The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
Don Bluth loves animation. Unlike the early animators who were largely artists who went into animation because it was steady work, and many of the artists today who are fans and have a "gosh wow" approach to the craft, Don has a deep serious love for the art form. This comes across when he talks. His quiet and somewhat humble mannerisms often hide a fierce spirit and drive not found in many.
Born on September 13, 1937, the second oldest of seven children, Don Bluth spent his earliest years in El Paso Texas. His parents were Emalinee Pratt and Virgil Bluth, then a policeman and later a private investigator. Don is a direct descendant of Pocahontas, the Indian princess who saved Pilgrim John Smith.
When he was six, the family moved to Payson, Utah where he lived on the family farm. Bluth remembered that time as, "milking 24 cows morning and night and singing Disney songs." Even then he was "honestly dreaming of working" at the Disney studio.
Bluth's initial experience with Disney was as a member of the audience at age seven. Don remembered the effect it had on him. "The first one was SNOW WHITE. I was extremely impressed with it and when I got home I tried to draw Snow White, the dwarfs, all of them."
"I'd ride my horse to the movie house in town and tie him to a tree while I went in and watched the latest Disney film. Then I'd go home and copy every Disney comic book I could find."
In 1954, the family moved to Santa Monica California. He was a senior at high school. After a year at Brigham Young University, in Utah, he brought a portfolio to the Disney studio in Burbank. He was immediately hired in 1955 as an assistant animator and put to work on SLEEPING BEAUTY. He worked as an assistant to John Lounsberry. Oddly after finally realizing his dream he left in 1957, after only two years.
"I left, I think, because I found it kind of boring. I didn't want to do it," recalled Don.
Don then embarked on a mission for the Mormon Church to Argentina. After two-and-a-half years, he returned to Los Angeles, but not to a career in animation. Though he worked at Disney as an assistant on THE SWORD IN THE STONE for around a year, his main efforts were in live theater.
He opened the Bluth Brothers Theater with his younger brother Fred in an old supermarket in Culver City. They produced musical plays with local talent for two to three years. The shows included such traditional favorites as THE MUSIC MAN and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Often Don was the musician, playing the piano. One attendee stated it was like an old movie musical where kids decide to put a show on in a barn.
Still not finding what he was looking for, he returned to college and finally graduated with a degree in English Literature. Afterwards Don decided to try again at animation.
In 1967 he began working at Filmation where he worked in layout. In his spare time, Don organized a group of young singers and called them "The New Generation." Numbering sixty at one time, the group toured around the states and even Mexico. Though he was making a good wage at Filmation, working on such series as THE ARCHIES and SABRINA, he wasn't satisfied.
"I realized that all of that industry out there was really making trashy art that wasn't good for kids to look at and eventually ended up in the trash can anyway. Everything was for money; nothing was for art," recalled Don in 1976.
"I grew tired of that and said, 'Well, if I'm going to do this for a living, why don't I go back to Disney because they do it right."
April, 1971 found him once again at the Disney studio in the new training program. He was the first of this new group to reach the rank of animator after only two months. His first project as animator was ROBIN HOOD (1973), followed by work on WINNIE THE POOH AND TIGGER TOO (1974). He moved up to directing animator on THE RESCUERS (1977) then to animation director on PETE'S DRAGON (1977). Next came the title of producer-director on THE SMALL ONE (1978).
"It was all much different because Walt was gone," Don said in 1990. "It was a committee running the place. The pictures did not look very good. I was no longer encumbered with the romantic film over my eyes. I could see a little bit more clearly."
During this period at Disney, Don met Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. The three found they had similar thoughts on animation and became a true team. Any recounting of Don's career after meeting these two is incomplete without them. In some ways, they became the Three Musketeers of animation. When they began thinking of starting their own studio, rather than come up with some form of grouping of names, initials or a catch phrase all three immediately thought of calling it Don Bluth Productions. "Without a name," recalled Don, "we would just be Acme Animation and we wouldn't have had a chance. When you create a heroic figure, that's what you're marketing, not just a production. We just decided to call it Don Bluth."
Starting as far back as 1973, Don, along with Gary and John, began purchasing and collecting the tools and equipment of their trade and undertook the enormous task of writing, directing and producing their own animated film. The crew worked with a number of other artists in Don's garage.
"People thought we used the garage on purpose - because Walt Disney started in a garage. But we weren't that shrewd. We simply couldn't afford anyplace else. My living room had blackout curtains up and was the projection room. My family room was the camera room. My bedroom had editing equipment in it for years, and the kitchen and patio were the commissary. Any money we had, we put into film making equipment and things that show on the screen."
After one or two false starts, they decided on the featurette, BANJO THE WOODPILE CAT. It was their desire to revive the classical animation style of the early Disney classics. Their attempts to work within the Disney studio system failed.
"I finally came to the conclusion that it was too late to effect a change. The administration didn't want to hear anything."
After five years of laboring nights and weekends, the picture was completed in 1979. Near the end of the featurette, Don and fellow directing animators John and Gary resigned from the Disney studio to begin an animated feature, THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982). They also created the short animated fantasy sequence in XANADU (1982). Don Bluth Productions hoped to fully compete with Disney with a slate of animated features.
"The thought occurred to us that maybe, if we went and did this, that the Disney studio would become a competitor. Competition is usually what makes someone try harder. We needed Disney to try harder just to have competition. That was a very pompous attitude on our part, but it was in our mind that competition might wake the sleeping giant," stated Don.
Unfortunately, NIMH failed to do as well as hoped. Between that and an industry wide animation strike, Don found himself without a project and possibly without a future. Don Bluth Productions filed for bankruptcy.
In 1983, Don, John and Gary formed Bluth Group to work on the historic DRAGON'S LAIR video game. This enormously popular game was followed by another video game entitled SPACE ACE. Work on a LAIR sequel was underway when the video arcade business crashed. Once again, Bluth's studio was left without a source of income and the Bluth Group also filed for bankruptcy.
However, during this gray period, Don met Morris Sullivan, a businessman who believed in the classical animation style. Together they formed Sullivan Bluth Studios and were able to negotiate a film deal with Steven Spielberg to do AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986), and initiate talks with the Irish government about opening a studio in Ireland.
AN AMERICAN TAIL debuted and became the highest grossing animated feature in history on first release. Spielberg and Bluth followed this up with THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1987) which did equally well at the box office. Between the two pictures, Don and his studio moved to Ireland to take residence in one of the world's most modern animation facilities.
After LAND, Bluth and his studio signed an agreement with the European-based Goldcrest company for more animated features. The first of these, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN debuted the Fall of 1989. The next will be out in the spring of 1991.
While in Ireland, Don became involved with the Mormon Church there. However, Don still prefers to keep his religous convictions to himself, lest others search for some "hidden agenda" in his films. "I'm not preachy," stated Don in a recent interview. "I'm not didactic and I don't think movies should do that. But I like movies that fill you with hope. I like things that free you from your ills, your prejudices, and all the other things that hold us in spiritual darkness. If you can make people believe that they have the power to help themselves and help the world, then I think you've done a great deal of good. Movies have the power to do that."
Don continues to oversee his studio's feature projects from beginning to end, as well as do a share of the drawing. In 1990, Don stated "I still draw about six to seven hours a day. I think the day that I stop doing that, I won't be as good a director."
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text and format © John Cawley