The Animated Adventures of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman
The men behind 'The Secret of NIMH' visit Austin this weekend
By Richard Whittaker, 8:00AM, Fri. Aug. 9, 2013
From The Land Before Time to An American Tail, from Dragon's Lair to Anastasia, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have left their distinctive brush strokes on the world of animation.
First as animators with Disney, then as directors and producers at the Bluth Group and Fox Animation, over 41 years and a series of animated features that warmed the hearts and thrilled the minds of generations of movie goers, Bluth and Goldman had one goal: To keep the golden age of animation alive. They will be in Austin this weekend for special screenings of three of their most famous and beloved works: The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs go to Heaven, and, of course, An American Tail (complete with pre-show sing-a-long to 'Somewhere out There'.)
The duo were kind enough to answer at length questions about their career together, from studying at Disney under the famous 'Nine Old Men' to setting up their studio, and how they created that recognizable Bluth and Goldman style.
Austin Chronicle: It's rare for anyone in the creative industry to create a working partnership where it's hard to think of one without the other, such as Bluth and Goldman: How did you first meet, and how did you working relationship develop? Was there a single clarifying moment when you thought, OK, this is going to be a long-term thing?
Gary Goldman: So glad you asked the question by email. I’d hate to answer this question live. I have to really think about this. It’s been 41 years since meeting Don at Walt Disney Productions in February of 1972. Though, I’m not sure I can define a "clarifying moment" in what would become a long-term thing.
Don and I met in 1D-Wing of the animation building, during my first week at Walt Disney Productions. 1D-Wing is on the first floor of the original animation building at Disney. This wing of offices was renown for its occupants, housing many of the infamous "Nine Old Men" as Walt referred to them, including Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Marc Davis and Eric Larson.
I was a recent art school graduate, and had been accepted into their animation-training program. The office I was assigned to was near the entry to the wing and I sat closest to the door. Don stopped at the open door one day during that first week and introduced himself. He was very nice and asked me about my background and wished me luck in the program; his office was just down the hall from me. Don was 34. He had only been at Disney since April of 1971. However, he had a history with Disney, having worked there right out of high school, in the summer of 1955 – as an inbetweener to John Lounsbery on the film, Sleeping Beauty. He left after about a year. He is Mormon. He spent the next 30 months on his mission assignment in Argentina, then attended BYU, coming back to work summers at Disney, through 1962. Then, after completing a degree in English Literature, three years of producing independent classic musicals with his brother, and three-years as a layout artist in television animation, he returned, full time, in April of 1971 as an animator. He was definitely prepared for the future.
I, on the other hand, hadn’t even seen an animated movie since I was eleven years old. I was then 27, married with a two and a half year old son. Don and I became friends. I would spend my breaks in his office with other trainees, or taking walks around the Disney back lot with him, sneaking into the sound stages to watch the filming of new live-action movies in production, talking about all things, but mostly about Walt Disney, Walt’s movies, the fantastic artists who had worked there, and the then-current condition of Disney animation. Which, we felt, did not even compare to Walt’s first five films produced more than 30 years earlier. I had been assigned to Frank Thomas as his “inbetweener”, doing the drawings in between his key poses (drawings). Frank was a great directing animator. He had worked on most of Disney’s feature animated films, starting with Snow White. He was very encouraging, and tolerant of my lack of experience. However, it was Don, who became my mentor. Don was very generous with his animation knowledge. He helped me tremendously, especially with my screen tests, which I would submit to the review board monthly. By the end of that first summer, after all the talk about animation and our training, we felt that we would never be ready to take over for the veteran animators in just six years, there was so much more to learn.
In order to speed up our training, Don suggested that we try to make a short film in his garage. He already had a Disney animation desk at home for practice, and a 16mm Movieola – a film machine for watching films. He had several old 16mm Warner Bros animation reels he had purchased to study animation. He was definitely preparing to be a great animator. By November of that same year, there were five of us going to the garage after work. And, Don had purchased a rostrum camera stand, a 50 year-old 35 mm motion picture camera with special I-Pin registration (perfect for stop motion and cel animation), another editing bench. And, I had bought a Movieola of my own, and a Disney Layout desk. It started to become an obsession.
I would go to work at Disney at 6am, work on my screen tests until 8am, then work on Frank’s scenes until 5PM, then back to my screen tests until 6pm then, drive down to Don’s house in Culver City to work on our short film well into the night, many times seven days a week. This would go on for the next seven years.
In February of 1973, another trainee arrived at Disney. It was John Pomeroy. I introduced myself to him on his first day. And, after his third month screen test and approval, I introduced him to Don and we invited him down to Don’s garage. John was impressed with the idea of double-duty to learn the art of animation faster.
The experience in Don’s garage accelerated our growth, knowledge, and even promotions at Disney. We spent over two years, working nights and weekends on the first try for a short film, called 'The Piper', which was growing into a feature-length film. We decided to start over. In March of 1975 Don and his brother started scripting Banjo the Woodpile Cat.
In the meantime, Don was promoted to directing animator on Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! (1974). John and I were promoted to animators. At this point I was definitely vested in a long-term relationship. The three of us had become brothers in a quest to restore animation to something better than it was at that time.
AC: Going back to 1979, how hard was the decision to sever ties with Disney and go it alone, and what was the thinking behind the projects you would take and the processes you would use?
GG: It was a bit scary. We had become the new young Turks at Disney, including being featured in national publicity and in recruitment brochures about the new animation talent at Walt Disney. But, there was a progression of circumstances that led us to that moment and the opportunity to leave.
Don was selected to direct the animation for Pete’s Dragon (1977), as we were finishing The Rescuers (1977). Following Pete’s Dragon, Don was promoted to producer/director for 'The Small One' (1978). However, every time he tried to include production values reminiscent of the animated films we loved (long abandoned to reduce costs) like special effects and more colors on the characters to help create dimension to a flat art form, he was denied and told it was too expensive.
We became very disenchanted with the Disney management’s approach to producing animated stories and their extreme attention to reducing the cost of animation. The studio really felt like a ship without a sail, missing the leadership of its deceased founder. Don was so disillusioned that he asked to step down as producer/director and just animate.
We were working on The Fox and the Hound in early 1979, when I received an outside call from Jim Stewart (an ex-Disney Executive Vice President). He had left Disney and was an executive at Aurora Productions, [Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) and Heart Like a Wheel (1983)].
Jim told me that he had heard that we were unhappy at Disney and, if they were able to finance us, would we leave and start our own company? And, what movie would we want to make? I told him that we had read a book that Ken Anderson (a top Disney character designer and story-man) had given to Don, during the time they worked together on Pete’s Dragon. The book was a Newberry Award youth novel entitled, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. Ken told Don, "When you are finally in charge, this story will make a wonderful movie." We read the book and loved it. Ken had pitched the idea to management and had been shot down. Their comment was “We have already done a mouse-movie.” (In reference to The Rescuers.) The Aurora execs read the book and agreed with us, they loved it.
So, when the offer came, it was an easy decision. And, it was that little garage film, Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979) that convinced Aurora’s investor to finance the production of The Secret of NIMH.
We still had to finish the 27-minute film. The investor put up the money to complete the film. So, we informed the garage crew (many, also Disney animation employees) that we were going to leave Disney to finish the film and that we had financing to make a feature. And, they would be welcome to come with us, if they chose to do so. We resigned on Don’s birthday, September 13th, 1979. 11 more artists resigned the following day and three more came aboard the following January. It was like lowering a dingy and oaring away from the Queen Mary in the fog – at the same time, it was like flying into a grand adventure.
Obviously, we had developed processes that we had learned at Disney with some alterations, streamlining and making additional processes that helped keep track of all aspects of production, which allowed us to increase productivity, add those production values we loved and keep costs down. We also felt that the book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. had broad appeal, from the 8 or 9 year-olds to adults. We had such high hopes for it. After all, the youth novel was recommended reading for public school Fifth graders across the nation. It would be dark, but engrossing with strong characters and entertaining. We wanted to raise the level of animation with stories like the kinds of animated movies Disney made, the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo and Cinderella – dramatic, with humor and happy endings.
AC: Out of the three, The Secret of NIMH has a particularly loyal and long-lasting fan base and seems to hold a special place in the hearts of a lot of people I know. What do you think it was that has given it the emotional longevity it enjoys?
GG: It’s true, NIMH does have a large and growing fan base. It certainly wasn’t because of its theatrical distribution – though it did get some rave revues when it debuted on the 4th of July weekend of 1982. The challenge: it would be competing with likes of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Annie, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, An Officer and a Gentleman, Rocky III, Tootsie, Porky’s, 48 Hrs., Conan the Barbarian, First Blood, etc. etc. a time that turned out to be one of the biggest blockbuster summers of the decade. And, The Secret of NIMH was probably the best-kept secret in Hollywood. MGM/UA used some sort of weak “Roll out” campaign, starting on the west coast including Hawaii with a limited 100 theaters and moving across the country, weekly, to a maximum number of less than 700 theaters. However, word-of-mouth has made the film a real collector since the days of VHS video through today’s Blu-ray DVD and HD cable presentations.
It’s longevity could be the sincerity of the film, the original book, the transition to the movie version, and the efforts by everyone involved, from the animation crew, the voice actors, the special effects, the sound designer, the dubbing engineers, and the composer Jerry Goldsmith. We still consider it our best film.
AC: You've been involved with several properties – All Dogs Go To Heaven, An American Tail, The Land Before Time – that have had sequels to which you weren't connected. How does it feel to know that something you helped create has a life beyond your involvement?
Don Bluth: Not really sure how to answer that question. I don’t really follow the sequels, and, if the truth were known, I don’t go back and look at the films we’ve done. I think that this weekend will be the first time either of us seen these three films in years, maybe decades.
AC: Most animation studios have a style that is very recognizable, but you can also see the roots of their work – like the influence of Terrytoons on Ralph Bakshi. What is it that you think connects your style, and how did evolve over the three films you're screening this weekend?
GG: Our connection has been more towards Disney’s early years, but with the signature of Don’s character design, color sense and direction. It did evolve over these three films, An American Tail was more geared toward children, though we put a lot of drama in the story, with moments that would give the audience a ride, experiencing all their senses, cute, humorous, sad, frightening, happy, and hopefully satisfaction. All Dogs was more adult using a kind of a Damon Runyonesque narrative. It was another independent moment. Trying to avoid repeating ourselves, style-wise and story-wise. Though, it was a kind of film that the audience seemed to emerse themselves in the story and invest themselves in the characters; especially the children. Near the end of the opening night performance, when the children realized that the angel was coming to take Charlie back to heaven, the children all started to cry (in unison) “Oh no! Charlie’s going to die…again.” could be heard throughout the theater. There is a great satisfaction when you see the universal reactions to situations in an animated film, knowing that you were able to create a suspension of disbelief bringing drawings to life.
AC: Several of your projects have had big-name actors attached, like Burt Reynolds and Meg Ryan. I was wondering about the difference between casting and working with people who may not come from an animation acting background, against using actors who spend more time or specialize in voice over work?
DB: We’ve tried actors who specialize in voice-over work and discovered why big-name actors are big name actors. They can act and deliver sincere, believable dialogue. Most of our choices in actors are based on previous their acting experiences and the interesting quality of their natural voice. There are times that we’ve used talented voice-over actors, usually for specialty parts, or, if we need several different voices that a voice-over person can provide better than finding several name actors.
AC: Your films were also the real starting point for Dom DeLuise to become a mainstay of cartoon voice work, but he kept coming back to work with you. How was he to work with?
DB: Dom was a real pro. During the pre-production of NIMH, we were trying to find the voice for Jeremy the crow. One night, Gary, John and I were all watching the film, The End, starring Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuis. Dom’s character was so entertaining, we all thought he would be perfect for Jeremy, and we spent the next 45 minutes trying to call each other to tell each other that we think he’s our guy. Our phones kept ringing busy from trying to call each other.
What was so special about Dom was that he would read and act each line just like it was written and also offer other ways to say the line and/or ad lib additional dialogue that would invariably enhance the humor of the character’s dialogue. He was always supportive and always ready to work. We loved the guy.
Don Bluth and Gary Goldman will be at the Alamo Lakeline for screenings of The Secret of NIMH and All Dogs go to Heaven (Aug. 10) and An American Tail (Aug. 11). For tickets and details, visit www.drafthouse.com/austin, or visit our film calendar.