Two years ago, a press issued by Walt Disney Productions hailed Don Bluth as "the head of the young team of animators especially trained to carry on the tradition and quality of animation established by Walt Disney and his original team.
"He is the first of the new group to attain the rank of animator and [he] serves as an inspiration and motivational leader to the others as well."
The statement proved prophetic: A few weeks ago, Bluth's inspirational leadership motivated 11 people right out of Disney's animation department. They followed him when he quit the studio and formed his own company to work in exclusive association with Aurora Productions -- formed in 1978 by three Disney expatriate executives.
The mass defections represented 21 percent of the full complement of Disney's character animation department and a loss of key personnel including directing animators Gary Goldman, 34, and John Pomeroy, 28, who along with Bluth are the three principals in Don Bluth Productions. (The other nine are employed directly by Aurora.)
Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy worked closely over the years on such films as "The Rescuers," "Pete's Dragon" and "The Small One," and had grown increasingly disenchanted with the modern-day Disney operation, its direction and training program, and what they feel are restraints on creativity imposed by the corporate environment.
Bluth joined Disney in 1956 after spending a year at Brigham Young University in Utah. He was put to work as assistant animator on "Sleeping Beauty," perfecting the movements of "a lot of squirrels and a lot of owls." He left studio after a year-and-a-half, but rejoined in 1971 after spending the intervening years first on a mission for the Mormon Church, then in college, later in his own theatrical company, and finally as an animator at Filmation studios.
Bluth found to his disappointment that the company had changed since Disney's death in 1966. "What made Walt Disney Productions produce those beautiful films was Walt Disney," says Bluth reverently. "He was the catalyst. I have often felt that what's been there lately is the tail of the comet."
The lanky 42-year-old quickly became the animation department's rising star at a time when Disney productions was entering a critical transition period. Disney himself was dead, and the "Nine Old Men" -- who formed the core of Disney's pool of animation talent -- were getting older. Two have since died and the others have retired from active participation in filmmaking.
"Pete's Dragon," released in 1977, was the last movie any of the Nine were to work on. By that time, Bluth had inherited the mantle of leadership.
"I gave it two years where I was at the top of it, where if it was going to happen, I could've made the change happen," he says. "But every time I suggested a change, there was too much red tape that said, 'No, that isn't the was the Disney system works.'"
The frustration felt by Bluth and his colleagues Goldman and Pomeroy had been mounting for several years, to the point where the three had invested in their own movie-making equipment in order to work on a short animated feature so they could obtain the training and challenges they felt they were not receiving at the studio.
The three have converted a private house in a residential Los Angeles neighborhood into a mini-movie studio. One former bedroom is crammed with editing equipment. The garage is a workroom for assistants putting the finishing touches on their featurette -- about a cat named Banjo -- to be distributed by Aurora Productions.
Sitting in a room used to store drafting tables, Bluth and Goldman discuss their plans to preserve the kind of clasic animated movies on which they grew up. Paying close attention to artistic detail, they aim to perpetuate the traditional Disney approach -- animated morality plays with anthropomorphic characters.
Disney Productions has often been criticised because its features are too syrupy, the characters unreal and idealized. But Goldman's complaint is different: Disney features today, he says, lack moral statements. "I don't know how long it's been since you've seen 'Bambi,' but there are a lot of things that go on in there that are not just pratfalls and slapstick gags. They're related to human experience and human situations, so it reminds you of someone you know. It gives you a chance to look at yourself."
"I think animation is an art form, not just a cartoon for kids, and in those first years at the studio, with 'Snow White,' 'Bambi,' Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia,' Walt brought that art form up to a level where it opened up the vision for all of us to see," explains Bluth, an intense man with a soft voice.
"Walt's pictures were full of hope. So that after you get through watching a Disney picture, you usually come out saying, 'My word, the whole world is going to work out. Evil does lose and good does win.'
"The pictures that are coming out [of Disney] like 'Robin Hood' are geared to how much you can make an audience laugh. They've become very funny formula pictures, but not very meaningful."
Bluth also feels that the young Disney animators are not being given sufficient training to put out a quality product.
"I was fighting what I thought was a losing battle," maintains Bluth. I kept trying to get management to understand that the animation doesn't just happen. It needs to be trained like a ballet corps. Because the training program wasn't working, we got people upstairs in a room and we showed them how to do it. We taught them what had been taught to us by some of those Nine Old Men."
The group's featurette also served as a training vehicle. Using equipment that they purchased for $125,000, they spent their spare time "rediscovering techniques" lost at Disney, assisted by some of the people who later left the studio with them. The half-hour film has cost an additional $100,000.
For Disney, the resignations meant more than the loss of some top talent. Its next animated film, the $10 million "The Fox and the Hound" will be delayed for release at least six months until the summer of 1981. And according to Harry "Bud" Hester, business agent for the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists union -- himself a 26-year veteran of Disney's animation department -- the resignation "put them back basically five or six years of training."
Art Scott, another Disney veteran, now a producer at rival Hanner Barbera Productions, agrees. "It's a major shakeup for Disney," he says.
Officially, Disney is taking the departures in stride. The spate of publicity which followed the resignation produced what Ed Hansen, manager of the animation department, describes as "one of the best recruiting campaigns we've ever had." Those who have left have been replaced, he said, but not all the replacements are of the same caliber as those who left.
However, "morale-wise it's the greatest thing that's happened here in the last 20 years," says Hansen. "We're starting over an animation here with a brand-new animation department. There were a lot of varying thoughts on how things should be."
Whatever it means for Disney, the move has been seen as evidence of the health of the animation industry. After a decline in the '60s and early '70s, the growth in opportunities created by emerging independent producers (such as Ralph Bakshi, who developed "adult animation" features "Fritz the Cat" and "Lord of the Rings"), together with the increased exposure of animated movies on television, has boosted the cartoonists union membership by one-third within the last two years.
The 1,700-member union recently claimed victory after a two-week long strike against three studios which capitulated to the union's demand that no work be sent overseas unless union members were unable to perform it.
In addition to Disney, Aurora, Hanna Barbera, Bakshi and Paramount Pictures, all of which currently have feature animation movies in the works, United Artists will soon begin production of a full-length animation project, and Warner Brothers has just released its latest feature animated movie, a Bugs Bunny film.
"Properly marketed and properly positioned in the marketplace, an animated feature can find a broad-based audience," says Larry Mark, Paramount vice president for marketing.
Aurora Productions, which has just completed shooting the live-action feature "Why Would I Lie?" to be released in the summer of 1980 was planning on branching into animation in the future, but decided to take an earlier leap when Bluth, who was also talking to other studios, approached them, according to Aurora executive vice president Jim Stewart, a former Disney VP.
Bluth Productions is scheduled to produce at least two animated features with Aurora. The first will be a $7-million project based on the Newberry Award-winning children's novel "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," about a group of experimental rats at the National Institutes of Mental Health who learn how to read, become civilized, and escape from their cages.
It sounds like pure old Disney. "Yes," Bluth says, "but the horrible word is 'old.' Why do you want to go back? You want to go forward. There are some things we can look at in the past and say those are good things. Let's don't lose them."
The Disney organization believes it too is going forward. One hint of where it may be moving can be seen in the person of Roy Disney Iii, Walt's grandnephew. He is currently training at Ralph Bakshi productions, but reportedly preparing for future employment at the house that Walt built.