Don Bluth on his search for classical excellence

The Secret of BLUTH

Gary Goldman, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy.

Don Bluth talks with Brian Sibley.

DON BLUTH: My personal history of animation goes back a long way. I saw my first animated film when I was four. It created a feeling in me I didn’t understand, I just knew I loved it and I wanted to be part of something like that. I got a pencil and started drawing, trying to duplicate what I had seen. As I grew up I kept drawing and drawing and I went to see all the Disney pictures I could. I was raised on a farm but I didn’t like mowing hay or milking cows. I decided that someday I was going to leave all this and go to work for Walt Disney. I would be part of that romantic world that I keep travelling into, I wanted to help create it, which I eventually did. When I joined the studio Walt was still alive so I finally got a chance to meet him and the experience of working for him was much different to working for a corporation.

BRIAN SIBLEY: In what way?

DB: Every drawing I was making during the day, I was hoping papa Walt would come in, look over my shoulder and say, “Great Don, that’s the very drawing we’ve been waiting for.” He never did.

BS: Is that why you left after eighteen months?

DB: I was 18 and I guess I left because I was young and I needed to experience life. I went to Argentina, lived there three years, travelled to various parts of the world and then finally came back and decided to go to college. I had sort of dropped the dream. I went to college and majored in English, I never touched art, in fact I would never take art classes. I graduated and then asked myself what I could do with an English major? It had never dawned on me to think about it before. I could still draw fairly well so I went to work for the Filmator studio. After I had been there for about three years I took stock of my situation. I could either be the worst for the rest of my life or the best, so I went back to Disney.

BS: That was in 1971 and you came into the company as part of a very important drive to build up the animation there.

DB: They realised that many of the old guard would soon be gone and they had started up a training programme. I trained there for about six weeks and was finally given a position as an animator on Robin Hood. I drew with great excitement, thinking how good it was to work on a Disney feature. When Robin Hood was completed I decided it did not look the greatest of films.

BS: Why, what was wrong with it?

DB: The heart wasn’t in it. It had technique, the characters were well drawn, the Xerox process retained the fine lines so I could see all of the self indulgence of the animators, each one saying, “Look how great I am,” but the story itself had no soul. I felt that very, very strongly, perhaps due to my coming out of an english department, having studied literature and having looked at what makes stories work.

BS: So that convinced you to do it yourself?

DB: No, I went to the corporation. I wasn’t alone, I had talked to my co-workers and a lot of them felt the same way. We went to the corporation and asked them if we could try to get back to some of the old Disney things we all knew, simple things like shadows under the characters feet, sparkles on water, reflections, smoke, transparent light, all kinds of things that make it look so beautiful and real. They said, “Forget about these things, they are too expensive, we are going to go on making films on the cheaper lines.” That was when we started making our film in my garage, thinking, maybe we can figure out how they used to do those effects. It took us seven years to make a half hour film, Banjo, The Woodpile Cat. We spent our free time and vacations on it and the money for materials came out of our own pockets. When it was finished we offered to show it to the studio but they told us they were not interested in looking at it. So we started shopping it around Hollywood and we found a man who said if you can do that I will give you six-and-a-half million dollars to make me a picture. I said, “Here is a book that will make a great feature,” and that was The Secret of NIMH.”

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