Don Bluth Goes Independent

When Don Bluth suddenly left Disney in the late 1970s to strike out on his own, it led to a chain of events that sparked today's renaissance in feature animation. Jerry Beck provides a brief memoir of the days when Bluth appeared to be animation's white knight and could do no wrong.

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Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Courtesy of Jerry Beck.

A personal remembrance of when Don Bluth quit Disney, formed an independent studio and inspired the current feature animation boom. The 1970s was a decade in which TV animation plunged to its depths, with the likes of Hanna-Barbera and Filmation dominating Saturday mornings with the worst of their wares. Although Hollywood was barely interested in animated film, the period began with considerable promise, with such independent films as Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, John Wilson's Shinbone Alley and René Laloux' Fantastic Planet. But as the decade progressed, Disney sunk to an all-time low with the release of Robin Hood, and ambitious attempts like Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy, Murukami-Wolf-Swenson's Mouse and His Child and Sanrio's Winds of Change proved to be bitter disappointments.

I graduated from high school in 1974 and planned a career as a cartoonist and animator. But things were so bad in those days that I grew frustrated with animation and pursued research into its wonderful past.

All was not lost. Disney's The Rescuers showed the possibilities offered by a new team of young animators; this, along with early artwork released on The Fox and the Hound offered some hope. Then came a story in The New York Times about a defection at Disney's.

Quitting in the Name of Disney

Directing animator Don Bluth and two colleagues, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, three of the most talented of the young Turks at Disney (publicized heavily in the promotion of The Rescuers) had defiantly quit. They left because of what they felt was a lack of regard by their superiors about the quality of the artwork, a deteriorating production process, and management's declining respect for the artists who built the studio. They quit in the name of Walt Disney, whom the three felt would never tolerate the way the current regime had let the animation department fall to such a low level.

The next day, 11 other animators quit to join Bluth and company. It was a bold move and it shook up Disney's animation department; finding capable Disney-trained character animators to replace these renegades wasn't easy. And it would cause a major delay in the release of The Fox and the Hound.

Bluth established his own studio, with the backing of Aurora Productions, a company headed by a group of ex-Disney executives, and started production on a feature, The Secret of NIMH.

While at Disney, Bluth led a group of animators to work after hours on a Disneyesque half hour short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat. It was done to learn the entire process of making a film, not just the character animation they were toiling on during the day. Banjo also taught them tricks and techniques they could use on their features. The art direction and special effects were in the classic Disney and Hollywood cartoon traditions, techniques and styles no longer being practiced anywhere in animation at that time.

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Don Bluth's Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Courtesy of Jerry Beck.

When Disney management failed to take interest in this out-of-pocket, home made short, Bluth then used Banjo as a way to lure investors in his dream: to return the art of animation to its glorious Golden Age. With an offer from Aurora to challenge Disney, Bluth and his team made their bold move.

Bored to Tears, Then ...

Early in 1980, I was working in New York for United Artists as a salesman in their 16mm department, renting films to colleges and hospitals. One night, word spread in the local animation community that a representative of Bluth's new renegade studio (Executive Producer Mel Griffin) was going to give a presentation at the School Of Visual Arts. This turned out to be, perhaps, the first studio recruitment pitch open to the public. The studio rep, a business partner installed at Bluth by Aurora, began to talk of the studio's dream to return animation to it's glorious past. I remember that many animation students there were bored to tears at his speech and were there just because they were required to attend. Then he showed a clip from NIMH.

I'll never forget it. It was the sequence of Mrs. Brisby and Jeremy the crow (voiced by Don DeLuise) flying to the tree where the Great Owl (John Carradine) was. The entire sequence--with the cobwebs, the darkness, the great voice acting, the owl crushing a spider and eating a moth--was the greatest thing I had ever seen! It looked like Disney animation from the forties, only darker. It was as lavish as anything from Bambi or Fantasia, only slightly subversive (skeletal remains of other animals the owl must have eaten, littered the background; the owl taking a chomp at a Disneyesque moth). The students (myself included) begged the man to run this footage again. Everyone was charged and excited. It wasn't just talk--Bluth was going to do it!

I had that sequence running in my mind for weeks. I had seen the future of animation and it's name was Don Bluth Productions. (It was a high that was only topped in later years, when I had seen advance scenes from The Thief and the Cobbler [Arabian Night], Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the genie ["Friend Like Me" sequence] in Aladdin, and experienced that rare "sense-of-wonder" deja vu.) Animation wasn't dead! Anything was possible! My personal faith in the medium was renewed. It was coming back and all anyone had to do to believe was to see this clip from (what was then called) Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

In 1980, the Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly musical Xanadu was released. It contained a short animated sequence by Bluth which was a knockout. This studio was doing Disney better than Disney.

Supporting the Future of Animation

A few months later, in late 1980, I accidentally intercepted some interoffice mail heading for my boss. It was a deal memo stating that United Artists had just acquired Mrs. Frisby/NIMH and Banjo. I was working for the company that was supporting the future of animation!

Though my department had limited involvement with Bluth, I made it my business to have as much involvement as possible. The coolest animated feature in years was going to be released by United Artists, and it soon became apparent that I was the only person there who knew about it and cared.

United Artists had a checkered past with animated features. Yellow Submarine (1968), Lord of the Rings (1979) and later Rock & Rule (1983) were its best known releases. The studio enjoyed more success on television with its syndication of the pre-1948 Warner Bros. and Popeye cartoons, along with DePatie-Freleng's Pink Panther menagerie.

Because my department was immediately able to release Banjo in 16mm, we required still photos, slides and other materials from Bluth. We had a small staff, so when it came time to request these things I made the call to Gary Goldman and immediately hit it off with him. He invited me to visit the studio if I ever came to Los Angeles and I took him up on his offer.

The following summer I vacationed in L.A. and San Diego, but the highlight of my trip was visiting the Bluth studio, then heavily into production on NIMH. The feeling of optimism was infectious. This wasn't just an animated feature, it was a cause. I came away knowing I had to do more to help.

A Full-Fledged "Bluthie"

Back in New York, I connected with NIMH's unit publicist and concocted a slide presentation on the film which I presented at comic book conventions on the East and West Coasts. I was a full-fledged "Bluthie," preaching the gospel to whoever would listen.

In Spring 1982, I visited Bluth one more time and got a look at the most complete version of the film that one could see: the entire leica reel, mostly in color, except for the final reel. I was so happy to see this much incredible footage, I never asked about the final reel; besides, it gave me something to look forward to when the film was finished. But I should have suspected something. When I finally saw the finished film a few weeks later at a press screening, I was disappointed.

But the studio still held such promise. MGM/UA did a lousy job releasing the film, doing it regionally instead of nationally all on the same date. Summer 1982 also saw the release of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The xtraterestrial, which blew away all other family entertainment. The Secret of NIMH failed at the box office.

That failure caused Aurora to back out of producing Bluth's next film, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Bluth's studio stayed alive animating two innovative video games, Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, which created a short-lived sensation in the summer of 1984. Luckily, through Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the music for NIMH, Spielberg caught on to Bluth and An American Tail was released in 1986.

Beck14.gifBeck20.gifBeck18.gifDragon's Lair.

Space Ace.

Xanadu.

Images courtesy of Jerry Beck.

Xanadu, The Secret of NIMH, Dragon's Lair and Space Ace pointed toward a potential that has not been realized by the subsequent Bluth productions. But it was Bluth, Goldman, Pomeroy and 11 other renegades from Disney who, in 1979, caused a chain reaction which led to today's feature animation boom. They shared a dream for animation's future which has just begun to happen.

Jerry Beck is Vice President Animation, Nickelodeon Movies, in New York. He is also an animation historian, whose most recent book was The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner Publishing).

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