ANIMATION ANECDOTES
July 2, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

Don Bluth’s “Xanadu”

Suspended Animation #326

Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck in “Xanadu”

In the mid 1980s, as producer/animator Don Bluth was being interviewed about the various animated films he had done at his studio, he was asked about his short musical sequence in the feature film Xandau (1980). Bluth responded, “No one could possibly be interested in hearing anything about that film.”

Xanadu was an American musical fantasy film that was the last film appearance of dancer/actor Gene Kelly. The title references the film’s modern day dance nightclub that was brought into existence by an ancient Greek muse.

Although the soundtrack was a huge success with five Top 20 singles and a double platinum selling album, the film itself was a box office disappointment. The Esquire magazine reviewer offered a one sentence review of the film: “In a word, Xana-don’t.” The movie has since become a popular cult film after its initial release.

When Don Bluth led an exodus of animators out of the Disney Studios in September 1979 to set up his own company, he had to find projects to support the financial health of his new enterprise.

“Banjo The Woodpile Cat”

He finished up work on the half hour short Banjo The Woodpile Cat at his garage where he and others had been working on it in their spare time for several years. He moved out of the garage and into larger facilities behind a bank on Ventura Boulevard and formed an exclusive arrangement with Aurora Productions.

Banjo had a brief theatrical showing from December 21-28, 1979 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to qualify for Academy Award consideration. HBO aired the special in February of 1980 and it was made available for 16mm non-theatrical screenings (colleges, high schools, hospitals, film societies, etc) via United Artists (who later distributed Bluth’s feature, The Secret of Nimh, in 1982). For the general public, Banjo was finally aired on ABC network TV on May 1st, 1982. The special was repeated on ABC August 7th, 1983.

So actually the first work of the new Don Bluth Studio that most of the public saw was the two minute music video of the song “Don’t Walk Away” for the feature film Xanadu (1980).

According to the special features on the DVD, the cartoon sequence was added after protests by Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) when they discovered the song was not in the final print. Having a cartoon sequence made for the song as a fantasy element was easier to include than trying to shoehorn it into the story of the finished film and film another live action segment.

Some people have noticed that some of the animation is nearly identical to portions of Thumbelina (1994) including the girl walking behind a leaf.

The producers decided to create a tiny fantasy sequence between Sonny (Michael Beck) and Kira (Olivia Newton John). Bluth and Gary Goldman were brought in and shown the scene of a live action kiss between the two characters and were asked for ideas.

Thanks to my friend and former business partner John Cawley I got to see the following outline that Bluth and his team came back to Universal with dated May 5th, 1980:

“After the Kiss, somewhere in the Hollywood Bowl, Olivia and Michael will freeze frame, they begin to glow and sparkle. The patterns of lite [sic] explode moving in an upward direction and settle in a silhouette of a rose bud. The bud lites [sic] up and opens revealing Olivia and Michael still kissing. She breaks away, but he wants more, so it will be her teasing and him pursuing as they fall very much in love.

“Olivia leads him to a gold river with a fall. She drinks the water and transforms into a shimmering sparkling goddess. She offers him a drink there, he takes on a similar appearance. There will be a series of transformations where they become fish and birds etc., maintaining all the while the coy love chase.

“She is always illusive [sic]. To finish they become human again and he gets his second kiss.

“The Kiss will be the climax of the animated sequence. This should happen with perhaps an explosion of colorful pixy dust and a x-dissolve or wipe to the next sequence (front of the nite [sic] club).”

Bluth was given twelve weeks to complete two minutes and seven seconds of full animation that would total approximately three thousand images. However, Bluth’s studio was already overextended with the work for their first animated feature The Secret of NIMH (1982) so Bluth decided to handle the work mostly by himself. The studio was about two months into the animated feature.

He did the key animation of the sequence and was assisted by a crew of twelve who worked out of his house to separate the work from the feature. He brought FX animation supervisor Dorse Lanpher and FX character animator Bruce Heller to the project.

Bluth designed the characters like the pair of fish and birds as well as animated all the characters himself, with the assistance of Heidi Guedel. Several outside animation artists were hired to work on cleanup. Backgrounds were designed by Bluth and painted by Don Moore in Studio City. The sequence began with animated caricatures of the two stars.

After a live action shoot on May 9th, the storyboard was finalized on May 10. Bluth was assisted on the storyboards by Lorna Pomeroy. The final board was shot on the 11th. By the 14th, the crew was at Bluth’s home working on the sequence.

Bluth recalled on the 2008 documentary about the film, “They had taken some footage from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and it seemed to match really well so they decided to use animation for the song. I told him we were really busy and couldn’t do it. He said, ‘Yeah, you can and I will pay you this much money, and more money. Whatever. Do it!’

“The concept was pretty fun actually. It didn’t involve too much character development. Just a lovely, lovely girl and a lovely, lovely guy and they turn themselves into several animals and go romping through some romantic moonlit night.

“Our attempt was when they went into the fish and the bird that they still seemed like the characters. We did little earmarks like the bird wearing dance leg warmers like the live action character did.”

Choreographer Kenny Ortega was used as the live action reference.

Bluth utilized multiple passes on the same piece of film because of speed, cost-efficiency and to have greater control. As a result some of the art almost has the look of computer graphics. Sparkles were added by back lighting.

All the artwork was filmed at least twice to increase a sense of depth and perspective, especially scenes with water. The cel art was filmed at a 40 percent exposure and then the same art with the water at 60 percent to achieve the final result of 100 percent for the background but only 60 percent for the water, creating the effect of translucence. A series of range tests were conducted to decide on the optimum means of preparing the artwork and camera setting.

The film premiered August 1980 and most reviewers felt that the cartoon segment was beautifully animated and impressive but generally just an extraneous addition that could be removed entirely from the film without affecting the story or the pace of the film.

Some have claimed that the animation segment was the best thing about the movie and it seemed as if Bluth was showing off to establish that his studio was going to re-establish classic animation.

In 2004, Don Bluth did the animation for the music video, Mary, by Scissor Sisters. The band contacted Bluth after having recalled fond memories of the sequence from Xanadu. The music video is a unique re-telling of the Rapunzel fairy tale.

5 Comments

  • What a delightful post. My wife and I caught “Xanadu” on TV one New Year’s Eve about fifteen years ago, and it’s since become an annual tradition with us. At 10 PM every 31st of December, we pop in the video, press Play, and finish the year with a riot of music, colour, romance and laughter. Especially laughter. Of course “Xanadu” is a ridiculous movie; but if we may judge a film purely on the basis of how much pleasure it gives us, I’d have to rate it as one of the best I’ve ever seen — and re-seen, again and again.

    I don’t know if I’d say that the animated sequence is the best thing about “Xanadu”, as the film is an embarrassment of riches, or at least an embarrassment of some kind, anyway. But it certainly is a charming and beautiful scene. Bluth is at his best when he doesn’t have to tell a story or motivate a character, and can simply bring dreams to life through the magic of animation. And those leg warmers! They crack me up every time!

    Just one minor quibble: “Xanadu” was not Gene Kelly’s last film appearance, as he went on to co-host “That’s Dancing!” and “That’s Entertainment! III”. But it was his last acting role in a film.

  • I LOVED “Xanadu”! It was the highlight of the Summer of 1980 for me, and it’s second only to “Grease” in the number of times I saw it in a theatre.

  • Speaking of animated sequences in 1980 films, I’d like to know who was behind the Disneyesque animation in “9 to 5”. That scene was the funniest part of the movie.

  • Xanadu is a film I can watch over and over throughout the years. It’s fluff, but it’s entertaining fluff and the music is spectacular. I’ve always loved Bluth’s segment.

  • Is it only me, or shouldn’t the screen sizes been the exact opposite on these two clips? It looks like the Xanadu clip should have been widescreen and the Mary clip should have been full screen (old TV size).

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