what happened to this small cat that left home.
During the years of work on the film, the storyline continually grew and shrank. In 1976, a revised draft by Don and Fred (Toby) Bluth was registered with the Writers Guild. It was essentially what finally wound up in the final production. The script does feature a lot more dialogue than finally used and includes a narrator. It also has one scene not found in the finished show which consists of the three female cats (Zasu, Melina and Cleo) looking for the truck. The film also has a slightly longer ending. After Banjo has arrived home and promises never to wander he later hears two humans talking about the wonders of the county fair, including the hot air balloons. The story cuts to the fair where Banjo and Crazy Legs are seen rising to the sky in a hot air balloon.
"BANJO was almost two productions," recalled John. "There was a whole recording session, story boards and story reels produced. It was about thirty minutes. The reels were full of activities in the city, but only consisted of about half of the boards! We had overshot the half hour mark."
John actually animated the first scene done in the film, a montage of Banjo getting into various kinds of mischief. Banjo has trouble with bees, chickens and other farm life. The scene was later replaced and doesn't appear in the current film.
Don, who storyboarded the entire project also animated numerous scenes. Like John's first, a lot of animation ended up on the cutting room floor. One of Don's that is still in the final cut is the dog chase.
Sparky Marcus, a young actor in commercials, was given the role of Banjo and recorded the dialogue. Don, John and Gary directed Sparky at the session and subsequent ones.
By this point the crew had grown beyond just Don, John and Gary. Artists from Disney and other studios dropped by to see the project. Some joined in and worked for a period, others stayed through the end.
"We never asked anyone to join us, they would have to ask us," claimed Gary. "If they wanted to come over and help out, they were welcomed. It was that kind of desire to learn that we wanted more than just help."
Don confirmed the learning desire. "We had to relearn a great deal. We also had to just learn the basics; contact shadows, transparent images, and sparkles. Often when we asked how to do them, we still wouldn't know. The terminology was Greek to us. We were told of split exposures, double exposures, etc. However, we did learn."
1976 saw them hire Scatman Crothers to do the voice of Crazy Legs. He was a well known jazz musician and singer who performed in clubs and on radio for decades beginning in the Twenties. However, he finally found nationwide fame playing the role of Louie the garbage man on the TV series CHICO AND THE MAN (1974- 78) which led to other TV guest starring appearances. Crothers had done numerous voices for animation including Disney's THE ARISTOCATS and Hanna-Barbera's HONG KONG PHOOEY. He recorded the songs for the special in April of 1977 with a full 32-piece orchestra. The three-hour, $13,000 investment was well worth it to John. "We had saved our money, cashed in our Disney stock options, etc. to pay for this. It was a thrill to me, for it was our first real taste of outside production."
There were a number of songs written that never made it into the final production. These included "The Demolition Patrol," "Oom Pah La La," and the "Rubber Tree" song.
As the film began to look like it might reach some form of completion, thoughts turned to what to do next. TV seemed a natural market for a half-hour animated special. When they approached TV executives, the studio learned some lessons on marketing.
"Suddenly it was a Christmas special," stated Gary. "All the executives thought that if the show was tied to a holiday, it would have a better chance."
Don continued, "We forced Christmas into it, and it didn't work."
There was a suggestion to surround the show with live action footage of Sparky talking to Santa Claus then segueing into the animation. This holiday push is still evident in the final film with the various street decorations and Crazy donning the Santa Claus suit.
Continually re-writing the story began to create continuity problems. The lack of a strong story is admitted by Don, "We don't have a real strong story. It's the best that we knew how to write at that time though. Notice it has no villains. We thought it would be a cute story of a cat who runs away from home, has some adventures in the city and then decides home is the place to be. Since then, we've learned, and been told by many writers, that your story is only as strong as your villain."
Don offered the project to Ron Miller to view. "However, he [Miller] was reluctant," stated John. "At that time, they were not encouraging outside projects."
This outside project seemed to be heading to a conclusion. Also being completed were discussions with Aurora about funding a feature. At one point, it was discussed that BANJO be turned into the first feature. Aurora felt that a great deal of time and money could be saved since nearly half an hour of animation already existed.
THE BANJO FEATURE
Work began on trying to expand the short. One major addition was a key villain, Rocko, a tough cat. A treatment dated March 29, 1979, by Don Bluth gives an idea of what might have been the studio's first feature.
The story starts with the birth of Banjo and his sisters in the woodpile. A montage through the titles would show Banjo growing up and showing his adventurous side. This early part follows much of the animation already done. It's when Banjo hits the city that the plot begins to turn.
After his initial city trouble with the cars, Banjo was to meet some kids who tie a can to his tail. This is solved by a termite he meets in an alleyway. The next party that Banjo meets is Rocko, a tough, scarred, cigar smoking cat. Rocko tells Banjo to go home, but the cocky kitten simply swats the large cat in the nose. Rocko tries to get Banjo, but one of Rocko's gang, Itchy, intervenes.
The story returns to the actual film with the meeting of Crazy Legs. However the two now have quite a wild night out where Banjo is introduced to beer and taverns. While talking with other male cats at one establishment, Banjo lets it out that he's had a run in with Rocko. He then discovers that all cats fear Rocko.
While heading for some sleep, Crazy and Banjo run into Rocko and his gang. Crazy is able to knock Rocko down and the pair escape. Rocko now swears revenge against both Banjo and Crazy. Meanwhile, Crazy and Banjo have taken refuge in the cafe found in the original film. Banjo meets the girls, sings the song with Crazy and all the cats go out to look for the truck.
Rocko hears of this plan and sets a trap. His gang tells all the cats that the truck will be at a certain bridge at midnight. Zasu tells Banjo and Crazy and the pair head off to catch the truck. After they have left, Zasu is warned of the plot by Itchy. She and the girls run off to warn Banjo and Crazy.
In Rocko's lair, Itchy is taken to task, and killed by Rocko. This action so shocks his gang, that they all leave. Rocko, now alone, determines to get the troublesome pair on his own. Rocko and the girls arrive at the bridge at the same time. Crazy gives Banjo to the girls and tackles Rocko.
The battle is going badly for Crazy until Banjo joins in. At first his attempts are futile, but when it looks like Crazy will not survive, Banjo fiercely bites the leg of Rocko. Rocko stumbles and falls into the path of a train, being killed.
Banjo helps Crazy back to the girls' place. Feeling responsible for Crazy's injuries, Banjo shows a sense of growing up and taking responsibility. At this point the show's ending comes in with the truck arriving below the cat's place. The truck takes Banjo home where he tells his parents he will be good from now on.
Along with the various changes in the city, there are numerous cut backs to Banjo's parents looking for the child.
It's somewhat interesting to note that this treatment features several elements that turn up later in other Bluth productions. A cigar smoking villain is found in both AN AMERICAN TAIL and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. The scarred up, threatening Rocko seems like an early version of Carface in ALL DOGS. Even the termite has some of the finickiness found in Digit from TAIL.
There are also scenes that seem to come right out of Disney's past animated features. Most notably, the description of the final battle of Rocko and Crazy, with an assist from Banjo is very close to JUNGLE BOOK's climatic fight of Baloo and Shere Kahn.
However, the initial shortcomings of the short's story only seemed magnified when attempting to expand it into a feature. Finally the decision was made to complete BANJO as a featurette and develop a new property for the feature.
DON BLUTH PRODUCTIONS
On September 13th, with a promise of financial backing to finish BANJO and a new feature, Don Bluth resigned from Walt Disney Productions. Gary and John left the same day. The next day other artists fled Disney to work with Don.
However, BANJO now had a firm deadline, December 21, 1979. It was a difficult schedule as Gary recalls, "Those last months of BANJO were some of the most thrilling and trying I've spent. The crew worked rotating shifts, often sleeping on the floor between artists and equipment in order to complete the film in a matter of weeks. Shooting and editing ran 24 hours a day as we pressed to meet the deadline, which was met."
November found post production being done. A final print was shown theatrically from December 21st through the 28th at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Peppertree (in Northridge) during Christmas week so it could qualify for Academy Award consideration. At that time, there was the possibility of a full theatrical release of the featurette with the then upcoming THE MUPPET MOVIE. This release never came to pass.
HBO aired the special in February of 1980. Again, this was in hopes of an Academy nomination. It received an impressive 45.2 (cumulative) rating. However, the short was not nominated. (The National Film Board's EVERY CHILD won that year.)
For the general public, the film was finally aired on network TV on May 1st, 1982. The Hollywood Reporter was quite impressed by the film. "BANJO is a particular visual treat for both children and nostalgic adults, who may find the special reminiscent of elements in LADY AND THE TRAMP." After talking a bit about the production background, the reviewer continued with "The virtues of this imitation classic style Disney animation are many. Characters are fully realized, with marvelously expressive faces. The action is constant and fluid, and movement is realistic. Color saturation is pure and rich. The only average ingredient in this production are its mediocre songs, although arrangements and full orchestration make the most of them."
Daily Variety seemed more interested in merely noting the release of the production. "Developed over the last six years - new company was formed and BANJO was completed in 1979 - cartoon certainly shows the depth and shadings of old-time productions." It concluded with "It proves doubly interesting since BANJO serves as a prelude to release this summer of the company's first full-length animated theatrical feature via MGM, THE SECRET OF NIMH."
The special was repeated on ABC August 7, 1983. It later debuted on videotape where it proved a good seller. During the mid-Eighties the studio started reselling it to cable.
By only a few months BANJO became the first major work of the Don Bluth Studio to debut to the public. This led some to feel that BANJO could be revived as a merchandised property.
In August of 1982, several children's books were developed. Titles included "The Tale of Biddie the Bird" and "A Carrot for Trotter." Also written was a treatment for a second special, "Banjo Meets the King of the Goblins."
Don later reflected that these efforts "were written in an attempt to establish a character with a great deal of public appeal. We wanted to show that he was viable and could be featured in well written stories. I also suspect we did it to show we **could** write a good story for him."
Other efforts included the creation of a Banjo comic strip panel for newspapers. Written and drawn by Will Finn and Lorna Pomeroy, animators at the studio, the strip was never picked up for syndication. None of the merchandise was ever released. As late as 1986 the studio talked about producing a story teller album on the character based on that one special. A large amount of artwork was created for this project.
The work on BANJO was an experience most the employees remember with some fondness and some disbelief. During a meeting in the mid-Eighties some of the crew shared their recollections.
Linda Miller, a Disney animator who left with Bluth in 1979 remembers her first contact in the mid-Seventies with Don. "I asked if I could join them and Don said, 'Yes, if you want to work harder, stay up late nights, have no weekends...' And I said, 'Sure!'" The good times included "Communal lunches by the pool. I actually preferred the home cooked lunches by my director [Don]." Overall, "We know a lot more now. If someone were to ask me today, to spend a year in a garage, I'm not sure what I'd say."
Will Finn, who assisted in the writing of THE SECRET OF NIMH as well as animated on a variety of Don's more famous projects, began working on BANJO in 1979. "I washed cels that first weekend... and the next week I started painting cels." The experience was worth it, though. "It was a great deal of fun."
Dave Spafford, an assistant at Disney who went with Don and moved up to animator remembered, "I got there in 1976. They had just scrapped everything and were starting over." He agreed the work was hard, "We used to work in such close quarters; for four years, every night after work, every weekend." But it was worth it for him. "We learned everything there. On BANJO we learned camera moves, how to shoot the camera, painted cels, everything."
Lorna Pomeroy, one of their original animators, stated "It was quite an experience. It brought us all together and taught us what we were made of. I don't know if I have the where with all to do it again. It was one of the hardest projects, with great physical and emotional demands. I'm glad I did it, but I never want to have to cook for so many people again!"
Vera Lanpher, who eventually became head of the assistant department got her start there. "It was the training ground for me. I knew nothing about animation, but I went to the garage. Don, John and Gary said, 'Follow us,' and I began to learn. Later, when I was hired by Disney, I was totally on my own, and I found that if I had not been learning on BANJO on weekends and evenings, I couldn't have gotten as far as I did in my career. It gave me an opportunity to learn more about assistant animation than anyplace else I went."
Heidi Guedel, another Disney animator that went with Don, stated, "I got involved when I was working on PETE'S DRAGON, at Disney. We'd go over to Don's house on weekends. His garage was full of desks and people. We'd eat lunch around his pool and then get back to work." As for Don, himself, "It was an amazing accomplishment, to get so many people to rally around him."
Dorse Lanpher, an effects animator who would become head of Bluth's effects division came in at the end of production. "I started in November '79, getting in on the end of it. It was a grueling task to get it done by the deadline, but the family atmosphere of the staff helped support everyone. We all worked those extra hours and put in extra effort to get it done and still have the quality."
John and Gary have both discussed a strong attachment to the
Banjo character. Gary considers him a possible character for
eventual revival, while John considers Banjo a trademark of the
studio. Don prefers to let the character and film rest. "I
think BANJO is a turned page in an ongoing assignment. I see it
as a STEAMBOAT WILLIE to us. It represents a moment in time when
we had to flap our wings."
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text and format © John Cawley