Interview: Don Bluth (Titan A.E.)

Don Bluth seems like a nice guy. For 45 years he’s worked on adorable animated films that appeal to little kids and grown-ups alike. Starting out at Disney Studios, he worked on such classics as Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood. In the late 1970s he struck out on his own, creating such wonderful films as The Secret of NIMHAn American Tail and The Land Before Time. In 1996, he and Gary Goldman were hired as director/producers by Fox Animation in Phoenix, Arizona. Their first feature film was Anastasia. Throughout all these years, we could count on Don Bluth to generate endearing, family-friendly entertainment.

In Titan A.E. he blows up the Earth.

No, Mr. Bluth hasn’t suddenly developed a sadistic streak. Titan A.E. (which includes the voice talents of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore) is part of an experiment which tries to appeal to the one American demographic that doesn’t usually watch animated films: teenagers.

As a matter of fact, the whole movie is one big experiment. Bluth and Goldman make heavy use of state-of-the-art computer generated imagery (CGI), but they blend it with traditional animation, taking advantage of the strengths and nuances of both artforms.

Bottom line: they’re trying to take animated filmmaking to the next level and expand the appeal of animation beyond the usual audience. It’s a tall order.

We caught up with Don Bluth recently to talk about the film and the future of American animation.

Q: Don Bluth, it’s nice to talk to you!

Don Bluth: It’s good to talk to you, too!

Q: Tell us a little bit about Titan A.E., your new movie that’s coming out in June.

DB: Titan A.E. represents, probably, a departure from anything that Gary or myself have done before, in that this is a science fiction movie. It’s filled with lots of space hardware that looks quite different; and also, 65% of this movie is CGI animation. It’s kind of a blend of CGI and 2-D animation, which is a little bit difficult—you have to make it look like it belongs in the same world. The story here, I kind of like—it’s very edgy. It has been aimed directly at the teenagers, which is something that animation traditionally doesn’t do too well, because animation usually is for the younger kids and the parents. And teenagers usually are running away from animation, because are trying to grow up, and they equate animation with the nursery and, you know, they don’t want to be there. So, to do this we had to come up with a story that I think is a little bit prickly, it has an edge on it and provokes thought. Like in the first four minutes of the movie, in comes the enemy to human beings, and they attack the world we live on (the Earth) and blow it up. So that for the rest of the movie, those who survive that went out into outer space and settle in little drifter colonies that really were of no consequence, and our story really is about a young man whose father has prepared an instrument somewhere out there in space, it’s a great big ship—it’s what it is—a space ship, which has the technology and power to actually build a planet out of raw materials.

Q: So, is this going to be the first of a series of movies that you’re going to do that, in general, will target an older audience?

DB: I don’t think so. I think basically we’ve got to prove that this particular kind of aiming at the teenagers will work, first of all. So, this is pretty risky thing, I think, Fox is doing. Go out there and let’s make a movie for them, and see if they will go to it. Because if you know your animation history, you look back over all of the pieces that have been made by the studios, it’s never worked, it’s always been, you know, those that are traditionally made and that they write at the audience that everybody thinks they go to, and those are the ones that you can get the box office. So, this is a roll of the dice; we’re hoping that they will like it, but I know a lot of people have tried to make grown-up animated films, and they just don’t do very well.

Q: You mentioned earlier that Titan A.E. is a mixture of computer-generated imagery and traditional animation. Is there a specific reason you didn’t go 100% CGI?

DB: You know what? I think it’s because with CGI right now, technically for me, I know, I watched both the Toy Story movies and I think they’re brilliant. But technically, I’m still very much over there in the field with 2-D because I think that you can express the characters’ feelings on their faces and their body movements, with better accuracy than you can with something that looks too mechanical. So, I think it’s a greater range of expression. If I were a live action director, I would go to actors that I thought were really, really good to play the parts, but not somebody that was too mechanical at their skill. And I think where we are with CGI right now is that the characters themselves, they can be funny; they can be corny, but I don’t know whether they can be sophisticated yet.

Q: It’s interesting that in the comic book world, computers are doing everything except the inking and the penciling. They do the lettering, the coloring, the layouts and everything, but nothing has yet replaced the human skill of hand-drawn artwork.

DB: Nor do I think it will. I think if we all sat down and thought about this for a moment, you would realize that the thing that makes existence viable and even interesting, is our humanity. And the more that you try to get technology to come in and take over humanity, pretty soon, there won’t be any humanity left, and then what have we got left? You’ve got machines, and that’s not that interesting. 

Q: So, you think that for a very long time the technology is not going to be available to render traditionally animation obsolete?

DB: Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen; although there’s a lot of doomsayers who say it’s happening right now, but I think the more you try to replace the human the more you’re on shaky ground, because I don’t think you can do that. There’s been a lot of sci-fi about that very subject, you know, the machines get smarter than people and they take over, but usually the movie ends with a nice, happy ending where the humans got back again.

Q: You’ve made use of some really big names in Hollywood to do the voice work for this movie. Of course, big-name actors are nothing new to animation, but it seems like the names get bigger and bigger every time out. Is name-appeal a necessary ingredient for a successful animated movie nowadays?

DB: I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know this: the way the studios do it, if they have to sell a movie, they need a name who will to attach itself to the movie, that will help the move, so the people will see that star as an icon; you know, they’re comfortable with them. It’s like Cher. When Cher does something, you want to go hear her voice, because you’re comfortable. It brings back memories in your own life that you cherish. I think that’s kind of where it is right now: the star is a voice, not because their acting is particularly so much better than someone who is unknown, but maybe because they can help promote the movie.

Q: So, it gives it a boost, but the movie definitely has to deliver as an animated feature.

DB: Of the 60 to 80,000 actors and actresses that are in Hollywood, there’s probably more than a handful that could adequately do the job.

Q: Speaking of big names, you had Ben Edlund (best known as the creator of The Tick, which was a comic book and a cartoon) as one of the screenwriters. How did he get involved with this thing?

DB: Now, actually, he was involved with it before I came into the picture. This movie has actually been trying to birth for a long time. I was out working on Anastasia, and he was writing a script back in there, and there were two other directors that were working on this picture… they worked on it for about a year and a half, but it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and so Bill Mechanic… took it and said, look… you guys should just go with it because your staff can finish Anastasia and I need something for you to do. So, we came in a little bit later and then of course an army of writers entered the picture and changed it to this or that or whatever, but it’s been kind of… the script has been the hardest part of the picture. To write a script that is both science fiction, edgy and still communicates to both moms and kids has been quite difficult.

Q: Anime [Japanese animation] is growing in popularity in the United States by leaps and bounds. It still has a long way to go to reach true pop culture status, you know, to a general audience. Do you keep track of anime at all, and if so what do you think of it?

DB: You know what? I kind of do, just glance you know, over to the side. I think it’s interesting in many, many ways, but the thing that fascinated me and brought me into the animation world was not that particular style. I harken back to a style that’s more like Pinocchio or Bambi or Peter Pan, if you will. Those styles to me, there’s more energy in them. There’s more delight or beauty or whatever it is. When I look at anime alone, I see it based on violence, you know, and real, real hardcore conflict. And I don’t see… I see art and craftsmanship. I see artists and what they’re able to draw, but the stories themselves, I’m not really able to connect with them at all.

Q: And perhaps some of it is the American sensibility versus the Japanese sensibility.

DB: I’m sure there’s a big cultural gap between the two worlds… and I’ve never been able to interpret that.

Q: So how do Don Bluth movies do in Japan?

DB: I don’t think one’s ever been there.

Q: Really? Never been adapted or anything?

DB: No, I don’t think so. To my knowledge, I don’t think we’ve gone into Japan. Japan’s very, very careful about that. It’s like anything they export they don’t import equally.

Q: What do you see, in terms of the genres, as the future of American animation? Will they continue to be dominated by Disney-style musicals, or will it expand into other genres?

DB: You know, it’s pretty hard to answer that, too. Let me just give this a try… Disney just happens to be the biggest muscle on the block, and so just by that sheer force alone they can control the market. Because sometimes you don’t even have to do good work, all you have to do is be able to market it. I mean, they hit a patch after Lion King where they started making things like Hunchback and Hercules and everything. They were having a tough time with those, because they turned into formula pictures. And they were not really doing much for the audience, and the box office sagged on those pictures, so it was a tough thing, and I think until Tarzan came out, and they finally picked it back up. But… I think animation is always going to be about stories. I saw a picture just recently that came out of Warner Brothers, a picture called The Iron Giant, and I thought it was absolutely fabulous. The artist had done the job, as far as production goes—great. But no one knew how to market that. They weren’t sure even who to market it to, and no one sat down and thought this out, so consequently, the movie… no one even heard about it and closed almost immediately.

Q: It did seem to go in and out very quickly.

DB: Yeah, well, it was abused. Because it never really got a chance to go out there and be seen. And it was a delightful picture. And it’s sad. It’s so funny, because in the business, a lot of the people get a take-out ad in Variety and reporters and everything, and say, “The picture’s great, you gotta see it.”  But it’s not that great a movie.

Q: You’re a director/producer now for Fox Animation, and this is your second film with them, is that correct?

DB: Yes.

Q: Do you actually live and work in Phoenix, Arizona?

DB: Yes.

Q: So, how is that different for you? Are there pros and cons versus living and working in Los Angeles?

DB: Well, we came to Phoenix for a specific reason that’s going to sound a little silly or trivial… I don’t like earthquakes. So, Gary and I said, well, look, let’s just go to Phoenix. It’s nice there. It’s pleasant. It’s warm. It’s only an hour from LA if you need to come and do a studio meeting, we could do that. So, we could be out there and have our own territory. Well, I feel a little serene about that. The only difficulty is that the mainstream talent all resides there in Hollywood or surrounding areas. So we had to import people up here.  At the time we came to Phoenix, the animation business was absolutely booming, and so there wasn’t anybody on the street there in LA that we could hire that would come here. So, we actually hired people from overseas. Almost everyone who made the last two pictures with us was from the Philippines, or Canada, or Germany, or from Ireland—from everywhere but the United States.  

Q: Were the people who did the animation working in those countries?

DB: No, they came here. We got them visas and brought them here to Arizona.

Q: No, I mean, they were currently working in those countries when you hired them?

DB: That’s correct, yeah, and when we left—we were in Ireland for eight years ourselves (Gary and myself) and when we left there back in ’94, we brought about ninety of them with us, thinking that we were going to train—but then we wanted to hire people that were already trained from those countries and bring them over here.

Q: And from the looks of the previews, the talent’s there.

DB: Yeah, the talent was there, I mean, the talent for animation is around. You can find that easily. I think the real bugaboo is to find people that can write scripts for animation. That’s really hard. And then, even worse, is on the marketing side you find people that just don’t know what to do with animation.

Q: What is different about writing a script for animation versus a live action film?

DB: Well, there should be nothing different about it. The problem is that those who would be writers for animation begin to act like they’re writing for a nursery and really begin to talk down and so the script suffers from that. If you would just write a script as if you were writing for live action, it would probably work very well. But each assumes something, they say, “Ah! it’s for the kiddies,” and they begin to put out some kind of a stock product.

Q: Are you a fan of any kind of science fiction, outside of movies?

DB: You know what? I’m so totally consumed by what I’m doing that I don’t find much time. I go to the science fiction movies, and I do enjoy them. I think they’re probably some of the most creative films out there today. I would have to say no to that, I kind of look at it with interest and some curiosity, but I’m not really caught up in it. I do go to the science fiction conventions and the comic cons and everything, because I like the energy of those people.

Q: When you were a kid, then, you were obviously enamored of the Disney films… and I assume you read some comic books?

DB: You know what, that’s how I learned to draw! Yeah, I used to get these different comic books and basically (everybody would croak if I said this…) but I would take a comic book and copy them. So, I would just simply look at them, and I’d draw it, and look back and draw it again and I could copy it. But after a while I could close the comic book and do it from memory. But after I while I could go to my friends and say, “Look what I did! I know how to draw this thing!”  And they thought it was just coming out of my brain. It wasn’t, it was kind of memorized. But what I found out I could do, I could take a piece of this one, and that one, and the one over there, and put it together and create new characters.  

Q: So, you slowly expanded your repertoire?

DB: That’s right, ’cause I was never really went to art school or anything like that. I just picked it up.

Q: And now you’ve started your own art school.

DB: I’m about to.

Q: Okay, what’s that all about?

DB: Well, what I’m trying to do right now is… the animation business I think is sort of staggering, as the studios are not sure what to do with it, because the last efforts (and I’m thinking of Prince of Egypt; I’m thinking of El Dorado; which, you know, neither one did very well. Anastasia is in the black, but didn’t do great). So, we don’t know how Titan is going to do, so the studios are starting to back off a little and be just a little cautious. And with that, you have to say to yourself, “Something may change here.” So, where I’m at right now, I believe animation—2-D animation—will go right back up and will be just as popular someday. So, if I can do a lot of seminars and see if I can’t teach some of the ideas that I’ve learned over the years to make an easier process. And also, I’m publishing a magazine which talks a lot about animation.

Q: What’s the name of the magazine?

DB: It’s called Toontalk.

Q: And the name of your school?

DB: No name yet. Just getting started on that. I’m probably going to launch it about November.

Q: Okay. Well, what’s up next for you now that you’ve finished Titan A.E.? Obviously, you’re doing a lot of publicity…

DB: (Laughs) What’s got my interest right now, I’m kind of enthralled with this idea, I’d like to do a movie of Dragon’s Lair. We had done a game about seventeen years ago (called Dragon’s Lair)…

Q: The laser disk game…

DB: …It’s very popular, and then what’s very, very weird is that it’s stayed on the shelves for about ten years now. It’s been in the top ten on the shelves, and games aren’t supposed to do that. So, there must be some people who are still watching this for it to occupy shelf space for so long. The next thing, Rick Dyer came to me, who is one of the partners who helped make Dragon’s Lair and said, “Let’s make another Dragon’s Lairgame, but we’ll do it 3-D this time.” So that’s about to happen, and it’s going to be released the first part of 2001. He said, “Well, if we’re doing that, and there’s truly an interest out there, what if we write a comedy that is Dragon’s Lair as a movie. Maybe that would be worthwhile.”  And as I started exploring those ideas, we came up with a fairly funny concepts, so I got excited about it and we’re now scripting it.

Q: Yeah, I remember playing that game myself many years ago and it was a lot of fun. What format is that going to be in? Is that going to be an arcade game or a home game?

DB: It’ll be a home game. I don’t think it’ll be in the arcade; although, I just went to the E3 show and I had a lot of fans (that’s where, you know, the gaming business is there and everything). And I saw the Dragon’s Lairgame, it was about half completed, but I saw what they had done, and was quite impressed with it. You know, you can have a lot of control over Dirk; I mean, you’re the one who walks him around and swings the sword, and does all the stuff, and it’s also very much like Myst, the game, where you explore the castle? It’s really quite fabulous.

Q: Any chance of making Space Ace into a movie?

DB: Could be. I don’t know. I think with the magazine, I’ll probably hear more about whether people would like to see that. I’m not sure.

Q: Okay, well good luck with Titan A.E.! And it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

DB: You, too. Thank you.

[Originally posted in June 2000 at]

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