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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?

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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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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland

So the Tail goes on

By Stephen Dunne

The Sullivan Bluth Studio came to Ireland initially in 1985 and put the finishing touches to the cel painting of An American Tail. In November 1986 they set up permanently in Dublin, and have since made The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven, both fully produced in Ireland. Don Bluth is responsible for the creative/animation side of the company, together with producers John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman and Dan Kuenster. Morris Sullivan is the Executive Managing Director and is responsible for the business management of the company. The studio, a six-storey, forty-two thousand square foot building, stands on the edge of the river Liffey and adjacent to the scenic Phoenix Park, the largest suburban park in the world. The Studio has twenty-one departments and employs over 350 people in jobs ranging from animation to administration.

The Sullivan Blutb Studios in Dublin.

Don Bluth and Morris Sullivan flank the Irish Prime Minister, Mr Charles J. Haugbey, as he arrives to perform the official dedication.

Whilst visiting the studio I met producer Gary Goldman, who couldn’t have been more informative if I had interrogated him rather than interview him. I asked Gary if he thought Sullivan Bluth Studios has an advantage over the early days of the Walt Disney Studio since there are four people with an artistic directive input into the studio whereas Walt Disney was the main input in his studio. Gary did agree but informed me that Don Bluth is the main artistic input although the burden on Don is lessened since Gary, John Pomeroy and Dan Kuenster give each other ideas and constructive criticism. It is Don who has the creative task of converting the story script into visual form. Page upon page of description and dialogue are illustrated with sketches. This series of sketches, each depicting a scene in the film, is mounted on large boards. Story meetings are held where Don, Gary, John and Dan go through the story-boards. They decide whether scenes will get the required reaction or atmosphere. By the time a scene goes to animation enough people will have looked at it to ensure it has achieved the required effect. This pre-editing is essential, particularly on costly features like All Dogs Go To Heaven, as it would be very wasteful to edit later on.

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman.

Meanwhile, the equally important sound-track is being prepared by the editorial department. Initially they record the voices, temporary sound effects and music. The track is then synchronised with shots of the story sketches to form a story reel which is the most elementary form of the final film. Throughout the entire production the editorial department will be engaged on collecting and assembling the sound and picture reels until they evolve into the finished film.

The sound department boasts the most modem facilities such as Tascam audio equipment capable of recording half-inch eight-track (multi-track) and quarter inch two-track (reproducer/re-recorder). The room is also designed for narration and recording of sound effects. The studio uses Magna-Tech sound transfer equipment, capable of transfering quarter inch, eight track tape cassette and disc. They can make 35mm to 35mm (one-to-one) transfers and duplicates of 35mm three track masters. They can also create original sound effects with the aid of an in-house sound effects library and sound modification equipment.

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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 2

The editorial department itself is equipped with multiple viewing and editorial facilities, including a two-channel Steinbeck, two preview (large screen) Moviolas and standard Moviola equipment. Additional services provided by the editorial department include ‘Close-up reading’ of narration for animation purposes, sound effects and music editing.

The studio projection facilities consist of two air conditioned projection rooms. One with a single 35mm projector with interlocking capabilities, which is fine for viewing daily rushes and a 32 seat screening room with two universal projectors with interlock and automatic changeover for showing feature films uninterrupted.

Don Bluth shows the amount of work that goes into a two minute classically animated sequence (left), compared to a typical television animated sequence of the same duration.

Although the studio has a sound effects library they normally record their final
sound effects especially for the film. Many effects are recorded to the ‘on screen ammation’. This is called the Foley stage. An example of this would be, say, if your character is walking through muddy fields. A performer known as a ‘Foley Walker’ would record the squelching sound as it happens on screen. The animation at this stage would still be in pencil. Usually four or five people would be present at these recordings: two foley walkers, an engineer, a loader and your own editor who checks that everything is being done the way you planned.

Some voices for the feature are recorded at Windmill Studios, Dublin. Demo music might also be recorded here before they get to the final musical score. During the last four months of production the feature is spotted for music. Somewhere between fifty and one hundred musicians are used for the final musical score. This usually takes five days, with two sessions per day, each lasting three hours. The cost is a staggering $10 to $20 thousand per day, depending on the number of musicians you have on stage. The music content must be considered seriously as too much or too little might well make the film sound cheap. The music must also achieve the desired mood for the scene.

Storyboard conference - Don, Gary and John talk through the story.

The development of the characters begins at the story sketch stage. This usually happens at story meetings where the characters’ physical appearance and personality is discussed. The overall development of the characters, both primary and secondary ones, takes up to six months. Amazingly enough the ‘personality’ of the characters is gone into in more detail than will ever be seen on the screen. This development could continue right to the end of the animation stage. The studio tries to give the character some type of quirk, to make him or her more intriguing and to keep the audience interested through the ninety or so minutes of the film.

The development of the physical side of the character is less time consuming and is kept as simple as possible without being insignificant. The overall appearance of the character is achieved with each person involved adding their own touch to the character’s physical appearance until you end up with the finished design. the colouring of the character is also kept as simple as possible, mainly with a maximum of eight to twelve colours, making a possible seventy-two different colours!

A constant check is kept on the work as it evolves slowly in a long chain of production, and passes through all the departments. This is very necessary as even one small mistake can cause multiplied errors as it moves from one department to the next.

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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 3

The Music Room, the organisational centre for the studios.

The job of keeping a look-out for errors goes to the ‘Music Room’. This name stems from the early days of the Walt Disney studio when music was played here, more than likely to soothe the frayed nerves of the people working in this department. Other tasks of the Music Room personnel include supervising all production areas and being up to date on all last minute changes. With the basic structure completed, work can now be allocated.

The next stage in production is the ‘Layout’. The ‘Layout Artist’ has the job of designing the ‘stage’, giving the exact dimensions and perspective for each scene. The drawings also provide guidelines for animation, showing the ‘Animators’ where to position their characters and also to provide the basic design for the ‘Background Department’. They must also check that each scene is historically and structurally correct, for example it would be of no use if the scene was to be set in an old saw mill if the background looked nothing like a saw mill. Therefore, the layout artist might sometimes have to refer to old books for reference when researching a scene.

John Pomeroy animating.

The layout is passed on to the ‘Background Department’ where artists transform the basic design into the elaborate version seen in the film. The background artists seem to use airbrushes a great deal in order to give a soft look to the paintings. They capture the mood of the scene and try to create a believable world in which the story can evolve. The backgrounds also affect the characters because all colour schemes are chosen in close reference to the background colours.

Some scenes go to the scene planning department before they go to animation. The four people employed in this department have the sole function of planning the camera moves which take place throughout the film. The planning department works closely with the directors and animators to ensure that everybody understands the type of camera moves involved in each scene.

Character sheets from Land Before Time.


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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 4

In the animation department the story is divided up scene-by-scene and distributed among the character animators. The animators’ task is to bring movement, personality and life to the character he is drawing. Those of you who are mathematically inclined might like to work out how many drawings there are in the average ninety-minute feature. Whatever figure you come up with add many many more for the ones that were not up to standard. If you include backgrounds, layouts and animation, roughly one-and-a-half-million drawings will be made for a full length feature.

The animator draws the key drawings or extremes of the action in a scene. Then the Breakdown and In-between artists make the drawings of the action between the key drawings so the animation flows smoothly. When the animator is allocated a certain scene he also receives an exposure sheet and a character sheet. The bar sheet contains details of the dialogue and music for the scene which is given frame-by-frame phonetically, which means the words are written as they sound rather than as they are spelt. The character sheet illustrates the design of the characters in the film.

Scenes from An American Tail.

As the animator proceeds with his drawing he fills out the exposure sheet. This contains frame-by-frame instructions, but this time from the animator to the cameraman. The sheet has headings for camera moves, cel levels, dialogue and visual reminders for the animator. Camera moves are situated on the right of the sheet and include pans, truck pans, fade-ins, fade-outs, field sizes etc. Cel levels are noted on the left of the sheet. There are columns for five cel levels and the background. The animator might use the levels for various characters or for breaking down one character. For example if there is a scene where the characters’ body is stationary with only the arms and legs moving then a lot of re-drawing can be eliminated by splitting the character over two or more cel levels. The characters’ body could be put on the lowest level, the arms on level two and the legs on level three. Now the animator only draws the new positions of the arms and legs while the body remains the same. The exposure sheet instructs the cameraman which cels to change and which to leave.

Dialogue is included on the exposure sheet written frame-by-frame phonetically as on the bar sheet. Visual notes are in a flap on the back of the exposure sheet and contain the personal thoughts of the animator on each scene and are solely for the animators’ benefit. Finally, to index each sheet it contains the title of each scene and its number in the sequence. To sum up, the exposure sheet is a comprehensive guide to the contents of a scene.

The paper used in animation is of a light grade, usually 60 grams. It is punched with three registration holes which fit over pegs on the animator’s desk. As the paper is held in a fixed position by the pegs a rotating disc is used to enable the animator to turn the paper through 360 degrees. The disc has a glass window and a light shines from beneath to allow the animator to see through several drawings and check the progress of the movements. This can also be achieved by flicking the drawings backwards and forwards.

Some animators specialise in effects animation. This is the animation of the elements rather than people, ranging from wind or rain to shadows or fires. All these are details which enhance the art of classical animation.

When a scene is completed the animator can check its fluidity by doing a pencil test. This involves photographing each drawing with a special video line tester. It is then played back and if everything runs smoothly it is ready for the next stage. The animation drawings are put into folders which also hold the exposure sheets and so on for a given scene. The names of the people involved in the scene are noted on the outside as this is useful for rectifying any errors discovered later.

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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 5

Colour stylist Susan Vanderhomt in front of a vast colour palette.

The studio trains their own animators and this could take anything from three to five years. Another five years would generally be needed to reach a proficient standard as a directing animator. The first few years would be considered to be an apprentiship. An animator progresses up the ladder from in-between artist to becoming a fully fledged animator on the basis of his aptitude and the amount of footage he can produce. If after a short period he is showing potential he may be asked to serve under a specific animator. He is encouraged throughout his training and is given the full use of studio equipment.

The next step in the animation process is the clean-up department. Here the clean-up artists transform the sketchy line of the ‘ruff’ animation into a single line drawing, making it conform with the director’s original model. This also makes it easier to Xerox. A total of forty-one people work in this department. It requires a steady hand to ensure that the drawings are precise, not a job to be done after a heavy night on the town.

Dan Ankney operates the computer controlled animation camera.

The Xerox photocopier produces a faithful reproduction of the pencil drawing on a sheet of transparent acetate or ‘cel’. Originally one could only photocopy in black but now twenty colours are available. Before the advent of the photocopier vast armies of inkers were used, laboriously tracing each drawing by hand. Inkers are now used only when a drawing is particularly complex or when some very important details need to be emphasized.

Now for the most colourful section of the production, the colour model department. It is here they select the correct colour for each character. The task is difficult since the colours must suit the backgrounds. Sometimes they have to portray the change of tone in a scene such as when night falls or day breaks. The artist has a library of over 1000 different tones to choose from and, if new colours are needed to suit the character or scene the paint lab will mix them.
With such a varied and extensive colour library they must produce their own paint.

Dan Molina, head of editing department.

When the stock of a particular colour runs low it has to be replaced with an exact match, which can be a tedious task. The colour match is achieved by painting a piece of acetate with a strip of the desired colour down the centre, while the possible matches are painted either side until an exact match is achieved.

The animation is now entering one of the most expensive stages: painting. The painting of the cels is very time consuming and involves over fifty people, making it the largest department in the studio. If any errors have not been corrected by this stage it could result in the waste of a lot of time and money.

Each cel painter receives a colour model sheet for each character indicating the exact colours to be used. It gives the colour of anything from the outer garments to the shade inside the ear or mouth of the character. The painting itself has its problems. Firstly the cel painter must paint on the reverse side of the cel so as not to paint over the outline of the character. Also the painter must adhere strictly to the outline, painting either over or inside the outline will show up in a finished product, and is sometimes called ‘popping’ or ‘fluttering’. The name ‘cel painter’ might be slightly misleading, as they do not paint with brush strokes, but rather drop a pool of paint on the cel and push outwards to the line. Using brush strokes would create streaks and would lessen the effect of the finished article.

Character sheet from The Land Before Time.

The last step before filming begins is to check every single cel or piece of artwork which will appear in the finished film. Any inaccuracies, such as the characters’ clothing changing colour, would be detected at this stage and returned to the appropriate people for correction. When everything has been checked and cels cleaned it is time to commit it to film.

The cameraman shoots every scene as instructed. The cels are enclosed in the scene folder along with the original animation, the backgrounds for that particular scene and the exposure sheet.


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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 6

Although each second of film consists of twenty-four frames, in some cases if the action is very fast the animation can be shot on ‘twos’, that is two frames per drawing or eel set-up. Sometimes a drawing might be shot for ten, twenty or more frames to give the effect of a character pausing or stopping.

A scene from All Dogs Go To Heaven.

The camera itself is mounted on a tall stand looking down on a fixed area. However, the camera can zoom in and out of the fixed area and rotate to the four points of the compass. The peg bar mounted on the camera stand can be moved fractionally on each frame to allow the background to pan. A typical use of a panning background is when a character is walking. The cameraman relies on the animator’s exposure sheet to give detailed camera instructions for each scene.

The camera department has two pin-register, single-frame stop-motion animation stands with computer control and multiplane capabilities. They were designed and built in California, U.S.A. They also have a standard Acme animation stand capable of complex moves with twelve and sixteen field formats. A further pin-register camera is used to combine live-action and animation. This is useful for producing commercials and theatrical special effects.

Colour negative film is sent abroad to be processed as there are no local facilities for this highly specialized work. The studio does, however, boast the only full facility black and white film processing lab in Ireland. This offers scratch removal, re-wash, restoration of film including nitrate, soundtrack processing, black and white 35mm reversals, high contrast registration matte printing and ultrasonic film cleaning.

Now the final editing is undertaken. Final versions of the dialogue, sound effects and
music are assembled and any slight changes m timing and other corrections are made to the film. Only when every detail is approved is the actual negative cut to match. Copies are made for the distributor who deals with all the work of releasing the film worldwide. Now the film hits the silver screen and hopefully the big-time.

The Sullivan-Bluth studios have rocketed to the big-time since the release of their first feature film, The Secret of NIMH which received critical acclaim. The studio touched on small screen animation in the form of Arcade Games, having drawn animated sequences for Dragons Lair and Space Ace. They had a huge box office success with An American Tail, the story of mice who leave their home country and travel to America because they believe it is free of cats. This was a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Production as was their next film, The Land Before Time. The story tells the adventures of five baby dinosaurs separated from their different families, the prejudices they must overcome and the monsters they must evade in their quest to rejoin their families.

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The Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland – Page 7

The latest film to be released in the U.S.A., All Dogs go to Heaven, opened in November 1989 and grossed $14.4 million in its first three weeks. It tells the tale of a roguish but lovable dog, his sidekick and a girl who can speak to animals, enough said. The film features the voice of Burt Reynolds, Dom de Luise and Lori Anderson. The voice of Dom de Luise has featured in two other films produced by the studio, he was the voice of Jeromy the Crow in The Secret of NIMH and Tiger the loveable cat in An American Tail. Unlike the studios last two hits Land and Tail, this film was not a collaboration with Spielberg/Lucas, and it was not financed by a major Hollywood Studio.

Scene from The Land Before Time.

All Dogs Go To Heaven is the first of three films to be produced in partnership with Goldcrest, the film subsidiary of the U.K. leisure, property and brewing conglomerate, Brent Walker plc. The second, Rock-a-Doodle is in production, with a third – an ecological tale featuring whales – in the early stages of production.

The MGM/UA distribution deal, is, according to Sullivan Bluth’s Financial Director, Andrew Fitzpatrick, a milestone for the company. Unlike previous deals in which the distributor put up all of the funding and took most of the revenues, in the recent deal, MGM/UA is paid a distribution fee for the use of its facilities.

Scene from The Land Before Time.

Sullivan Bluth regard All Dogs Go To Heaven as its “best film yet” and feel that the studio is now beginning to achieve excellent arrangements for finance, marketing and distribution and is looking forward to receiving substantial profits from these arrangements.

Under a new profit-sharing agreement entered into with staff, employees will share in up to 25% of SB’s profits from each film. This arrangement, unique in the business, derives from Morris Sullivan’s and Don Bluth’s philosophy that each employee is an important member of the Studio team without which the film could not be made.

As well as feature film production, Sullivan Bluth has embarked on the development of television animation production. The studio plans to make a couple of half-hour specials on video which will be screened on TV at a later date, possibly some Oscar Wilde Classics. The studio hopes to venture into the realms of Saturday morning animation or better still, prime time animation with as much quality as is financially possible. They also have a TV commercial division where they put their creative talents to work in the field of advertising.

I would like to thank producer Gary Goldman, Veronica Carroll of Public Relations and all the staff of Sulivan Bluth who put up with me during my visit. Also Danny Smith who helped with the finishing stages of this article.

Irish Animation School launched

Sullivan Bluth Studios Ireland Ltd. together with Ballyfermot Senior College have announced the establishment of The Irish School of Classical Animation, officially launched by The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Brian Lenihan.

Don Bluth (middle) is given a helping hand by Ballyfermot Senior College Principal, Jerome Morrissey to present Brian Lenihan with an original cel from All Dogs Go To Heaven.

Artistic chief, Don Bluth was full of praise for his Irish animators:

“Sullivan Bluth is working towards an all Irish crew. At the moment 75% of our 350 staff 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.”

All Dogs go to Heaven

The largest animation studio in Europe, Sullivan Bluth’s recent smash hit, The Land Before Time is topping records set by their first success, An American Tail. A third feature, All Dogs Go To Heaven reported to be ‘the best yet’ is set for US release in November.
The school forms part of Ballyfermot Senior College. 75 students will be accepted for the first year of the course which concentrates on basic drawing skills and an introduction to the classical animation process. Students will be awarded an internationally recognised Certificate in Animation Studies on completion of the course.

Sullivan Bluth Studios is taking an active part in the course. Top artists from the studio will give master classes at the school, and also assist in reviewing portfolios and developing the course syllabus.

Senior College Ballyfermot, since its establishment in 1981, has expanded the sphere of third level education with the development of courses in such varied fields as Art and Design, Business and Computing, Media and Broadcasting, Engineering, and Catering and Nursing.
College Principal, Jerome Morrissey, spoke enthusiastically about the course: “The launch of The Irish School of Animation which is being funded through the Department of Education by the European Social Fund, is our most ambitious project. Sullivan Bluth Studios have tripled in size since their establishment in 1987. The studios’ continued growth offers tremendous job prospects but the necessary link between education and industry has not existed until now. Irish talent had not the proper training to fully exploit that opportunity.”
The Irish School of Classical Animation plans to rectify that situation and looks forward to fortifying Ireland’s position as one of the world leaders in classical animation.

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Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)