The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
At Home In Ireland
During LAND BEFORE TIME, Don Bluth had to settle into a whole new social and physical structure. Sullivan Bluth had been given the "green" carpet by the government there and soon had an enormous facility for producing animation. The six story, 42,000 square foot building contained two animation cameras, two theaters and black and white film lab. This was in addition to the hundreds of employees and regular animation services such as sound, Xerography, computer graphics and ink and paint.
Don now found himself working with a truly international crew as artists from Europe flocked to his studio to learn from him and work on his projects. The adjustment was not always an easy one.
"It was awful," recalled Gary Goldman about the moving process and the initial winter weather. "It was like moving an entire army and plunking them down in a strange place in the middle of winter. But no one could complain. We were all in the same boat."
While TAIL was still breaking box-office records, the trades talked of the new studio in Ireland. In an article dated January 27, 1987, Sullivan discussed the future plans for the studio, which included a tentative schedule to release one animated feature each year. There was also talk of a Saturday morning division, utilizing the same quality as seen in the features.
The original studio was fairly small, only around 85 employees, mostly trainees learning ink and paint. Sullivan then increased the amount to 100. At that time, the Irish government stepped in and proposed a major expansion that would eventually top 300 employees (of which around 100 would be U.S. employees of Sullivan Bluth who would come over at the end of TAIL).
The current facility near Phoenix Park was constructed through a combination of grants, loans and Sullivan's own capitalization. Sullivan supplied over $5 million worth of necessary equipment to run the studio. The Irish government reportedly gave the studio the largest grant in the country's history to get the operation off the ground. This gave the government 5% ownership in the studio.
Upon leaving the country, Sullivan opened an executive office in Burbank that would be utilized to find material in the U.S. Along with the TV and film plans, the articles discussed Sullivan's hope to get into the home video market and industrial films.
In the Fall of 1987, Sullivan Bluth announced the opening of a commercial TV division. The work was to be done by more than 360 employees in Ireland, while the business affairs would be handled in Burbank. At the same time, the studio spent another $4.5 million for equipment and improvements.
The Sullivan Bluth studio was often called "the most sophisticated classical animation studio in the world." Its super modern equipment certainly made it seem so. Not only did the building house the artists, the camera and the Xerography, it even had a lab for developing black and white footage. There was also a pair of theaters and complete audio and film editing facilities. A full color brochure showcased the impressive operation.
Also in late 1987, Sullivan Bluth announced they would move into the world of live action production. The first film was to go into production in the summer of 1988. Plans also called for the studio to get into distribution. Sullivan stated, "We are in the process of buying a film distribution company, which we will use not just for our productions, but will also make available to other Irish film producers."
However, all the studio really had to work on was LAND BEFORE TIME. Sullivan stated, "It is our plan that we will finance our third animated film from our own resources and through the Irish investment community, rather than respond to some of the offers made to us by other major Hollywood studios."
Rather than go into live action or purchase a distribution company, Sullivan was able to make a link with one of Europe's major distribution firms, Goldcrest Film and TV. The pair announced an agreement in February of 1988 to produce three animated features in a deal that would be worth $70 million.
The agreement called for Goldcrest to put up $40 million, with the remaining money to come from merchandising handled by Sullivan Bluth. Goldcrest would receive distribution rights around the world, with Sullivan Bluth splitting the net income 50-50. Sullivan Bluth would handle all merchandising and split evenly with Goldcrest.
The new pictures would be budgeted at around $13-14 million each. One feature had already been in development since November and would be ready for Summer of 1989. Sullivan stated "We are starting story concepts on the other two projects and expect - as is typical in the production of animated features - to overlap schedules."
In the Summer of 1988, the studio was once again announcing it would soon enter into the field of live action, and possible go into distribution. The studio was also boasting that it now had several full fledged Irish animators on staff, having risen up from trainees.
The Fall of 1988 saw Goldcrest announce it would go into live action production "in addition to its ongoing association with animation specialist Don Bluth." Around the same time, in November, Sullivan Bluth stated it was starting a TV division to produce shows for the television market. The studio stated it would pitch shows for Saturday morning budgeted around $350,000, "in the same bracket with Disney product."
April 1989, only five months after its start, Sullivan Bluth decided to "rethink" the TV division and basically halted it. The studio stated it had to do with the market and discussions with several individuals who were hoped to run the division.
However, the Irish TV commercial division really grew in 1989. They did a series of three commercials for Hacks Lozenges. Even more importantly, they were the first films done on the studio's computer animation system. Work for the year brought in over a quarter million pounds (about half a million U.S. dollars) from jobs for both the U.S. and European market.
By the end of 1989, Sullivan Bluth announced an alliance with Ballyfermont Senior College to create The Irish School of Classical Animation. "Sullivan Bluth is working toward an all Irish crew," stated Don. "At the moment, 75% of our staff of 350 are Irish and our team has never been better. The employee profit share plan we have developed should encourage the young Irish to make the animation industry their own."
Though the number of employees had remained somewhat steady, the rise in the number of Irish was balanced by the number of U.S. employees who opted to return to the United States. Such long time Bluth followers as Linda Miller, Lorna Pomeroy-Cook, Dan Kuenster, Larry Leker, Dorse and Vera Lanpher returned to the U.S. in a subtle change of direction.
In fact, by the end of 1990, almost all of Don's original crew of those who followed him when he left Disney had now left Sullivan Bluth. One of those who left stated that the reason the former Bluth followers had left was because they "had finally grown up." These original pioneers had matured during their years of working with Don. Just as Don had to leave Disney to continue his rise in the animation industry, so did those who had previously only followed. At Sullivan Bluth, Don, John, Gary and Morris had become the establishment. This foursome controlled all aspects of production just as Ron Miller and the Nine Old Men had at Disney in the Seventies. Don's followers had to leave Sullivan Bluth for the same reasons that Don had left Disney over a decade earlier. They now needed the freedom and room to grow that Don had once desired.
However, for Don, most of this administrative maneuvering was of no real consequence. Fully settled in Ireland, Don was making pictures the way he wanted to. Sullivan Bluth was a respected studio in Ireland, a "big fish." In December of 1990 there was even an announcement that the Irish government and Sullivan Bluth were investigating the creation of a Disneyland- like theme park to be built in Ireland. The proposed Dublin- based park would feature characters from Sullivan Bluth films.
Like the early days of BANJO and NIMH, there was no one looking over his shoulder. His first production under the new Goldcrest agreement would be ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. It would be, in some ways, the epitome of Don Bluth's film making style, encompassing everything he had learned over his years in the industry.
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text and format © John Cawley