How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 27, 1990

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Don Bluth has been one of the most visible animation professionals in decades. While working at Disney in the early Seventies he was frequently singled out as one of the new animation directors likely to lead the studio when the "nine old men" finally retired. Instead he, and a group of followers, left the studio in the late Seventies in a much publicized exodus. His work on the ground breaking DRAGON'S LAIR videogame, a team up with Steven Spielberg in the Eighties, the release of the highly successful AN AMERICAN TAIL and his move to Ireland all made headlines. Today Bluth watches over a gigantic studio in Ireland and a growing annex in Southern California. Still frequently in the spotlight, Bluth's quiet-spoken, eloquent delivery and strong opinions make him a key spokesman for the art of animation. This interview was done over the phone due to Don's heavy involvement in the final stages of the upcoming post production of ROCK-A-DOODLE planned for an early 1991 release.

Q: Could you please give a brief description, in your own words, of your career in animation?
DB: That's pretty easy. Let's say that my interest in animation goes back as early as when I was four years old. I was very interested in animation, probably because I had seen a Disney picture. The first one I ever saw was SNOW WHITE, and I was very impressed by it. I tried to imitate it way back then by making drawings myself. When I went home I tried to draw the Disney characters and everything else. I went back again and again to see the Disney pictures because I was so attracted to them. And that was, I think, the propellant that pushed me forward into the business.
I did a lot of drawing on my own. I really never had any formal art training. I didn't like the kind of artwork most of the art teachers I would talk to, or briefly take classes from, taught. It was realistic or it was still life or it was life drawing. I wasn't particularly interested in those things. I was interested in movement and color and entertainment. So, I had no formal artistic training. I just practiced and taught myself how to draw.
I do have a college education, though. I majored in English. I did that because I loved to read and I've always been interested in other people and other countries and other languages. I was a history major, a psych major and a humanities major all rolled into one. I have since found out that it's served me very well in working with scripts and with storyboards.
I worked for about a year at the Disney studio right out of high school. That was when Walt was at the studio. We worked on SLEEPING BEAUTY. Then I left. Mainly, I think, because I found it kind of boring. I didn't want to do it. I was quite disillusioned. Then I went away and did many other things. I had a legitimate theatre with my brother, and we did musical comedies in an old Safeway store. After that, I went back to college and later traveled around the world. I finally came back and finished college.
I graduated with an English degree and went back to California. I got a job at Filmation doing layouts. It was a good way to pay the rent. I got fairly good at it and was earning excellent money in those days, about 1967. But I wasn't that interested and quickly grew tired. After about three years there I 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."
So I went back in 1971. It was all very different because Walt was gone. He died in the Sixties. A committee was running the place. The pictures didn't look very good to me. I was now not as encumbered by a romantic film over my eyes. I could see a bit more clearly.
We (my contemporaries and I) tried very hard. We made lots of noise, and worked hard to see if we couldn't make the pictures better, or at least have them measure up to what we had seen in the past when we were children. But, it didn't seem to work. We produced THE RESCUERS and ROBIN HOOD. Some think they're great pictures but they pale, I think, next to SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, BAMBI and the earlier pictures.
I finally came to the conclusion that it was too late to effect a change at Disney. Their administration didn't want to hear anything. So, on September 13, 1979 (my birthday), John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman and myself and eleven others left the studio, to make our own pictures. We thought that at least we wouldn't be encumbered by a corporate philosophy which was quite so hard and brittle. It also occurred to us that maybe, if we went and did this, that Disney would become a competitor and competition is usually what jars people to reality and makes them try harder. So, we needed Disney to try harder just to have that competition.
It was very pompous of us, but we thought that competition would probably wake the sleeping giant. So, we made THE SECRET OF NIMH and indeed, it did cause a few furrowed brows and some other folks said, "Hmmm..." However, THE SECRET OF NIMH was not properly promoted. MGM did not put up any money for prints and ads. We had to raise the money ourselves. It wasn't properly marketed and failed.
We thought we were out of business, but along came another opportunity; the arcade games. We went into that business and pioneered the first animation arcade games, DRAGON'S LAIR and SPACE ACE. They were enormously successful. Then the arcade market collapsed and we thought again we'd be out of business. When lo and behold, along came Steven Spielberg, who had seen SECRET OF NIMH, and he said, "Maybe you'd like to do a picture with me? I had thought that golden age of animation was over, but SECRET OF NIMH looks like it was made way back when."
We said, "O.K., we'd like to do a picture with you, too." So we began to search for a picture which turned out to be AN AMERICAN TAIL. I think AMERICAN TAIL came along at a very critical time in animation history, because animation was not doing well. I think if Steven had not stepped in and said, "I believe in animation" we'd all probably not be doing too well today.
Disney's last two pictures, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE and THE BLACK CAULDRON had not made money on their first release. Most of the business community said, "Animation has a curse on it. Don't go near it." So there wasn't any money that was readily available for people to make animated films. But he [Steven] convinced Universal to put up nine million dollars to make the movie, AMERICAN TAIL. We made it and everyone said, "Can it make money?"
When AMERICAN TAIL did come out it went out into the marketplace and made fifty million domestic, which was a phenomenal return. Steven thought it might make thirty. Then in Europe it made another twenty-five. Then it went to cassettes world-wide and made another, I think, seventy-five million. So we have a take of one hundred and fifty million.
It was promoted beautifully, which also had something to do with the success of the picture. Because that happened, Universal said, "Let's do more." Disney got very excited. The giant was definitely waking up. They did ROGER RABBIT about that time and Steven got involved. ROGER RABBIT was a success. That's two animation pictures in a row that were successful. I think that was the impetus that pushed them in the right direction.
The third picture that came out was THE LAND BEFORE TIME which was extremely successful; more so than AMERICAN TAIL. Disney came out with OLIVER AND COMPANY, and that, too, was successful. That was four pictures in a row that started to work. And about that time everyone in Hollywood said, "Animation works again. Go for it." So companies began to spring up everywhere.
What then happened was that there wasn't enough talent to satisfy the demand. So we began the age of pilfering and bartering and trying to get animators. It was an animators' market. They could name their price, if they were any good. That's still going on today. Of course, the fact remains, if the productions which are created during this great gold rush are good productions, I think our business will continue to be healthy. If not? It will take a dive. Most professionals who are in the business know this could happen. We may have seen the beginning of it when we see a picture like THE JETSONS which came out and didn't done as well as was hoped. It did not get very good reviews. So, we'll see what happens.
During the making of LAND BEFORE TIME we couldn't see our way clear to again produce a picture like AMERICAN TAIL for the same price. To do AMERICAN TAIL for nine million dollars we had to freeze everyone's salaries for a year and a half. All of our employees agreed to do it. We could not be members of the [animation] union because the union required the price to be too high and the picture would never have been made.
We froze everyone's salary, and we said, "Let's try this one last time to see if we can get it to work." Well, when it did work, of course, we said, "We can't do this to people anymore, we have to pay them what they deserve to be paid." We told Steven we would not freeze salaries again. So the only thing we could do was to say, "Let's go to a country where we can get cheaper labor and we can pay professional people what they deserve." So we moved our entire studio to Ireland. The people here began to train the Irish people to do what they knew how to do. Also the Irish government gave us tremendous incentives to come here. We got a ten percent tax on our corporation instead of the U.S. fifty percent tax. That allowed the company to make a profit and to grow.
That was the reason we moved to Ireland. The Irish people are very talented and very good workers. It became a haven for us, a good place whose government put its arms around us and began to protect us. Up to that point we had met too much opposition from Disney, from the unions, from whatever was in the marketplace. It was a welcome relief to have somebody actually helping the artists grow. That was good.
That brings us up to date.

Q: What does a director of animation or animators do?
DB: A director of animation is very similar to a director of live-action. Your job is to see to it that the images and the story that goes onto the screen are produced and executed in such a way that the audience will go through a range of emotions, at the end of which they will be gratified, uplifted, made to feel happy and hopeful about their own lives and to see the world a little differently.
That job is not easily accomplished because the direction of a picture can turn into myriads of tiny little chores and tasks that can eclipse your original purpose. You talk to people daily about drawings. You talk about how to draw a hand, how to draw a foot, how to draw a head. You talk about camera angles. You talk about color. You talk about music. You talk about design ad infinitum. All of these things are pieces of the whole. The director must keep these pieces in his head, or at least in a piece of his head, and remember that the objective is to make a composite of all these pieces that spells an emotional experience--and a story. So, a director gets involved in everyone's lives in the studio, their working lives, and helps them to do good jobs so that at the end of it, their picture looks really, really good.

Q: How much supervision do you feel is necessary, for a director?
DB: Well, you either have to have competent people to whom you delegate work, whom you know will come back with the right thing, or you have to go around and supervise everyone at the studio. The writing of the scripts, of course, is most important because without a good script you have nothing. Storyboarding is also important because that is the cameraman, that is the cinematographer, that is the choreographer and that is the director and that is everything all rolled into one. The storyboarder gives vision to the script. How the drawings are done and what they are saying becomes much more important than whether you can do a good drawing or not.
So, it's very much live-action director thinking. You become very involved with the actor-animators. Those people, actor- animators, are the people who let you know what a character is feeling or thinking or gets you to feel the story itself. You must watch each scene all the way or they may draw hundreds of drawings and at the end of the day you may say, "That doesn't work at all." If you have to throw them all out you throw away a lot of money.
I keep tight control on the color because I think the color is that part of the emotions that you see and feel. So I watch color very carefully and I watch the color models carefully and the painting of the backgrounds. But, when it comes time for many of the service areas, which are getting the picture mechanically true, getting the color tone itself, doing the coloring, marking up the drawing, shooting it, etc. all of that, that doesn't need quite as much supervision. I just leave them alone.

Q: When does a director of animation usually get involved with a project?
DB: Usually they get involved with a project from its concept. With AMERICAN TAIL it was from the very beginning. We talked about what the story would be and what we wanted the story to do for the audience. We talked about what the mouse was like, what his feelings were like, how old he was, what he felt about his brother, his sisters, what he felt about Mom and Dad, what he felt about coming to America; all of his feelings. Everything was discussed long before we ever made the drawing of the mouse. We tend to consider all of these characters as people, or friends. Then, really all that the mouse is, or the pigeon, or the cats, or whatever, are little masks we put on people. Because animation is a series of masks that are symbols that really stand for us as people.

Q: What would say is your strongest area in directing animation?
DB: Probably my greatest strength lies in storyboards. I'm still very heavily involved in that. I still draw about six to seven hours a day storyboarding. And, I think the day that I stop doing that I won't be as good a director.

Q: How much freedom are you usually given on a production as a director?
DB: Complete freedom. I insist on that. If someone else has their hands on mine, I really cannot do the job. It's too hard to explain everything I do to someone who doesn't understand the business. So, I just simply say, "If you want to come in as the Executive Producer and you want to put up the money, then you ought to have confidence that I'll do a good job for you. Don't bother me."

Q: Now for some personal comments. What film project have you been involved with that gave you probably the most professional enjoyment or satisfaction and why?
DB: That's a very hard question to answer. I can't really pick one of the children that I like more than the others. I can only say that I've enjoyed every one of them. They've each had a special part of my life and they've each taught me something. It's always very difficult to say goodbye to all the characters when you're not required to draw them anymore.
There's another strange thing I've noticed. I don't understand it. I never go back and look at any of the pictures I've done. I usually see them after the dub and maybe see it during the promotional time. After I've seen the picture with an audience a couple of times I never go back and look at it.
I'm not interested in seeing a picture that's completed. It's kind of painful for me because I've outgrown it. I can see what needs to be fixed. So, I don't go back and look. The challenge for me is the next one we're working on. "How can I make it better?"

Q: And my last question is: If you were to give someone advice for getting into the business today, how would you say they'd have to prepare themselves?
DB: A good education is really important. Particularly something that has to do with literature, reading, your ability to see through and analyze a good plot, or story; to recognize the poetic expressions; to recognize character relationships since they seem to be the most entertaining.
I would have to say also that the focus of any good director should be to entertain his audience. People must sit in the dark for an hour and a half, two hours, and see something of value that will entertain them but at the same time, perhaps, enlighten them. It may give them a feeling that they are important, that the world is an important place and that it's a great place to live in and a great time to live. Now a director, to do that, has to actually feel that. You have to get that from somewhere in yourself. So I would say education, which is the key to all enlightenment. Read, go to college, get a good degree, probably in literature, which means the humanities. Then the next thing to do is: Learn to draw.
I don't think you can be a good animation director unless you have first been an animator. So I would definitely say, "Learn to draw." Your drawings should be as natural to you as thinking. It should not be a conscious effort. You should draw until ten thousand or a hundred thousand bad drawings are out of your system and you can do it as easily as you breathe. Then you can concentrate on what you are saying and not how you're saying it.
Then we're into animating. Once you learn to animate, you basically have an understanding of the medium. You know how to draw, you know how to animate, then you concentrate on what you're trying to say. If you can master those few things, I would say that qualifies you to become a director. And, hopefully, you have something to say.

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