8 Facts About Legendary Animator Don Bluth
In a career that has spanned more than 60 years, Don Bluth has worked as a film director, animator, production designer, video game designer, illustrator, and teacher. He has made such beloved films as The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988), as well as the pioneering video game Dragon’s Lair.
With the recent publication of Bluth’s autobiography, Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life, and Don Bluth’s Art of Storyboard, which was released in May, the artist can also add “author” to his ever-growing list of titles.
1. Don Bluth knew he wanted to become an animator when he was 4 years old.
When Bluth was just 4 years old, his parents took him to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he was fascinated by the scene where the Evil Queen transforms into a witch. He said, “It was something that impressed me,” Bluth told Deseret News in July 2022. “‘Let’s go do that again!’ I was very impressed with the look of it. I couldn’t say for sure why I was so attracted to it.”
2. He has some famous family members.
Bluth’s great-grandfather was Helaman Pratt, an early leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of the founders of Prattville, Utah. One-time Republican presidential candidate and current junior senator of Utah Mitt Romney is also Pratt’s great-grandson, making Romney and Bluth second cousins.
3. He worked for one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men.”
At age 18, Bluth was hired by Walt Disney Productions as what was known as an “in-between,” a person who adds frames to the animators’ drawings. He rose quickly and was soon promoted to assistant animator for John Lounsbery, one of Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men.”
“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,” Bluth told Meridian Magazine of the experience in 2012. He left Disney to go on a mission trip to Argentina for his church, much to Lounsbery’s confusion.
4. He made his first independent film in his garage.
While still working for Disney, Bluth launched a production company called Aurora, named after the character in Sleeping Beauty, which was the first feature film Bluth worked on. The first project he made under the company’s banner was Banjo the Woodpile Cat, a short about a farm cat who runs away to Salt Lake City. Like Walt Disney, Bluth started his own company in his garbage.
“People thought we used the garage on purpose, because Walt Disney started in a garage," Bluth told The Washington Post in 1982. “But we weren’t that shrewd. We simply couldn't afford anyplace else. My living room had blackout curtains up and was the projection room. My family room was the camera room. My bedroom had editing equipment in it for years, and the kitchen and patio were the commissary. Any money we had, we put into filmmaking equipment and things that show on the screen.”
5. He launched his own animation studio, three separate times.
In 1979, after working for Walt Disney Productions for nearly a decade—where he contributed to such films as Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and Pete’s Dragon, Bluth and several of his colleagues left Disney to start Don Bluth Productions. Their first project was the animated sequence for the live-action film Xanadu (1980), starring Olivia Newton-John; The Secret of NIMH was their first and last film.
Though it was praised by critics, The Secret of NIMH was a box office disappointment, which—along with an animator’s strike in 1982—led to the studio filing for bankruptcy that year. The company then re-launched as Bluth Group, which focused on video games. Their first release was 1983’s Dragon’s Lair, which was the first game to use film-style graphics. After completing only one other game (1983’s Space Ace), the Bluth Group was forced into bankruptcy, primarily due to the video game crash of 1983.
In 1984, Bluth teamed up with businessman Morris Sullivan to create Sullivan Bluth Studios. The company had early success with films like The Land Before Time, but closed in 1995 after a string of flops caused investors to pull out. In 2020, Bluth—now 84 years old—announced that he had started a new company, Don Bluth Entertainment, which focuses on hand-drawn animation.
6. His first studio had the first profit-sharing contract in animation.
Don Bluth Productions had the first ever documented profit sharing agreement, which Bluth told The Washington Post was necessary as it was “the only way we could hope to compensate people adequately for the sacrifice and extra effort required.”
He continued this with his next studio. At Sullivan Bluth Studios, employees shared in up to 25 percent of the profits from each film. “This arrangement, unique in the business, derives from Morris Sullivan’s and Don Bluth’s philosophy that each employee is an important member of the Studio team without which the film could not be made,” Animator Magazine wrote of the game-changing arrangement.
7. Bluth thinks it’s important to show darkness children’s in films.
Bluth’s films are well-known for containing some of the saddest and most disturbing moments in children’s movies. In an interview with Doug Walker, the YouTube personality best-known for his series The Nostalgia Critic (which you can watch above), Bluth said, “[If] you don’t show the darkness, you don’t appreciate the light. If it weren’t for December no one would appreciate May. It’s just important that you see both sides of that. As far as a happy ending … when you walk out of the theater there’s [got to be] something that you have that you get to take home. What did it teach me? Am I a better person for having watched it?”
Steven Spielberg, who produced An American Tail and The Land Before Time, disagreed with Bluth and had 10 minutes of scenes cut from the latter film because the Jaws director felt they were “too scary” for children.
8. Bluth wanted to make a Beatles movie with Michael Jackson.
Bluth has a long list of works that he has yet to complete; his unrealized projects include a short based on The Pied Piper of Hamlin and a full-length The Velveteen Rabbit. Perhaps the oddest of Bluth’s unmade projects is Strawberry Fields, a Fantasia-esque series of vignettes that utilized the music of The Beatles, which Bluth attempted to make in the 1980s. Michael Jackson, who had then recently purchased the rights to the Lennon/McCartney catalog, brought the idea to Bluth, which never came to pass because the surviving members of the band refused permission to use their likenesses.