BS: So that is why on the 13th September 1979 you, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy left the Disney studio and the following day were joined by eleven more animators. The mood at Disney must have been catastrophic.
DB: The day the three of us left, which incidentally was my birthday, they called us in and said, “When you want to come back just let us know, no hard feelings.” The next day eleven others walked in and said they were leaving. Right after that they told us “You are never coming back.”
BS: During those years you were making Banjo you were still making Disney films like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. You were director of animation on Petes’ Dragon, a combination of animation and live action. There must have been quite a conflict in your creative life, that you were doing something that you wanted to achieve and at the same time doing something that you really believed was lack-lustred.
DB: One of the things all filmmakers know is that until you get control of all of the elements you can’t really make a film, and if you are animator and you have a director who only has so much vision then you can’t go above that. I worked my way up to visual director, but it wasn’t enough because there was always a ceiling on costs so it became very difficult to put in all those things we wanted to include. When we made a little picture called The Small One we had many young animators who were just out of a school called the California Institute of the Arts. They all wanted to be directors, not animators. They were all in their early twenties so they could not go through their apprenticeship period and it was very difficult. Woolie Reitherman was just stepping down from leadership and the studio was like a wolf pack. It was a time of confusion and so to even talk about whether the art of animation was correct, whether it was as beautiful as it used to be, seemed to be irrelevant. So when this gentleman appeared and asked if we could make his feature it was like Moses saying, “Come children, I will get you out of here.” So we left Egypt.
BS: So you made The Secret of NIMH, it was critically well received but was a limited success at the box office. How difficult was it to persuade Amblin to give you nine million dollars to make An American Tail?
DB: It is very hard to get hold of nine million dollars. Mainly because anyone who has nine million dollars wants to hold all the cards and not only wants the nine million back but they also want your soul. You have to get out of there unscathed. Every film I have made so far is owned by somebody else. I haven’t earned any money from the success of the films. Contrary to what everybody believes I am not a millionaire.
BS: Why did you move to Ireland?
DB: We knew we needed to move out of Hollywood because it is dedicated to Saturday morning animation and most of the workers are trained for that. If you want classical animation it is difficult to find enough people who can do it well and they require enormous amounts of money. If I can draw an example with dance, I refer to classical animation as ballet and Saturday morning animation as tap. When you watch ballet you do not see tap dancers because they don’t work together. We decided we needed a country where we could turn the clock back, where we could go to art schools and find people who have not yet polluted their thinking in animation so we can start new and fresh. We also wanted a country that speaks English. England had already been taken, Canada had already been taken, Australia had already been taken, and there sat Ireland, isolated in the middle of the water and no one had Ireland. We went to Ireland, talked to the government and asked if they would help us out financially. Their grants were very substantial so we said Ireland is it. We dipped our little toe into Ireland with An American Tail, a third of it was inked and painted there. We needed to know what the Irish people were like, were they good workers, will they come to work on time, does the bus system work, do they behave? As we got into An American Tail we said “O.K. these people are great, let’s take a whole picture into Ireland. The Land Before Time is all Irish.
This article is an extract from a Guardian Lecture at the NFT, London and is printed with permission of Don Bluth and Brian Sibley.
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Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)