Don Bluth: Promotion or Devolution of Animation

by Sarah Mitchell

Animation was used and promoted by Walt Disney, who created Disney studios, an independent studio created in the 1920's. Disney has been known for making breakthroughs in the use of animation in the US, he made his movies more for the enjoyment of children, and worked for high quality animation. After Disney died, the studio struggled to continue the tradition. Don Bluth came to the studio in the seventies and soon was being hailed at Disney as the crown prince of the studio's animation department (Seale, 78). But he later resigned from the studio and started his own productions, looking off Disney's golden age animation for guidance. Bluth claimed that his use of 40's Disney style was being used as a starting point for how to produce quality animation and animated stories. Other critics saw this as a type of devolution (Seale, 79) of animation and a bad outlook for the future of animation in the early 80's when Bluth's debut film was released. This paper will look at whether or not, 20 years later, this is correct and how the future of Bluth's animation looks now.

Animation is the use of photographed drawings that, when projected in sequence, can, with the help of an illusion called persistence of vision, create the illusion of movement on screen. Today's cameras record and project movement at 24 frames per second to create the illusion of fluid motion (Giannetti, 104). Therefore, this many drawings must be made for every second of animation for todayís animated films so it looks realistic. Animation is one of five basic distortions that can be used in film today. The other four are fast motion, slow motion, reverse motion, and freeze frames. These are only the ones that are used today, there were many more discovered by early filmmakers such as Miles (Giannetti, 105).

There are two fundamental differences between animation and live action movies. One difference is that each frame of film must be photographed separately instead of continuously like it is in live action. The other is that animation does not ordinarily involve the photography of objects that move by themselves (Giannetti, 106). Pixilation, or stop-motion photography, involves photographing live actors one frame at a time, creating an animated feel with actual photographs (Giannetti,108).

There are many popular misconceptions of animated films. One is that all animation is geared towards children, comments Understanding Movies, ìperhaps because the field was dominated for so many years by Disney. In actuality, the gamut of sophistication in this genre is as broad as in live-action fiction films (Giannetti, 106-107). Japanese Anime, for example, is for the enjoyment of adults mostly. Many films in America are for the enjoyment of children and adults together, some jokes too sophisticated for children to understand. Another misconception is animation is simpler that live action, possibly because they are drawn and at times may look simple. In reality this is in no way true. In an average feature of 90 minutes, an animated feature requires over 129,000 drawings and each frame of film may contain 3 to 4 layers of cells at once (Giannetti, 107). Cells are transparent sheets of plastic onto which a drawn and painted image is added and are sometimes layered over each other to create the illusion of depth in each frame. They also have to create camera techniques used in todayís live action films by drawing these techniques into the film (Giannetti, 107). Animated features are usually short because of the difficulties of creating all the drawings needed. When Disney started out, it is believed, they did their best to create quality animation in every frame, but as the years went on, the animators started to cut corners in the animation process to make it easier.

When Don Bluth resigned from Disney studios in September 1979, after helping on many projects from Sleeping Beauty in 1956 until The Fox and the Hound when he resigned. In addition to Bluth leaving Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy and fourteen other animators and assistants also left and joined Bluth to create his own studio and this created many ruffled feathers between the two groups. As Film Comment states, the industry and art form of animation are now split by the sort of strife that came to King Arthur's round table, after Arthur was dispatched (Solomon, 51). Sight and Sound comments, It was the biggest upheaval in the Disney Cartoon factory since the bitter animators' strike of 1941 (Seale, 78).

He was not happy with the quality of animation that was going on at Disney and wanted to recreate the style that was apparent during the 30's and 40's. Sight and Sound 1982 comments they quit because the new Disney was for them not Disneyish enough. He wanted the studio to produce animated features in the expensive and labor-intensive style in which every scene shimmered with detailed movement (Seale, 78). It goes on to say Bluth wanted to leave behind the light comedyî that Disney was moving more towards and ìreturn to stories that contained raw danger and tragedy (Seale, 78). Film Comment quotes Bluth as saying, Disney was a master storyteller which is what we'd like to be. It's wonderful that his success could occur, and he could show all that animation can be. Unfortunately, his legacy has been left to those who would chop it up and sell it in the meat market. We want to understand how he told stories and then go from there (Solomon, 53).

The new studioís debut film was called The Secret of NIMH and is based on a book by Robert OíBrien originally called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, later changed to simply The Rats of NIMH. For the film Mrs. Frisby's name was changed to Mrs. Brisby, but otherwise not much else was tampered with. Mrs. Brisby is a widowed mouse that has four children, one gravely ill with pneumonia, and they live inside a cement brick in the middle of a farmerís field. Because her son has pneumonia and cannot be moved, she desperately seeks the help of nearby rats that live in a rosebush near the farmerís house. She needs to move her house before the farmer begins his plowing for the year, or else her whole family may parish under the plow. These rats are super-intelligent, and were made so by genetic experiments done on them at the National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH for short. According to Film Comment, the rats, like Mrs. Brisby, ìare split by a conflict between their venerable leader, Nicodemus, and a power-hungry rebel, Jenner (Solomon, 54).

Sight and Sound comments, Every step (was) being takento avoid the graphic look that crept into animation, including Disney's, in the 1960's Bluth is even bringing back the multi-plane camera, a Disney invention of the 30's, that gave flat animation a live action depth. But this takes so much planning, time and trouble that it has rarely been used at Disney in the last twenty years (Seale, 78). Seale downplays this decision by saying Other animators may charge Bluth with obsession for an anachronistic style (78). Film Comment also chides the animation in NIMH saying, The greatest weakness in NIMH is a tendency toward visual overkill eager to demonstrate their technical expertise: cluttering the frame with too many details. Many of the techniques used in NIMH are too difficult and expensive to be used extensively today, even by Disney When Mrs. Brisby visits the chemist Mr. Ages the characters are all but lost in the many sparkles, shadows, reflections, wisps of smoke and splashing droplets (Solomon, 54). On the other hand, hiding the characters, in that scene, was probably part of what the director wanted, to create an ominous feeling like live action movies do. Also, it may have been used to help make the animation look more life-like.

But, the animation is not all criticized. Solomon says before he criticized the visual overkill of NIMH, he did say, A look at completed footage suggests that The Secret of NIMH is the work of a very talented group of artists. In defense of his style, Seale quotes Bluth saying, To let the audience become involved, they must be able to forget that what they are seeing was drawn. The technique is not important in itself, but it is crucial to keep the brush strokes invisible to the audience (78). They also quote him saying, We're trying to make sure that what Disney left us is not lost and maybe develop it a little further. But before this, we have at least to catch up to where he was (Seale, 78). In all, Bluth's argument for his animation choices were made to make better and more developed animated films than what he had encountered when he left Disney, but in order to do that, he and his animators must first learn the ins and outs of other techniques. Once they learn these, they can go on to create good animation while adding their own style to it as well.

Bluth went on to create more movies, his second, An American Tail became the most successful non-Disney film ever at that point in time. Another movie, All Dogs Go to Heaven, according to Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, features animal characters who are trying to eke out a living in an urban setting (Dixon, 182). The main character is a dog, named Charlie Barkin and his sidekick, Itchy. An old power-hungry partner in crime, named Carface, runs Charlie over one night with a car while Charlie was in a drunken stupor. By tricking the animal bookkeeper into rewinding his life watch, Charlie returns to earth to get even with his murderer. Film Genre goes on to say, The chief conflict in the film revolves around Charlieís unreliability; his paternalistic relationship with a little orphan girl, Anne-Marie, finally makes him become responsible (Dixon, 182). Another more recent film is Anastasia, made in 1997 by Bluth and Gary Goldman. This movie boasted a big Broadway type score and cost $53 million to make and performed indifferently at the box office (Dixon, 59). The animation was wonderful, but Film Genre comments it had ìa bizarre take on Russian history that the Romanov family was basically a nice nuclear family and that Revolution and overthrow of the family was led on by an evil curse leveled by Rasputin (Dixon, 59). Others may just see this little twist in the story of the Romanovs as imaginative and true to the fairy-tale story that does so well in the US.

In Andrew O'Hehir's article in Sight & Sound, he looks at Titan AE, the most recent of Bluth's line of movies. The main storyline takes place in the future, the31st century. Earth is destroyed by an alien race called the Drej. The spaceship Titan is rescued. Fifteen years later, Cale, the son of the scientist that survived the destruction of earth with Titan, and Korso, a Drej spy, go out in search of the lost spaceship (OíHeir). O'Hehir comments that for many adults, the experience of watching Titan AE will be a matter of trying to ignore the simple and exaggerated style of directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman's character animation while focusing on the richly coloured backgrounds and lush, painterly outer-space vistas.

The directors also follow the generalization of childrenís films that the audienceís attention span will be short. O'Hehir saw that during some depictions of setting, ìthe directors also seem to distrust their audienceís attention span: such scenes are undermined by an atrocious musical score that veers from faux 80s heavy metal to faux 90s trip-hop. It is seen that Japanese anime has a great influence in this film, it ìis still aimed at a pre-adolescent (genre) denominator. Given their evident talent this seems regrettable. But their films consistently drawn large audiences, while the Hollywood-dubbed version of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, was perhaps too sophisticated and dark for very young children, bombed in US (OíHehir). So, in general, Bluth is trying to break away from the genre and stereotypes, in some ways, that are often associated with Disney animated films, but the money and interest of adolescents and the general public, prevail.

In conclusion, Bluth has continued his studioís tradition of highly detailed, meticulous and, many times, expensive animation. The animation of background and characters has, in many ways, become more impressive with each movie. Bluthís animation is about as visually exciting to todayís audience as much as his debut film was in 1982, maybe more so. If Bluth's debut film, The Secret of NIMH, was a form of retrograde in 1982, it taught animators some good techniques to use. This way they can learn techniques for good animation, while using their own techniques that will allow them to create their own style of drawing.


Dixon, Wheeler Winston ed. Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays. State University of New York Press, 2000: 59, 182.

Giannetti, Louis. "Movement" Understanding Movies. pp. 104 ñ 108.

OíHehir, Andrew. Titan A.E. Sight & Sound. v10n8 August 2000: 58.

Seale, J. ìDisney Disciplesî. Sight & Sound. v.51 n2 (Spring 1982): 78-79.

Solomon, Charles. Will the real Walt Disney please stand up?. Film Comment. v18 (July/August 1982): 49-54.

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