ANIMATION ANECDOTES
September 3, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

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.

8 Comments

  • For the second week in a row, I feel I need to take a shower after reading your Don Bluth “quotes”.

    “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.”

    So it was the “young kids” which caused him to leave.

    According to John Cawley’s book “The Animated Films of Don Bluth”, Bluth said
    “It became intolerable to work under the current administration. They don’t understand the creative side. Walt did, but they didn’t.”

    which suggests the decision was his and had nothing to do with the “young kids””

    Also from Cawley’s book:

    “At the same time, Don was beginning to get interest in BANJO. ABC agreed to purchase the TV rights. With this money, the belief of a feature, and a growing dissatisfaction with Disney, Don, Gary and John began to plan their exit.

    The date chosen was September 17th, Don’s birthday. ”

    He leaves on his birthday – that date suggests a very orchestrated birthday present to himself.

    Money given, his plan to do a feature …
    but he only left for the “young kids”.

    Did anybody challenge him at the interview ?
    He reminds me of certain talking heads on a US news channel who twist the truth to fit the latest narrative.

    • No one challenged him at the interview. I was also at an interview with Ralph Bakshi when no one challenged him touting that he had created a new form of animation for LORD OF THE RINGS. That new form was rotoscoping.

      At these press conferences with animators in the 1980s and 1990s, the reporters usually knew nothing about animation or animation history and those of us who did generally kept our mouths shut or we wouldn’t be invited to other press events because we would be considered “unfriendly” (the official term) and we just needed plenty of copy for an article for STARLOG or COMICS JOURNAL or whatever and quotes really made an article “sell” with readers feeling they were getting a behind-the-scenes, straight-from-the-horse’s mouth information. Yes, sometimes it was straight-from-the-horse’s-ass.

      I will always tell you especially when it comes to things about Bluth to trust John Cawley’s version. His The Animated Films of Don Bluth may get reprinted sometime this coming year with updates. I hope it also includes some of the things he left out of the initial edition in order to be politically polite.

      • And therein lies one of the major problems with the internet, JIm – and this article

        By reprinting something which you know not to be totally true, you are inadvertently giving more oxygen to the lie.

        Animation enthusiasts who were alive in 1979 remember the incident well – and can more easily separate the truth from reality.

        Younger animation lovers however only know what they read –
        so unknowingly can believe fiction as facts.
        Hence e.g.. the personal nonsense spewed out about Walt Disney that you play your part in trying to clean up every so often.

        By all means continue to reprint this information –
        BUT surely you need to preface the article with areas which you know to be dubious (maybe even the whole thing!), so that the younger historian knows where there may be areas of contention..

        I am sure you would not want to be quoted in the next fictional animation documentary expose, because you left something which you know not to be true unchallenged.

        • In order to really understand what was happening then, it takes more than one perspective. In all the interviews I’ve seen and read, Don Bluth gives his version of the story. It’s his version to tell. The same can be said of John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman. If you read interviews with artists who stayed at Disney, they have a different perspective. What is the truth? You have to gather a lot of information and use that information to support a theory.

          As for the quote, I don’t think Bluth was saying he left because of the CalArts students. I think his backing down and his departure are two separate events.

      • Mr. Korkis, I take issue with your assertion that the public can trust John Cawley’s version of Don Bluth’s career history. Yes, he was employed by Bluth’s studio in the early to mid-80’s, but only as editor of Exposure Sheet, the newsletter of the Don Bluth Fan Club of which I was a member. While Mr. Cawley did a decent job as editor, he showed a lack of integrity when the newsletter ceased due to the studio’s move to Ireland and busy production schedule. We members understood the need to stop publication but we were quite upset when no refund was provided. Upon contacting the studio, it’s representative claimed that the fan club mailing lists had been lost during the move. I didn’t know what to make of that but soon found out what happened. Here’s where it gets sleazy. Some time after contacting the studio, I received a business sized envelope in the mail from “ Korkis and Cawley’s Cartoon & Comic Company “.

        Upon opening the envelope it became clear what had happened to the Bluth club mailing lists. John Cawley had absconded with them and used the addresses to feed his start-up company. Also, the single sheet of off-white paper inside the envelope detailed several Bluth properties for sale including Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace cels that Bluth would never have authorized Mr. Cawley to take. In short, sir, your partner’s behavior was unethical and illegal, for he not only pilfered Bluth’s property but also stole the addresses of people who entrusted that information only to Don Bluth’s enterprise. Mr. Cawley’s actions cheated club members out of their money and laid the blame at Bluth’s feet. Why does this matter so many years later? Simply put, it matters because this scenario displays a lack of character on the part of a man who published an unauthorized book about someone else. So why should anyone trust anything Mr. Cawley has to say about Don Bluth or anyone else for that matter?

        Incidentally, Don Bluth published a second excellent newsletter from 2000 – 2002 called Toon Talk which also had to cease publication. However, his small Phoenix Arizona studio immediately refunded all members for all unpublished issues previously slated for publication. Now that’s character! If Mr. Cawley wants his version of Bluth’s career history to be taken seriously then he should at least run his work past Mr. Bluth for his side of the story. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

  • Here we see Bluth at his zenith, fresh from his successes of the 1980s, with the humiliating failures of the ’90s lurking just around the corner. The subsequent story of his downfall from the heights of good fortune is like something out of Boccaccio’s “De casibus virorum illustrium”, or a Senecan tragedy without all the ghosts. Forgive me if I permit myself a small smirk of Schadenfreude.

    “…it’s the grain of sand that irritates the oyster and makes the pearl.” Well, yes, that’s true enough for oysters. But in human beings, an irritant can create a painful, pus-filled abscess that needs to be lanced.

  • I’m struck by looking at the poster for “All Dogs Go to Heaven” by just how much Don Bluth wanted to be the Walt Disney of 1937.
    Didn’t anybody in the studio tell him that the little girl looks a little bit too much like Snow White?

    • Don’t see that at all. To me she’s a dead ringer for the title character in the German storybook “Die Struwwelliese”, itself a takeoff of the better-known (and extremely violent) 19th century children’s book “Der Struwwelpeter” by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. Struwwelliese is a little girl with a patched skirt, torn stockings and a bow in her hair who, like Little Lulu, is “always in and out of trouble, but mostly always in.” For example, she pulls up all the vegetables while weeding the garden so she won’t have to eat them!

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