Animator Don Bluth lives in a coloful world of his own making

April 01, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Only one man in America could possibly say this:

"Steven, uh, oh? What's that guy's name? Oh, yeah, Steven Spielberg, that's the guy!"

The only reason he could say that is that in some sense Don Bluth is a Spielberg, or at least a peer, not an acolyte. Like Spielberg, he's invented a world that he's chronicled on film, to the massive delight of America's parents and children, and the ++ indifference of its critics.

He just hasn't made his "Schindler's List" yet -- and he probably never will, since, after all, he's an animator.

Bluth, who's just produced and directed (with partner Gary Goldman) "Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina" has even worked with Spielberg -- on "An American Tail," which Spielberg underwrote. But, like Spielberg, he's not really dependent on studio tastes; he's his own studio, and goes where his heart and his pen take him.

And now it's taken him to the font of all stories -- the fairy tale.

"I realized," he said recently in an interview, "we'd never really done a full-length classical fairy tale. Lots of parents had written and suggested we do one. So I looked through the sources for something that was sweet and beautiful and had a lot of visual possibilities, and 'Thumbelina' seemed to have that."

"We tell a story of a girl who falls in love and finds her soulmate," he says. "That story hasn't been told lately. It's very romantic. You see it in 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

A writer starts with an outline, a director starts with a script, an a photographer starts with a camera. But an animator starts with -- nothing. He has to invent the whole universe, the rules of physics and biology, and language and color. And he has to make you believe it.

A universe that has to be designed from the ground up. How can it be done?

Bluth documented the secret blueprint of the animated feature, ground up:

"You start with a good script. That's absolutely the first step, and without it you're lost.

"From that you have to understand the characters, what motivates them, how they fit into the piece and what they will have to sound like.

"Then you have to cast appropriate actors whose voices in some way carry the meaning of the characters.

"Then you go to a sound stage and record the performances and then cut them all together; we call it 'cutting a radio track.'

"And not until then do you start drawing; you have to hear and feel the characters emotionally before you can begin to understand them visually. At the same time, you've got to nail down the sets against which it all takes place.

"Then you've got to animate it, and by animate it, I don't mean merely drawing it. The great animators literally act the parts, learning how they feel. They have to become what they are drawing.

"You have to try and create moods by adding color and light. Then we cut the sequences together to create the story. Colors have to be syncopated."

Big-time animation has become an international undertaking. For Thumbelina," initial storyboarding and animating was done in Bluth's Irish studio by one team; the film was painted in Hungary by a team of technicians; and finally it was cleaned up in Los Angeles.

Bluth is an unabashed romantic of the old school. His long-ago beef with Disney was that it had become un-Disneyfied and was turning out a cheaper product. A senior animator, he left in a snit and did the kind of films that Disney wasn't then doing -- "The Secret of NIMH," "The Land that Time Forgot."

But now Disney is doing those films again. Is there still room for him?

"The one thing we've proved is how healthy competition is in animation. We started doing those films, and Disney followed and the whole process has improved the breed, I think."

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