Go to Homepage   Don Bluth & Gary Goldman: Long-running Fun

Gary Goldman (left) takes care of the business details, while partner in animation Don Bluth contemplates what he will sketch for a customer at Dragoncon 2001. Bluth's stepson, Don Monahan (in blue shirt) looks on. Monahan also works Don Bluth Productions and publishes the company animation magazine, Toon Talk. (All photos by Jean Marie Ward)

Good friendships make bad partnerships -- or so the conventional wisdom goes. How, then, do you explain the complementary careers of Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, creators of some of the most beloved animated films of the last thirty years, including Anastasia, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Secret of N.I.M.H.?

Their shared passion for the art and technique of animation, coupled with an abiding commitment to providing high quality entertainment for children of all ages obviously plays a major role. But don't overlook the goofy sense of fun that shines through their groundbreaking arcade games, Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Crescent Blues found plenty of evidence of both at Dragoncon 2001, where Bluth and Goldman were talking to fans and gearing up for the 3-D and movie version of Dragon's Lair.

Crescent Blues: What brought you guys to Dragoncon?

Don Bluth: Ed Kramer contacted us during the 2000 Comicon, in San Diego. Ed said, what you guys want to do is come to Dragoncon, because we have a great, just a great group there. It's so exciting, and it's so much more fun than Comicon. We got excited about doing it, so we talked to Ed on the phone a couple of times and said, what the heck, let's go see what the people are like there in Atlanta. So Gary and I started doing preparations to come out here, looking forward to it but not knowing what to expect.

Don's a manipulator, and he tricked me into it.

I have been completely gratified by coming here -- sitting in the booth and doing drawings and talking to the people -- because these are the people who watch our movies. We need a periscope up, so to speak, to listen to what they're saying and hear their reactions to the films. Sometimes, we're working in a closet or in a vacuum, and [without feedback] we wouldn't know what we're doing.

So these past three days have been just really, really great for me, and the people are really sweet and wonderful.

Crescent Blues: Is the audience different than you would find at Comicon?

Don Bluth: I think so. In California, what I find is a lot of the business people -- people who are in comic businesses and who are in show business and working in Hollywood and so forth. Comicon is huge. It's so big that it's hard to comprehend what's going on in that room. And many of [the people attending] are fierce competitors.

Whereas the people I've met here in Atlanta, I think a lot of them are families. They're grassroots people, and I love that. I think that's the greatest part about Dragoncon, because I'm seeing people -- not peers who are just out there trying to make a buck -- because when you deal with artwork, you're really trying to communicate with people. I think that's the difference.

Crescent Blues: How important is audience input to the films you make?

DVD: Secret of NimhDon Bluth: Really, really important. Years ago, I had a live theater. We used to put on plays every night. You memorized the words, you put on the play six times a week, and every time an audience came in, the reaction was different. But I found that the reaction of the audience was what made the actors do better on the stage -- or not. The actors feed off the audience reactions.

The same principle applies here. Listening to the families -- moms, dads and particularly the kids -- how they react to what we've created, tells us where to go. Without that we're groping in the dark.

Crescent Blues: You guys really do have the partnership routine down. I know you met at Disney Studios, but what made you decide to get together and put on your own show?

Gary Goldman: Don's a manipulator, and he tricked me into it.

Don Bluth: And he's really glad I did.

Gary Goldman: I'm really glad he did.

Don Bluth: You never know what you're getting into when you begin a journey. You just go full of hope and great aspirations. When we were there at Disney, what we wanted more than anything was to recapture some of the beautiful things that had influenced us during our lives. We had watched the Disney product, the things that Walt [Disney] made.

"Oh, that's easy. This is what you do." They would explain it. We would write it down.

When Walt died in 1966, a man by the name of Woolie Reitherman -- Wolfgang Reitherman, took over. What Woolie did was bring his personality to the table. Woolie was a World War II fighter pilot and very shy of expressing emotions. I don't think that was Walt.

Woolie finished off Jungle Book and went on to make Aristocats, The Rescuers and several other pictures. Woolie was a very different guy. We noticed that "corporately" -- and he was really hooked into the corporate -- he began to cut corners. Everyone began to say the words: That's too expensive; we can't do that nowadays. Woolie obliged.

We questioned that. Is it true? You can't do that nowadays? So at some point we decided we would experiment.

We were new going into the Disney studios, brand new. We knew a little bit about animation. We knew a little bit about drawing. But how much we were going to learn there in a very quick, few years was really up for grabs. We didn't know quite what questions to ask. And as for these old guys, who'd been there for years and years, it didn't occur to them what things to tell us. It was so familiar to them that they didn't say, "Oh, by the way, you should know this." They didn't do that, and we didn't know what to ask them.

So I said, "Gary, why don't we go out to my garage and start making a picture. And as we make the picture, we'll come to big walls of things we don't understand. Then we'll have a question, and we can go back and ask them the question. That way we'll siphon out of their experience what we need to know."

It took us about four years to make a little project called Banjo the Woodpile Cat, but questions just came up and up and up. We knew that when these Nine Old Men, as they called them, retired, we would not only have to animate, but we would have to direct and do all those other jobs that no one was addressing. Disney at that time was spending about $250,000 a year on their training program, which really isn't that much money at all. (That was back in 1971-72.) So we decided we needed to prep ourselves.

All of this was driven by a love for the art.

Gary Goldman: We were told we would have six years to digest this and prepare ourselves, because these men were going to retire. It frightened me because I could see how slowly I was progressing. Don was actually way ahead at that point. But to be given only six years to figure out how you were going to be the ones to take over was really, really difficult. Continue, Don.

Don Bluth: Oh, now I can go on. [Laughter from all sides.]

So at some point we would ask the questions, and Frank Thomas or Ollie [Johnston] or anyone we would ask the question would go: "Oh, that's easy. This is what you do." They would explain it. We would write it down.

DVD : AnastasiaThis is an interesting anecdote. We said, "You know the water in Fantasia -- where the little broom is hauling the little buckets of water around. That water looks so wet. It looks so great on screen. How did you do that?"

Frank said, "I don't know. It's been so long, and the guy who did that, he's no longer alive. I don't remember how we did that. I think we dyed lacquer and painted the cells with it. I don't remember."

That kind of frightened me, because it meant that all the things they'd learned over the years, no one's written down. Well, some things had been written down, but some things had not. So we started writing things down, just to make sure if somebody got hurt, somebody would remember.

We began to try out new things too. We found out that if you wanted to do a reflection of somebody in water, you had to draw all those drawings again as a reflection. But we figured out, while we were working in the garage that, if you took the same cell that was painted, and you just turned it upside down and repositioned it and shot it again. In the camera, you could achieve the same thing, and you wouldn't have to do all the drawing. This discovery convinced us that there must be other methods we may discover that would enable us to do the things that were considered too expensive to do in the 'Seventies. You just have to want to do them. I'm referring of course to all those wonderful production values, details and special effects animation we marveled over in pictures like Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia.

I think it's atrocious to say that. It's irresponsible. I think the kids are worth more than that

They're using these discoveries all over right now. But we went in and discovered something that was hidden under a rock. We just kept doing that. I think over the length of our careers that we've always been doing that -- hunting for some way to get the best effect on the screen.

The way I look at it, animation is a really, really powerful tool. Like you said this morning, your children look at it again and again. They memorize it. They know it very, very well. That's not just innocent. What that's doing is forming them.

If we're going to make something for the kids, you have to make it good, because it's educating them. I see so many television producers who'll say, "Why should we pay more for a TV program, when the kids aren't paying anything, and they'll watch anything anyway." I think it's atrocious to say that. It's irresponsible. I think the kids are worth more than that. You should spend more there than anywhere else, because they're absorbing it. It's forming their personality and who they're going to be. Why skimp on that?

Gary Goldman: Don always makes that statement, pointing a finger at young directors and producers, saying, "You have a responsibility to your audience." I think that's really more important for people involved in animation and stories focused towards families, because it will end up on DVD and video, and end up as what some people refer to as a "babysitter." We like to refer to it as entertainment. [Chuckles.] But in that "entertainment," we're hoping that there are lessons and there are messages that are hidden in that entertainment that will help form that young brain into a responsible person. You can only do that by being responsible in the first place.

Crescent Blues: [Sotto Voce.] I used to watch Secret of N.I.M.H. A lot.

Gary Goldman: That's because you're still a child in there somewhere.

So he went splut and squashed the spider.

Don Bluth: There are messages in Secret of N.I.M.H. If you see the story line, you'll see there are all these little junctures along the way where you have a little message that is not entirely obvious. The novels do the same thing. If you re-read a novel, you'll find all these things that you didn't see the last time you read it.

I know if you read the Bible stories [as an adult], for example, or the fairy tales, what happens is that you go: "I never remembered that. I never got that." It's because your psyche and development have progressed to the point where your understanding has increased. Then you begin to see things that you didn't see before.

The movies have that in them. I was surprised yesterday when I was talking to people. I was drawing Nicodemus from Secret of N.I.M.H. I said, "You know Nicodemus and the owl are actually the same person." Nobody knew that. I said, "They are the same person. We obviously made it so it's like a shape-shifter." Mythologically, that's what it is.

The owl is trying to get Mrs. Brisby to stop saying, "Help, help, help," and to look inside herself and find her own strength. That's what he's trying to do. So then he tells her to go the rats. He is there himself in the guise of Nicodemus. He appears to her again and says, "OK, you have to help yourself." But he makes her go on this journey, because it's by going on our daily journey or our life's journey that we learn things that we have to know. And if we don't take the time to go on those journeys, however hard they may be, then you don't pick up all the little treasures you need to be a really whole person. That's what I think.

DVD: thumbelinaGary Goldman: Mrs. Brisby didn't know that she had the strength to do what she had to do, and that journey got her there.

Crescent Blues: I've got to admit, I love that owl. He was genuinely beautiful and scary. Then there were the backgrounds, how he moved...

Gary Goldman: Those were specific choices. You asked earlier how you direct an animated movie. Those were up-front choices in pre-production where you decide where it's going to be dark, where it's going to be bright, where it's going to be blue, where it's going to be red-orange. Those choices are like orchestrating the music so it will help touch your audience's emotions.

There's a moment in there where the owl kills a spider. And you say, "Eew, why did you put that in there?" The spider was coming after Mrs. Brisby, and the owl protected her outright. Right there. So he went splut and squashed the spider. There are some cruel things that happen in this world, depending on your point of view.

Crescent Blues: I saw Secret of N.I.M.H. with my kids, and when the owl ate the bug, all three of us squeaked.

Gary Goldman: When the owl ate the moth?

Crescent Blues: It was so creepy. It was just wonderful.

Gary Goldman: I really enjoyed watching the audiences for Secret of N.I.M.H. I saw it in 26 different theaters around the United States on the promotional tour. We'd do the interviews all day long. Then in the afternoon, they'd say, "We want you to go see the premiere performance and say a few words before it starts."

I would stay in the back of the theater and watch the reactions. You know how in some animated features the kids are crawling all over the seats, because it's talky and boring? These kids never took their eyes off the screen.

We were about 25 minutes into the movie, and this little girl and her dad were walking up the aisle backwards. (She had to go to the toilet.) They were actually walking up the aisle backwards, and then they got to the exit. They stood there for five minutes, continuing to watch the movie. She did not want to leave the theater, because she was afraid she was going to miss something. This girl was only about six years old. Then they ran out the door, and they were back in about 45 seconds.

And I kept thinking how much they missed in 45 seconds. Forty-five seconds for us is a week's worth of work with over a hundred people. Don't blink your eyes, or you're going to miss somebody's engaging little drawings.

Gary Goldman: Talking about directing and performing, we've been really fortunate in that most of the actors that we've selected just fell in love with what we were trying to achieve and brought so much to the characters.

You mentioned Dom DeLuise doing the part of Jeremy the Crow. After the first recording, we started rewriting. We were working with a young artist named Will Finn, who's now done a lot of other projects with Disney and Dreamworks. Will's a good writer, and he had a knack -- at least for Dom DeLuise -- for writing dialogue, that when you read it, you thought that Dom DeLuise was saying it. So the next time we went in with Dom DeLuise to direct him at the voice recording session, he looked up and said, "Oh, I get this. Not a problem." And sometimes he would add to it or ad lib.

That's another thing that's cool. These actors have had so much experience with their careers and their own lives that once they catch on to what you're trying to get across to your audience, they'll bring a new flavor, a new spice to the mix.

Don Bluth: The Dom DeLuise part was not written with all that stuff in it. In the book, he was pretty much a straight character -- just a crow that came in to the story, sort of a "walk on." But the more we worked with him, the more he got funnier and funnier.

There were two people [who played a big part in that.]...

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman- Continued