“No, no, no. you can’t make money as an artist. Why don’t you become a schoolteacher or a dentist?” Don Bluth heard this plea for practicality from his instructors throughout his secondary education, they all foresaw difficulty and dashed dreams for him. They didn’t imagine that he would grow up to create some of the best-loved animated films of this generation. All they could see was a boy who needed to listen to reason.
And he listened to reason for a time. Despite his passion for art, he arrived to college at Brigham Young University and went not to the Art department, but to English. His story could’ve have joined the ranks of thousands of others that have gone through life wishing to pursue a dream and pursued something more reasonable instead, but something resonated inside him that would not be quieted or pushed aside. He said, “Later on in life, I’d come to discover that I knew at age four that I was going to be in animation. I couldn’t put a word to it, I didn’t know how to define it, I didn’t know what it was, all I knew was a name; Walt Disney.”
Don grew up on a dairy farm in Payson, Utah. Living at a dairy meant milking cows morning and night, a job that is never done. It was demanding and continuous, but his oasis, the one place that he could go to for respite, where he could feel really free was his drawing; drawing that was inspired by the early Disney pictures. He attended these films and something subtle and undetectably powerful struck a chord with him. He would go home and try to recreate what he’d seen, trying to copy Disney comic books and finding that this love “just saturated everything that [he] was.”
He was a self-taught artist, imitating the things he saw until he could develop the practice and skill to create something new and all his own. After his first year at University in 1955, he told his parents, “you’re wasting your $5 a week on me, let me go out and go to work.” So, he took his portfolio to Burbank, CA to the Walt Disney Studio and dream-come-true, was told to come in and work.
Eighteen years old and he was put to work on a picture you may have heard of, called Sleeping Beauty. “I was in what you call hog heaven, there in the studio and learning so much and just loving being around that environment that I was destined to be in.” He moved up in the ranks very quickly, zipping past people who had been there twenty years, within a year he had become John Lounsbery’s (one of the original “Nine Old Men”) assistant animator.
Despite this obvious promise, when Don’s bishop called him and asked whether he would be willing to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he couldn’t say ‘no.’ When he told John Lounsbery of his decision, he was met with absolute bafflement. Lounsbery said that Don had moved up faster than anyone he’d ever seen---‘you can have this place, you can have anything you want. You can be a very, very good animator and probably more---you’d be a great director and you’re throwing it all away.’ But he heeded the call to serve and spent the two and a half years that followed in Argentina.
Walt himself was often absent from the studio during Don’s first year at Disney, spending his time instead in Anaheim, trying to scrape together the resources to construct the ‘happiest place on earth,’ a project “no one believed would be anything.” Don mentally planned out how it would be if he ever met his boyhood idol, the man who had so influenced his life’s direction. He thought through how he would react and what he would say, all that remained was to find an opportunity to let his plans play out and catch a glimpse of the elusive Walt.
Some of the animators would go out to the vacant lot next to the studio at noon to play volleyball, despite the persistent heat of the midday, Burbank sun. They would get hot and sweaty, but there were showers in the basement of the animation building where they could clean up before going back to work. One day when they had finished a game and were tossing the ball around on their way back inside, Don caught the ball and began to run as he turned when suddenly he bumped into somebody and was knocked to the ground. He looked up to see who it was, but the sun was shining brightly silhouetting the face of the man in front of him. Intent squinting brought him to the realization that it was Walt and clearly their first meeting would not be the suave and impressive interaction Don had once hoped for.
“It reminded me of that scene in Bambi where the great stag is standing there looking at the little deer and the little deer is trying to say something and finally he doesn’t get a chance. He doesn’t say anything at all, the stag turns and walks away. But Walt did say something he just simply said ‘if you slow down, you’ll go farther,’ then he just walked on.”
It is perhaps appropriate that in this moment of sweaty and unexpected distress, Don should compare his internal climate to an animated character because real, relatable characters that the audience can’t help but empathize with have since become a hallmark of his career. He tells stories that involve the lives and woes of mice (An American Tail) and dinosaurs (Land Before Time) and dogs (All Dogs Go to Heaven), but all along he is telling the stories and expounding on the truths of people.
Leaving Disney to serve a mission did not end up being the career-killing move that people thought that it might be for Don Bluth. After graduating from BYU in English Literature and working at a T.V. animation house, he realized that the quality of work he wanted to be a part of was only being produced in one place: Walt Disney Studios.
So, he returned to where his life in the animation industry had begun. They put him to the test by handing him a paper and pencil and shutting the door for two weeks with the message, “we’ll come back when you’ve animated.” He passed their test and worked on such pictures as Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Pete’s Dragon (1977) and The Rescuers (1977).
But things were beginning to change around the studio. After Walt Disney’s death, many of the beautiful details that had first entranced Don as a child, gradually began to be taken out of the animation. They stopped inking the pictures and began Xeroxing. There were no more reflections in water and they stopped doing the whites of the eyes of some of the characters. Subtle differences, but they began to cheapen the artistic experience for Don and though he tried to maintain the traditional style of Disney, he was continually met with “corporate red tape.”
Finally, he and seventeen other animators began a project on the side that could revive some of those old techniques without adding too much expense. They worked in Don’s garage on nights and weekends, trying to relearn what had been lost and four years later they had produced a 26 minute short film entitled, Banjo the Woodpile Cat.