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Don Bluth and Gary Goldman Part One – Leaving Disney

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The director/producer team of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman have quite the history, settled within the seemingly comfortable surroundings of Disney animation they famously flew the coop and changed the history of mainstream feature animation as we all know it. Their films such as Secret of N.I.M.H, An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven not only delight and entertain all ages, but they put the fright up Disney’s stagnant feature animation division which kick started what people have called the second renaissance, changing how the company dealt with both the merchandising of their films and the animation. In this modern era where nostalgia seems to rule the hearts and minds of cinema goers the pair are kick starting once again in the very modern sense of the word in order to fund the Dragon’s Lair MovieAfter an initial attempt on crowd funding site Kickstarter, the project has now moved to Indiegogo where it has broken it’s funding goals and is now working its way through various stretch goals for eager fans and backers who invest in the project. The project is still seeking funds until the 16th January

Don Bluth (left) Gary Goldman (right)

Don Bluth (left) Gary Goldman (right)

Dragons Lair was originally an arcade game which employed the wonderfully fluid quality of Bluth’s feature style animation in the place of the standard 8 bit graphics of the time, the tale of Dirk the Daring and his epic quest to rescue Princess Daphne from the castle by battling his way through its enchanted obstacles and cast of gruesome ghouls and goblins still has fans who queued around the block to play the game when it was first released salivating at the prospect of a feature being made. The Indiegogo campaign has already raised the money to fund a short film which will go on to pitch for more money from executives to hopefully make the much requested feature a reality.

In part one of our in depth interview with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman we discussed the Kickstarter/Indiegogo hand over and their first tentative steps when they left Disney to begin their own epic quest through the animation landscape.

You’ve switched your Dragon’s Lair Returns project from Kickstarter to Indiegogo, why did you change?

Gary Goldman – Ever since Kickstarter came into the world in 2009 I’ve had emails asking us to get this movie going. Don was directing and producing plays and musicals but we both wanted to get back into feature animation so we jumped into Kickstarter without knowing how it should work, we followed their regulations and rules for what backers should receive and we were doing okay with it, but whilst the programme was going okay we could see that it was not going to make our goal so we decided to pull out instead of letting it fail. In the meanwhile Indiegogo were calling us telling us we were with the wrong people and saying “come over to us, we’ve a whole film and gaming section that would help you more” so we listened to all the comments from Kickstarter backers we made a whole list of perks for Indiegogo.


The Secret of N.I.M.H (1982)

Gary, as a producer is raising money this way different from what you’re used to? You have a peppered history of highs and lows when it comes to raising money for features. How are you finding the difference between dealing with crowdfunders and dealing with Hollywood?

GG – It’s completely different, you’re actually talking to thousands of people, in the first 12 years of independence from Disney we had private financing with the exception of the Steven Spielberg deal, Universal Pictures financed that. It’s different, usually a one shot thing, when we did The Secret of N.I.M.H we were surprised it was one man who put up the money (Joel Greenberg.)

The start of your independence from Disney is legendary, the idea of Don’s 42nd birthday exodus and setting up shop elsewhere. What was missing from Disney Animation at the time that made you want to leave?

Don Bluth – Well that’s a really good question, if you look at the history of traditional animation and look back to the pictures that Walt (Disney) himself was creating – he was a driven individual and he said at one point, he wasn’t creating cartoons, he was creating art, that’s a big deal. To create art you subject yourself to every critic in the world who thinks they know what art is and so he was trying really hard and fighting against all the business elements there could possibly be which get brought up when you produce something because it takes money to produce art such as animation because it is a such a labour intensive process with a lot of people who have to work on it. Bank of America funded the first feature film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) when that came out some people believed it would be a great success but many, many people believed it would be a folly and it would force Disney to shut down. I grew up on those pictures Disney was trying to make as art.


Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979)

It was my desire to go to Disney and be a part of that, but I think I was born just a little too late, so when I arrived in 1955 things were changing quite a bit, Walt was building Disneyland and was kind of disconnected from the animation side of the art so his heart was split in two and he had two worlds he was serving. When I got there what I felt was that the pictures were not quite what I grew up with they were changing and Walt was moving elsewhere. He died in 1966, by which time I had moved on. When I returned in 1971 he was already gone, because I was there when he was originally there I could see the difference immediately so I began to meet other animators such as Gary here asking how to recreate what Walt had created – get this! Everyone was asking “What would Walt have done?” Which is a strange thing for an artist to say. In every cupboard in the studio, if you opened a door there was his picture, it was clear that the studio needed a leader and we were hungry for a leader not just people asking what Walt would have done. A bunch of us were there figuring out how to be good animators, nobody was being trained how to be a director (those guys were growing old too) so we decided to find out how to do this and to carry on at the Disney studio. We couldn’t use the Disney equipment because it was all unionised, so we went to my house, in my garage and began getting our own equipment and did what we had to do – we created Banjo the Woodpile Cat, it was only 26 minutes long but we learnt something from it, from that experience we decided that they were not doing what the studio used to do.

We would look at the old stuff, such as the beautiful water in Fantasia and ask Frank Thomas (one of the “Nine Old Men”) “How did you do that?” and he’d say “I can’t remember, did anyone write it down?” Little things like that would keep happening and we realised we were loosing the war with art so we went out and pioneered again to see if we could discover what they had forgotten to tell us. In discovering that we’d go back to the studio and say this (lack of quality) isn’t a money issue, these things can be put into the picture (shadows, water, effects etc) can be put back in without much money. Then probably the straw that broke the camels back with me was when we were doing The Rescuers they decided not to paint the whites of the eye on the main characters and just paint the skin colour underneath because it would cost too much to paint. we wondered what they were doing and why we kept loosing all of this stuff, so to answer the question – why did we leave? We left because the corporate structure was just too calcified and we couldn’t fix it, we knew they would be angry when we left, and call us traitors and everything else but we knew we had to, to try resurrect what was beautiful and what Walt believed in and so that is why we left.

I think every picture we made (which numbers twelve) has been a financial struggle. In fact, after we made The Secret of N.I.M.H, it got a lot of critical acclaim but it didn’t make a lot of money. We had all of these people on staff who we couldn’t afford to pay, then along came Rick Dyer (RDI Video Systems founder) who brought us a story about a knight who had to save a princess from a dragon and said “I saw Secret of Nimh, you guys could do this how I imagine it” so that’s how we did Dragons Lair. At the same time Steve Speilberg saw The Secret of N.I.M.H, came over to see us and said that he thought this age of animation was dead…

GG – …With Walt, died with Walt.

An American Tale

An American Tail (1986)

DB – Yeah, he wondered how we could do it, when we told him it cost us $6.3 million he gasped and said “oh good, why don’t we make a picture together” and we said “why not!” (laughs). That birthed An American Tail, which was a thrill to do, but what it did was that it woke the sleeping giant Disney, because when they saw what American Tail went out therewith Steven Spielberg and made a LOT of money with it’s first release they then doubled the guard, woke up a little bit and found new ways to compete. Now, I know they worked really hard on putting us away and getting us out of the picture, because Disney has a feeling that animation is their franchise and should belong to no one else

GG – And they own the turf!

DB – They own the turf right, we managed to make twelve movies before they finally shut us down and our desire was to try and resurrect that beautiful art that Walt brought to the world, that’s all it was, then you have a corporation without a leader trying to corporately keep it alive and make sure the stock holders are happy. They worked really, really hard to make sure we went down. Why did we leave? We left because we wanted to make the art flourish.

GG – Actually on the day we went in to resign our explanation to them was “we tried”. They had promoted Don to producer/director to work on The Small One and he had directed the animation on Pete’s Dragon and we were still “gung ho” about trying to make a change but on Pete’s Dragon every time Don tried to do anything like add shadows on characters he’d get chewed out by management who would complain about the cost. What’s interesting is that movie started with 10 minutes of the dragon who was supposed to be invisible at that point, but when marketing saw the animation they said “we need more of the dragon!”, and suddenly the animation was doubled – but the budget wasn’t doubled, the schedule wasn’t doubled, so Don had to do more work, producing one to two drawings of the dragon for every scene to make sure it was still on model so even new inexperienced animators could animate to make the new scenes happen in a short time, we actually delivered but we went over budget by $95 thousand and Don got chewed out again so that’s when we ended up getting disillusioned. That’s when we got the phone call, I was working on The Fox and the Hound and an executive vice president (James L. Stewart, at Aurora Productions) gave me a call and said that he understood that we were not happy, he asked us if they could raise the money would we leave? So I asked Don and John Pomeroy and both of them agreed, it wasn’t fun anymore and Disney were not interested in making it any better, plus we felt we had missed the boat and that most of the good stuff was done between 1937 and 1955. We left but before we did Don spoke with Ken Anderson (legendary story designer) who had read a book called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. He’d already shown it to Woolie Reitherman (Disney director, one of the “Nine Old Men”) and told him that it was a great book, Woolie asked him what it was to which Ken replied “its kind of a rat and mouse story” and Woolie said “we’ve already done plenty of them, I’m not interested” so Ken marched down to Don’s office and said “you guys gotta do this book, it’ll be a great movie” so when we got that phone call we knew what wanted to do.

I didn’t know Ken Anderson was such a big figure at the beginning?

DB – Yeah Ken was an inspiration, who for years and years represented the spirit and the creativity that was there under Walt when he was trying to do art. Every time Ken came back from vacation he came back with books and books worth of sketches from the place he was. He was very generous and wanted you to learn so he would tell you what you wanted to know. He was the one out there that I felt really close to. On Pete’s Dragon we did all the live action first and put the animation over later, out on the sound stage Ken came up with this funny little thing where you would look through a viewfinder and tell where the dragon should be and put a bead on the sound stage to show the actors where the dragons eyes were. We had to make sure that when we got back to our drawing desks that there was room to draw a dragon because a live action director would just shoot what he wanted to make the scene work without leaving room for the dragon later.

There were a lot of high moments in our Disney careers where we triumphed many times but there was always this

Dragon's Lair (1983)

Dragon’s Lair (1983)

pursuit where Disney was trying to shut us down. There was always this world of live action out there like MGM and Fox who were not used to the animation world and didn’t know how to distribute it, it was hard to get them to sell something so it was difficult (planning the next move) Steven Speilberg, came up with an innovative way to market a picture, Disney hadn’t been doing merchandising tie-ins up until the point at which we did An American Tail there was a guy at Steven’s place who said we should get other companies to come in an sponsor the film, so McDonald’s, Sears and others would put up money to sponsor the film so they would produce their product and it would in turn sell our product (the film) that happened on An American Tail. After that happened Disney saw the results and out bid everybody and pulled everyone over there to do merchandising tie-ins because that’s a big, big piece of the money. The funny part about An American Tail merchandise is, it’s a story about a little Jewish mouse and they made this stuffed mouse for merchandise and they put it on a Christmas stocking (they laugh) I don’t know who wasn’t thinking there but it didn’t work and they had several carts full of these but within days of the picture being released there was an objection so we had to separate the mouse from the stocking.

GG -They fixed it though, they came up with another idea.

DB – So that was an interesting issue and I suppose getting back to where we are now, which is the Indiegogo, trying to raise money – we’re in the same situation. We need to know if there is an audience out there for traditional animation? Is it still there? Any of the studios now will tell you that the only thing that sells now is CG. We don’t believe that, we think that there is room for two kinds of art, oil painting did not get rid of watercolour. I do think that what Walt conceived has enriched many, many lives all over the world. We don’t want to throw that out, itll be good if the public on indiegogo say yes, I think we should bring that back into existence. It’ll take time, skill and training, and we know in the animation community there are hundreds, maybe thousands of kids who want to be a part of that, and would like to go and draw only there’s no place because the studios say “only CG sells” and I think that’s not a truth. The real thing is, if the story is good and if it is an experience that moves you emotionally it can be drawn it can be computerised it can be whatever you want, so to point the finger at traditional and call it a culprit is a wrong judgement.

This is part one of a multi part interview, keep your eyes on the Skwigly Facebook and Twitter feeds to be updated with future parts of the interview as they are released.

If you’d like to help Dirk the Daring on his quest to rescue Princess Daphne you can become a backer of the Dragon’s Lair Return’s crowd funding campaign over on Indiegogo.

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