In His Own Words: Don Bluth on His Early Career

Suspended Animation #335

In 1992 when Don Bluth was promoting his latest animated feature, Rock-A-Doodle, I was in attendance with some other reporters when he talked about his early career up to that point. I recently ran across my notes and thought readers might enjoy seeing them.

Don Bluth: As I grew up, I always had pets around the house. I had five dogs that were my pets. I always saw them through their whole life, did everything together with them. They followed me everyplace. Then as each one departed and died, it was the sadness of leaving a friend and I’ve always been very close to that.

We even did the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) to exorcise those demons. That movie was one in which we said, “There must be an afterlife”. I mean, I believe very much in that and animals probably are part of that. And I have every confidence that someplace Cubby and Shelly and all those other dogs I had, I’ll see them.

In my movies, I try to give an audience a little “take home” that they can think about later. I’d like parents and children alike to go home from our movies and say, “You know what? I know what that means.”

The first animated film that I ever saw was Snow White when I was four years old. It was a magic experience for me. I came home and began drawing the picture. I went back and back and back to this film to see it. And then the next ones, Pinocchio and Bambi came out. Same magic experience happened for me. Finally I concluded that even at a young age, that was what I wanted to do.

When I got out of high school, I tried like mad to go to college but I only made it through one year before I said, “I can’t do this”. And I went out to the Disney Studio and made an application and went to work during Sleeping Beauty (1959). So I got one full year there working on that picture when Walt was there in charge.

So that was the magic moment for me. But somehow I wasn’t ready for it. I kind of got disillusioned by the tediousness of it so I left and went back to college. I left the country and went to South America and lived there for a while. I did all kinds of things.

Finally I came back in 1971. After I graduated from college I had worked at Filmation so I knew the worst it could get was that. Finally I said, “No, no, if this is what I’m doing, I’m going to do it the right way”. So I went back to Disney in ’71 and got serious about it. We were doing a picture called Robin Hood (1973). I started animating almost immediately and I was having a great time.

And that’s when I met Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy who would one day become my partners. It was a happy time, really wonderful. The first bump happened when we looked at Robin Hood finished and colored and we said, “Wait a minute, something’s missing here! It looks a little flat and there’s no heart in this.”

So there was a rallying and we talked and talked and talked amongst ourselves. And for The Rescuers (1977) I remembered we spoke a lot with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston asking “What can we do to make the picture great?” And it all seemed to focus on story. So as wall that came down, we tried again really hard and The Rescuers finally was screened and I said, “Well, better. But not quite the glory of Camelot.”

A bunch of brash young CalArts students came in and each was trying to be the leader. And there were jealousies and all kinds of things that began to form. Camps began to form. And at some point, I was trying to move in a direction and maybe I was being too forceful and these young kids just said, “We aren’t going to take this”. So I said, “Well, all right. I’ll leave.” So I backed down.

I’m very glad I left. It was the right thing to do and I think we were part of getting Disney to wake up. The competition that has happened is what has caused them to get good. I try to remember that it’s the grain of sand that irritates the oyster and makes the pearl. We’ve been enough of an irritant to them that it’s caused them to work very hard to make something fine.

And basically at that point we had some money. Someone put up money to go make The Secret of NIMH (1982) and so we left. NIMH was not a box office smash so we turned to arcade video games. We were then approached by Steven Spielberg and made An American Tail (1986).

When we finished An American Tail, we had to freeze everyone’s salaries to be able to do that because animation was not in good shape at the time. But when Steven said, “OK, let’s go make a second picture, The Land Before Time (1988),” people said, “No, I can’t go on having my salary frozen, the cost of living is too much.” So I said, “Animation isn’t healed enough to be able to just throw money in it. So why don’t we go to Ireland instead?”

I mean, we could have gone to other countries but Ireland was the best opportunity. We went there to be able to continue to make the picture at a reduced rate while letting people’s pay go up. Then after we got there and we got onto our next picture which was All Dogs Go to Heaven, the reason changed.

We stayed in Ireland because it seemed to be a nice place and the people we had trained there were really getting very good. Meanwhile, after being in Ireland for two years, the Americans felt very strongly about bringing their children home to the grandparents and putting their roots down here. We couldn’t abandon them. So what we did was set up a second studio in Burbank.

I was angry at first when Steven found another director for the American Tail sequel. Then I thought how unfair to be so small, to let someone roll over the top of you and feel you can’t do anything about it. And a little voice inside me said, “Welcome to the big world, Don.” So I felt angry for awhile but got rid of it. I still call Steven when I go back to Los Angeles.

I was disappointed in the sequel. I wished it had been a better picture because I like that little character.

Back in 1979-80, I think we were all very, very intense because we were just wishing so hard that we could make animation reborn, that we could give it something. And everyone was seeing it differently, everyone had a different thing. We were all young bucks and everybody was trying to say, ”I know what to do. I’ve got the answer.”

So we’re battling each other. I think what’s happened right now is the families have happened. People have matured and I think hearts have softened. Plus, everyone is so completely rewarded by what’s happening with animation that I think most of the people in it feel quite fulfilled.