“No, no, no. you can’t make money as an artist. Why don’t you become a schoolteacher or a dentist?” Don Bluth heard this plea for practicality from his instructors throughout his secondary education, they all foresaw difficulty and dashed dreams for him. They didn’t imagine that he would grow up to create some of the best-loved animated films of this generation. All they could see was a boy who needed to listen to reason.
And he listened to reason for a time. Despite his passion for art, he arrived to college at Brigham Young University and went not to the Art department, but to English. His story could’ve have joined the ranks of thousands of others that have gone through life wishing to pursue a dream and pursued something more reasonable instead, but something resonated inside him that would not be quieted or pushed aside. He said, “Later on in life, I’d come to discover that I knew at age four that I was going to be in animation. I couldn’t put a word to it, I didn’t know how to define it, I didn’t know what it was, all I knew was a name; Walt Disney.”
Don grew up on a dairy farm in Payson, Utah. Living at a dairy meant milking cows morning and night, a job that is never done. It was demanding and continuous, but his oasis, the one place that he could go to for respite, where he could feel really free was his drawing; drawing that was inspired by the early Disney pictures. He attended these films and something subtle and undetectably powerful struck a chord with him. He would go home and try to recreate what he’d seen, trying to copy Disney comic books and finding that this love “just saturated everything that [he] was.”
He was a self-taught artist, imitating the things he saw until he could develop the practice and skill to create something new and all his own. After his first year at University in 1955, he told his parents, “you’re wasting your $5 a week on me, let me go out and go to work.” So, he took his portfolio to Burbank, CA to the Walt Disney Studio and dream-come-true, was told to come in and work.
Eighteen years old and he was put to work on a picture you may have heard of, called Sleeping Beauty. “I was in what you call hog heaven, there in the studio and learning so much and just loving being around that environment that I was destined to be in.” He moved up in the ranks very quickly, zipping past people who had been there twenty years, within a year he had become John Lounsbery’s (one of the original “Nine Old Men”) assistant animator.
Despite this obvious promise, when Don’s bishop called him and asked whether he would be willing to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he couldn’t say no.’ When he told John Lounsbery of his decision, he was met with absolute bafflement. Lounsbery said that Don had moved up faster than anyone he’d ever seen—you can have this place, you can have anything you want. You can be a very, very good animator and probably more—you’d be a great director and you’re throwing it all away.’ But he heeded the call to serve and spent the two and a half years that followed in Argentina.
Walt himself was often absent from the studio during Don’s first year at Disney, spending his time instead in Anaheim, trying to scrape together the resources to construct the happiest place on earth,’ a project “no one believed would be anything.” Don mentally planned out how it would be if he ever met his boyhood idol, the man who had so influenced his life’s direction. He thought through how he would react and what he would say, all that remained was to find an opportunity to let his plans play out and catch a glimpse of the elusive Walt.
Some of the animators would go out to the vacant lot next to the studio at noon to play volleyball, despite the persistent heat of the midday, Burbank sun. They would get hot and sweaty, but there were showers in the basement of the animation building where they could clean up before going back to work. One day when they had finished a game and were tossing the ball around on their way back inside, Don caught the ball and began to run as he turned when suddenly he bumped into somebody and was knocked to the ground. He looked up to see who it was, but the sun was shining brightly silhouetting the face of the man in front of him. Intent squinting brought him to the realization that it was Walt and clearly their first meeting would not be the suave and impressive interaction Don had once hoped for.
“It reminded me of that scene in Bambi where the great stag is standing there looking at the little deer and the little deer is trying to say something and finally he doesn’t get a chance. He doesn’t say anything at all, the stag turns and walks away. But Walt did say something he just simply said if you slow down, you’ll go farther,’ then he just walked on.”
It is perhaps appropriate that in this moment of sweaty and unexpected distress, Don should compare his internal climate to an animated character because real, relatable characters that the audience can’t help but empathize with have since become a hallmark of his career. He tells stories that involve the lives and woes of mice (An American Tail) and dinosaurs (Land Before Time) and dogs (All Dogs Go to Heaven), but all along he is telling the stories and expounding on the truths of people.
Leaving Disney to serve a mission did not end up being the career-killing move that people thought that it might be for Don Bluth. After graduating from BYU in English Literature and working at a T.V. animation house, he realized that the quality of work he wanted to be a part of was only being produced in one place: Walt Disney Studios.
So, he returned to where his life in the animation industry had begun. They put him to the test by handing him a paper and pencil and shutting the door for two weeks with the message, “we’ll come back when you’ve animated.” He passed their test and worked on such pictures as Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Pete’s Dragon (1977) and The Rescuers (1977).
But things were beginning to change around the studio. After Walt Disney’s death, many of the beautiful details that had first entranced Don as a child, gradually began to be taken out of the animation. They stopped inking the pictures and began Xeroxing. There were no more reflections in water and they stopped doing the whites of the eyes of some of the characters. Subtle differences, but they began to cheapen the artistic experience for Don and though he tried to maintain the traditional style of Disney, he was continually met with “corporate red tape.”
Finally, he and seventeen other animators began a project on the side that could revive some of those old techniques without adding too much expense. They worked in Don’s garage on nights and weekends, trying to relearn what had been lost and four years later they had produced a 26 minute short film entitled, Banjo the Woodpile Cat.
It told the story of the little cat that hung around the milking barn in Payson, Don’s boyhood home and his [mis]adventures when he runs away to Salt Lake City. They proudly brought the film to Disney to prove that the old methods could still be employed without adding unreasonable extra cost, but no one would even look at the film. A backer outside of Disney, however, was impressed with their work and offered to put up 6.5 million dollars for them to find a story and produce a feature film.
Seventeen resignation letters were handed in to the studio in Burbank on September 13, Don’s birthday and a new project, The Secret of NIMH, soon found its way into production.
Their breakout film, this first attempt to produce something free of the limitations at Disney did not do financially well, but was critically very well received. Steven Spielberg saw the picture and was extremely impressed. He asked whether they would be interested in making a picture with him and that first offer budded into a working relationship that became An American Tail and Land Before Time.
Don says that the projects led to more projects, like a ladder, “like rungs on a ladder as you just keep developing and hunting for more opportunities to express something beautiful.”
And these films are something beautiful. Spielberg said from the beginning that An American Tail was going to be a story about people coming to America.Though the story follows a family of mice, the film portrays the experience, the struggles and expectations that real, human immigrants would have dealt with in traveling to the land of liberty.’
The main character’s name was original Mousky Mousekewitz, but Spielberg came in one day and said that the name instead was to be Feivel. Don and his team asked where Steven had gotten the name and he said it was his Russian grandfather’s name. They were telling the story of a real person who had come through Ellis Island and become an American. Don said the project, “took on a whole different color for us, when it became personal.”
Though someone very specific inspired the story for An American Tail, the feelings behind it are universal. Anyone who has ever hoped for the American dream knows exactly what it means for there to be “no cats in America” and just what kind of cheese they hope their streets will be paved with. This film is palatable for children, but it also examines the nature of the desire for prosperity and the persistence that success requires and the importance of having someone that you love Somewhere Out There waiting for you. That song, by the way, was originally going to be a number called Hey Mr. Man in the Moon.
There is something very genuine and full in the emotions expressed by the characters that live out their life’s journeys in Don Bluth’s films. I heard it said once that the way to test if someone is a robot is to see if they cry when Little foot loses his mother in Land Before Time. By that standard, I’ve proven my humanity time and again. Don and his animating team have taken great cares to really get to know and understand the characters that they are bringing to life.
“When I look at animated characters and a lot of times, they are animals…the symbol or the drawing represents a person, really; a human. It’s a symbol for someone. So, we’re not really telling the story of animals. When I look at Bambi, Bambi is certainly not a little deer, he’s a little boy, who is born into the world and as we watch him-because we’re human, we’re not deer—as we watch him, we begin to empathize with what he is. We transfer that little deer over onto a human because all of the things that the deer is saying, all the things that the deer’s going through are human things. So, it’s easy to watch animation and be taught by it because you never really figure out that they’re talking about you.”
People, real people have also been the most meaningful part of Don’s career in the process of creating these animated features. “All of the ups and downs and the discouragement and the elation when we got it right…all of those relationships with those people and their personalities is what I remember.” Art, and particularly filmmaking is a collaborative process and the people that you rub shoulders with are the ones that share your sorrows and your joys and for Don, the best part of the ride.
Frustrations like Steven Spielberg cutting 80 feet of colored film because a T-rex chase sequence was deemed too scary for children. There were also more poignant blows like hearing that Judith Barsi who did the unforgettable and adorable voices of both Ducky in Land Before Time and Anne-Marie in All Dogs Go to Heaven, was killed by her father a year and half before the latter film was completed. Don said that the news “nearly paralyzed us.” Those that were working on Anne-Marie each had cassette recordings of her voice to help in the animating process and he said, “we couldn’t listen to the voice. Everybody would start tearing up….so it stopped everything for a while.”
Through shared heartache and progress, Don Bluth has made films that have entered the childhood canon of people all over the world. He went on to direct Thumbelina (1994), A Troll in Central Park (1994), and Anastasia (1997) to name a few. The songs, the stories and most of all the characters are things that stick with people, things that tug at the heart.
“When we were making the pictures, were aware that people would learn the dialogue that they would quote [it].” They recognized the significant moments of creation as they happened, but perhaps are still unaware of their effect. Four year old Don only knew a name; Walt Disney. He could never have known then, that he would cultivate a career and a body of work that would bring a new generation of aspiring animators the same kind of inspiration that Walt brought to him.
But animation today has also largely departed from the traditional style that Don fought so hard to preserve. Most of it is now CGI (Computer-generated imagery) and animators have become puppeteers and departed from their previously intimate role as the personal purveyors of every stroke and line. New technology means that animated worlds have become more and more realistic, but less magical. They’ve lost a bit of that ability to transport viewers into another world; with a few notable exceptions, they’ve lost their enchantment.
We will remember the classics.
When asked how his spirituality has affected his approach to the movies he makes and the stories he tells, Don said, “it affects everything that I do…everything I do, I do for [Jesus Christ] and for His glory, because I can never pay back what He has done….
He gave us an opportunity; our potential can be realized and not just lost, you can never be grateful enough for that.”
Don seems thrilled to discuss his passions, but speaks meekly of his accomplishments. He acknowledges that he is merely a conduit for the Lord and that if he has been able to do anything unusual, it is because he has allowed the Lord to work through him. He approaching everything prayerfully, he says “I know it’s going to have an effect. I know it’s going to reach people and I know it’s going to influence their lives, so let me say it sweetly.”
Don Bluth stands as one of a very few LDS artists that has gone out into the industry and created a name for himself separate from any label of “Mormon art,” while simultaneously managing to keep his spiritual priorities at the forefront. He has continually made the people around him his priority and a partner of his once commented and he agreed that, “if we get successful, it’s not going to be any fun unless we take everybody else with us.”
I asked him what he hoped to convey through all of the things that he’s done with his life and the response was immediate, “the greatest commandment is love God….and then the second one, if you want to prove to God that you love him; serve other people. Lose your selfishness. If you can figure out how to take all the things that you’ve been blessed with and…help heal the wounds of some of the people around you and help them find their joy in life that is your own joy.”