Fantasia 2010: Don Bluth And Gary Goldman Talk The Past And Future Of Traditional Animation

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[Our thanks to Mathieu Li-Goyette of Panorama Cinema for the following interview.]

For the 14th edition of the Fantasia Film Festival, programmers had the great idea of bringing up Don Bluth and Gary Goldman to given them an honorary award and to speak about the future of traditional animation. We had the honor to meet them, the creative team behind such classics as The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), Stanley's Magic Garden (1994), Titan A.E. (2000), etc. For the occasion, a real history lesson on how animation evolved and what, in 1979, made them quit the Disney studios in search of a renaissance of the Golden Age of animation was given to us. An interview with the last milestones of commercial animation: two geniuses that still have kid's hearts.

Panorama-cinéma: So you are here in Fantasia to present The Land Before Time and to receive an honorary award.

Gary Goldman: It's what we've been told! (laughs)

Panorama-cinéma: And to speak about the state of animation nowadays.

Don Bluth: That is correct.

Panorama-cinema: With James Cameron's Avatar, what do you think of animation today? Do you think that filmmaking with CGI effects has taken the place of animated feature films?

Gary Goldman: Well, there's still animated feature films. But concerning traditional feature films, there's a problem. The audiences loves movies like Avatar, there's no doubt.  I don't know if it's any better but it's a huge step forward. It's almost like when we were doing Dragon's Lair and others were doing Mario and Pac-Man. The leap forward's good, but our concern is we hope people won't loose the drawing skills of animation. That's a big deal to us. Those were the foundations of what you are seeing today in CG and more than half of the people working in CG don't even draw.

Don Bluth: Avatar was brilliantly done and the CG work that was done in it is very realistic. It's believably realistic. And it seems more and more that the computer and the artists that run the computers are trying to do is to move them selves to where then can create a creature that's real. It's shaded, colored right and, sometimes when you see a movie like Titanic, all the people that you see on that are not real people. They are computed to look like real people but they aren't. So, traditional animation is not moving in that direction.

Traditional animation, for sure, is pure fantasy.
And it doesn't have any problems at showing it to you that way. "We are going to show you how we can make a cartoon look, not real, but fantasy real". It's a different look. This look over here of Avatar and this look over here of Peter Pan or Lady and The Tramp are not the same thing. They are so dramatically different that to call both of them animation seems to bee unclear. Avatar is what I would call as CG puppeteering because they are puppets moved around with a computer. On the other side, traditional animation is something that you draw and craft with your pencil so the access to theses two worlds is quite different.

The unfortunate part about all this is that this world over there of traditional animation has been branded as children's entertainment when the world of Avatar has more appeal to the adults. Now, why is it branded as children's entertainment? I think it's something you can find right at the doorstep of the Disney studios. Although Walt never planned to make movies only for children - and he said that - I think that what happened over the years is due to the moms and the stockholders saying: "That's what my children enjoy". And then these children grew up and said to themselves: "That's what they did when we were children and we're not going to do that we are adults". So there's a renaissance of the adult grown up who was feeling weird to go back simply to it's roots. So now we have an art form over here, which might get lost unless they see the value of saving it to exist because now it's waning. And Disney is not doing any favor there because their heart is set on CG because it makes more money and you can't serve two masters. You cannot do that. You'll love one and hate the other. 

So what's gonna happen? You're going to serve CG. By doing Princess and the Frog (2009), they just tried to serve CG and animation and it didn't work, the film suffered because their whole heart wasn't there.

Panorama-cinéma: Princess and the Frog was more a nostalgic than a real renaissance of traditional work.

Don Bluth: That's what I think. It didn't really get a chance and I do think that, somewhere, there has to be a renaissance of the old traditional and it will probably come from a private sector and not from a studio.

Panorama-cinéma: Nowadays there is a current of animated features more attached to CG and another, THE one were you still paint on celluloid, sometimes in an experimental way, where the work is influenced both by you, Ralph Bakshi or even Norman McLaren. Most of the time, the latter tend to be short movies now. When you think about it, your last film, Titan A.E. (2000) was one of the last animated features done in a traditional way with The Princess and the Frog aside from Japanese animation like the ones by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata from Studio Ghibli who still work in a traditional way.

Don Bluth: Hollywood has an enormous power over the whole world in this business. In India, for example, they do maybe 600 movies a year but they are not necessarily designed to grab you like Inception or any other summer blockbuster could do it where everyone is saying: "You must see this!".

Gary Goldman: Hollywood has a way of over-doing everything. It's huge, it has all the effects you know. Quiet stories like Bambi... I don't know how you would find an audience today.

Panorama-cinéma: Because even the quiet animated features of today like Pixar's Up (2009) was really an epic journey of an old man. It couldn't have been just his everyday life.

Gary Goldman: Well we tell stories about people that have unusual experiences and we tell stories about people that would do anything. You have to tell stories about somebody who accomplishes something that is way different from every man. And because it is unusual, then people can look at the story and start believing in the dream it tells.

Panorama-cinéma: Your movies were always about that. In Land Before Time or The Secret of NIMH there's always a bunch of little creatures that embark on an epic journey that will bring them together and that will save both their families and their world as they know it.

Gary Goldman: Yes, exactly. It will bring sense to the world and bring the families together. Most of our stories are about that and people salute it because it's what means something to them.

Panorama-cinéma: You began your career working at Disney and after you became an independent company if I'm correct.

Don Bluth: Exactly.

Panorama-cinéma: Was it because you weren't happy working at Disney or you were simply trying to make your animated feature films follow your own ways?


Gary Goldman: When we were at Disney, the animation studio was in a decline. They were looking for ways to make the movies cheaper and cheaper and cheaper... We went off in our garage to learn more and more about animation because the older ones (who were at our age now, 35 years ago) weren't there to teach us the traditional ways of doing it. We were new.

Don Bluth: Tell him how we did it in the garage.

Gary Goldman: Well Don had suggested: "Why don't we go make something shorter and then we'll have to learn all the aspects of animation and not just the drawings". Voices, colors, how to direct actors, all things that we weren't learning at Disney called Banjo the Woodpile Cat (1979). That was a 27 minutes movie and it took us 4 and a half-year to make but we learned all the aspects of production. Production scheduling, cost of everything, how to edit, how to cut, how to shot it on a camera and we came to the conclusion: "Why can't we do this at Disney?" We should be able to do all the things we did in this picture: reflections in the water, rain, all the things that we thought were beautiful in those old Disney movies.

And then Don was promoted all the way to producer/director and even when he tried to do that, management forbid us to do that because it would cost too much money. We had all the people sitting in the building having coffee and Don said: " All you got to do is give them the work. You're paying them anyway and they're sitting there with their pencil in their hairs, not in their hands because those were drinking coffee! So the reason we left was actually to try to rescue animation as we knew it - the first 7 or 8 movies Disney made from 1937 to 1959 - because they weren't doing them anymore. Walt Disney's dead and it reflects on the product they are doing today. They are actually making movies that are crap compared to what they did in their previous years. We though it was gonna be up to us to make another Disney. We were there to prove it could be done.

Don Bluth: Maybe the key to understanding is to ask the question: "What is art?" What is it? It's so subjective and it means anything to anybody, but when you put it within a corporation and you call it "show" - that's art - and "business" - that's money - you are have "art" and "money". And this is "oil" and "water". Money will always win in that wrestle and the reason is because money is what everyone is after and you have to have some to sustain your life. And some people go beyond that, they are simply greedy and want more than their share. So you get corporations who are not really people but are run by people. As an artist, when you go into thinking, you want to risk, to experiment, to find new things always wishing to find beauty in the end of our creative process and the businessman says "What?"

We are looking for things that are beautiful. So immediately there's a big gulf between the artist thinking and the businessman thinking. We want to be able to take something that, when you see it as an audience, does something to you, makes you feel something. You can't do that as long as the claws of the business people are saying you to never take risk. The reason we left Disney is because they were becoming too conservative for the artists and we were suffocating. We couldn't live in there, couldn't breathe.

Disney is good for moms, for kids, but not for artists because you can't be creative there. So you have to go find a place where you can. Even in our world, before we started our company and then suddenly we started turning into the same kind of monster, we became the same thing that we ran away from. Somewhere in there, we decided to shut it all down and decided to start it brand new were the businessman isn't there to choke you. It's very hard to comprehend if you're not an artist.

Gary Goldman: When we quit, they didn't get it. "Why would you quit? You're doing the best animation in the world?" and I replied "Not anymore". But we were able to make 12 animated films before the company actually corrupted.

Panorama-cinéma: Do you think the tension between traditional animation and the CG one is the same than in features films where you have this tension between 35mm and HD cameras? When cinemas went down after the television came into the household of everyone, do you think TV also killed animation with the rapidly done cartoons of Hanna Barbera for example. Do you think it is these commercial decisions that brought Disney to change his views on the quality rating of their work?

Gary Goldman: No. In the fifties, Walt Disney went public. He needed money because he almost called bankrupt 6 times and somewhere around 1954 he was building the park and went public just before that. He regretted his move because now he really was a corporation and he had to answer to shareholders. I don't think that what happened when MGM shut down and Hanna Barbera figured out another way of making a living and came up with these ideas to put stuff on television. I don't think it has anything to do with it. Disney was very innovative in TV and always maintained high quality and would take the risk to give a great presentation while TV wasn't paying very much money at the first time. The Wonderful World of Disney used to be a TV show. It was in black and white before being colored and he was taking you into the studio and showed the world how things were done. He was a different animal and really didn't want to be colored by the corporate world.  

Don Bluth: Ron Miller, his son-in-law, took over when Disney died. He actually became the next guy to be in charge of Disney. I was in Ron Miller's office one time and he said: "Thank goodness, Walt is dead! We are finally in the black." Which means as long as Walt was there reaching out and creating new ideas, the company was always in debt. When he made Disneyland, he went in and presented the whole idea of a theme park to the staff and everything and they refused, it was too risky. Then he went out and mortgaged a lot of his insurance policy on his houses and his land. With his money, he built the Disneyland prototype. When they saw it, the corporate people decided to buy pieces from it. But they never put up the money for him to build it.

I think it's interesting because that means, once again, the artistic mind of Disney who sees what could be and the other people that don't see are reticent to go there. That is always the problem and I think that's what we ran into. Eventually, you run into the business and the make you minimize what the beauty can be.

Gary Goldman: When James Cameron made Titanic, it was the same issue. He had a vision of what he wanted to do and it was going way over budget. Instead of being a $120 million movie, it was suddenly becoming a $250 million movie. A creative businessman like Bill Mechanic who was chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment was ready to go along with Cameron because he was the only person to handle Cameron and wanted to back him all the way. Rupert Murdoch, on the other side, said it was too much money and told them to sell one piece off. So they sold all the foreign to Paramount for $90 million. Do you know how much foreign made? Almost twice as much as it made in American. That businessman made a huge mistake; it was a $2 billion movie! And when James Cameron decided to make another movie, 10 years later, believe me that nothing was sold off for Avatar.

Somebody has to light the way and if visionaries can light it right enough, things will happen.

Panorama-cinéma: In the 70s, when you left Disney and when another animator, Ralph Bakshi, were you trying to follow a current of renaissance? Bakshi didn't begin at Disney, but did you saw his progression as an inspiration?

Gary Goldman: He was a director at Terrytoons in New York. He was very gritty and he wanted to tell stories of what's going on in the backstreets where nobody else ever goes.

Don Bluth: He went in a different direction. Disney was always addressing to the family and the children. Ralph wanted to make an adult film and came up with Fritz the Cat. It aimed right at the sexual innuendo and Disney would never do that. On the contrary, at Disney, you just couldn't show women were women. They took breast off them and it couldn't be sexually appealing.

Gary Goldman: Even when you showed the bare breast, it had to be no nipples on it if you remember Fantasia (1940).

Don Bluth: And for Snow White, they made her a character without any sexuality. What Ralph erected is something really sexual because he believed that's what adult wanted to see. I don't think it's necessarily true, but he was able to make several movies.

Gary Goldman: We have to give him credit for this. He actually made more than 10 feature films, which is something really difficult to achieve.

Don Bluth: He was using money from a film to finish another and money from this one to finish the other. Eventually, it caught up with him.

Gary Goldman: Obviously he was trying to create a different approach to extend animation. Our hope was to generate a second golden age, a real renaissance and hopefully opened Disney's eyes. We couldn't stay at that studio because we couldn't make things happen there. "If we can make it here, maybe you'll try harder, maybe you'll take the risk because you have to spend money to make money" is the state of mind we kept when we left the company.    

Panorama-cinéma: When you made Dragon's Lair, did you try to go into the video games world to experiment with narrative ways that you couldn't do in feature films?

Gary Goldman: Somebody came to us after seeing The Secret of NIMH (1982) and decided to involve us in the making of the game. He asked us to be partner and bring story content to video games and we weren't even familiar with them. When I went to an arcade, I usually went to play the miniature golf!

Don Bluth: Rick Dyer was the man who brought us the idea and they were already well into it and he asked us if we could animate Dragon's Lair. The script, when it arrived, was only about animated material so we wrote the scripts and came up with characters that would have more appeal. It was very hard to produce Dragon's Lair and the money didn't flow easily to make this happen.

But when it first happened, it really rocked the arcade industry that was used to Pong and Donkey Kong. Suddenly, here's a story and an animated film! The same kids who walked away from Disney went into the arcade and watched a Disney-like look which was fine with them. In the arcade, under a different umbrella, they were O.K. to watch it. I thought that was phenomenal. For some reason, over the years, the game has remained popular. Joystick and sword, that's the only thing you got to do.

Panorama-cinéma: In animated features, you only draw what we'll see on the screen and do not draw more. In a video game, you actually draw the possibilities of action that the player can make.

Gary Goldman: That's true. It's the same thing we were telling to ourselves while working on the game.

Panorama-cinéma: What do you think of the recent turn of Disney with movies like Enchanted or The Sorcerer's Apprentice that try to retake control of the mythology of Disney's movies from the 40s and the princess movies who were quoted, for example, in Enchanted?

Don Bluth: I'm a real fan of entertainment. I think it's great if someone creates a movie that is entertaining and in the same time, uplifting, so that it makes you really good to watch. I watched Enchanted many times and thought it was a fun movie; I loved the music, the performance of Amy Adams. I've not yet seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice but the fact that Disney opens his vaults and tries to bring his themes into the current world and making movies out of them, I have no problem with that if it's entertaining.

Gary Goldman:  Talking of Fantasia, I know that bores a lot of people but they are sequences that are really worth watching.

Don Bluth: Don't you think it's interesting that during Walt's reign as king of animation, they were so many ideas, it was so frugal, that right now they have to go back to find their ideas? Why can't they come up with ideas of their own?

Gary Goldman: It's the same thing with other movies. It's only remakes.

Don Bluth: Yes Gary, but it's simply because of the same problem we had or other had: it's corporate. Corporate doesn't have any ideas so they have to dig up the old past to find ideas. The best thing they could really do, be still and see if they can think up an idea of their own. The huge volume of Walt's work was filled with ideas, not theirs.
 
Interview by Mathieu Li-Goyette
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