Don Bluth and the Importance of Knowing Your Animation Heritage

Jeremy Hopkins attended the CTN Expo a couple weeks ago, and he’s posting videos from the event on his website XSheet.net. He currently has a couple vids with Don Bluth and Eric Goldberg, and he tells me that more are forthcoming. Here’s a thought from Bluth about the importance of preserving the technical history of animation:


  • http://www.jjsedelmaier.com J.J. Sedelmaier

    That’s a great clip for what it reminds us of in general terms. The info and knowledge of classic techniques doesn’t have to chain you to old fashioned processes. Quite the contrary, it gives you the foundation to develop and expand on what technology now provides you with – it gives you an edge to sometimes steer the technology to accomplish things that even the people who developed the new approach didn’t know it could do.

  • http://www.theAMIGOunit.com bone

    Gold – dont lose technique to machines!

  • christian

    wow, its so vital… i think that when computers came along all this technical process is completely void from new animation, especially hand drawn, which is what went together to make all the old time movies so magical. i hope that it can be preserved somehow…

  • Scott

    While I can commend him for preserving his version of technical production, it sure shows where his efforts were put. For even that effort, it’s too bad the films didn’t look better.

  • http://chrisgraf.blogspot.com/ chris

    these are great jeremy! thx for posting

  • http://www.pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

    Great post. It takes me back to the days when we did slit-scans, or even on simpler terms – wound fishing line around frames to make custom star filters.

  • uli

    I feel lucky that I started my career in animation when we had to create a final film entirely under the rostrum camera. I remember writing dopesheets on ones with 20, 30 or more passes, backlighting, by-packing and burning in, endless wedge-tests before shooting a 3 second scene that took 2 days to film. The trials and errors were so much fun, the excitement when running to the laboratory every morning to pick up the test prints and studying them on the Steenbeck. I really miss that today. There seems to be a button for everything now, the magic has somehow disappeared.
    There are still quite a few people around who know all this stuff, it wasn’t that long ago…

  • http://www.pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

    There was a magic and an art to it.
    You couldn’t burn in anything over white.
    You never could know exactly how an effect would turn out.
    Even if you had everything registered and the moves were plotted by the computer – it never turned out the same way twice.
    Half of the effects were held together with black masking tape and chewing gum.
    It took years to figure out how they did that logo glint in the “Cheers” opening.

  • Matt

    Oh, here we go with this again, with the anti-computer Nazis. I’m all for the merits of preserving classic animation techniques, and I appreciate the history of animation and what it took to get to where we are now, but if you think any modern tool has taken the “magic” out of animation, I think you miss the point entirely of what makes animation a joy for people to watch or create. The only thing that can take the magic out of animation is YOU.

    Computers are a tool, just like pencils and paper are tools. Computers are very effective at reducing the redundancy and monotony of repeated tasks that really only hinder progress. If you look at that as a drawback, or a degradation of the animation process, then clearly it’s not the quality or content of what you’re creating that drives you, but merely the time you spend on monotonous tasks that determines whether or not you’re satisfied with it, and I think that’s rather sad. What ultimately makes animation magical isn’t the process or necessarily even the technique, OR the time spent, it’s the content and the end result, because everything that leads up to that can vary wildly from person to person, to achieve the same thing. It’s the soul that you infuse into your work that makes it magic, regardless of the medium. Ironically, people who use computers today can STILL take 2 days to create 3 seconds of animation, but the end result looks that much better. Good animation takes time, but more importantly, it takes passion.

    The fact that I use a computer to do animation doesn’t mean I don’t still value a pencil and paper. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a great deal of respect for people who can do animation by hand. Indeed, if you can do it by hand, you can do it on a computer and if done with passion and focus, it’ll only shine that much brighter. But don’t cry and whine that computers have “somehow” taken the magic out of animation. Only people who are lazy and have no passion for their work can do that. Computers are merely the latest tools and if I don’t have to spend more time than is necessary for making little stars twinkle, I won’t waste time doing it, unless I just plain enjoy doing it that way.

    It’s good to know how people used to do it, but don’t act like we should still be doing it that way if we don’t have to.

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    …animators of old, weather-beaten and studio-tanned, missing fingers and entire hands from errant swipes of the exacto as they cut Kodalith mattes for the slit-scan camera, half-blind from catching dazzling glimpses of the backlight under the Oxberry, limbs bowed from scurvy due to their infamous avoidance of fresh fruit, cursing Trumbull and Abel to the deepest reaches of Hades…

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    Computers can be a tool, of course Matt. But not in the same way a pencil is a tool. Not even close. With a pencil, it is direct communication to the page – the pencil is merely an extension of the hand.

    A computer interrupts the process. The communication requires side-steps, conquering the ‘tool’ itself, working out how one can get what they want out of the other side of the process. Of course if one masters the computer techniques, it is possible to get great results. Many have shown that.

    But they are not the same.

    And, on a huge number of productions, computers are not a tool for animators – they are a tool for producers. They don’t make animation better. They make animation quicker.

    And the sad part about that, and I see it where I am (and even with myself), very quickly, the computer becomes not a tool for the animator, but a crutch.

    A pencil and paper does not.

    They are not the same.

  • Matt

    Bitter, different strokes for different folks. The fact that you downplay computer animation as less relevant because it doesn’t follow the same path to communicate a message is clearly an indication of your bias toward one aspect of animation.

    You prefer hand drawn animation, which is fine. That’s what you enjoy more and there’s nothing wrong with that. I personally don’t limit myself to enjoying one medium over the other, because I can recognize the value of artistic expression in any form. The medium by which one wishes to view or create animation isn’t important, it’s merely a preference and it certainly isn’t the “crutch” you seem to have fooled yourself into believing. I choose to work with the computer simply because I enjoy technology. I like the results computers produce. It’s just a matter of what you’re trying to achieve that give computers their edge. To say that it’s a crutch is nothing more than a biased, erroneous opinion.

    I see no reason why people like you feel the need to try and debase it as a lesser form of animation. It’s nothing of the sort. Just different. It’s only a crutch if you make it one.

  • Cody Covell

    I didn’t see the video yet but on first glance he kinda looks like he’s wearing one of those prison outfits.

  • PJ

    Scott, I’m sorry I don’t recall you putting out any animated films lately. Perhaps if that day comes (doubtful) yours will look a lot better.

  • Lanigan

    Obviously a computer isn’t the same as a pencil. One is a computer and one is a pencil. Both are mediums of expression though, and neither is factually greater than the other.

    A pencil may be considered an extension of the hand, but many traditional animation techniques aren’t. If everything was an extension of the hand, the traditional animators wouldn’t be coming up with such inventive and original techniques. Something not being second nature doesn’t make it inferior, it just leaves even more room for improvisation and creativity.

    Now excuse me, I’m going to express my artistic vision using a tomato, a stick of gum, and some lint I found in my pocket.

  • http://www.pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

    Who says that I’m downplaying computer animation. Computers make it better, faster and cheaper – what’s not to love? But there was a magic on the old days – “is it going to work or not?” – that’s missing from computer FX.

    Why do you think, when they do the big FX models for James Bond movies – they still shoot them as miniatures, instead of modeling them on a computer? Its the element of surprise.

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    Anyone who sets up a 36 hour render with multiple passes on a machine that’s crashed 4 times in one day knows the thrill of “is it going to work or not” – its as exciting as dropping that film off for the lab in its own right. The magic is different, but oh my is it there! While I don’t think CG glows look nearly as nice as underlighting, I’m dizzy with the possibilities that computer texturing, compositing and effects have allowed traditional animation to experiment in. Shame that design, not (often enough) feature animation, is pushing these boundaries. One thinks to the experimentation of PRINCE ACHMED vs. the post-Disney feature world to grow weary of the traditional style that, while beautiful, hasn’t really grown in leaps and bounds aesthetically over nearly a century (Snow White remains more daring than what Frog Princess seems to be offering). Digital is allowing a rapid evolution and metamorphosis of styles that TV series and films couldn’t hope to match! As for the element of surprise Steve S. mentioned – anyone who comes from a traditional model-making background knows that when modeling and texturing in 3d, those elements of surprise still exist. Its simply putting the same talent and attention to detail into the process, be it practical or digital, to create uniquely “surprising” effects. Artists do create textures from pratical means, or by copious collage work, and the results can be nothing short of magic. Every dip into a particle based simulation produced mathematically genenrated effects which, upon tweaking the parameters, create organic random effects that are usually different than the intent and often more magical by virtue of “surprise.” What I grow most weary of is individuals who have no doubt a long history of experience in the traditional means, but haven’t made the digital leap (imagine if Phil Tippet handn’t assisted the CG team in JURASSIC PARK!?!?!). Many of my peers have come from optical printing and traditional VFX backgrounds APPLIED to digital means – they have the most valuable insight I’ve seen into the digital process with that external knowledge and I owe them so much for opening MY horizons to the possibilities of the digital as an extension of the traditional.

  • Saturnome

    Sometimes interpolation goes wrong, constraints bug, particules or hair do something funny… there’s quite a lot of surprises with computer animation, most of the time for forgetting something minor. It can be frustrating, but it’s kinda fun when the unpredicted result is funny.

    And I don’t think there’s a magic button for everything in computer animation. If there’s one, it’s because you made that button a magic formula for you, and it’s bad.

  • Matt

    Hi Steve,
    I wasn’t responding to what you were saying, specifically… I totally understand the appeal in seeing what can be achieved with older, more traditional materials. That goes back to what I was saying about preference. Some people like the tangible nature of traditional materials and I totally get that. I would hate to see that die off.

    I still think it’s fascinating how even to this day, you can still get the highest quality audio out of vinyl records if you have a good needle and turntable. I’m just using this as an example. I think it’s amazing how recording has been done about as well as it can be almost since the beginning, just like animation has. The fact that audio can be captured in such warm, crisp, high-fidelity on a physical, analog medium is still incredible to me. But there are also other ways of doing it now that aren’t necessarily better, but they do yield their own unique benefits and I think it’s a mistake and short-sighted to simply dismiss the new ways of doing things as merely irrelevant or disruptive to the process.

    Animation is the same way. I much prefer the image of a hand drawn, rough sketch to a cleaned up, colored drawing alot of the time. It shows you the raw talent that went into its creation and it has it’s own appeal that can’t really be achieved any other way than by traditional means. I get that appeal, but I also love what can be done with a vector shape. I love the smooth interpolation between key frames that only computers can do. I love the dimensionality, lighting, depth of field and color correction that computers enable creators to do. I appreciate the entire spectrum of artistic expression and can’t understand why someone would deny themselves the pleasure of enjoying any and all forms of art.

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    As a side note I’ve been using that slot pass technique in digital for years for all sorts of stuff, and the importance of inderstanding matte passes in 2d or 3d digital compositing is no less than with 2d optical printing. While its “never been written down,” still seems to me that technique has been handed down the generational ladder of animation production just fine and continues to create fantastic effects when applied with the same care in a different medium. The trick is understanding light properties and compositing well enough to simulate the film glow with the resulting luminance pass- it never looks quite the same, but leads to surprising results that evoke that under-glow all the same. The problem is most animators don’t learn the refined compositing skills to match what film naturally gave animation shot practically. There needs to be more dialogue between digital and traditional animation production people instead of this aesthetic divide 2d seems to engender.

  • Mitch Kennedy

    Hopkins! Thanks man!

  • Scott

    I always thought backlighting with d/x effects looked cheap. Looks like someone cut a hole in a painting and is shining a flashlight through it. Weird. Disney used it in some subtle ways up until the early early ’70-s, when it got all overused and ugly. The Bluth finished it off.

    Better off doing it with strong use of value.

  • uli

    @ Matt

    I don’t understand why you get so huffed and puffed. I was simply reminiscing about some of the fun I had when I got started, the cup of coffee early in the morning, waiting at the laboratory, while it was pissing down outside in Wardour Street.
    None of this has anything to do with dissing computer animation or any other digital tools. You might reminisce about the cup of coffee you had chatting to your friends next to the render farm one day. I was also not talking about film making and content, just about the joy and the way we were putting those things together with sticky tape and rubber bands, a bit like you remembering building that model aeroplane when you were a kid.
    Hope that clears things up :-)

  • Danny R. Santos

    No knowledge is really lost when you have the footage to study from. Even if it hasn’t been written down, just by watching it in slow motion it’s self explanatory. You can even improve on it.

  • http://www.pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

    @ Scott

    I agree with you. In many cases backlit animation looks crass. I look back at my old demo reel (rarely) and I cringe. It goes along with the old role that 98% of everything in the world is crap.

    That said, its that shining 2% that we, as artists strive for.

    I agree with Uli’s comment about reminiscing about the good old days. Its fun to remember the way things were.

  • http://chrisallison.blogspot.com Chris Allison

    @Matt: I don’t think the point of the discussion is to downplay CG whatsoever, but more about preserving techniques. Because with compositing, we can integrate them into animation made on computers (via After Effects, etc.). I mean, CG is just a tool and only limitted to what people do with it, but I mean, sometimes you just need the real thing. Digitally emulating the subtleties of human hands on guitar strings would be 10x more work than just playing the guitar, ya know? Sometimes a synth just isn’t right for the project

    If anybody knows a bunch of these old tricks and would like to mentor somebody, please contact me (email is on my blog link). I’d love to do write ups and preserve some of this stuff for younger animators like myself, as well as use it in my films that I’m doing (drawn frame-by-frame on Cintiq).

  • Dave

    unless we write this down we won’t be able to have an animation Renaissance` later

  • Professor Widebottom

    If there’s a magic lost in the digital world, it has something to do with being cognizant as a viewer that, no matter what sort of heightened fantasy you see on the screen, computer effects can pretty much emulate anything. Now you can always doubt your own suspended disbelief! You know it’s fake, regardless of how perfect, color matched and seamless. And because you simply KNOW, it makes it all the more disposable.

    That’s why I love to point to my favorite classic film effect, which was the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. That bastard had menace and it was done in the most spit and bailing wire way. I know I wouldn’t feel the same awe had I known it was done with some fractal generators and filters on a desktop. There’s something about the innovation of taming basic organic elements into some fresh cohesive work that tends to produce a viscerally human element that we can relate to. Stop motion work, for example, overflows with this. The vast majority of digital work, by comparison, has a nasty tendency toward a coldness.

    Not a very unique claim, but there you have it.

  • http://drawjoe.blogspot.com/ Joe Dorsey

    I hope that the spirit of experimentation is kept alive in 2D and 3D.

  • http://deadshrimpblues.livejournal.com Brooke Bolander

    Is Bluth doing alright these days? I know he’s in his seventies, but he looks … poorly. Hopefully that’s just my imagination.

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    I caught a few more of his Youtube clips, and I’m just happy that people such as Don are sharing some of their knowledge. I wish that was available when I was younger. It’s a great service to keeping the flame alive-Thanks Don Bluth!

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    -Well, I checked out his website and was a little disappointed that he’s pimping all his merchandise rather than a more accessible repository of wisdom ala, John K’s great blog. Unless, he’s broke right now: I’m a little less grateful for the effort now.

  • Animatouro

    Don Bluth and his partners Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy have made a great contribution to the whole animation industry, there is no denial about that.

    They made beautiful films like The Secret of Nimh and American Tail and those video games they produced like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace are still some of many people’s favorite animation and design.

    They have been very important for the animation industry in the US and overseas and don’t forget that they gave steady employment to many artists as long as they could, including myself.

    Also, there is nothing wrong about Don selling his merchandises or classes on DVD. There are dozens of animation schools all around making tons of money and not teaching half of what Don is teaching through his DVDs.

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    All true. But, when I’m old, I plan on passing on what I learned for free.

  • captainmurphy

    I wonder how many of these effects Ub Iwerks developed. I consider Disney’s Robin Hood as the last real Old School disney animated feature on the strength of its effects animation alone; the last one where there seemed to be care given about the ‘finish’.

    It almost seems as if Bluth is more concerned about the nickname nomenclature for the effects disappearing more than the tricks themselves.

    Many of the techniques moved to commercial logo houses before the computer revolution, and there was that indie film that showed at comic conventions all the time that was full of these optical effects (had wizard in the title, starring the film maker as the wizard)

  • Chris Sobieniak

    That film, captainmurphy, was Mike Jittlov’s “The Wizard of Speed and Time”, originally made as a short in 1979 and later expanded into a feature film a decade later.