Sometime last year, I was YouTube surfing to pass the time and came across the score for “The Land Before Time.” If you’re of a certain age (like me), and you had an unhealthy obsession with dinosaurs (also like me), there’s no doubt you’ve seen director Don Bluth’s animated classic, which tells the story of a group of young dinosaurs desperately searching for a place to call home.
Listening to James Horner’s stirring orchestrations, I couldn’t help but tear up. I was immediately transported back in time, a little kid again as I watched a small dinosaur named Littlefoot tell his dying mother goodbye. I think this moment in “The Land Before Time” was one of my first brushes with the concept of death – a hard, but important lesson that Bluth’s films often deal with. In everything from “The Secret of NIMH” to “Anastasia,” Bluth never shied away from the ugly or scary parts of life. But he always did so with a childlike sense of wonder, creating thought-provoking and moving films that the entire family could find their hearts in.
Bluth will be a guest at this year’s MomoCon. In April, I was lucky enough to speak with Bluth for roughly 30 minutes on the phone. We talked about “The Land Before Time,” and Bluth’s philosophy on letting children see the bad times as well as the good. We talked briefly about his time at Walt Disney, and the heyday of Don Bluth Entertainment (formerly Sullivan Bluth Studios). We talked about the mission he took to Argentina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how that influenced his work, and his commitment to the art of 2D animation.
We talked about a lot of things, but the concept of a journey seemed to come up over and over again. Not only do so many of Bluth’s movies center around a quest, or a journey home, but he seems to view his life that way as well. Everything – good and bad – leads up to something significant.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I figured we start at the beginning. You’ve said over the years that it was watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that made you decide you wanted to be an animator. What about that movie specifically inspired you?
Don Bluth: I live in the world of the artists, and artists are very different. They’re very right-brained people. What artists do is they’re very sensitive to colors, they’re very sensitive to sounds, to music, to movement, maybe more than most because they’re trying to reproduce or create that themselves.
When I went to see – I was only a child, by the way – when I went to see “Snow White,” I was just a little kid, but I noticed the beautiful colors that were up on the screen. Which is something that I do not see in 3D animation today. So I noticed those colors, and then I noticed that the movements that the characters did were not like human movements, but were exaggerated or, if you will, caricatures. I also noticed that the story was very compelling. I didn’t know how to define the story in those days, I was too young. But really, it’s about an old woman who is jealous of somebody more beautiful than her, and so she sets out to kill that person. It doesn’t sound like a children’s story, does it?
Bluth: I think I heard many years later Walt [Disney] say, I never made movies for children. I made them so the whole family could go see them. And in so doing, it brought the family closer together, and anything the child didn’t understand, the parents were there to explain it. It had many levels. Movies were layered with levels. Nowadays, it seems like the movies are basically [aimed] at a group of people that just want to laugh, but they don’t want to deal with some of life’s really important issues. I now think in terms of the movie “Bambi,” which is one of my favorites – and probably the favorite. I sat next to my mom when I watched “Bambi,” and I watched while the mother and the little deer are enjoying some grass after a very long, hard winter. And the mother raises her head, she says, Bambi, quick! The thicket, run!
They start running, and the little deer is going faster than his mom. You hear a rifle shot, and the little deer arrives in the thicket and says, we made it mother, we made it! And then it goes quiet. Mother, he starts calling, and it starts to snow. All the time I’m looking at this, I realize that somebody shot his mother. That’s very, very serious for a young person. So then suddenly the redemption to that whole thing is the big stag of the forest, which had earlier been introduced, suddenly appears before the young fawn and says, your mother can’t be with you anymore. Man has taken her away. That is a chilling moment, because the father is there for the first time to take care of the son. But you know what? I think the overall look and the message of that is so powerful. Even when I directed a movie called “The Land Before Time,” there’s a moment when the mother was taken away. I thought back on this “Bambi” moment, and I said, what is it that we’re seeing? Because I know that a lot of children will face it sitting next to their parents, and will feel that moment when the mother is no longer there.
I’m so glad you brought up “The Land Before Time.” I think as a kid, that was probably one of the first representations of death I saw on screen, so I relate to your “Bambi” experience. Looking at your filmography, I find a lot of similarities. There is darkness in those stories, and I also think there’s always this idea of a journey, whether that be to somewhere new or back home. I wondered if those are aspects in storytelling that you actively seek out when you’re thinking about a project?
Bluth: I put in the [autobiography] that I wrote … I had a father and I had a mother, and they were most kind. My father had a really, really bad temper. We lived on a farm, and he would lose his temper very quickly because he was fighting to keep the roof over our heads and food on the table, while all I’m doing is running around making drawings, and not realizing what he’s going through.
I think what it is, is all that experience that we go through when we’re young, hopefully it teaches us that there are all kinds of things in life, good and bad. The keyword is all – the good and the bad is going to come to you in your life, and it seems like when the bad comes, it’s not going to be enjoyable, exactly, but it’s going to be a learning moment. So you let bad come. You embrace it, and let it happen, and when it’s over – and it will get over – when it’s over, then come the good times. It seems like that’s a teeter-totter in a way. One goes up, one goes down, and it happens all through your life. I think those are planned. I don’t know who plans them exactly, but I think it’s planned. We live in a world that has a lot of pain in it. And yet, it has a lot of joy in it at the same time. Maybe that’s why I like the early Disney movies, because [Walt Disney] wasn’t afraid to tell the story of life. And the story of life really is about how to be joyful in the face of disparity.
You brought up your autobiography – “Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life,” that came out last year. When and why did you decide you wanted to write an autobiography?
Bluth: I actually started just writing down thoughts as I get older so I wouldn’t forget all the things I’ve gone through. So I didn’t say, I’m going to write a book and sat down and started writing. That didn’t happen that way. What I did do, though, is sit down and write, and as I wrote these things, from the memory that I have, I began to see a thread that went through the whole thing. By the time that I was at a place in my journey that I could direct and make movies, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of things, that prepared me for that.
I heard Julie Andrews say one time – in a documentary, not in person – I heard her say, nothing is wasted in life. Everything you go through, you will use somewhere, but nothing is wasted. So even the bad times, you’re going to use all that you learn during that bad time. I think that’s really important. I don’t know – your question originally, I think I’ve deviated from. [Laughs] Say it again.
No, you’re good. It was if there was a moment you decided you were going to write all this down, but you said it came sort of gradually?
Bluth: It sort of evolved to a point, where I said, you know what? Maybe someone else would like to know this. There’s another thing – my whole life, I was known as Don Bluth the animator. You know, I play with cartoons, I draw, I animate, I make movies, all that kind of thing. But there is more. I had never told anybody what the more is. And maybe the more that is in my life is part of the impetus that caused me to even make the movies. So I said, maybe what I need to do here is pull back the curtain and reveal who I really am. I chose the book to do that, and basically what I said is, you know I’m – religious is not the right word for it. But I am a believer, and I’m a person of faith. I believe that there is a creator that’s over the whole Earth and over everything that happens. I take hope from that, and I realize that, is this creator aware that I’m here? And the answer to that, I kept thinking yes. He put me here, he knows I’m here, and I wonder if I’m doing what I should be doing.
All of that came out later, because I came to a crossroads in my life where it was, stay at Disney, be successful there, maybe gain some fame there. Do all of that, which you really love to do. Or, my bishop said, quit all that and go to Argentina and teach people. That is just two worlds.
Yeah, those are very different paths.
Bluth: Very different. Somebody said to me, they said you know what, it’s a choice between Disney and God? Is that what your choice is? [Laughs] I said, well I’ve seen Disney. I think what I felt inside, which was very, very deep, is what a lot of people feel deeply, but they’re afraid to face it and bring it out. I just bought it out and said okay – it’s for two and a half years. I’ll do it. And then maybe if animation is here when I get home, I’ll go back to it.
What was that experience like in Argentina? You were there for two and a half years?
Bluth: Two and a half years, 30 months. It was different. It was a complete different life in those days. I know Argentina has changed nowadays, but this was in 1957, somewhere around there. When I went there, I couldn’t speak Spanish. Could not speak it. And all the instructions that I got from my church was, buy a grammar book and teach yourself how to speak. So I bought a grammar book, got on the airplane, then got on the boat in New York and for one month sailed down to Argentina.
It was an enormous experience for someone so young. I was just wide open, eyes wide open, looking at everything and trying to digest what the world was – that was so much bigger than me and my animation desk. Much bigger than that. The reason I tell you this is because I think as I began to look at people as what the world is all about, and their struggle, and their stories, and what they do, that affected the movies I made when I came home. Everything that you go through in your life, whatever it is, it’s going to come to surface again and serve you in some way.
As I was preparing for this, I felt like I kept finding all of these unfinished projects, or projects that you worked on for years and then never really came to fruition. Is there anything out there that you worked on that you wish turned out differently, or you would like to return to someday?
Bluth: When we were in the heyday of our studio, we were planning all kinds of things. We made a poster of “Beauty and the Beast” before Disney ever made it, a poster of “Aladdin” before that was ever made. I think one by one, we watched other things happen, and we got into the gaming business and did “Dragon’s Lair,” and did “Space Ace.” It was like running on a treadmill. By the time you finished one movie, you better be ready for the next because you’re going to have to write that script.
“The Secret of NIMH 2,” I would have loved to have done. I mean, really loved to have done. Someone grabbed it, they owned it, so they said they’ll do the sequel. I didn’t even want to watch it. I finally did, and it made me sad because I knew there was so much more in poking around with that story. It has a lot to say that hasn’t been said.
I know that you’ve taught some classes on animation, and I wondered what are the ideas about the art of animation, particularly hand-drawn animation, that you try to instill into your students?
Bluth: Well, I work with a very talented young man named Lavalle [Lee] and he is extremely, extremely good at what he does. He said to my partner and myself, Gary Goldman, he said you need to have a university in which you teach people the animation. Unless you’re going to go on making films, you need to teach others so they can continue to do it. Animation, it’s very, very subtle. You’re going to draw someone doing an acting moment. First of all, you’ve got to be a really good artist to be able to do that. And then you have to understand, what is acting? Becoming a character that’s not you, and playing that character in such a way that you reveal something important to the audience itself. That’s quite deep, to be able to do that.
I find in teaching at the university that oftentimes, we’re struggling first of all with just being able to draw. You take a pencil, and sometimes that pencil is just magic and it does wonderful things. But most of the time, it doesn’t. You can draw a character, let’s say like Cinderella. You can draw a character like Cinderella, but when she’s getting up in the morning and she’s singing – “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” – when she is doing that, that’s acting. That’s not drawing. Drawing is the language. You have to be able to draw, but it’s beyond that. And I think beyond that is, what is that character that you’re drawing feeling? That’s important. What is your character feeling? It’s not just a drawing. It’s a living thing, and it feels things. What are the emotions? That’s what you animate.
That’s so interesting that you say that. I was thinking about what the differences are between directing a live action movie versus an animated movie. They’re probably similar in a lot of ways and I’m not a director, but I feel like you probably have a little more control over the final product on the animation side.
Bluth: In both worlds, there are problems. Let’s go to the world of live action, where actors are there, and the director struggles and suffers trying to get a performance out of an actor that really doesn’t know what the director is talking about. If they’ve not felt the feeling of losing a loved one, they can’t possibly really play it so that it’s convincing. They have to first know the emotion. The other thing too, is that some actors, what they do, is they indicate an emotion, which isn’t real. It’s always phony and you can always tell. It doesn’t move you at all. If the actor can assume a feeling and go through the feeling right in front of your eyes, even though it’s a camera and it’s on film, if they can do that in front of you, you will feel it. When you go to the world of animation, we’re dealing with the same thing. Can you do a drawing which is defying you to make it come to life? Can you do a drawing that obeys those rules and come up with something that is precious in the way that it expresses an emotion?
This is interesting to me. One time, Walt said, we’ve made the “Silly Symphonies” cartoons, and we’ve made people laugh in the theaters. But I wonder, could we make people cry? And so they set about to do it, and that was the movie “Snow White.” He was in the back of the theater … where they premiered it, and all of Hollywood turned out to see it because they were curious, mainly. Could he pull this off? Animation was just a cartoon, not something real. So they went to the theater, they watched it, and after each of the moments when there was a musical number or something, this group of Hollywood people rose to their feet and applauded. They realized something wonderful was happening. But then there was the moment when Snow White has eaten the apple. She’s dead, she’s laying on the bed and the dwarfs are surrounding her on their knees, and they’re crying. Walt said, look – the audience is also crying. We did it.
In the artistic world, those people who have aspirations of becoming an artist, it’s a good idea that they learn to feel what they’re feeling, and figure out how to communicate that with other people. It’s so important.
You recently started Don Bluth Studios in 2020. Can you talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish with that studio and the first project, “Bluth’s Fables?”
Bluth: Going into the business world and actually funding a [hand-drawn] animated picture, is so expensive right now. And the sad part about it is that many of the artists who knew how to do all of that, many of them are retired. So getting it all to happen again is going to be really difficult. I think with the studio, what Lavalle [Lee, vice president of Don Bluth Studios] and myself have decided to do was to make some books. I can still paint, and I can still draw. We can still tell stories, it just won’t be on the big screen. If at some point, someone then reads the story and gets something out of it, or perhaps they cry, or shed a tear, well then we’ve done something.
The first book that we’re going to release is about a little whale. I wrote a story on that, and his name is Yuki. Yuki gets captured and put in one of those oceanariums. It’s [about] how he struggles to go back home. There was a movie that was out called “Free Willy.” But this is about the star who played the part of the whale in “Free Willy.” You know, he wasn’t released. But the movie released him. The story is about how the real star of the show finally finds his way back home.
I can’t wait to read that.
Bluth: We have a couple of other books in the works right now. We have a good little book – I probably won’t talk about it just yet, but we have two or three books that are in the works. I’m really happy doing that. I learned to paint [laughs]. I’m loving the feeling of painting and working with watercolor.
Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta
Credit: Rough Draft Atlanta
MEET OUR PARTNER
Today’s story comes from our partner, Rough Draft Atlanta. Rough Draft publishes Reporter Newspapers, community newspapers in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs. Visit them online at RoughDraftAtlanta.com or on Instagram @RoughDraftATL.
If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Credit: Henri Hollis / Henri.Hollis@ajc.com