How Don Bluth went from being a Utah farm kid to animating for Disney and Spielberg

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At 84, Don Bluth has a lot to look back on: a humble and religious upbringing in Texas and Utah, an education at Brigham Young University, and a glittering career in film animation – which notably worked for Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg, and set up its own studios to make films such as ‘The Secret of NIMH’, ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’ and ‘Anastasia’.

Bluth put it all in a memoir, “Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life” (Smart Pop, paperback, out Tuesday, July 19) — a book that gives him a chance to tell his own story for a change.

Bluth was 83 when he started writing the book, and he said he sat at his computer for an entire year, doing a timeline and remembering “all the things that happened every year from my life”.

When he started, Bluth said he thought, “I don’t know why I’m writing this book. It’s just that there are people who would like to know a lot of things that I never told anyone.

As he wrote, Bluth said he was beginning to “realize that the book wasn’t just a fantasy of mine. It had a purpose and that purpose was that it was [for] everyone I’ve met over the years who’s asked about the animation industry and some of the stuff that’s been going on behind the scenes.

Bluth also does something in his memoir that he has never done before: speak publicly about his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He writes that “my testimony influences everything I do, I just don’t wear it on my sleeve.”

Live the dream, let it go

In the book, Bluth describes his childhood, first in El Paso, Texas, and later in Payson, Utah, where he lived on the family farm. He injured his pulling arm while working on a piece of farm equipment.

Bluth was born in 1937 – the same year Disney released the first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Film was Bluth’s ultimate inspiration as a child and he started drawing everyday.

“As of today, one of my drawings only has a shelf life of maybe 24 hours before I have to do another,” he wrote in his memoir.

“I don’t think I will ever be able to fully explain the love I feel for drawing,” Bluth writes. “I think it was ingrained in my DNA, or in my soul, or maybe it was put there in some distant pre-existing life by an angel. It’s something involuntary, a bit like breathing for me, and my process of learning to draw was to connect something in my head to a feeling in my heart.

In the book, Bluth recounts the winding road to a job at Walt Disney Studios – with a detour to BYU, where he first met a real animator: Judge Whitaker, one of the first artists to animate Donald Duck, and the first head of BYU’s motion picture department.

Bluth’s writing style, much like his animation style, is whimsical. The memoir is reminiscent of a classic Disney animated film, with a wistful tone guiding the narrative.

(Don Bluth | Smart Pop) A drawing by animator Don Bluth, depicting his arrival at Walt Disney Animation Studios, is featured in his memoir, “Somewhere Out There: An Animated Life,” which will be released Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Bluth got his first job at Disney in 1955, but left the studio in 1957 to go on a mission to Argentina for his church. It will take him another 14 years before returning to animation.

At this stage of the memoir, religious themes intertwine with personal narrative. Bluth writes about the heart-to-heart philosophical conversations he has with himself — creating a character, “the man in the mirror,” as his storytelling device.

“Do you know how we all talk to each other when we’re alone?” Well, the man in the mirror is just that part of me,” he wrote. “[It’s] this kind of conversation that comes and goes [between] your head and your ego.

Initially, Bluth told The Tribune that he regretted his decision to leave Disney.

“At first I didn’t have a very big church testimony,” Bluth said. “I was still focused mostly on my career. I remember saying in the process, OK, my God, if I go on a mission, can I be sure that when I come back, I can pick up where I left off. And there was no answer to that.

A few weeks after that decision, Bluth said, he returned. He said he realized he had so many blessings and he wouldn’t be very grateful if he didn’t give back. Even on his mission, he drew, using Disney scenes to make connections in his missionary work.

“I think the footnote is why doors opened in my career, that I was able to do 11 movies under my own name without being at Disney,” he said, ” it’s because I went to do the work in the mission field.”

After his assignment, Bluth returned to BYU and earned a degree in English Literature. He returned to animation in 1967, working as a layout artist for Filmation on Saturday morning cartoons such as “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.

In 1971 Bluth returned to Disney – working on films made after Walt’s death in 1966, including “Robin Hood” (1973), “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974), “The Rescuers” (1977) and “Pete’s Dragon”. (1977).

The next time Bluth left Disney wouldn’t be as clean and noble a decision as the first time around.

go out alone

“I grew up in a time when Walt Disney was the greatest of storytellers,” Bluth told The Tribune. “So many things he put in his films were so moral and strong that they shaped lives. Whereas today it seems to me that you can make a film for them to gain silver.

For Bluth, this aspect of storytelling boiled down to the art form of traditional hand-drawn animation. A group of 17 Disney animation employees, according to Bluth, began working on a freelance project in his garage. It would take four years to release “Banjo the Woodpile Cat,” which follows a cat who runs away from his home in Payson for Salt Lake City.

“We did it because the training program at the Disney studio, I thought, was a little anemic,” he said. “What they were doing was training all the animators, but none of us knew how to make a movie: how to put together one scene after another to give it an emotional impact.”

So, says Bluth, they began to educate themselves. “We thought if we stayed at Disney,” he said of the band, “all they told us was, ‘Listen, sit down, do what you’re told. For a creative mind, that’s not a good idea.

Bluth said, “That little experiment we were doing in my garage led to ‘The Secret of NIMH’, which led to Steven Spielberg and ‘An American Tail’.”

In 1979, Bluth and 10 other people in the animation department resigned from Disney — a move that delayed the release of “The Fox and the Hound.” The group opened Don Bluth Productions, which released its first film in 1982, “The Secret of NIMH”.

Bluth directed his next two films, the immigrant fable “An American Tail” (1986) and the dinosaur adventure “The Land Before Time” (1988), with Spielberg among the producers. Both films inspired sequels, although Bluth was not involved in them.

Bluth and his collaborators also ventured into video games, pioneering the fusion of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation in the 1983 arcade game “Dragon’s Lair.”

In 1989, Bluth turned down an offer from Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, to return to Disney Studios. At the time, Bluth’s studio employed 360 people and had moved to Ireland, and Bluth said he felt he could not leave them.

“It’s absolutely the best decision I’ve probably ever made,” Bluth said. “What [Disney] saying was ‘come back and be under our umbrella, we’ll pay you a lot of money.’

Bluth said it was a success, for everyone involved, as Disney’s animation studios began to improve, under the direction of Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Out of that came ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,'” Bluth said. “They tried harder.”

Over the next 11 years, Bluth made six more films: “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989), the musical “Rock-a-Doodle” (1991), the fairy tale “Thumbelina” (1994), the fantasy “A Troll in Central Park” (1994), the Antarctic animal romance “The Pebble and the Penguin” (1995), the Russian crime novel “Anastasia” (1997) – which was adapted into a Broadway musical – and the sci-fi thriller “Titan AE” (2000).

(Don Bluth | Smart Pop) A self-portrait of animator Don Bluth – surrounded by characters from his films – is featured in his memoir, “Somewhere Out There: An Animated Life”, which will be released on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Still drawing at 84

Although Bluth writes about the creative differences he had when it came to the way the Disney studio approached animation, Bluth said it wasn’t the medium he was criticizing, but the storytelling.

“In animation, we’ve never really gone in and defined categories,” Bluth said. “Today we have CGI animation. Back in Walt’s day, we had 2D hand-drawn animation. It’s not the same thing at all.”

Bluth said he always liked hand-drawn animation because it looked different. Computer-integrated animation, Bluth said, is more puppet-like — because animators hit keys to make the character move, rather than doing it themselves.

Computers, he admitted, have “simplified a lot of the drudgery of 2D animation. …

“I think to sort it out, I believe that the important part of any animated story, whether it’s CGI or 2D, has everything to do with the story, whether it touches the hearts of the audience sitting there at to look at.” Bluth points to Pixar’s “Up,” which did just that, he said.

These days, Bluth is retired from filmmaking, but still draws.

He began to write and illustrate children’s books, also trying his hand at painting illustrations. There is also Don Bluth University, which offers a year-round animation course and takes in about 20 students a year.

To this day, Bluth said, he can’t choose a favorite character he’s worked on.

“What happens when I work on someone, well, I fall madly in love with that character and I love drawing him and making him look like he’s alive,” he said. he declares. “When [I] animate them, it’s just a thrill beyond thrill because you see something as if it’s alive when it’s really just graphite on a piece of paper.

When asked to name his favorite animated films these days, he lists two Disney titles made during his childhood: the 1940 classic “Pinocchio” and the 1948 live-action/animated hybrid, “So Dear to My Heart”.

Bluth said he hopes those who read his book take away the message that “life is a journey and you have to be patient with yourself. If you listen carefully, every person on Earth has talents and skills, and they must learn to bring them out in their lives and offer them to all of us.

Growing up, he said, he thought, “I’m just a kid from Utah. I can’t even read. I know nothing. How could I become anything other than a person who milks cows? »

Bluth added: “This journey to keep your dream alive and then overcome obstacles – that’s the important message.”

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