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Don Bluth


Name:Don Bluth - ... on Movies, Games and Visions
Links: Don Bluth Homepage
The Secret of NIMH
Jeremy and the Brisby Family
Home of the Brisbys
Mrs Brisby & Mr Ages
Dragon´s Lair Arcade Game
Singe´s Hideout
An American Tail
Somewhere out there
Fievel Mousekewitz
Fievel, Tanya & Papa
The Land Before Time
Anastasia
Rasputin & Bartok- Are you talkin´ to me?
On to St. Petersburg
Thumbelina
Titan AE
Cale & Akima
Dragon´s Lair 3D
Unlight Mye Fire
Neo, was it the blue One?
We´re Off to See the Wizard!
Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Dan Molina
Don Bluth - ... on Movies, Games and Visions (interview von yak)

Who won't know it? You are drawing this and that on a sheet of paper, drawing some lines, some circles, and you feel that somehow also some ears belong to there, as well as ...

Is this a typical example of creativity? Out of a few lines an idea grows. Out of this idea a figure developes, and something takes shape, starts to "live". The figure becomes a character, with the character a story emerges and at the best it becomes an animated feature film.

Today we have the chance to ask a few questions to a maestro of creativity, a maestro of animated pictures: Mr. Don Bluth - The "hand" that brought us "The Secret of NIMH", "An American Tail", "The Land before Time", "Rock a Doodle", "All Dogs go to Heaven", "Anastasia", "Thumbelina", "A Troll in Central Park" and "Titan A.E".



Hello Don, thank you very much for the possibility to ask a few questions about your art, your ambitions, and your plans for the future, especially considering your co-operation in creating Dragon's Lair 3D.

DON: You're very welcome. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you.

First I have to say that you brought us one of the finest animated films ever made and one of my own favourites "The Secret of NIMH".

DON:The Secret of NIMH was one of our favorites as well. There were many hands that brought that film to fruition.

Now we would like to ask something about your past work, the future and the return to video games, nearly 20 years after Dragon's Lair The Arcade Game.

DON: Great, let's do it while I still have a memory of those events.

You started your own film production after leaving the Disney studios. Why did you leave the "founding father" of animated motion pictures? Was it just a matter of time, to produce your own visions or was it the low quality Disney produced at that time?

DON: Andreas, this is really old news. The papers gave us the nickname "renegades", for leaving Disney, back in 1979. It was about quality. We were at Disney because of those masterpieces they created in the '30s and '40s and up into the 1950s. Many of the production values, we loved, had long been abandoned for efficiency and economy. We had been trying to put these values back into the films of the '70s, like "Pete's Dragon" and "The Small One", but Disney wasn't interested in the art, only the cost.

Your first film was one of the best animated pictures ever made. "The Secret of NIMH" was years ahead and even reminds one of the golden age of animated films, "NIMH" was on the same "level" as Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi. With your artistry you show how an animated picture has to look alike. Was it difficult to produce such a huge and costly production, having in mind that animated pictures at that time were not that accepted by audiences and studios like today?

DON: Thank you. The films you equate NIMH to, are some of our favorites too. Pinocchio and Bambi are absolutely beautiful; and Snow White is a great story. "NIMH" had a final budget of $6.385 million. That is ½ of what Disney spent on "Fox and the Hound". The average live-action film, in those days, was about $15 million. We thought we did good. Yes, it was a difficult project, but we were passionate about restoring production values of the "Golden Age" of the '40s and telling a story that did not talk "down" to children. Something that would appeal to all ages. We were admittedly naïve. We wanted to change the animation world. Getting an audience to go to an animated film and getting a successful boxoffice was about telling a good story and having a great marketing plan to make the audiences aware of the film. MGM/UA was not prepared to come up with a unique marketing plan. The film only did about $13.6 million in American theatres.

Animated films seems to be the most artistically free art form, because you can create all you want. Characters, the colour of the sky, clouds, the sound. All has to be created. Does this option give a total freedom to the use of arts or is it sometimes "too much" for one person?

DON: This is a genre of "hand-made" films, one frame at a time and concerning all the arts, acting, lighting, photography, drawing, painting, and, yes, it is too much for one person. As creative as I may be, I've always needed the creative support of my producer/director partner, Gary Goldman and artists involved in the films. Remember, if you read our credits, it takes about 6 minutes to display them. Usually somewhere around 800 to 1000 names will be displayed.

In the days of CGI it seems that (handmade)animated movies went to past. Are the new CGI movies the only future? Do you like this development?

DON: CGI has certainly taken off, but I really don't think traditional animation has gone "the way of the past." It is really about storytelling and CGI is just another way to tell an animated story. The difference may be that many people have labelled traditional animation as a "children's product." This is not the case for CGI and people (children) of all ages are attending these CGI projects. These are expensive though. So, when one comes out where the story doesn't work, we may see a little panic. Here's some numbers; "Toy Story I and II" cost over $100 million each, to produce. The same for "Ants" and "A Bug's Life." "Shrek" was around $140 million. A couple of films with lower budgets were "Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius", at $35 million and "Ice Age" at $58 million. These are big budgets. Each film has to score big at the box office, to break even. To do this, the studios are spending big money in advertising, which increases the risk even more. It's all relative. Truthfully, it's all very exciting. CGI offers us a good alternative for storytelling and the art will improve as more traditional artists get involved with the computer. I'm a traditionalist though, so I would like to continue with traditional hand-drawn animation. It would be a sin if they abandoned hand-drawn animation and the art died.

Did you feel sometimes like having done wrong by having left the Disney studios ?

DON: Not at all. If we hadn't, there wouldn't be "The Secret of NIMH", "An American Tail", "The Land Before Time", "All Dogs Go To Heaven", "Anastasia" or "Titan AE." Without the clever marketing of "An American Tail", feature animation may have died back in the 80's. So, no, we did the right thing.

I was amazed seeing "NIMH" at the cinema at its release. The colours, the characters, the voice acting and the music, all perfectly executed with love in every detail. Movies at their finest hours. Seeing is believing. The scene is amazing when Brisby stands on a stone and the colors of the sky and the lights are changing . And all that without the aid of computers (Yes kids, it is possible !). The film is now a cult-classic, but we only get it in very poor quality today. You can only get it as DVD in Pan & Scan in the USA and in Germany there is a letterbox version , but with very poor monoaural sound quality . That must be hurting if one sees his "child" in such bad condition. Are there any plans to restore "NIMH" to its former grandeur on DVD with the full aspect ratio and remastered sound?

DON: That is strange, the US versions are in stereo but yes, the videos, laser discs and DVD are "pan and scan." The film was shot full aperture 1:1.33, but was clipped top and bottom for a 1:1.85 projection in the theatres. So on TV you are actually seeing more of the top and bottom of the frame than you saw in the theatres. I'm surprised that the PAL versions are not in Dolby stereo. If not, they should be. We provided stereo elements for the video transfer. We wish they (MGM/UA) would re-release the film in the theatres. We believe it has a large fan base and it would do well with the right marketing program. Then, after a re-release, re-do the video mastering with the wider format and proper reproduction of the sound and add a producer/director's commentary. It would probably be greatly received. And, we'd love to help make that happen. It's really up to the marketing execs at MGM/UA.

As always in your pictures the voice casting is perfect. You worked with such talented actors as Meg Ryan, Matt Damon, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer, John Carradine, Peter Strauss, Burt Reynolds, Dom Deluise, Drew Barrymore and Kirsten Dunst etc. How important is the voice casting for animated pictures and how do you choose the actors?

DON: The voice is the sole of our characters. The actors come with great personal and professional experiences. Once they know who the character is, they bring a whole new dimension to it. When we imagine our character's personality, we review other films (usually live action movies or TV shows) to find a similar role played by various actors. Sometimes it's their acting skills, sometimes it's "type", sometimes it's just the sound of their voice. It's very important to the building of the characters, so we do it carefully.

In movies like Anastasia, being based on real settings, are there historical researches made about the places and characters?

DON: Research is a major part of every motion picture, animated or live action. In all of our films, we have done an incredible amount of research. For "Anastasia", Gary (Goldman) travelled to St. Petersburg to shoot photos of the landscapes and the city for accuracy. There weren't a lot of photo reference books on Russia available in the US. Gary shot 4000 stills and 10, 2 hour video tapes in the 8 days he spent in Russia. For "All Dogs Go To Heaven", Gary and co-director Dan Kuenster travelled to New Orleans to do a similar photo shoot. It is very helpful to the layout artists. We also do a lot of research for costume design (especially for films like "An American Tail" and "Anastasia") . The first 6 months of production includes a ton of research. We compile binders and binders of photos, drawings and detailed designs of everything from shoes to fashion and architectural design (exterior and interior), even, cultural details and habits.

Animated characters sometimes receive "something" from their real voice actors (the way they move, rolls with their eyes, e.g.). Did that happen in some of your pictures?

DON: Sure, in "Anastasia" we worked hard at getting some "Meg Ryan" in the Anya character. We actually videotaped a voice recording session of her, for the animators to see her act. We also provided "live" actor's reference for the animation of the human characters in most of our films. Many times we ask the actors to look at films done by the voice actors, then incorporate some of the voice actor's traits in their performance.

How long does it usually take to design a character with all its details, animations and its behaviour?

DON: We get a good idea before we start. I've designed most of the characters in our films. But, the animators "discover" more about the character as we move through the production. It's really all about knowing what the character "wants". This is what we as animators/actors must know - "who is our character?"; "what does (s)he want?" Sometimes, we may eliminate certain details if it starts to hamper our ability to get animation done efficiently. We rarely add details, with the exception of maybe the number of colours or varying ink colours on the character's clothing, hair, eyes, etc.

When creating and developing the characters, which part of the face did you start drawing?

DON: I might not start on the face. I might be looking for an attitude, body language; a size (skinny, fat, etc.), maybe just an overall shape, a square, a triangle, or a circle. When approaching the face, I'm also looking for shapes and spaces, the size of the eyes versus the size of the nose or the mouth. Hair is also important - everything has a role in the overall design of the character and it's personality.

Which is the character you love most?

DON: That's a tough question, there are so many. The Great Owl in "NIMH," seemed to impress a lot of fans. Brisby was a good character, so was Ages. Jeremy, the crow, was excellent. I have fond memories of developing him and working with Linda Miller, who animated a lot of Jeremy scenes. But, there were many others like Bartok, in "Anastasia" or Fievel, in "An American Tail" or Charlie and Itchie, in "All Dogs Go To Heaven". Sorry, I can't just choose one.

What did you feel, seeing your movie for the first time in a whole?

DON: The first time is great - more fun for me is the first ruff pencil tests in the reel. That's when the characters start to come to life. Once the whole film is in colour, it's been about two years in production, I actually start to think about what we could have done to make it better. Choice of colours, are so important to telling your story. We try to orchestrate colours like you would music, sound effects and dialogue - it all contributes to the emotion of the story. Sometime we feel elation at the film's completion. Sometimes, we feel like we failed. It's never the same. It's hard to look back.

There is one thing all of your films have in common: A perfect voice casting for child characters. They fit perfect and the little actors are first rate. Remembering the voice talents of Fievel or Ducky from "The Land before Time". How difficult is it to find such talents?

DON: Thank you. We always try to use real children, not an adult actor "pretending" to be a child. We've had great success with children. Fievel was played by a young (6 years old) Phillip Glasser, his father is a composer and Phillip went on to work in theatre in shows like "Les Miserables." It's difficult, but they (child actors) are out there. Ducky was played by a 5 year old, Judith Barsi. She also was Ann Marie, the little girl in "All Dogs Go To Heaven." She was absolutely astonishing. She understood verbal direction, even for the most sophisticated situations. We loved working with her. Plus, all the children in NIMH were really good. We've been very fortunate in this area.

In the Dragons Lair Laserdisc arcade game we hear Dan Molina as Dirk the Daring. Will there be a reunion for the upcoming Dragons Lair 3D?

DON: Yes, we brought Dan back in to do an encore for the new game. It was a nice reunion. Dan was just a young editing assistant when we made the first game (1983). Now he's editing sound at Disney Feature Animation and is married with four children.

How import is voice acting in the new Dragons Lair 3D?

DON: Games are more about "game play" but we feel that we have a story in our game and the acting is important. We had to find a new voice for Daphne. Vera Lampher, the original voice of Daphne, did a recording for us but her voice has changed, so we found another voice for that unique Daphne sound. We think we're close. In this new game Daphne has a lot of lines, as she helps Dirk through the game by giving him hints.

There is another thing that all your films have in common. They all have a great musical score. You are working together with some of the most talented composers. Your films have music, for instance, from Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, David Newman and Robert Folk. How import is music for you and your films? Which score do you love most?

DON: Music is a core element to the storytelling process. It can touch your very soul - evoking emotions from the most subtle of scenes. You are right, we have worked with some of the best. I have a great respect for Jerry Goldmith's score for "The Secret of NIMH" and David Newman's work on "Anastasia" is fantastic. Don't make me choose. What these composers bring to the film is priceless.

In Dragons Lair 3D we get a full orchestra soundtrack composed by Christopher Stone, who was also responsible for the soundtrack of the Arcade Game. Will we hear themes from the old game in the new one?

DON: The new game looks and sounds great. Chris has created a whole new score. A big full orchestra sound in 5.1 Dolby Stereo Plus surrounds. There are over 60 music cues comprising around 40 minutes of powerful music. He may have inserted a few bars from the original game. You'll have to wait for the game and then listen closely.

How is it possible to produce music for a game that "follows" the onscreen action, never knowing what the player does next?

DON: Chris has produced the music in short cyclical cues that can "loop" or cut to alternative loops. This allows for a unique editing capability. You'll see, it's very impressive.

Which are the things you don't like in today's computer games and what are you going to do better with Dragons Lair 3D?

DON: Many games seem to be all about "hack and slash", lots of gore, blood and death, or, on the other end, the games are built for the very young. Dragon's Lair offers entertainment for the whole family, young and old, male or female. We believe that the story element will be a major part of its entertainment. The CGI animators have done a great job of capturing Dirk's personality; that goofy "everyman" that does his very best to overcome life's obstacles to rescue his princess. This time the princess helps. This game is unique in that it works on PC, Mac, Playstation 2, GameCube and Xbox. The Xbox version can the full 5.1 Dolby, 6 channel sound system, for the home theatre and Dragon's Lair 3D is the first and only true 1080i game available. It plays on High Definition wide-screen TVs. It's nice to have another "first." From "first laser disc" game to "first High Definition" game, we're very excited about it.

Do you think that nearly 100 years of experience in animated films can enhance the art of computer games?

DON: It obvious that the games are getting better, both visually and sophistication of game play. Technology is still growing, so between animation skills and technology. We're going to see some great things in the future.

What do you think can be done better by game designers having a look at animated pictures in all aspects?

DON: Probably working on better stories or adding more story to the game concepts. Once they see an application of movie technology and storytelling we will see better games. It's coming, the game designers are pushing hard for better product.

Today home computers are more advanced compared to the time when creating the old Dragons Lair game. Do you think that all you wish to achieve with the new game is possible (technically) with today's computers or consoles?

DON: It's close, but the consumers are still far behind the manufacturers. The improvements occur so fast you don't know when to get in. As soon as the price gets affordable, something new comes out, leaving the consumer confused … wait or buy now? The new consoles are really getting good. The Xbox really offers the most but few games have taken advantage of all these bells and whistles, Dragon's Lair 3D has all the bells and whistles and only Xbox has the memory to offer them all to the consumer.

The art of storytelling and character design is the great art of animated pictures. Do you think you can achieve this within the new game?

DON: Not yet, but down the line we (or someone) should make the break through. It would take complete agreement, between the publishers and the developers, on the approach. There would be a risk factor. Note that the most popular game, out there, is the very adult, "Grand Theft Auto." It doesn't say much for what the game audience wants. This game is dealing with the dark side of human nature.

The screenshots of Dragons Lair 3D look like the one of the old arcade game, do you want to achieve the same outlook and atmosphere with the new version, only with the difference that you are now able to completely interact?

DON: Exactly. We all agreed that we should emulate the look of the laser disc version. The use of "Toon Shader", gave the 3D (CGI) character, the look of the traditional cel animation. We did that for the fans who love the look of the original. We even scanned in the original backgrounds to be used as "tiles" to map or wallpaper onto the CGI environments. This pushed the "look" even closer to the original but the player is in complete control of the character. This time it's for real. You will also be able to play the game with a "CGI" look. Once you win the game, you are given the opportunity to play it with the characters in real 3D.

You chose to use cell shading within the new game. A system not so commonly used by current games. Do you think it is the right choice? (I think it looks great :)) As far as I know, at present only two other games use this technique (the new Zelda game for the Game Cube and XIII from Ubisoft). Which are the advantages of this technique? Will it look like a "live" animated picture?

DON: You are right, it is a new concept, but most who played the game at the E3 convention, in LA, agreed that it looks great and the game play offers a real challenge. We were a little disappointed that Zelda offered the 2D look. We really wanted to be first in this area as well. We're not biased, but we think ours looks better. It just felt right to do it this way. Give the audience the old Dirk, but with total control. Yes, it is sort of a "live" 2D animated picture.

In how far are you involved in the creation of the computer game and who has had the idea of recreating Dirk the Daring?

DON: Rick Dyer, approached us back in 1998. He asked us if we would partner in reinventing the game as a 3D product. We jumped at the opportunity. Our involvement has been on script approval and overseeing character design. The team in the California studio have been great. Lead animator, Thomas Konkol, Art Director, Wil Panganiban and Engineers, Eugene Foss and Todd Heckle have made major contributions with Herculean efforts over the last 3 ½ years.

In the old arcade game we find a lot of different and classic "deaths" ;) for Dirk. For losing a life the player was rewarded with a funny sequence. Are you going to recreate this in the new game?

DON: We really wanted to, but that would have taken more money and another year. There was a lot of discussion on this, but game play seemed the most important. We get a lot of comedy out of the way Dirk moves and his crazy, goofy screams.

Will we find all the famous characters from the past in there?

DON: Many of the characters, from the original game, are included in the new 3D version. We may create an "add-on" package with the "whirlpools" and the "flying barding" sequences not included in this latest version.

Was the game engine a new one or did you license engine?

DON: We licensed an engine, then made many proprietary improvements to accommodate this game.

I've read that you are going to produce a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound for the game, is this true ?

DON: Yes, as I said before, you're going to love the sound, especially if you have the Xbox and a high definition television with a home theatre sound system.

If Dragons Lair 3D becomes a hit game, will there be a chance to see Space Ace 3D in the future?

DON: We've talked about "Space Ace" as a follow up. We'll just have to wait and see. There have been many questions about this on our website www.donbluth.com

I've read about a rumour that you are working on a new motion picture, a prequel to the old Dragons Lair arcade game, is this true?

DON: Yes, we have written a script and even started the pre-production process of storyboarding. The script is in its fourth revision and we think it's very entertaining. We are seeking distribution at this time.

What are your future projects?

DON: We have several feature film projects in the works. I'd rather not disclose those titles, at this time. Some are public domain and we don't want to tip our hand.

Do you play computer or videogames by yourself?

DON: No, not really. I'm a storyteller and character designer. I leave the game play to the developers. They are the pros. I'm just glad I've had some influence.

Does your job correspond with what you always wanted to be when you were a child?

DON: Actually … yes! I've been very blessed with regard to my childhood dreams and my career. I guess that maybe I'm still a child, at heart.

Thank you very much for your time, the interview , the hours of joy and entertainment you gave us with your movies, Don, we wish you great success with the game and all the best to your future projects.

Don: Thank you, Andreas. It's been a real pleasure. We hope you like the new game. See you at the movies.



Dank an Karsta Preiß für die Unterstützung bei den Übersetzungen.
Pictures copyrights by Don Bluth, Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, MGM/UA, Mrs. Frisby Limited, Warner Brothers, all rights reserved



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