I had a wonderful opportunity last week to attend Animation Nation Night in Burbank, with special guest Don Bluth! If you’re not familiar with Don Bluth, he’s the animator/director who designed and created some of our classic childhood characters in movies like “An American Tail,” “The Secret of Nimh,” “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” and “Anastasia.” I was incredibly excited and honored to have met such an animation legend, and wanted to pass along some of his wisdom from the talk he gave:

– A little history: why he left Disney. While working on “The Rescuers,” many of Don’s fellow artists were feeling dissatisfied with the lack of creativity they were forced to adhere to. Little things like “adding highlights to eyes, or reflections to water” were deemed “too expensive,” and the artists were getting frustrated at seeing the quality of the Disney films going down due to money. He also felt that animators were not being taught how to “be filmmakers, not just artists.” So in a REALLY gutsy move, Don left Disney, taking 17 other animators along with him, to begin work on his own animated film, a 26 minute short called “Banjo the Woodpile Cat.” (Check it out on YouTube…you can already see the typical chubby-cheeked character styles that Bluth is so known for) Through a lot of hard work and endurance, he went on to produce his first full-length feature film, “The Secret of Nimh,” and many more.

– Why 2D isn’t as popular as 3D. He pointed out that our generation (people in their 20s, 30s) grew up going to 2D movies with their families. They remember 2D as something from their childhood, and as a result, teens today also associate it as “kid stuff.” The ones that DO go see 2D animated movies are small children and their mothers. So obviously, studios gear their films toward those. However, the biggest movie buyers are 16+, so 2D doesn’t bring in as much. CG films, though, tend to have a different LOOK than the “kid stuff” they remember, so it’s still “cool” to watch those.

– Creating hope in your films. Don discussed how important it is to give people hope and make them feel something. Otherwise, your movie will quickly be forgotten! He pointed out that so many animated movies today rely on sarcasm and cynicism rather than hopeful fantasies, and our nation is becoming jaded as a result. He told us how he’ll often go view a movie with the notion of “I dare you to make me feel something!” and discussed how pleasantly surprised he was by Pixar’s “Up.” He said “if you can’t make the audience feel something, all you’re making is graphic babble.” The stories that have the power to touch your heart and make you feel and understand who you are are the best films.

– Learn how to act. Don discussed how a lot of modern animators tend to lock themselves away in their cubicles and animate, when they really should be getting out and OBSERVING life. He pointed out how important it is to be able to understand acting, because your acting skills will come out through your pencil. Don also recommended that every animator at least take a basic acting class at some point in their career. I personally have benefitted greatly from performing with community theater in my spare time…you learn so much about how the human body moves and can create emotion! Don also said that you can only learn so much from your classes, teachers, or employers…you’ve got to take the initiative to get out and learn on your own. Study the world around you!

– The importance of marketing and copyrights. One of the saddest, most ironic stories Mr. Bluth told was in regards to his characters from “An American Tale.” As his animation studio was just starting out, it was difficult to raise money and get sponsors. He was lucky enough to develop a marketing deal with McDonald’s and Sears (did you know that Fievel was the first character from an animated movie to be licensed by a major chain like McDonalds?), but was forced to sign away the rights to his designs in order to get the film completed. He told how mind-boggling it was to be watching a show at Universal Studios with all his characters in it, dancing onstage, yet he himself was stuck behind a gate, watching from outside! So in other words…don’t sign your creations away.

– Some morbid/interesting facts. Don and his animators didn’t always have it easy…in fact, they had some difficult things to deal with during the production of their films. During “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” the sweet little girl who voiced Anne Marie (and Ducky in “Land Before Time”) was shot and killed in a murder-suicide by her father. So sad! So the animators, knowing this had occured, still had to develop a happy film using her little voice. How tough that must have been! Interestingly enough, the actress who voiced Mrs. Brisby in “Secret of Nimh” also died tragically, committing suicide from jumping out her apartment window. Not that these things have anything to do with the art of animation, but I thought they were interesting to hear!

So those are the things that I remember from the presentation and my notes. Thanks so much to Animation Nation for setting this event up and allowing fellow animators like me to meet such a great animator. And thank you again to Mr. Don Bluth, for sharing your wisdom and time with us!

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