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Irish Heat: Don Bluth, Takes On King Disney : As a new golden age of animation appears to be dawning, an American expatriate once again issues a feature that will go head-to-head with his former employer’s holiday release. : But can he really hope to vanquish the studio that wrote the book?

Early in Don Bluth’s “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” as the deceased junkyard dog Charlie is being welcomed by an angelic whippet at the gates of heaven, the camera pans past a batch of clocks hanging suspended above the clouds. On the face of just one of them is the small but instantly recognizable silhouette of Mickey Mouse.

Nice touch. Not only is it a comfort to know that Mickey will always be there for us, but it’s a spicy bit of homage from the Disney animators who 10 years ago shocked their elders by walking out on Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the animated cast at Walt Disney Productions, complaining that the studio had lost its way with classical animation.

“We were just a group who loved animation and felt it had disintegrated into something quite inane,” says Don Bluth. “Walt wasn’t there and the pictures were just repeats of things he’d done. We wanted things to work there, but it’s hard to reshape an old company. It’s like trying to bend an old oak.”

So, on Sept. 13, 1979, on his 41st birthday, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman left the animation Valhalla on Buena Vista Drive in Burbank and with about a dozen other disenchanted Disney artists in tow, set up shop in Bluth’s Culver City garage 18 miles away.

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“If Walt had been alive, he would have walked out with us,” says Pomeroy. “We weren’t doing anything there (at Disney) that he would have liked.”

Since the secession, Bluth and his crew have seen their ambitious dream of creating another classical animation studio shattered in Hollywood and rebuilt--thanks to a self-appointed guardian angel named Morris Sullivan--6,000 miles away on the banks of the River Liffey in Ireland. Their work has been stopped by two bankruptcies, they’ve had two projects halted during production and seen classical motion picture animation totter on the edge of the abyss, only to turn around and surge back stronger than ever.

When they left Disney, the studio was turning out about one new animated movie every three years. Now, both Bluth and Disney are completing one film every 12 months, just in time for Christmas. This week, for the second holiday season in a row, a Bluth production--"All Dogs Go to Heaven"--and a Disney production--"The Little Mermaid"--will enter the marketplace on the same day, on the same footing.

Last year, Bluth’s “The Land Before Time” and Disney’s “Oliver and Company” were selling ticket for ticket at the box office until “Oliver” drew away at the end and outgrossed “The Land Before Time” $53.2 million to $47.6 million. The year before, Bluth’s “An American Tail” grossed $47.5 million while Disney’s reissue of “Cinderella” grossed $33.5 million.

Though Disney’s reinvigorated animation department may not appreciate the Mickey Mouse homage in “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” the film that coincides with the 10th anniversary of the walk-out seemed the right time and place for Bluth to tip his hat to his old employer.

“I was never hoping to become the next Walt Disney, which is what a lot of people said when we left the studio,” says Bluth, during a break in production of his next film, “Rock A Doodle,” at a rented sound stage at Ardmore Studios outside Dublin. “All we wanted to do was make the kind of animated movies that got us when we were kids. At Disney, everybody was trying to do what they thought Walt would do. Every time you opened a cupboard, there was his picture. ‘What would Walt do?’ I think you need living leaders working in the current environment. Walt was gone and trying to guess for a dead man wasn’t productive.”

Bluth, lean and youthful at 51, is quick to downplay his own role in the phenomenon that bears his name. He says that from the day they left Disney, he, Goldman and Pomeroy have been equal partners.

“Disney is a heroic figure (to kids), which is what we needed to become,” he says. “Without a name, we would just be Acme Animation and we wouldn’t have had a chance. When you create a heroic figure, that’s what you’re marketing, not just a production. We just decided to call ourselves Don Bluth.”

When they left Disney, they put themselves on a crash program to complete a short film, “Banjo, the Woodpile Cat,” that they had been working on evenings and weekends for five years. The film won critical awards and served as a resume that got them an assignment to animate a two-minute musical sequence for the feature “Xanadu,” and the financing for their first full length feature, “The Secret of NIMH,” an adventure story about a widowed farm mouse trying to save her son from the evils wrought by a race of intelligent rats.

“NIMH” got rave reviews, but then-MGM chief David Begelman wasn’t convinced of its audience potential, and with very little advertising support, the film quickly disappeared from the market. Their second film, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” was disrupted and eventually canceled by the long 1982 animators’ strike.

At that time, With Disney still lumbering along on its “The Black Cauldron” project--which Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy had begun working on in 1974-- and with “Star Wars” technology holding the fancy of most kids, feature animation wasn’t in much demand. When San Diego-based Cinematronics approached Bluth about animating some interactive video arcade games, they jumped at the chance.

“When the laser disc games came along, there was suddenly $200,000 a week flowing in,” Bluth says. “Nothing stuck, but it kept us going.”

The Bluth company had done two popular arcade games, “Dragon’s Lair” and “Space Ace,” and were at work on its third when the arcade market crashed and the cash flow abruptly stopped again.

“I had a lot of guilt then,” Bluth says. “I felt that I had caused the problem (for the other animators). We had no insurance, no health and welfare, no security. Everybody was using the office space for free-lancing but there was nothing else coming in.”

Bluth says they were so desperate for good news that they even fell for one guy’s story that he had a shipload of gold hidden away in Europe and that he was going to go get some and come back and finance their next movie.

“We actually sat around waiting for him to come back with a suitcase full of gold,” Bluth says.

The name above the entrance to Bluth’s four-story Dublin studio reads, “Sullivan Bluth Studios Ireland.” Inside, more than 300 people--most of them Irish--work on various stages of the three films Bluth has in production. Bluth himself is the creative force behind the characters being sketched, drawn, inked, painted and photographed into life. Goldman, who joined Bluth at Disney right out of college in 1972, supervises the overall production of animation while Pomeroy, who started at Disney in 1973, oversees contract work done by a separate, smaller studio in Burbank.

The fourth partner, Morris Sullivan, divides his time between offices in Burbank and Dublin.

Sullivan, a 72-year-old semiretired mergers and acquisitions broker, would make a great model for a Don Bluth character, the Great Owl in “The Secret of NIMH,” for instance. The stout, white-haired Sullivan, grandson of Irish immigrants, may prefer to think of himself more like the angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “The boys,” as he calls Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy, wouldn’t disagree.

“He came along at a time when we were desperate and he saved us,” says Bluth.

That was in 1984, just after the arcade business collapsed. While “the boys” were waiting for their shipment of gold to arrive from Europe, Sullivan was busy trying to lower his handicap at Lakeside Golf Club in L.A., where he was playing three or four rounds of golf a week.

“One of the fellows I played with kept telling me about these animators who had all this talent but no business sense and that I could help them,” Sullivan recalled. “I was semiretired and wasn’t looking for any more work. But he was very insistent. One day, he opened his car door and said, ‘C’mon, it’ll only take an hour.’ ”

Bluth says he couldn’t tell how his meeting with Sullivan had gone. “We showed him ‘The Secret of NIMH’ and he just sat there like a judge and didn’t say much. Then he went away. When he came back, he said, ‘I’m your guardian angel. I’m going to make this work for you.’ ”

Sullivan admits having known very little about the film business, but when he saw “NIMH” and met with its creators, he decided to put his golf clubs away and go back to work. “I realized they had tremendous ability . . . but they had put two companies into bankruptcy, they didn’t know how to handle themselves financially.”

Steven Spielberg entered Bluth’s life about the same time as Sullivan. Spielberg had also been impressed with “The Secret of NIMH” and came to Bluth with an idea for a story that became “An American Tail.” Spielberg negotiated the release of that film and a second one, “The Land Before Time,” through Universal Pictures. Both were huge hits by animation standards and there was talk of a sequel to “An American Tail.” But Sullivan and his Bluth partners were bitter over their experience with the two Spielberg projects and decided to find financing on their own.

“They (Spielberg and Universal) would say we had a profit participation, but the nature of the contract was such that we’d never get anything,” Sullivan says. “We were paid the wages of our people . . . There was nothing else. They were using us as the animation department of Amblin Entertainment.”

At one time, they were approached about becoming both an extension of Amblin and Disney. Sullivan Bluth was asked by Spielberg and George Lucas to do the animation for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but when they found out the deal would have placed them-- quelle horrors!--on the Disney payroll, Bluth declined.

Through some savvy international business maneuvering, Sullivan has managed to get Bluth on solid financial ground and in a position to profit from the success of its next three pictures. “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” “Rock A Doodle” and a third, still undetermined project are being financed and distributed abroad by London-based Goldcrest Films. They are being distributed in the United States by MGM/UA. Sullivan has gotten foreign investors to put up money for prints and advertising costs for all three pictures and if any becomes as successful in theaters and on videocassette as the last two, he says Sullivan Bluth’s Irish bank account will see some action.

Earlier this year, Sullivan called “the boys” into his office in Dublin and told them that he was reallocating the company’s stock. Each of them was to be a full one-quarter partner. Together, they were the majority stockholders. No strings attached.

“He once told me that he considered this a religious mission,” Bluth says. “He said, ‘I’ve raised 10 kids, I won’t be around much longer, what I’m going to do for the world is leave you strong.’ Most businessmen outwit artists. He has given us the company.”

But they had to go to Ireland to get it.

“When I told them we were moving to Ireland, Gary said, ‘Do you realize what you’re asking us to do? Give up our homes, our friends?,’ Sullivan recalled, chuckling. “I said, ‘Gary, look at our ancestors. They came out in covered wagons, they fought Indians, snow, heat. All I’m asking you to do is get on a plane, have a couple of drinks and get off in Ireland.’ ”

Sullivan says that to be profitable, the company had to be set up in another country where the bulk assembly line animation work--the inking and painting of cels--could be done for lower labor costs than in Hollywood. He settled on Ireland because of its tax laws and grants programs, after being convinced that art schools in Ireland were producing enough talented artists to fill the studio’s openings. It was also important that the work force speak English. Although most Saturday morning cartoon animation is done in Asia, the classical animation done by Bluth and Disney requires simulating lip movements to prerecorded dialogue.

Bluth had the painting work on “An American Tail” done in Ireland, then in the fall of 1986, at a cost of about $1.4 million, Sullivan moved most of the American operation to Dublin. There, about 40 American artists and their families shivered their way through the coldest winter ever recorded on the Emerald Isle.

“It was awful, it was like moving an entire army and plunking them down in a strange place in the middle of winter,” says Goldman. “But no one could complain. We were all in the same boat.”

Although most of the Americans compare life in Dublin to life in the United States in the 1950s, without the conveniences, only a handful have gone home and the rest seem to be enjoying an extended honeymoon with their hosts. Of the 14 animators who defected from Disney to Bluth, 10 are still with them; eight are working in Dublin, helping train Irish artists. The facilities are immaculate, the state-of-the art equipment is new and the Irish government is now talking to Sullivan about designing a theme park on a 300-acre parcel on a canal near Dublin.

“The importance of Sullivan to us was that it actually took us into an entirely different field of endeavor,” said David Hanna, of the Industrial Development Authority of Ireland, which is charged with spurring the country’s depressed economy. “We knew we could build computers, pharmaceuticals and health care products. We didn’t know we had the resources to produce very-high-quality animated movies.”

Ireland, working to lower an unemployment rate that now stands at 18%, created a 20-year tax law in 1980 designed to lure foreign companies to Ireland and create jobs for nationals. The law sets a 10% maximum on corporate profits, allows 100% first-year equipment depreciation and provides training grants that can total $13,000 for each job filled by an Irish person. With very little commitment of capital, Sullivan was able to set up a complete studio and staff it with people he is paid to train.

“We have had the same problem for 100 years in Ireland,” says Hanna. “We produce more people than we can find jobs for. In the past, the way we’ve solved the problem was to export the people. . . . That’s not the best solution. We want to exploit the talents we develop here rather than have them become immigrants in the U.S. or Britain.”

Sullivan Bluth appears committed to staying in Ireland at least through 1996. Companies that leave before 10 years are required to pay back most of their government grants.

Meanwhile, Bluth will be kept busy trying to train Irish artists to become full-fledged animators, a skill position that takes the average starting artist about five years to achieve. The competition for top artists interested in careers in classical animation has escalated into a recruitment war, according to Bluth and Goldman.

What was nearly an extinct field a few years ago is wide open now and Bluth, Disney and several other smaller animation companies are beating the art school bushes for raw talent.

“Animation hasn’t really been (a strong career choice) since the early days of animation,” Bluth says. “Now, I think it will become a fine art. People who can not only draw well but draw with a sense of comic timing are going to become very valuable.”

Goldman maintains that they are making animated movies in Dublin for half the amount Disney is spending in Burbank. The cost of animation is pretty easy to factor, according to Goldman. The cost of Bluth films is running between $155,000 and $170,000 a minute, he says, which is about what Disney was spending 10 years ago. At 83 minutes, that means “All Dogs Go to Heaven” cost between $13 million and $14 million. Goldman says that with 54% of costs in studio overhead compared to their 23%, Disney is spending $26 million to $28 million per film.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Productions, called Goldman’s estimate of Disney’s costs a “substantial exaggeration” but declined to say how much was spent on “The Little Mermaid.”

“We don’t comment on the costs of any of our films,” Katzenberg says, “but we have the luxury with the wealth of our company as a whole to give our animators all the tools they need to make the best movie they can.”

Katzenberg isn’t ready to proclaim classical animation in perfect health. He says it still depends on the quality of each film and as long as Bluth sends good movies into the market, both studios benefit. “Clearly, last year, when we both had good movies out there, everyone benefitted,” Katzenberg says.

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Don Bluth becomes very cautious when discussing what motivates him personally. He’s concerned that if the depth of his religious convictions are written about, people will think his films have a hidden biblical agenda. He is a practicing Mormon, he tithes 10% of his income to the church, and he said he spends a lot of his free time in Dublin attending Mormon services. But the moral agenda of his movies isn’t hidden.

“I’m not preachy, I’m not didactic and I don’t think movies should do that,” he says. “But I like movies that fill you with hope. I like things that free you from your ills, your prejudices, and all the other things that hold us in spiritual darkness. If you can make people believe that they have the power to help themselves and help the world, then I think you’ve done a great deal of good. Movies have the power to do that.”

Bluth says he thinks animation, particularly of fairy tales, serve a vital function for children, demonstrating the reality of good and evil through fantasies. “They explain life in very succinct ways,” he says. “Children pick up the language of animation very quickly and relate to it. It puts marks in their head that they never forget.”

But there is a universal theme supporting every Don Bluth film, he says; the notion that you have to become worthy to be real. Think of Pinocchio. Think of Charlie in “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” a story about a conniving German shepherd who steals time in heaven so he can return to his larcenous life on Earth, only to be set right by the inherent goodness of the orphan girl he tries to use.

In next year’s “Rockadoodle,” an insecure rooster named Chanticleer abandons his barnyard perch after forgetting to roust the sun one day and is rescued from his demeaning career as a 1950s rock and roll singer by the inherent goodness of a young boy.

Bluth and his teammates are not waking up the sun very often in rainy Dublin, but they are making a lot of noise, and even at Disney, the sleepy animation department that they abandoned, is now wide awake.


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