How Don Bluth went from a Utah farm kid to animating for Disney and Spielberg

The director of “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time” has written his memoir.

(Smart Pop) Don Bluth, in his younger days as an animator and director, has written a memoir, "Somewhere Out There: An Animated Life," to be released Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

At 84 years old, Don Bluth has a lot to look back on: A humble and religious upbringing in Texas and Utah, an education at Brigham Young University, and a stellar career in film animation — which included working for Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg, and creating his own studios to make such films as “The Secret of NIMH,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “Anastasia.”

Bluth has put all of that in a memoir, “Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life” (Smart Pop, paperback, to be released Tuesday, July 19) — a book that gives him a chance to tell his own story for a change.

Bluth was 83 when he started writing the book, and he said he sat at his computer for a full year, making a timeline and remembering “all the things that happened in each year of my life.”

When he started, Bluth said he told himself, “I don’t know why I’m writing this book down. It’s just that there’s some people that may like to know a lot of things that I’ve never told anyone.”

As he wrote, Bluth said he began to “realize that the book wasn’t just a fantasy of mine. It had a purpose and that purpose was that it was [for] all the people that I’ve met over the years who asked questions about the animation industry and some of the things that transpired behind the scenes.”

Bluth also does in his memoir something he has never done before: Spoken publicly about his faith, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He writes that “my testimony influences everything that I do, I just don’t wear that on my sleeve.”

Living the dream, letting it go

In the book, Bluth describes his childhood, first in El Paso, Texas, and later in Payson, Utah, where he lived on his family’s farm. He injured his drawing arm while working on a piece of farm equipment.

Bluth was born in 1937 — the same year Disney released the first feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” The movie served as Bluth’s ultimate inspiration as a child, and he began to draw every day.

“To this day, a drawing of mine only has a lifespan of maybe 24 hours before I have to do another one,” he writes in the memoir.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully explain the love I feel for drawing,” Bluth writes. “I think it was embedded in my DNA, or in my soul, or perhaps it was put there in a faraway preexistent life by an angel. It is something involuntary, sort of like breathing for me, and my process of learning to draw was about connecting something inside my head to a feeling in my heart.”

In the book, Bluth chronicles the winding path to a job at Walt Disney Studios — with a detour at BYU, where he first met a real animator: Judge Whitaker, one of the first artists to animate Donald Duck, and the first head of BYU’s motion-picture department.

Bluth’s writing style, much like his animation style, is whimsical. The memoir is reminiscent of a classic Disney animated film, with an awestruck tone guiding the narrative.

(Don Bluth | Smart Pop) A drawing by animator Don Bluth, depicting his arrival at Walt Disney Animation Studios, is featured in his memoir, "Somewhere Out There: An Animated Life," to be released Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Bluth got his first job at Disney in 1955, but left the studio in 1957 — to go on a mission in Argentina for his church. It would be another 14 years before he returned to animation.

At this point in the memoir, religious themes intertwine with the personal narrative. Bluth writes of heart-to-heart philosophical conversations he has with himself — creating a character, “the man in the mirror,” as his storytelling device.

“You know how we all kind of talk to ourselves when we’re alone? Well the man in the mirror is just that part of me,” he writes. “[It’s] that kind of conversation that goes back and forth [between] your head and your ego.”

Initially, Bluth told The Tribune, he did regret his decision to leave Disney.

“At first, I didn’t have a great big testimony of the church,” Bluth said. “I was still just focused mainly on career. I remember saying in the process, OK, God, if I go on this mission, can I be sure when I come back I can pick up where I left off?’ And there was no answer to that.”

Within a few weeks of that decision, Bluth said, he came around. He said he realized he had so many blessings, and he wouldn’t be very grateful if he didn’t give back. Even on his mission, he was drawing, using Disney scenes to make connections in his missionary work.

“I think the footnote to this is the reason that doors opened in my career, that I was able to make 11 movies under my own name without being at Disney,” he said, “is because I went and did the job in the mission field.”

After his mission, Bluth returned to BYU and earned a degree in English literature. He returned to animation in 1967, working as a layout artist for Filmation on such Saturday morning cartoons as “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

In 1971, Bluth returned to Disney — working on movies made after Walt’s death in 1966, including “Robin Hood” (1973), “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974), “The Rescuers” (1977) and “Pete’s Dragon” (1977).

The next time Bluth left Disney, it wouldn’t be as clean and noble a decision as the first time.

Stepping out on his own

“I grew up in a time where Walt Disney was the greatest of storytellers,” Bluth told The Tribune. “So many of the things he put into his movies were so moral and strong, that they shaped lives. Whereas nowadays, it seems to me like you can make a movie so that they can make money.”

For Bluth, that aspect of storytelling came down to the art form of traditional hand-drawn animation. A group of 17 Disney animation employees, according to Bluth, began working on an independent project in his home garage. It would take four years to release “Banjo the Woodpile Cat,” which follows a cat who runs away from his home in Payson to Salt Lake City.

“We did it because the training program at the Disney studio, I thought, was a little anemic,” he said. “What they were doing was training all of the animators, but none of us knew how to make a movie: How to put together one scene after another to make it have an emotional impact.”

So, Bluth said, they began to educate themselves. “We figured if we stayed at Disney,” he said of the group, “all they were telling us was, ‘Look, just sit down, do what you’re told.’ For a creative mind, that’s not a good idea.”

Bluth said, “this little experiment that we were doing in my garage led to ‘The Secret of NIMH,’ which led to Steven Spielberg and ‘An American Tail.’”

In 1979, Bluth and 10 others from the animation department resigned from Disney — a move that delayed the release of “The Fox and the Hound.” The group opened Don Bluth Productions, which launched its first movie in 1982, “The Secret of NIMH.”

Bluth made his next two movies, the immigrant fable “An American Tail” (1986) and the dinosaur adventure “The Land Before Time” (1988), with Spielberg among the producers. Both films inspired sequels, though Bluth was not involved with them.

Bluth and his collaborators also ventured into video games, pioneering the melding of computer graphics and hand-drawn animation in the 1983 arcade game “Dragon’s Lair.”

In 1989, Bluth refused an offer from Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, to return to the Disney studios. At the time, Bluth’s studio employed 360 people, and had relocated to Ireland, and Bluth said he felt he couldn’t leave them.

“It absolutely is the best decision that I have probably ever made,” Bluth said. “What [Disney] was saying was ‘come back and be under our umbrella, we’ll pay you a lot of money.’”

Bluth said it was a success, for all involved, because Disney’s animation studios began to improve, under the leadership of Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Out of that came ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” Bluth said. “They tried harder.”

In the next 11 years, Bluth directed six more movies: “All Dogs Go to Heaven” (1989), the musical “Rock-a-Doodle” (1991), the fairy tale “Thumbelina” (1994), the fantasy “A Troll in Central Park” (1994), the Antarctic animal romance “The Pebble and the Penguin” (1995), the Russian mystery/romance “Anastasia” (1997) — which was adapted into a Broadway musical — and the science-fiction thriller “Titan A.E.” (2000).

(Don Bluth | Smart Pop) A self-portrait of animator Don Bluth — surrounded by characters from his movies — is featured in his memoir, "Somewhere Out There: An Animated Life," to be released Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Still drawing at 84

Though Bluth writes about creative differences he had when it came to how to approach animation at the Disney studio, Bluth said it’s not the medium he was critical of, but the storytelling.

“In animation, we’ve never really gone in and defined categories,” Bluth said. “Nowadays, we have CGI animation. In Walt’s day, we had the hand-drawn 2D animation. It’s not the same thing at all.”

Bluth said he still loves the hand-drawn animation because it has a different look. The animation built in a computer, Bluth said, is more like puppetry — because animators punch keys to get the character to move, rather than doing it themselves.

The computers, he admitted, have “taken a lot of the drudgery out of 2D animation. …

“I think to settle the issue, I believe that the important part of any animated story, whether it be CGI or 2D, has everything to do with the story, whether it touches the hearts of the audiences sitting there watching.” Bluth points to Pixar’s “Up,” which did exactly that, he said.

These days, Bluth is retired from filmmaking, but still drawing.

He’s started writing and illustrating children’s books, trying his hand at painting illustrations, too. There’s also Don Bluth University , which offers a full-year course on animation, and sees about 20 or so students a year.

To this day, Bluth said, he can’t pick a favorite character he has worked on.

“What happens when I’m working on somebody, well, I fall madly in love with that character and I love drawing them and making them look like they’re alive,” he said. “When [I] animate them, it’s just a thrill beyond thrills because you’re seeing something look like it’s living when it’s really just graphite on a piece of paper.”

When asked to name his favorite animated films these days, he lists two Disney titles made during his childhood: The 1940 classic “Pinocchio” and the mostly forgotten 1948 live-action/animated hybrid “So Dear to My Heart.”

Bluth said he hopes those who read his book take away the message that “life is a journey and you have to be patient with yourself. If you listen carefully, every person on Earth has talent and skills, and they need to learn how to bring those out in their life and gift it to all the rest of us.”

Growing up, he said, he thought, “I’m just a kid from Utah. I can’t even read. I don’t know anything. How could I become anything but a person who milks cows?”

Bluth added, “that journey of keeping your dream alive and then getting beyond the obstacles — that’s the important message.”

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