Don Bluth Goes Behind the Scenes in Somewhere Out There

Legendary animated filmmaker Don Bluth wrote his memoir, Somewhere Out There, in 2022 and goes behind the scenes of his animated life. The book is published by Smart Pop, an imprint of BenBella Books.

Somewhere Out There by Don Bluth
Somewhere Out There by Don Bluth (Smart Pop/BenBella Books)

The memoir’s title, of course, comes from the award-winning song in the iconic classic film–An American Tail–about a mouse coming to America. It was the first of two films that Bluth’s studio would make for Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Spielberg would later team up again with Bluth for The Land Before Time, bringing Star Wars creator George Lucas along with him. It would become the first film that I would ever see on the big screen. Bluth shares notes and such from Spielberg about the film. I’ll get into those a little bit later but the T. Rex scenes could have been even more terrifying.

A few years ago, Bluth finally opened up about his life in Texas, Utah, and California. Even as he was working for Disney, he left it all to go on a mission for two and a half years–little did I know how much his LDS faith played in his life. Disney welcomed him back afterwards but it would then be a number of years before going back on a full-time basis. At the height of it all, Bluth walked away on his 42nd birthday to start his own studio. Other colleagues would join him in walking away from the animation studio. Ironically enough, Bluth was a directing animator during his later years working for Disney but despite being offered the main directing gig on films, he did not want to pursue the opportunity. Funny how life works out, right?

There is quite a bit to take away from reading the book. Whether it is his faith or his views on animation, there’s something here for everyone. Of course, one of the things that I had my interest were the behind-the-scenes stories. There are no shortage of these although he does take some creative licenses especially when it comes to name changes. He also relays some of his thoughts by way of talking to the man in the mirror. There were ups and downs especially as money must come from somewhere when it comes to running a studio. Steven Spielberg was an obvious name that I knew would come up. Little did I know that Michael Jackson was also interested in working with Bluth, often calling at 2 AM in the morning! Later, while working on a film, he would ask Barry Manilow why so many ladies are fans.

As the book was published in 2022, Bluth talks about his previous plans for 2020 and how everything changed. Going into the pandemic, an adaptation of video game Dragon’s Lair was in development with Ryan Reynolds attached to star. Netflix will release the film at some point but seeing how busy Reynolds is, who knows when this will happen. In the meantime, Bluth is still teaching animation while also making time for convention appearances.

Bluth discusses one of the topics that comes up frequently when whenever we watch adaptations of books on the big or small screen. He offers some of his comments on the matter:

With NIMH we could start at the beginning, creating the script ourselves, finding the conflict that gets every story going between good and evil. Have you ever heard someone say, “I loved the book, but I hated the movie”? That can happen. Something can get lost between words and images, a kind of spirit. To try to keep some of that spirit, I think of animation like a performance, with the animators as actors, telling the tale on the stage of the silver screen. It’s like I tell my students: animation is not about just following on-model drawings. This will create technically good animation. But not a performance that shows emotional depth.

Back to Spielberg, Bluth has plenty to say about the filmmaker. After all, he worked with Spielberg on two films, sometimes working across two continents. On Spielberg’s gift for filmmaking, Bluth writes:

His is that he knows how to put cameras in the best place to tell the story. His notes helped me look at each panel that I drew as a way to tell the audience something important–whether it was the characters or the story.

One of the most traumatic scenes in The Land Before Time is when Littlefoot’s mother dies. The topic of Bambi’s mother came up during their story meetings. As if the earlier Disney film did not cause enough trauma, it would inspire even more trauma! I commented on it when I reviewed the film for the 30th anniversary back in 2018, especially with the traumatic scenes. Next to Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, the two deaths are the most traumatic when it comes to animation. Anyway, Bluth apologizes for all the trauma, writing:

I’m truly sorry if the death of Littlefoot’s mother made you cry–I’ve certainly shed a tear or two. But that scene makes you think about the bigger things in life too.

I’m glad he apologized but when it comes to thinking about the bigger things in life, a four-year-old is not going to be thinking about such a thing! On the other hand, we have Steven Spielberg to thank for scenes with the T. Rex not being too terrifying, especially later in the film as they near the Green Valley. If anyone thinks that the Bluth cut exists somewhere, the cut sequences where dumped into the trash.

Back in 2018, Bluth returned to the Disney lot for the first time since walking away some forty years earlier. If Bluth had expected any hard feelings, he was in for a surprise. To have been a fly on the wall in the commissary when Bluth and the late Burny Mattinson shared their stories about working during the era of Walt Disney and the Nine Old Men. Anyway, a frequently asked question for Bluth is why he made the decision to leave Disney. I mean, he grew up dreaming up working at Disney ever since falling in love with animation! Times sure have changed because Bluth felt a “kindred spirit” during the tour. Gone where the days where the future Pixar group thought of Bluth as being in the old guard. On leaving Disney, he writes:

I always answered that I came to a crossroads in my life. That I felt my creativity stifled, and I wanted to champion animation that had inspired me growing up. I felt that animation couldn’t be found in the Disney Studio anymore–that Walt’s spirit had left Disney. Yet in the hallways during our visit, I’d felt a spirit. Not Walt’s, but a kindred spirit in the legendary animators who were still working and the young animators clicking their mouses. Who knows where that spirit will take animation in the years to come. I hope I’m alive to see it.

Animation has certainly changed since Bluth first started working in the industry. Computer technology is certainly advancing enough to where animators draw upon those tools. And yet, no amount of CGI can duplicate the magic of seeing hand-drawn animation on the screen. Yes, the earlier CAPS technology may help a film but at the end of the day, the hand-drawn animation is what brings the magical feeling to those stories.

Somewhere Out There is available in bookstores.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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