An Animation Legend Looks Back (Book Excerpt)

One of the most anticipated animated books of the year is Somewhere out there: My animated lifea wonderful new memoir from beloved American director Don Bluth (The secret of NIMH, an American dick, all dogs go to heaven and Anastasia, among others) In this insightful book, the legendary director writes about the beginnings of his career, his early years at Disney and his inspirations, and offers charming anecdotes about the films he made in his own studio. We are very proud to present an exclusive excerpt from this collection:

Encounter with the dragon

Since so many of the Nine Old Men – namely Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl and Marc Davis – are heavily involved in the upcoming feature film The fox and the dogI was surprised, Woolie [Wolfgang Reitherman] pulled me out of the animator ranks to go back to directing. He sent me back to direct a live-action study for the widow Tweed, the lonely old woman in the story who took care of the fox. I was even more surprised when the film came back from the lab, almost a nod of approval.

“The footage is great,” Woolie said. “There’s only one thing. They shot a few scenes of the actor in profile. You should have done a three-quarter front. That would have been stronger. You’ll get the hang of it.”

I thanked him for the advice and headed for the door. He called me back. I resigned myself to further criticism, but Woolie surprised me once again.

“A combination of live and animated image comes up – Peter’s dragon. Directed by Don Chaffey. Ken Anderson has designed a fabulous fat reptile with a pink wig. Ken thinks you would be perfect to direct animation through Elliott.”

“Who is Elliott?”

“The Dragon!” he said impatiently. “Go talk to Ken. This gives you the experience you need behind live action cameras. You have to be on set because Elliott is a big dragon. We need a long shot when drawing his full body. You have to look through the camera viewfinder to make sure Don Chaffey leaves enough space in the frame for you and your team to draw Elliott.”

Again I greeted Woolie and went to the door and again he called me back.

“Blow that out of the stadium.”

I crammed my feelings of fear deep into myself. “I will not disappoint you, sir. I promise.”

sample sheet

“Elliott” model sheet for “Pete’s Dragon”

As instructed, I knocked on Ken Anderson’s door to be briefed on the dragon named Elliott. Ken has been a pillar of Disney Studios for decades. “I’ll be with you on the sound stage,” he said, “but I want you to take the lead with live-action director Don Chaffey.”

The sketches on Ken’s wall were adorable, as was Ken’s description of Elliott’s personality. He was as excited about his kite as a little boy and when I left Ken’s room I don’t think my feet touched the ground. The magic of the animation still sparkled. It just needed a little tender guidance. If that meant I had to become a director, well, so be it.

Peter’s dragon was set to pit Helen Reddy and legendary stars Mickey Rooney and Shelley Winters against boy Pete, played by Sean Marshall, and Elliott, the animated dragon. Kite designer Ken Anderson never stopped creating; he was either talking about a new idea or sketching one. Elliott’s voice has been sought for a long time. “The enchanted dragon must not speak,” Ken announced. “That would kill the magic. He only makes noises and the only one who can understand his language will be the boy Pete.”

A former drummer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and other big bands, Charlie Callas transitioned into the comedy world in the 1960s and became known as the comedian who made funny faces and wacky noises. Ken loved the strange sounds coming from Charlie’s lips.

Don Bluth illustration

Don Bluth illustration

On the pages of the script, Elliott’s lines were written in English – but what Charlie did with them was certainly not English.

The town of Passamaquoddy was a set built on Disney’s premises. Most of the film was shot there or on Soundstage #2. Being surrounded by the famous movie stars Peter’s dragon getting used to. There were stars in my eyes and the real ones were less than ten feet away. Helen Reddy, shy and quiet despite her well-known song “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar”. The Grand Monarch, Mickey Rooney, full of suggestions for the director.

The big musical number was There’s Room for Everyone in This World, set in the streets of Passamaquoddy. The film’s choreographer was Onna White, who has been hailed as one of the choreographic geniuses of her generation, with stage successes such as Irma LaDouce, mummy and gigiand movie awards that included the music man, Goodbye Birdie and Olivier. She employed two young dancers to teach the chorus the moves and spent most of her time on set sitting in a chair and knitting. Onna’s signature stride was the chime, a youthful leap into the air as you click your heels sideways – and land on your feet without breaking your neck. The crew has put a lot of effort into this. Everyone tried, including me, but none of us remotely resembled the dancers’ grace. Onna watched patiently and giggled politely to herself and continued knitting. Maybe a lesson in letting kids be kids.

One morning while we were waiting for the fog to clear around an on-site lighthouse shot, I caught Mickey Rooney staring at me. Thinking he was waiting for my acknowledgment, I timidly ventured, “I hope this turns out to be a great movie.”

“Of course it will,” he snorted. “What folly to say that. Who are you?”

“I’m the dragon’s animator,” I replied.

“Well, I’m glad to meet you. I will do my best. You do the same.” And he walked away.

I vowed to be more careful with my words around him.

Case Study: Later that day, a journalist from a local newspaper was scheduled to interview Mr. Rooney. The publicist introduced her to the star, they both sat down to start the interview, and her opening question to Mr Rooney was, “What year were you born?”

Mr. Rooney got up and walked away. The interview was over. His date of birth was in the press kit. She should have known better. She should have come up with a more serious question worthy of such a star.

Somewhere out there: My animated life is published by Smart Pop ($21.95) and will be available on July 19th. Pre-order now.

Don blood

Don blood

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