Somewhere Out There: Don Bluth's new Bio

Jul 21st, 2022
Somewhere Out There: Don Bluth's new Bio

The long-awaited (well, for those of us that are helpless animation buffs) definitive autobiography by filmmaker Don Bluth, Somewhere Out There: My Animated Life, has been released this week, and from the few passages I’ve been able to read so far, it is all what you would expect from Don himself — if you are familiar with his other forays into chronicling his trajectory in animation by means of his Toon Talk magazines, or his own incursions in social media.

At 84 years old (born in September 13, 1937), the artist who was christened as Donald Virgin Bluth (“just call me Don”, he says) is the owner of a portentous photographic memory and super prolific verb, qualities that I’ve also seen on some but not all artistic-inclined people, that in no small part have helped him assemble the facts of his life and work with minute, exquisite, painstaking detail. While the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Bluth is impressively detailed, reading Don recall these life events in his own voice (figuratively and literally) is like listening to a favorite uncle that can keep you entertained for hours with his life reminiscences.

Raised on a farm in Utah, with a life torn between endless, thankless work chores, an obsessive fixation with improvement in drawing and his Mormon faith shaped visions of God, work and life (Don has always been a very spiritual man in his own way), learning about the background stories of the man behind the famed film director does shed some light into the kind of artist and person at large that he turned out to be. For all the fame and cult that surround some of his films and his director persona, Don has rather remained a pretty accessible person, one who seems more bothered with leaving a legacy of beauty and grace on this world than pretending to profit from it — an attitude worthy of admiration if you ask me. In fact, Don donated thousands of drawings and art from most of his films to Savannah’s College of Art & Design in Georgia to be digitized and classified. The resulting archive is now freely accessible worldwide.

Jeremy the Crow and Mrs. Brisby from The Secret of NIMH I haven't found Ms. Right yet, but when I do... the whole world will hear our singing"

Unlike Don’s memory, mine is fuzzy about the exact date I fell under the spell of his films. It was however somewhere in the very early 90s when one day I took from a local video rental an evidently low-quality copy of An American Tail, since I was already curious about learning what I could about being a traditional animator, which was my pipe dream back then (and I already was a college guy). I didn’t care — once I popped it into the VCR, something about the character designs, layouts and general art just clicked with me. There and then, I was watching art unfold before my very eyes. The character designs of that film embodied what I wanted to achieve in my own designs. The bug had bitten me. Big time.

Again this was the pre-Internet 90s, so getting to know more about the animation industry implied writing a lot of letters, and so I did, to Spielberg-owned Amblin Entertainment (copyright holders of the film), to an US-based uncle to send me an original VHS copy of the film… I’ve always been like that, pretty inquisitive. I even got a brochure from Don Bluth’s Ireland Limited operations with info to send stuff to apply (Still today, I’m doubtful if I could be up to their standards).

Alas, animation as my work career wasn’t going to happen for a multitude of reasons, mainly geographical and financial —- but the bug wasn’t going to go anywhere soon, no way Jose. With the money from my first job as a web designer, I bought the famed Disney/Hyperion book The Illusion of Life, which I had only previously been able to see at an US cultural center library. Later on, I decided to climb the ultimate step in animation fandom: buy original Tail production cels, a Fievel drawing by Don, and a whole stack of Toon Talk magazines, signed by Mr. Bluth himself, which I see now as a prequel to his current autobiography. Each Toon Talk number was devoted to one of his feature films and is chock full with precious insider info on each of them, and also chronicle the ups and downs, the joys and the struggles of deciding to give Disney some much needed competition and bring back in the dreadful 1980s the artistry and finesse animation had seemingly thrown by the bayside.

The Secret of NIMH, Don’s first feature length animated film and which is considered his best by many fans, was one that I learned to appreciate much later in life. Of a way darker and complex tone than Tail, the almost-perfect mix of mysterious, fantastic and comedic characters and plot place it easily as Mr. Bluth’s magnum opus — one worth checking by any measure. If you are only willing to see one animated film in your life, make this be the one.

Even as an autobiography released this late in life could easily be interpreted as a person’s swan song, Don Bluth is, despite his advanced age, still eager to take on new projects and teach new talents to pass his skills and knowledge on. Would it be too much to ask of life to reach that age and have that same zest for life and work? Chances are that if you ask Don, he would likely answer he’s prepared through all of his life for this moment.

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