Don Bluth, animator, was born on September 13, 1937, the second oldest of seven children born to Virgil Bluth and Emaline Pratt. (His grandfather was Carl Emil Bluth, a brother to our grandpa Oscar Emmanuel Bluth) Don spent his earliest years in El Paso Texas. His father was a policeman and later a private investigator. Don is a direct descendant of Pocahontas, the Indian princess who saved Pilgrim John Smith.
When he was six, the family moved to Payson, Utah where he lived on the family farm. Bluth remembered that time as, "milking 24 cows morning and night and singing Disney songs." Even then he was "honestly dreaming of working" at the Disney studio.
Bluth's initial experience with Disney was as a member of the audience at age seven. Don remembered the effect it had on him. "The first one was SNOW WHITE. I was extremely impressed with it and when I got home I tried to draw Snow White, the dwarfs, all of them."
"I'd ride my horse to the movie house in town and tie him to a tree while I went in and watched the latest Disney film. Then I'd go home and copy every Disney comic book I could find."
In 1954, the family moved to Santa Monica California. He was a senior at high school. After a year at Brigham Young University, in Utah, he brought a portfolio to the Disney studio in Burbank. He was immediately hired in 1955 as an assistant animator and put to work on SLEEPING BEAUTY. He worked as an assistant to John Lounsberry. Oddly after finally realizing his dream he left in 1957, after only two years.
Don then embarked on a mission for the Mormon Church to Argentina. After two-and-a-half years, he returned to Los Angeles...
From Arizona's East Valley Tribune - Sept 24, 2015
In a small nondescript theater in a quiet strip mall in central Scottsdale sits a giant. The walls adorned with drawings that would elicit familiarity and nostalgia from any kid that grew up in the last few decades — Littlefoot from The Land Before Time, Fievel from An American Tale, Mrs. Brisby from The Secret of NIMH. All of these drawings come from one director and animator, and his name is Don Bluth.
For over a decade, beginning in the early 1980s, Bluth was not just a mainstay in the field of animation, he was the primary if only real competition against Disney. His films went against the grain of the time that were pushing for a heavier reliance on a younger demographic and opted instead to paint worlds that — though thick with imagination and wonder — still reminded the audience of real world struggles like loss, loneliness and leaving home. As an animator who had learned from the best at Disney, Bluth knew the importance of making his films reflect the world around him.
“I think it is better for kids to experience reality for the first time in the arms of a parent,” Bluth said. “If you take somebody and put them in a plastic bubble and you protect them from anything that is sinister or dark in life, when it does hit them it is a harder hit.” And with the potential rebirth of his career more of a possibility than ever, his influence on animation becomes all the more relvenent.
The Disney era
Bluth will forever be linked in one way or another to his time at Disney, an experience that brought him into his own as an animator. Growing up in Utah, Bluth was a fan of Disney comics from a young age and he used them early on to learn how to draw. What he didn’t learn as a kid he learned quickly at 18 when he went to work for Disney as an animator straight out of high school. It was 1956 and the first film he was an animator for was Sleeping Beauty. During that time he had the chance to work under the legendary Walt Disney, who Bluth described as “a looming figure” who would go on to influence not only the way he drew, but why he drew.
“He was very family oriented and very much trying to do something that today is so foreign to many studios,” Bluth said. “He was very much interested in making a good picture, and when people like the marketing people got in the way of it he always said ‘I will make the picture and then you can market it.’"
He left Disney after more than a decade when he completed a mission for the Mormon Church and attained a formal education at Brigham Young University. However, after a failed attempt to run a theater with his brother in California, Bluth returned to Disney in 1971.
Yet not long after returning he began to notice changes that he attributed to the absence of Walt, who had passed away only a few years prior.
“When the old leaders were gone in came the Hollywood crowd, and then it was a different way of presenting, it was a ‘process,’ that was the word they used, ‘animation is a process,’ and it is not, it is an art,” Bluth said, “and the more you process it the more you turn it into an industry — that is not what it should be.”
Blazing his own trail
With the understanding that Disney could no longer offer the outlet for the sort of honest animation Bluth sought to direct, he along with partner Gary Goldman and 10 fellow animators committed to the great Disney exodus. Together they started Don Bluth Productions. There he would have the chance to direct his first full-length film, The Secret of NIMH.
“We poured a lot of our souls into that first movie and were honest and talked about some serious issues,” Bluth said. “It didn’t do well at the box office; we got pushed into a production company that didn’t care for animation, where they basically said they were not going to spend any money on distributing our movie, so we just fell into a black hole.”
Through the early 1980s Bluth struggled to keep his studio afloat with side projects, that was until Steven Spielberg ran across his first film and decided he wanted to collaborate with the studio. That collaboration would become An American Tail, a film that would prove a commercial success and would begin the studio’s trend of besting Disney both at the box office and among critics.
The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Some individuals in the animation field have claimed that this streak of success forced Disney to compete, leading to the Disney Renaissance beginning in 1989 with The Little Mermaid.
A change in direction
The 1990s saw the decline of Don Bluth Productions with decreasingly marketable films and a growing reliance on computer animation, which Bluth describes as “often closer to being a puppeteer than an animator.”
Going to work for Fox Animation Studios, the death knell of Bluth’s time as a director was sounded when the failing studio dumped a troubled project into Bluth’s lap. That film, 2000’s Titan A.E., was such a commercial failure that the studio closed and Bluth left the field.
Now, 15 years later, Bluth lives in Scottsdale and runs Don Bluth’s Front Row Theater, a quaint performance arts venue dedicated to his favorite productions in which, like his films, he enjoys putting children in leading roles. At the same time he does what he learned from the legends at Disney and passes on his gift through his teaching studio, Don Bluth Animation.
“I really do enjoy teaching because it is good to pass on what you have learned over the years,” Bluth said. “I have learned a lot of things being around talented people.”
Still, something resides within Bluth that cannot be extinguished — the desire to direct.
Bluth has announced that he is currently in talks with an unnamed studio with plans to reenter the field that he helped transform so many years ago.
“What is happening with me is I have the possibility of going back into animation and doing traditional animation again, as a director, and that is looming on the horizon right now,” Bluth said. “If that happens I will pick up my pencil and go back in.”
Should Bluth have the chance to direct his 13th animated film, he will be reentering a field that has changed immensely since he left. With today’s increasing reliance on sequels and heavy-handed computer animation some might say Don Bluth has a lot left to teach us about what, to him, will forever be art and not industry.
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