ON THE FILM
is a compilation of Q&As I submitted to Gary Goldman at
www.donbluth.com, from 2003-2007. It also includes
some excerpts posted from Goldman's answers to other people's
questions; in such cases, I have credited the individual's
name (whenever available), and highlighted the excerpt in
red. For cohesion and clarity, the text has been edited together
and presented here in Q&A format, strictly as an informational
resource behind the making of the film.
Having attended a screening of "NIMH" in Santa Monica
back in 2003, I must say it was a thrill to see it on the big
screen after over 20 years! And while the images were as powerful
as ever, the presentation was
in many ways a disappointment. The sound & acustics were
terrible. The Nuart Theater is not particularly state of the
art, and the soundtrack was played at far too high a volume.
It sounded shrill -- Jerry Goldsmith's opening music was blasting
so loud, some people were covering their ears.
Sounds like the Nuart folks need to balance their dolby system
and check their audio levels. Most theaters are rather negligent
with this regard. When we first premiered NIMH at the Egyptian
Theater in Hollywood and The Century Theater in Century City
back in 1982, Gary Goldman and Jerry Goldsmith worked with technicians
from MGM/UA and Dolby to "tune" those two theaters
before the opening. The sound played fantastically. But when
Gary went on the promotional tour for the film, he heard the
sound in 26 different theaters across the country, and not one
of them played their sound very well. This has been an ongoing
concern of filmmakers and sound designers. Quality control is
a major element when presenting a film. Lucas offers a quality
control service that will spot check theaters for distributors.
We used it for the release of ANASTASIA (20th Century Fox, 1997).
Looks like the Nuart needs some Quality control. We're sorry
that the NIMH experience was damaged by the poor sound presentation.
I felt a tinge of melancholy while leaving the theater. Perhaps
seeing the film onscreen made me review it in a different light.
It struck me -- while NIMH is one of my all time favorite films,
it's not the sort of movie in which you stand up and cheer.
It works subtly, the emotions are restrained and nostalgic,
and in spite of some comic relief (ex: Jeremy the crow), there
is a serious tone to the film. That's why I love it so, mind
you, but that's perhaps another reason why NIMH is not the traditional
crowd-pleaser. And while the Brisbys are victorious at the conclusion,
there's a bittersweet sadness to everything that's happened.
Regarding the traditional crowd pleasing issue, you're right,
we tried for a more sophisticated approach to this story. We
really wanted to reach back to the animated feature film stories
like Bambi or Pinocchio or Cinderella --
to bring dramatics and subtle humor to the medium that we felt
had been missing for some time. We were criticized at the time
that the film was too dark. But that was our intent. We wanted
to make the film interesting for all ages -- not just children.
I think such bittersweet feelings are multiplied in my heart
because NIMH remains something of a privately discovered treasure
that the mass audience will never really know. While cable and
home video have made the film very popular, I'm sad that it's
unlikely NIMH will ever be fully, wholeheartedly embraced by
anyone other than...us.
Over the years, many people (fans of the film) have contacted
us and really appreciate what the message of the film is and
also consider the film a real "treasure", emotionally.
The film does work on TV, but it has much greater impact on
the big screen.
From the way you described the animation process (in interviews),
it sounds like it was truly a labor of love...is it true that
much of the work was done out of a converted garage?
Actually, we didn't do any of NIMH in the garage. We made Banjo
the Woodpile Cat in Don's garage, a 27 minute short film,
between May 1975 and December 1979. We started The Secret
of N.I.M.H. in January 1980, in a 5500 square foot building
in Studio City, CA. And, for sure, it was a labor of love.
How did that compare to the scope of your production on ANASTASIA?
NIMH was a traditionally hand-drawn animated film and had
about 100 in-house employees. Don Bluth storyboarded the entire
film. We had one layout artist that followed up Don's ruff layouts,
11 of us animated; there were assistant animators, inbetweeners,
Key Cleanup Artists, assistants, inbetweeners, FX animators,
and their assistants and inbetweeners, editors, color modelist,
three background artists, checking, xerox department, inkers,
45 cel painters working from their homes, final checking, camera,
department supervisors, a production manager, his assistant,
two production assistants to run errands and a receptionist.
Therefore, about 145 artists and management staff, plus an outside
sound designer, foley artists, sound editors, music editor,
composer, a 110 piece orchestra, music engineer, final mixing
engineers, payroll personnel, various vendors, technicolor personnel,
negative cutting, etc. And, to bring the characters to life,
the actors who voiced them.
think there is a total of about 700 names on the credits of
that film. It took 28 months to make the film from start, with
no script to final delivery. We wrote the script in-house (Don
Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and Will Finn), all four of
us also animated and did various artistic functions on the film,
like direct, art direct, scene plan, sound supervise, help other
animators with their scenes.
Anastasia, we had 316 in-house employees. At least 10
people in administration from a general manager, human resources
manager, facilities manager, accounting, production accounting,
purchasing, reception, production assistants to run errands,
plus about 10 in engineering, to maintain the facilities, computer
rendering, maintenance and coding. We had to learn to use the
computer for many of the jobs that were once done by hand. However,
we also had many more artists doing what we had once done with
many less, i.e. we had 14 layout artists, 17 background
artists, 27 animators, 45 artists in the cleanup department
and on throughout the process. We no longer had rostrum cameras
-- all animation drawings, layouts and backgrounds were scanned
into the computers and inked and painted in the computer. Anastasia
was greenlit in October of 1995 and completed in October of
1997. From November of 1994 to October of 1995, several writers
worked on the script with story executives from 20th Century
Fox in Los Angeles. This film took 24 months to produce, not
counting the scripting. Anastasia has well over 1000
people involved with the motion picture. All of this must be
coordinated within a budget and schedule, meeting weekly quotas
and inspiring performance from everyone involved.
I watched the classic Errol Flynn THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
for the first time (I know, I know... Shame on me for never
seeing it until now), and couldn't help but notice a striking
similarity between the climactic Errol Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone
swordfight...and the climactic duel between two rats in a certain
Good call. Actually, we were inspired by three movies for the
fight sequence in The Secret of NIMH: The Vikings,
The Adventures of Robin Hood and...damn, can't remember
the third. It was all about the choreography or the dance of
the fight. We studied several films with sword fighting.
MGM released the film on DVD some years ago (1998); it was one
of their earliest titles. But I suspect MGM did not put the
love and care into the endeavor as other recent DVDs. I have
written to the marketing department of feature film and home
video for MGM/UA, recommending that an expanded DVD version
of the film would not only be wholeheartedly embraced by fans,
but also a very commercially viable project. If they needed
proof, I suggested that they do a basic search throughout the
internet -- there are COUNTLESS fan page websites and fan-related
art, and NIMH merchandise are, when available, hot items on
eBay's roster! If a full-scale theatrical re-release isn't viable,
than certainly a revamped, restored DVD is in order. Do you
know of any other theatrical screenings for NIMH in the near
future -- even if it is just a limited engagement? Are there
any newly struck prints in existance?
We appreciate that you have written to MGM/UA. Have you received
Maybe more people should write in. We're not sure that they
would take the time and the money to do a "real" survey
on whether a re-release of a new DVD, or even a theatrical re-release,
would work. We think that a re-release of NIMH would work as
well as/or better than the re-release of E.T., just because
it is animated (and because we don't have the kids say lines
like "penis breath"). If they did the re-release theatrically,
then a new DVD would be most appropriate. We'd be glad to provide
the audio tracks for the behind the scenes issues. We are not
aware of any near-future screenings of NIMH. However, we are
showing a "studio" print, from the original negative,
at our talk at the Savannah School of Art and Design in May
(2003). We are not aware of any new prints being struck. We
believe that there are about 300 release prints in MGM/UA's
vaults that are in good enough shape to be used in a re-release.
Maybe if you got a mass campaign going on all the NIMH websites,
to have fans write to MGM/UA about a re-release or a new DVD,
you could get MGM/UA's attention. You don't have to convince
(credit: Doug Hryniuk): I know you've had a history of your
animated features getting a PG at first and then toning them
down to get a G rating. Examples being THE LAND BEFORE TIME,
ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and ROCK-A-DOODLE. I feel that the MPAA
has its moments of hypocrisy. ... What I want to know is specifically
how the rating process works and how the appeals for softer
Actually any editing done to our films, including the THE LAND
BEFORE TIME, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and ROCK-A-DOODLE, was not
done to improve the rating to a "general audience" G.
Land Before Time, George (Lucas) and Steven (Spielberg)
were more concerned about causing nightmares for children than
getting a G rating. On All Dogs, the folks at Goldcrest
Film and Television were concerned that the Hell Hound sequence
would cause nightmares and would in fact cause a word of mouth
that would steer family audiences away. We would have just preferred
getting a PG rating. On Rock-A-Doodle, Goldcrest's marketing
rep had some issues about the owl making a skunk pie with a
baby skunk voiced by a 6 year-old child actor. The skunk got
away when the The Duke's nephew, voiced by Charles Nelson Reilly
crash-lands in the outdoor kitchen. The rep came at us with
some sort of experience about child abuse and that most child
abuse occurs in the kitchen with scalding, burning etc. He made
demands for us to cut material from that sequence, again not
for the rating but for some personal concerns. ... But, you're
right, there isn't a whole lot of discretion on the ratings
board. Maybe they need some members who are parents of young
children for better ratings tests. ...
of our films that we wanted a PG rating was (for) The
Secret of NIMH. Funny, even with all the support of the
press and the critics, they all commented that there are dark
sections of the film that could be frightening to small children.
Not really sure you will get the attention of the ratings board
or its members, I think they just feel that animation is for
children so it's just an automatic gesture, rate it G! I often
wonder if the ratings board actually looks at the animated films.
I was terribly saddened by the recent news of Ollie Johnston's
Yes, it is sad to see the passing of Ollie Johnston, as it was
with those that went before him. Ollie was a very humble guy,
always ready to help those artists that worked with him. One
of the most important lessons I learned was the fact that these
great animators understood the use of "texture" within their
animated assignments. Ollie and Frank, as well as all of the
nine old men understood texture, or varying the rhythm, the
timing, the shapes, fast against slow, busy against calm, much
like the texture in music. It wasn't until my second year at
Walt Disney that this was pointed out to me, by Don. He pointed
to Ollie and Frank's work, and sure enough, as their scenes
came back from camera, and we watched them on the moviola, we
could see their attention to including texture to enhance their
scenes by creating changes in rhythm and timing, making the
scenes more interesting and even more entertaining.
addition to their drawing skills and attention to allowing the
audience to see the character "thinking", the addition of texture,
to even a short "continuity" scene or "action" scene, helps
eliminate "mushy" and boring animation. When I brought this
up to Frank & Ollie, they both just smiled, and commented that
this is just one more step in learning to do classical animation.
I wondered if you had any personal experiences with him during
your tenure at Disney.
When I first went to work at Walt Disney Productions in February
of 1972, the three animators' names that were spoken the most
around the studio were Milt, Frank & Ollie -- like the "Holy
Trinity" of classical animation. He was very humble and
always ready to pass on his knowledge in animation to all of
us "trainees". ...
Don did work under Ollie -- on (The Adventures of) Robin
Hood, in the sequence where Robin enters Prince John's bedroom
and steals bags of money from him. Don animated Robin and Sir
Hiss, under Ollie's direction. Ollie animated Prince John tossing
and turning in his sleep.
once stopped me in the hall to comment on Don's Bernard and
Bianca scenes in The Rescuers, and said he felt Don's
scenes were the best mice scenes in the film. And that he felt
I would learn a lot from Don. He was referring to the the zoo
sequence. And, the fact that I was working under Don's direction
on the opening sequence at the United Nations building, with
the mice entering the building, going down to the meeting of
the Rescue Aid Society. ...
Ollie was always ready to compliment other artists. He was very
deliberate with his approach to animation, thinking out his
scenes very methodically. Even when drawing, he would make several
strokes with his blue pencil, just above the blank paper, before
allowing the pencil to lower and just "kiss" the paper, making
a light mark to begin drawing each individual pose of the character(s).
His ruff animation was drawn very light, on-model with all the
finesse of a master animator/artist. All the major detail would
be added as he confirmed that his action was working properly
and that the purpose of the scene was clear.
also always encouraged us to "think through your scene, see
it in your mind before you put pencil to paper". If you complimented
him on one of his scenes, he was always gracious and would usually
just come back with a simple thank you, maybe give you a quick
lesson on how he approached the scene.
the end of his animating days, Ollie suffered from a form of
palsy, where his hands would shake, usually around 2 or 3 in
the afternoon. He never complained. But regretted that it shortened
his work day. He'd just lay down the pencil and perhaps read,
or leave a little early. He was very aware of this problem and
probably made a bigger effort to concentrate and get as much
work done before the shaking would affect his drawing.
was extremely dedicated to animation and ready to pass along
any of his knowledge to us fledglings. He was generous in so
many ways. He invited me and my family up to his house in Flintridge
for a Sunday afternoon to see his trains. When we arrived there
were other guests as well. He opened his work-room doors at
the back of his garage, where miniature railroad tracks led,
and pushed the little engine out into the open yard on those
tracks. He explained that he had built it from the ground up
and told us how it operates as he fired up the engine.
our family album there are pictures of Kip and Andy, two of
our five children, riding on the train cars that Ollie also
built and the little engine pulled. Ollie, of course was the
engineer, sat on the coal car, driving the train. It was a great
day, with a great guy. Frank and his wife came over (they lived
next door). After the ride, we were invited into Ollie's house
to see some of his memorabilia from his experiences at Disney.
It's hard to forget an experience like that who was such a giant
in our industry. And a humble giant he was.
Did you see or speak to him at all after you left Disney?
... We had only one moment in time with Ollie after leaving
Disney. It was at a Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist, local
839 function in the late summer of 1982, after the release of
The Secret of NIMH. We had arrived early and were at
the entrance and coat check area of the function, when Ollie
and Frank came in (always together). I think the fact that we
were the first faces they saw, took them off guard. They were
not especially glad to see us. We were, as you know, "Disney
Renegades", defectors, the cancer that marred the Disney training
program and hurt the growth of the animation department (at
least according to quotes by Ron Miller, the CEO of Walt Disney
in those days). We did talk and exchanged pleasantries. But,
you could easily feel their discomfort.
made an off-hand compliment on the film but thought that it
was "busy" and wasn't sure what we were trying to say. We joked
about how much work it was and shook hands -- never to meet
them again. They sat at a table about two tables away from us,
with other animators who had just retired from the business.
It was sad, but inevitable that such a meeting would happen,
and we could not really expect that they would celebrate our
efforts. We knew their history with Walt Disney and their loyalty
to the mission of that great studio, even thru the union strike
of 1941, when they pledged their loyalty to Walt and the company
over the union's demands. (I think they were right to do this,
but also agree with the objectives of the strike.) I think they
felt conflicted but their love of animation, and of Walt Disney,
out-weighed the decision to support the strike.
was a humble, gentleman and a master animator, a true pioneer
in our industry.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. It was not my intent
to drudge up any bittersweet memories, so I'm sorry if it was
a sensitive subject. In my view, NIMH's "busy" atmosphere --
in both plot and animation style -- is key to its magic. If
Frank wasn't sure what you were trying to say, perhaps it was
only because the film was told in a different "voice" than the
one he'd been used to hearing. Of course, the timing of your
meeting also very likely added to his bias. Best wishes and
Spring 2007: This portion of my interview was conducted
back in 2003. In early 2007, Bluth announced that Fox Home
Entertainment would be releasing a remastered DVD of the
film, tentatively set for June 19th. You can read my recent
questions about this reissue here.
April 2008: Gary Goldman's comments on the late Ollie Johnston
were compiled from three separate Q&A exchanges with
Natal, Andrew Kieswetter, and myself.