Found an additional interview An Exclusive Interview with animation legends Don Bluth and Gary Goldman!Saturday, July 17th, 2010 at 14:22
We are in the presence of animation royalty this weekend, folks. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, the team behind The Secret of N.I.M.H., All Dogs Go To Heaven, An American Tale, and countless other animated staples will be in person to present a stunning 35mm print of their animation classic The Land Before Time and to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Concordia’s Hall Theatre on Saturday, July 17th at 4pm. And best of all – it’s FREE for kids under 18.
Come re-experience the world of animation before 3D and CGI took over! 2D has come back in a major way in the independent underground of animation, but Don Bluth and Gary Goldman were the trendsetters for hand-drawn animation for decades, and paved the way for countless animators today. The duo will also take part in a round table discussion about the current and future state of animated films, along with Gerald Potterton (director of Heavy Metal!) and director/teacher Luc Chamberland. This round table event will take place in the EV-01.615 room of Concordia University (EV building – 1515 Ste-Catherine W) on Sunday, July 18th at 1PM.
But to get us pumped for the round table, they were kind enough to answer some questions about the evolution of animation since the 1960s, giving us a rare insider’s view into the studio system and their pioneering independent work that set the bar for 80s and 90s animation.
Don – I heard that one of your earliest jobs was working on The Groovie Ghoulies, can you tell me a bit about that? How big was the team of animators, and what did everyone contribute specifically?
Don Bluth: Wow! That was a long time ago. It was at the TV production house (company), Filmation. I was a Layout artist, where we would create the set and provide poses of the characters for the animators. That studio had about 150 artists and technicians. The animation was limited animation, an inexpensive version to accommodate the budgets that the TV networks would provide the production companies. The layout department followed the storyboards. Our pencil backgrounds would go to the background department to be painted, the character poses would go to the animation department. Animator’s would then use the poses to create the illusion of movement, but not like the classical animation at Disney. Limited meant, using a limited number of drawings to achieve the needs of the individual scene or “shot”. Often the animator would not move the head or the body – just move the arms, blink the eyes and form the words with seven basic mouth shapes, sort of a poor-man’s animation approach.
Once a scene/shot was approved it would be cleaned-up by a “cleanup artist” plus they may add a couple of drawings in between the animator’s drawings to smooth out the moving parts. The approved cleanup scene would be checked and go to the Xerox Department, where the drawings would be transferred to celluloid sheets which would in-turn, be painted, using pre-selected colors, in the cel painting department. Once complete, quality control “checkers” would review the scene/shot with the final colored background against the animator’s worksheet, called an “Exposure Sheet” or X-Sheet, to insure that everything was exposed correctly for the camera department. Once approve, the scene/shot would be exposed to film, one frame at a time, on an animation rostrum camera.
The film would be developed and edited into continuity, synced to the dialogue sound tracks. Post Production would then add music and sound effects. The final product would be converted to video and delivered to the TV broadcasters.
Can you both talk a bit about the decision to leave Disney in 1979? It seems as though a lot of the animators would go uncredited for their work.
Gary Goldman: We were both very passionate about classical animation, and about working at Walt Disney Productions on feature-length films. It was an honor. If fact, we started working evenings and weekends in Don’s garage on a short films just to increase our skills in order to be prepared for the day that we might be promoted to leadership positions.
Don: And, we worked at this for several years. We were animation trainees at Disney, and we were learning to animate. But, NOT about direction, screenwriting, recording the voices, storyboarding, editing, scene planning, budgeting, etc. If were going to be promoted to leadership positions, it seemed to us that we should know all of those tasks, as well as animating. So making a short film seemed to be the best way to learn all of these other creative elements of making an animated film.
Gary: So, as we learned in the garage, we earned promotions at Disney. We also really started to notice the films we were working on didn’t seem to be as beautiful as films that Disney made 30 years before – films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderella, Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp. And when Don was promoted to Producer/Director and I was promoted to Directing Animator, we found out that convincing the management (during the ‘70s) that we wanted to add more special effects, cast shadows on the character, water, rain, and other environmental phenomena, it was discouraged. They wanted us to cut costs, not increase costs. It seemed as though the more we tried to return to the beauty of the older films, the more difficult our jobs became. We finally decided that maybe we could turn them around if we started our own company and challenged Disney on the big screen, that maybe then they would see what we were talking about.
Don: At one point we were going to just stay and dedicate ourselves to changing the company from within. So, I approached Ron (Miller) the then CEO of Walt Disney Productions, and asked if he would like to see the film we were making in my garage (Banjo the Woodpile Cat). He said he wasn’t interested in what we were doing in my garage. That’s when we decided that it wasn’t going to work at Disney. We were going to have to leave to try and turn animation around and bring back the quality that we missed from those old films.
Gary: I got a call from James Stewart, an ex-Disney executive, who had joined two other ex-Disney executives who together ran an independent live-action film company, Aurora Productions. He asks that if they could provide the funding, would we leave Disney to produce and animated feature? It was like this opportunity fell from the sky. I said yes (even before I spoke to Don and John Pomeroy, our other animating partner at the time).
Don: Just weeks before this call. Ken Anderson, one of Disney’s Golden-boys of story and character design brought me a book called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. He told me that when we became in charge at Disney, this book would make an excellent film. Gary read it first, then John. Both came back to me saying that it’s a great story, and fun characters. So I read it, and agreed completely.
Gary: The guys at Aurora Productions told us that their investor knew that we worked at Disney and that we had animated on films like Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, The Rescuers, Pete’s Dragon, The Small One and were animating on The Fox and the Hound, but, had we done any films on our own. Luckily, we’d been working on that little short film in Don’s garage, Banjo. We showed the investor the film. He liked it. So there we were, with a decision to make. And, we really had mixed feelings about it. We loved Disney, but the company was failing and at the time and management was running the show, not the artists. So, we chose to leave.
Don: Regarding animators going un-credited; if you are referring to Disney, in those days animators that had more than one minute of animation in the film would receive credit, Mr. Disney limited credits to key artistic tasks in those feature films from the beginning of his studio (in the 1920s) until the early 1980s. That would be writers, directors, storyboard artist, art directors, layout & background artists, and animators only. Assistant animators, cleanup artists, breakdown and inbetween artists, color modelers, assistant directors, ink and paint artists, and technicians like cameramen, Xerographers, scene planers were not offered credits.
Gary: In fact, we believe that our film, The Secret of N.I.M.H. provided everyone on the film a credit, including the receptionists, and assistants that drove our trucks to run errands. Disney’s next film included many more of the animation staff than in their previous films.
After you both left Disney, what was the climate like then for an independent animator?
Don: There were many independent animated feature film producers in the USA. So, there wasn’t really a climate. However, the press was very excited about our challenge to Disney. We received a lot of press, both TV and print. Which made it seem like the audience was ready for more animated films.
Gary: There were other independent animation filmmakers, like Martin Rosen who had produced Watership Down in the late ‘70s, and Plague Dogs in the early ‘80s, neither of which was that successful in the US. And, of course Ralph Bakshi, who had produced and directed ten animated features. But the climate, I would say was difficult. Nobody really believed that an animated feature outside of the Disney walls could be successful.
I heard that your animation studio was actually in Don’s house at first?
Don: Well, yes, but only during those years when we were still working at Disney, from 1972 thru 1979. Aurora provide us with a nice building in Studio City California for us to produce and direct N.I.M.H.
How did you get into working with video games like Dragon’s Lair? In the early 80s did this seem like a promising route for additional innovation? Can you talk a bit about how this game worked in terms of the character’s actions being controlled by a laserdisc? How did the animation techniques change when you released “Dragon’s Lair 3D” in 2002?
Gary: Strange, but at the time of our introduction to this video game concept, our animation union had taken all of our artists out on a Union Strike which lasted for 73 days. During that time Rick Dyer, a computer scientist and entrepreneur had seen The Secret of NIMH and was convinced that he needed to partner with us on this new video game technology. He showed us what the new laser disc machine could do and how he thought our animation could be programmed to allow the player to control the action of the game. When he was done, we didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. However, it was a game, and not a film, which allowed us to bring our artists back to work, as video games were not included in the union contract.
Don: So, we just started. We took the script created by Rick’s company staff’s script, re-wrote it, story boarded it and just started casting scenes to our animators, told them to have fun with it. And see where we might end up. Six months later we completed our part. It was up to Rick’s team to program our edits to create “windows” of opportunity for the player to make choices. It was tested with young and older players in San Diego and demonstrated at the Chicago Game Show (convention) in March of 1983 and release in late June. It was a super hit at that time. Regarding the way we built it. We basically treated it like making a film, but had to create a success and a death scene for every choice. I tried to make sure that each death scene was humorous, to add some entertainment beyond the interactivity of the game.
Gary: On the changes made for the CG version, Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair, well…it was CG. We did the opening in traditional animation here in Phoenix, Arizona, but the rest was done by a small CG crew in California.
Don: I was particularly disappointed because there really wasn’t any humor in the game. The total control of Dirk the Daring was good but the game lacked the tongue-in-cheek entertainment we went for on the original.
How has the process of animation in your films changed over time? Are things still hand-drawn? If so, how many drawings would you estimate go into a single feature?
Gary: We do both CG films and traditional animated film, in which we draw most all of the animation, with some CG props and effects, even some CG characters. There are easily over 250,000 drawing, including the storyboards, layouts, character, character cleanup and special effects drawings. But, even our drawings are scanned into the computer and those scenes are edited into continuity in the computer, we plan the camera moves in the computer, quality check the animation, paint the scenes, adjust color and make repairs in the computer. We don’t go to film until a scene is approved in final color. In fact, it will soon be possible to do the complete distribution as a digital product, on digital tape, encoded HD DVDs, or via fiber optics. It’s a matter of the theaters getting completely switched over to this technology. In the meantime, we create a negative from the digital master and go through the same final process we used to by making an answer print on film, then go to inter-positive and duplicate negative for the creation of release prints for the theaters. We are really looking forward to the digital technology to permeate the market.
What are your feelings about the idea of animation as “children’s entertainment”? Do you think animated films in general get a better public response when they are made for a young audience? Connected to that, do you have an opinion about the shift in Nelvana’s films from things like Rock and Rule to Franklin the Turtle?
Don: There is a market for both. We can make films specifically for children, but they would have to be with a tight budget. Family films sell tickets but about 50% of those are half-price of an adult ticket. We like to think that we can make a PG rated film that will entertain on multiple levels for an 8 to 80 year-old audience. Pixar has proved that good stories that do not talk down to children will be far more successful and still be entertaining to children, plus the art can be pushed because they have a good budget to make the film.
Gary: Opinions. Yes, we have opinion. I remember Rock and Rule. Nice film, loved their layouts. Not sure I would call that a children’s film. It came out the same year as The Secret of NIMH (1982). Children’s films do make money. However, like Don says, if the film is directed to children the film’s budget will have to be modest in order to guarantee a return for the investors. To compete in the big feature-length markets, budgets would have to be in the $50M plus zone, have a strong story, fun characters and music that will entertain little kids and adults alike.
I understand that NIMH suffered a similar fate to Rock and Rule, namely that of MGM dropping the ball on marketing the film. Can you describe what was going on with the studio at the time of NIMH’s release?
Gary: MGM was not involved until it merged with UA. UA had originally committed to distributing The Secret of NIMH under the leadership of Norbert Aurebach, who was extremely enthusiastic about NIMH. Unfortunately, a few months later UA’s film, Heaven’s Gate went way over budget, and UA was sold to MGM by its owner, TransAmerica. The then chairman of MGM, David Begelman was not interested in animation. He felt that only Disney could distribute and sell animation, and refused to put up any of the contracted financing for the distribution of the film, further, they did what is called a roll-out campaign, opening on the west coast and rolling across the US. Aurora had put up $4.2M for the prints and advertising. When they did an audit of MGM/UA a year later, there was still over $600,000 in NIMH Print & Advertising account.
What are some examples of what you consider to be the most ground-breaking or aesthetically interesting animation now?
Don: That’s tough question. There have been many over the years and I’m sure there will more as time goes on. I think Pixar has made the most of its story-telling and awesome production values in their 10 feature films. Story is really what is all about, and if the art of what you do in this medium wows the audience then perhaps you can make a memorable film. I’m still a huge fan of traditional animated filmmaking and I just hope that we don’t lose those skills because the financial world believes that only CG films can make profits. Don’t forget, films like Beauty and the Beast and Lion King, both traditional animation belong to the billion-dollar film club, especially when you include their ancillary market value.
- Kier-La Janisse
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