An inside look at key moments in the life of Don Bluth, animator, film director and Latter-day Saint
After more than five decades in Hollywood, the man behind ‘The Secret of NIMH,’ ‘An American Tail,’ ‘The Land Before Time’ and more, has published his autobiography
Don Bluth has accomplished a lot in his career.
The 84-year-old has been a film director, animator, production designer, video game designer and animation instructor. He is best known for his animated films, “The Secret of NIMH” (1982), “An American Tail” (1986), “The Land Before Time” (1988), “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989), “Anastasia” (1997), and “Titan A.E.” (2000), to name a few. He was involved in the creation of the video game, “Dragon’s Lair.” He also worked on some classic films while employed by Walt Disney Productions early in his career.
What does he consider his greatest accomplishment?
“Staying alive,” Bluth said. “I’ll be 85 in September.”
“I’m absolutely at peace. Everything turned out just beautifully for me. Things I used to dream about doing, those dreams came true. It’s really wonderful to dream a dream and have it come true,” said Bluth, a Latter-day Saint. “As I went back and wrote all these things down, that is when I gained a real appreciation of things in my life and the blessings that I have been given.”
Bluth’s work as an animation producer and director, along with the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), brought renewed interest in what felt like a dying medium of filmmaking, said Kelly Loosli, a professor and the director of BYU’s Center for Animation.
“Disney’s films had struggled and films like ‘The Secret of NIMH,’ ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘An American Tail’ showed what was possible, and that audiences still had an appetite for quality 2D animated films,” Loosli said. “I’m not sure the rebirth of Disney animation that we always talk about with ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ would have happened had Don and Gary (Goldman’s) films not showed Hollywood that audiences still wanted good, animated product.”
With the upcoming release of his new book, Bluth spoke with the Deseret News about his career, his films, the celebrities he worked with and his Latter-day Saint faith.
Discovering a love of animated art
Bluth was 4 years old when his parents took him to a theater in El Paso, Texas, to see his first movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
The young boy didn’t know anything about art, but he remembers the show was fun and he liked when the queen turned into a scary witch. The images remained in his mind long after they left the theater.
“It was something that impressed me — ‘Let’s go do that again!’” Bluth said. “I was very impressed with the look of it. I couldn’t say for sure why I was so attracted to it.”
As a Latter-day Saint, Bluth believes his talents, gifts and life’s work were bestowed upon him before his spirit came to earth.
“I think probably I was programmed there to do this with my life,” he said. “It’s much deeper than just a child deciding. I think that was my mission to do this.”
Bluth applied for a job at Disney in 1956. That’s where he met some of his “beloved teachers,” John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and Wolfgang Reitherman, who “looked at my amateurish scribbles and gave me encouragement.”
“I got the job and then I began to see and meet the heroes of my life that I had known for a long, long time,” he said. “They were very talented men who had been animating for a long time at Disney Studio, probably clear back to ‘Snow White.’ They were amazing because they knew how to explain how the art works and exactly what is the process of making an animated film.”
Bluth met one of his most influential mentors in the world of animation — “Judge” Wetzel Whitaker — before going to Disney.
Bluth was about 17 years old when he met Whitaker, who had left Walt Disney Productions to take over the motion pictures department at Brigham Young University. Whitaker taught Bluth how to do many things, including how to draw on paper and make the characters move.
At one point, Bluth remembers asking Whitaker why he left Disney. Whitaker said he had reached a fork in the road of life, where he could stay at Disney or come to BYU and serve the church.
Bluth didn’t understand his decision, but Whitaker assured him he would one day.
“No, not me,” Bluth said. “I will never leave Disney once I get in there.’”
Bluth left Disney one year after he arrived.
A mission to Argentina
Within his first year, Bluth was promoted to assistant animator and things were going well. Some of his co-workers were even jealous of his success, he said.
Then Bluth received a call from his Latter-day Saint bishop.
“He asked me to go on a mission and I went ‘Oh no, everything’s working out so fine. Everything I’ve ever dreamed of was happening,’” he said. “Now the bishop said, ‘Would you go on a mission?’”
It was a difficult decision, but after praying for guidance, Bluth accepted a mission call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was sent to Argentina. He was among the last missionaries to travel there by boat and served for a span of 21⁄2 years.
“The mission was probably one of the best things that happened to me,” Bluth said. “Had I not gone on the mission, I don’t think the blessings that followed when I came home would have been there.”
After returning home, Bluth worked at Disney for close to a decade before venturing out to create 11 animated movies, something no one else had done. He worked with names like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as numerous movie stars doing voices.
“I never raised a dime to do any of that. It just opened out,” Bluth said. “By obedience of going on the mission, I got the reward.”
Departing Disney and the hero’s journey
Following his mission, Bluth earned a degree in English literature at BYU and eventually returned to Disney in 1971. Over the next decade he contributed to the production of “Robin Hood” (1973), “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974), “The Rescuers” (1977) and “Pete’s Dragon” (1977), “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) and other projects.
But Disney wasn’t the same as it had been before. Walt Disney died in 1966 and his nine core animators were nearing the end of their careers. Hand-drawn animation was shrinking and 3D/computer animation was starting to be developed. Younger animators came in with new ideas and “it wasn’t a smooth transition,” Bluth said.
Bluth left with Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy to create Don Bluth Productions in 1979.
“I think he took some pretty big risks,” Loosli said. “Leaving Disney and going head-to-head with Disney took a lot of vision and conviction, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. Not all of his films found their audience or were great, but he believed in himself and in the talent he could bring together to make animated films and games. He was bold and dedicated to the medium. He and Gary are definitely an amazing and unique chapter in animation history.”
One of the keys to producing a good film, Bluth learned, was the art of storytelling. He was greatly influenced by the idea of the “Hero’s Journey” from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
The journey begins when something causes a character, man or woman, to leave home where he or she meets an enemy or confronts an obstacle. The character must then defeat the foe before returning home to an enriched life and valuable lesson learned. Bluth also found deeper spiritual meaning in the hero’s journey and realized everyone can relate to it. The hero’s journey pattern is evident in Bluth’s films.
“This is actually the story of the gospel. We are the hero’s journey right now while we’re here,” he said. “If you go around the world, almost every country and society has the same journey. We have different customs, different languages, but the journey seems to be always there.”
Who was the most fun to work with?
Bluth worked with a variety of famous names and celebrity voices on his various films, including Spielberg, Lucas, Meg Ryan, Angela Lansbury, John Cusack, Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore and others.
Who was the most fun to work with?
Lansbury is up there. Bluth said she was “gracious,” always concerned about the welfare of others, and often brought her own bag of health food to make sure everyone was eating properly, like a protective mother or great aunt.
Bluth described Cusack as a “talented actor” who was “wonderful to work with” because he accepted suggestions and direction so easily. “There was no ego,” Bluth said.
Another favorite was Dom DeLuise, who had roles in “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail,” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” He could look at a not-funny script and make it funny by the way he read it. DeLuise died in 2009.
“He was absolutely fabulous,” Bluth said. “He was a very nice man, really talented. I’m sorry he’s not with us anymore.”
Burt Reynolds, another of Bluth’s favorites, was the voice of “Charlie” in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989). Bluth remembers Reynolds coming in with a dog voice that was “not good.” Bluth turned to DeLuise for help.
“Dom said ‘Put me in the movie, give me a character and let Burt and I work together. I’ll get rid of that voice.’” Bluth said.
DeLuise got Reynolds to revert back to his own voice and the film was made.
‘Secret of NIMH’ and ‘An American Tail’
Of the 11 movies Bluth made, his first feature-length film, “The Secret of NIMH,” is special because it was created more out of “innocence” and not commercial gain.
Bluth had a hand in every aspect of the film: director, producer, layout artist and directing animator, among other contributions. It was important to find the right voice for each character and the overall process required patience and great detail.
“There weren’t a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” he said. “I think that was probably the most satisfying to do and then in came all the people with ideas of what they wanted to see.”
One story Bluth tells in his book is about “Waldo,” one animator’s pet rat that also served as a model for the rats of “NIMH.” Waldo roamed freely in a miniature catwalk near the ceiling in the studio where the animators worked.
One day actress Julie Andrews (“The Sound of Music,” “Mary Poppins”) visited Bluth’s studio for a tour and let out a frantic scream when she noticed Waldo. Andrews was frightened, but the rat cowered in a corner of his cage and didn’t emerge for two days.
Bluth apologized to Andrews and asked her to forgive the little creature. “He’s not used to celebrities and he’s quite harmless.”
“Someday I would love to hear her version of the rat encounter,” Bluth wrote. “Come to think of it, I’d also like to hear the rat’s version. ... Would Waldo have been less traumatized if Ms. Andrews had sung ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?’”
Collaborating with Spielberg on “An American Tail” was another memorable experience. Bluth directed, produced and served as production designer and storyboard artist while Spielberg was a producer.
“Our budget was tight, and we had to work fast to make the schedule. It was hard work. There was a lot at stake,” Bluth wrote in his book. “Yet every morning the man in the mirror and I were in agreement: we couldn’t believe that a Utah farm boy was working with Steven Spielberg. What a magical experience.”
Finding the voice for Fievel the mouse was a big deal, Bluth said.
“We hunted and hunted and hunted to finally find that little voice,” he said.
They listened to several audition tapes and sent the ones they liked to Spielberg, who eventually found the right voice with Phillip Glasser.
“He was just a little kid at the time, but he had this great little voice that hadn’t changed yet and it was appealing to listen to,” Bluth said. “When he sang the song, ‘Somewhere Out There,’ it was to die for, just adorable.”
‘My ministry in this life’
Even in his mid-80s, Bluth, who never married, doesn’t show signs of slowing down. He’s healthy and feels good. He’s still engaged in projects and teaches animation classes through Don Bluth University.
“I’ve always loved teaching,” he said. “It’s fun to watch people develop and get a grin on their face when they have success.”
What Bluth hopes readers find in his story are lessons of faith and hard work.
“There is joy in work and that leads to success, triumph, accomplishment,” he said.
“My ministry in this life was what I did. It was the animation and talking to people through animation so that I may bear witness of what I know.”