Saturday, May 06, 2006
It was soon after "The Small One" was released... Don had been at Disney, I donno, five or six years. He'd come into the studio with the first wave of new animation artists that the studio hired...and envisioned...taking over for the old group (Frank, Ollie, Milt, et al) that was rapidly closing in on retirement. Don was a little older than the rest of the newbies -- in his thirties, an experienced animation hand at other studios, a one-time Disney employee who had in-betweened on "Sleeping Beauty" -- and upper management pretty quickly singled him out as the "heir apparent" to Woolie Reitherman (the veteran animator/director who ran the 'toon department.) Don pretty quickly established himself as a leader. He was a directing animator on "The Rescuers," the animation director on "Pete's Dragon," and the director of a Christmas-themed featurette titled "The Small One." Eric Larson (a charter member of the "Nine Old Men") had originally been slated to direct the project, but Don ended up with it. And right around that time (we're talking '77, '78) the animation department cleaved into two factions. There were the "Bluthies," and there were the "non-Bluthies." The non-Bluthies were the animators who disliked Don's cheer-leading and Don's promotion of the animators in what some considered "Don's group." (I was pretty much an on-looker to all the goings on, since I was working with Ken Anderson and Woolie Reitherman up in the story department.) Don was definitely a leader. He'd been producing, directing and animating on a project called "Banjo the Woodpile Cat" out of his house. (He also did layouts and story.) And I've seldom seen anybody who could take a hand mike and work a crowd as effectively as Don could. But he was definitely divisive. The animation staff at Disney Feature Animation either loved him or hated him. I don't think anyone was neutral. Work on "The Small One" went forward at a rapid clip. Story artists Pete Young and Vance Gerry's original boards were expanded and changed, and Don had a large tote board that marked how much animated footage had been produced day to day, week to week. (Old hat now. New hat then.) Don knew how to get production revved up. As "The Small One" neared completion, rumors swirled that Don was leaving the studio. The night of the wrap party for the picture -- held in the studio commissary -- Don was sardonic and distant. I remember asking Don about somebody who was having a hard time in the department, and hearing him say: "Oh, nobody ever gets fired around here. If they don't work out, they just get shipped over to WED to work on EPCOT..." Animation and story work went on with "The Fox and the Hound." Then abruptly, Don resigned. A day or two later, half the animation staff (the "Bluthies") resigned with him. In bits and pieces, the remaining employees got the news that Don had secured financing for a feature based on a book called "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," and was going off to make it. Shock and disbelief swept the executive suites. Fifty percent of all the animation department's "new blood" had just walked out the door. Disney Chairman Ron Miller called Administrative top-kick Don Duckwall to his office and demanded to know why Don left. And why nobody knew about it. Duckwall replied that Don Bluth had assured him that he would stay through the completion of "The Fox and the Hound," and that this was totally unexpected. I don't know whether Ron Miller believed Duckwall or not, but Mr. D. soon retired. And the non-Bluthies went on animating "The Fox and the Hound." That picture was set back by a year, but ultimately came out in 1981, made a lot of money, and Disney's animation department went on. As for Don, he and his crew got "The Secret of NIMH" into theatres in 1982. Thereafter, Don produced a long string of animated features. In fact, I think Don has produced more independent animated features than anybody else in the 'toon business. Like I said, Don was and is a leader. And nobody works a crowd better than he does.
Posted by Steve Hulett at 2:29 PM