Studio City, Calif. — Behind the bank, just off the main boulevard in Studio City, in the two-story building with the blue tile roof, Mrs. Frisby is scared out of her wits. A farmer wants to run over her house and its occupants with his tractor, she is being stalked by an enormous spider with purely evil intentions, and her only friend is a crow who constantly mumbles to himself and can't take three steps without stumbling.
Mrs. Frisby's plight sounds far-fetched. It Is, and it is supposed to be. What happens to her, or rather howm it happens to her, depends largely on the whim of one Don Bluth. Mrs. Frisby is an unassuming field mouse, and her story is a fantasy, a movie. And what is going on under the blue tile roof in Studio City is more than the adventures of a distraught field mouse. Her story has two important aspects: It is animated and has a happily-ever-after ending.
Until now, that kind of film has belonged to Walt Disney Productions, lock, stock, and barrel, tied neatly in a bow, with no competition to speak of.
Don Bluth want to change that. In September 1979 he, two other animators, and a businessman formed Don Bluth Productions and hunkered down to work on the full-length feature animation, "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H." It is the most serious challenge the throne of Disney has ever faced, and it is even more formidable because the animators at don Bluth Productions plan to make their movie in the Disney style and tradition.
Don Bluth and company are, in fact, straight out of that tradition. They are former Disney animators, responsible for character and story development and for the core of drawings that other animators expand on. They are dyed-in- the-wool believers in the disney spirit and philosophy, who feel that Walt Disney Productions has lost or abandoned that spirit.
Last September, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy walked off the lot at Walt disney Productions because of "creative differences" with the Disney world. Among other disappointments, they felt that budgets and office politics had become more important than creativity, that the studio was letting some of the classic animation techniques developed by the early Disney animators wither away, and that Disney features lacked the substance, the "morality," that had become the Disney hallmark with features such as "Snow White," "Pinocchio," and "Bambi."
Disney was no longer "Disney enough," the group felt, according to Mr. Goldman.
Eight other Disney animators quickly joined the new production company, with six more soon to follow. Mr. Bluth set up shop in exclusive association with Aurora Productions, an independent film production company started by three ex- Disney executives. The exodus of artists, siphoning off some 25 percent of Disney's animation department (including some of its top animators), set back Disney's production schedule for the $10 million "The Fox and the Hound" feature by at least six months. The picture was initially scheduled for a Christmas 1980 release, but the date had to be moved to the summer of 1981.
"There was just too much red tape," Mr. Bluth says, explaining his reasons for the exit. "When Walt was there, the most important thing was the creativity , . . . what went into the animation. I found myself having to spend too much time on office politics and not being able to concentrate on the animation." Mr. Bluth had been unofficially labeled as Disney's future leading animator, one of the few bright lights capable of putting magic back into the Disney kingdom.
High on the list of "creative differences" cited by Bluth, Goldman, and Pomeroy was the charge that the company had done little to train animators to carry on the skills of the animators Walt Disney affectionately dubbed the "Nine Old Men," the undisputed masters of their craft. The nine had been with Disney from the beginning and had been the backbone of the animation department for years. Five of the nine have retired, two still work at Disney, training younger animators, and two have passed on.
Mr. Goldman explains why they felt the Disney studios were letting some classic animation techniques slip into obscurity. "We would see an effect in one of the films, and sometimes we couldn't find out how it was done. If the animator who worked on the film was still around, he might not remember it, and the technique would just have to be rediscovered."
The studio was also cutting back on the details that made the fantasy world complete and believable: omitting, for instance, shadows because they figured the kids wouldn't notice and it cost money to draw them in.
"I call it leaving out the extra fairy dust," one veteran Disney animator, now retired, says. "They leave out the fairly dust now because it costs maybe an extra $1,000. They think nobody knows it's gone, but the audience does miss it when all those details are gone."
The Bluth animators feel that a Walt disney hallmark was his meticulous attention to detail, making the fantasy so complete that the audience could slip comfortably into the story instead of merely observing it across the void separating movie theater from the make-believe of a never-never land. While Bluth and friends understand the budgets, they also enthusiastically believe that money is never as good as what it can buy.
Walt Disney would agree. Christopher Finch in his book "The Art of Walt Disney" quotes Disney artist Marc Davis on Walt Disney:
"He was not afraid to risk every penny, to go into hock, hire 150 people, and wonder how he was going to meet the payroll. He did this all his life. He felt money is good only because of waht you can do with it. . . . Walt was trying to make a little jewel out of each one of these things."
At first, Bluth, Goldman, and Pomeroy had hoped to fill in what they felt were gaps in their training while they were at the Disney studio. Seven years before they left, they set up their own studio in Don's garage in Culver City and started making up animation problems so they could discover how to solve them: animating snowflakes ("very difficult," says Mr. Goldman), or drawing reflections in water. After two years they started work on their own animated short feature.
"At the studio we worked pretty much in isolation," Mr. Pomeroy explains. "One person would work on one thing and another on another element without ever finding out what the other was doing. We felt that we didn't know how to make a complete picture. . . . We wanted to learn the things we were not learning at the studio."
The effort was begun with Disney approval. In fact, from early Disney days working on company-financed shorts was the way animators received their training.
"There was a point in my career at Disney when I figured the Nine Old Men would be around for six more years. I considered that as a deadline to learn the classic animation, the techniques which they had developed and some of them which only they knew how to do. I wasn't learning that at Disney, so I had to do it on my own."
The result was a 30-minute feature called "Banjo, the Woodpile Cat," about a young kitten who leaves his cozy farm home to seek excitement in the big city. The original group of three grew to about 12 animators, dropping by the Bluth garage whenever they could and frequently staying until all hours of the night.
They supplied not only the talent but the money. Including the value of time spent, the garage gang put about $1.2 million into "Banjo," Mel Griffon, the man who guides the business affairs of Don Bluth Productions, says. The cost of equipment alone came to about $200,000, all out of the animators' own pockets.
Even Mr. Griffon quit his job with schick, refinanced his house, and went to work without pay for the "Banjo" and the gang for a year and a half, marketing the film and eventually setting up don Bluth Productions. The short has not been widely released yet, although the company hopes it soon will be.
The company also did the animated sequence for the movie "Xanadu," which gave it some income as well as experience in working on deadline.
In the film Don Bluth Productions is working on now, the story follows the plight of Mrs. Frisby, the field mouse desperate to save her home in the farmer's field. She meets up with bumbling Jeremy the crow -- Don DeLuise supplies the voice -- who advises her to see the owl, a terrifying, godlike figure who inhabits a hollow tree in the forest. The owl -- with John Carradine's voice -- directs her to the rats of N.I.M.H. These rats, who once lived at the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H., get it?), were subjected to so many strange experiments that they became superintelligent, escaped, and set up their own little society. Eventually they agree to take up Mrs. Frisby's cause.
The story comes from Robert C. O'Brien's book of the same name, the 1972 winner of the Newbery Award for outstanding children's literature. It's right up Disney's alley -- but it's Don Bluth who's doing it.
A devout Mormon, Mr. Bluth wants to make movies that express the sort of morality he used to find in Disney releases. He likes Mrs. Frisby's message: Even the meekest of individuals can overcome fear and danger by mustering courage and persistence.
The story line comes from the book, but the characters for "Mrs. Frisby" come from Bluth, Goldman, and Pomeroy. They create them, design them, and expect the animators to impart the role of actor when they draw them.
"When I meet someone who has an interesting character, I jot it down," Mr. Bluth says. The personality of Jeremy the crow came from an animator Mr. Bluth knew who constantly talked and mumbled to himself about finding "Miss Right" and was inclined to knock over everything within reach to boot.
"The world of animation is a reflection of real life. It's a satire. The most important element to animation or any form of art is beauty. It buoys society. Beauty in fantasy has the power to let you leave the real world for a while and then come back to the real world and perhaps affect it. I don't believe in fantasy for its own sake.
"If you [the animator] have not done your job correctly, then all you have is pieces of paper with graphite on them. You have to transcent the paper and graphite and communicate emotion."
The reason for the decline in full animation features is simple: money. "Pinocchio" cost $2.6 million and took a staff of 1,200 people to produce it in the late 1930s. Today it would cost close to $40 million, according to some estimates. The film was the pinnacle of Disney animation, and Walt Disney devoted more time and attention to it than to any other. Despite a number of time- and labor- saving techniques and devices that have come along since then, animating is still an expensive proposition.
"Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H." is budgeted at $7 million for 6,000 feet of film, employing 38 people. It will take just under three years to complete (release is scheduled for June 1982). By contrast, Hanna Barbera, the biggest manufacturer of Saturday morning cartoons, pops about 12,000 feet animation off its assembly line in one year.
Most of the expense is in labor. The animation camera consumes drawings like fairy godmothers dispense wishes, up to 24 drawings per second (about 1 1/2 feet of film). Everything the viewer sees on the screen was put there by someone holding a pen or pencil between his or her fingers for hours on end.
Each drawing is the work of at least four people. Working from a storyboard -- a sketch of a scene not unlike the Sunday comics -- the background painter does the backdrop for the scene, including the nuances of color that set the mood. The animator then provides the action, carefully synchronizing expressions and lip movements to the sound track, adding as many as 20 to 30 drawings for each frame of the storyboard. The twitch of Mrs. Frisby's eyebrow, her expression when she sighs, her believability,m all rest with the animator's skill.
The drawings then go to the "inbetweener," who fills in the missing movements between the animator's drawings. Then they are cleaned up, extraneous lines removed, rough ones smoothed out. By the time the drawings leave the cozy domain of these artists, the original two drawings on the storyboard have grown to 75 detailed drawings, enough for three to six seconds, 4 1/2 to 9 feet of film. It takes a week to produce them. Each animator's weekly quota is five feet worth of drawings.
There's still more: special effects -- the fairy dust.
"Special effects means anything that moves that is not character animation," Dorse Lanpher, who does the effects for Don Bluth Productions, explains. "Snowflakes, rain, wind -- those are special effects." Each one of which, of course, involves a separate drawing. They, more than anything, mark the difference between first-rate and mediocre animation.
Finally, all the drawings are ready to be fused together into the simultaneous action the viewer will see. First they are transferred to a "cel" -- a piece of transparent celluloid. they used to be traced by hand, but nowadays the pencil drawings are simply run through a special photocopy machine and out pops the cel at the other end. Artists then paint on the colors. The painted cels are then layered together, and are ready to be shot by the camera.
One of the most important special-effect techniques used in parts of "Mrs. Frisby" will be the use of two multiplane cameras. These are enormous, awkward contraptions that can shoot several layers simultaneously and give the animation a three-dimensional effect. In "Pinocchio," a multiplane took the audience through the village where Geppetto lived, so that the viewers were both looking ahead up the street and moving down it passing buildings on both sides. Without the multiplane, that shot would have looked flat, two-dimensional. One of the most famous multiplane shots in animation occurred in "Peter Pan," when the children first fly out their bedroom window to follow Peter Pan to never-never land. The clouds suddenly part and the lights of London are spread before them. The multiplane gives that shot depth.
Unfortunately, with each second of a multiplane shot costing upwards of $20, 000, Disney Productions rarely uses the device now. Don Bluth Productions is having two multiplane cameras built for it for about $250,000.
It can afford to do this for "Mrs. Frisby" only because "we have a bunch of very dedicated people unified by a single purpose," Mr. Lanpher explains. "That purpose is to make animated feature films of the classic style -- films believable enough so as to allow people to experience something beautiful, to lift their spirits and make the world a little better for it."
All the work comes down to between 12 and 24 drawings per second of film, and about seven hours of work for each eight seconds up on the big screen.
The payoff can be as rewarding as the work is hard -- if the film is successful. A recent Disney animation feature, "The Rescuers." cost $7.5 million to make and has grossed over $43 million to date. Animated features draw especially well in europe. In France, "The Rescuers" outdrew "Star Wars." Unlike live-action movies, which are generally released once, feature animations can be trotted out for release every few years. Disney Productions reruns many of its features every five years, and they continue to do well decades after they were made.
"We think there is a very substantial market out there for good, solid, well-done family entertainment," James Stewart, a founding partner of Aurora Productions, says. "This, to me, is the most exciting of all our projects. There is a void in the movie industry left by Disney." A small group of investment bankers apparently agrees, since it has put up the $7 million to finance "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H."
Veterans of the halcyon days of Disney Productions, when Disney himself guided the course of the animation department, take a curious position on the Bluth departure. Those contacted by the Monitor echoed his criticisms of the studio but were skeptical about Don Bluth Productions' ability to step into the shoes of the Nine Old Men.
One of them, Ward Kimball -- the man responsible for creating Jiminy Cricket -- agrees that the Disney executives have failed to train new animators. "I told them back in the '50s," he recalls, "there was no one to take our place, but they didn't listen and now the stuff they're turning out is not nearly the quality of what we had. . . . The difference is that we had Walt. Walt was a genius, and the features we made were the result of that genius. Now they have a bunch of businessmen running the place. Walt was an artist first and a businessman second. They're not like that now."
He does not, however, think much of Bluth and company. "You can't go back and repeat the past. The Disney features were the way they were because of Walt. When Walt dies, 95 percent of the talent went with him. If Don Bluth tries to imitate those features he'll fail, because Walt is not here anymore. You have to be new. You have to be original."
"There was a hole at Disney even without Bluth's departure," Harry (Bud) Hester, business agent for the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists union and himself a 26-year veteran of the Disney animation department, says. "They should have established a training program years ago, and now they don't even have the people who know how it should be done. . . ."
For Disney Studios, the Bluth exodus has become just so much water under the bridge, although there is some residue of bitterness, particularly over the unfavorable press that the move brought the studio.
"We are replacing them," says Eric C. Larson, one the Nine Old Men still at Disney and the man responsible for training animators there. "I can't say we've actually replaced them, because they were a very talented group of individuals, and talent is hard to find now, but we're doing very well."
The studio has sent a rough cut of "The Fox and the Hound" to theater owners around the country for previewing, and the response has reportedly been very good. "We're going to have a picture they won't even come close to in terms of animation," Mr. Larson says, adding that the picture should prove that the studio's training program works. "Of course, I wish we could train people with shorts like we used to, but the things are so expensive we can't do them unless management decides it can justify the expense."
"I have a great deal of respect for Don Bluth's talent, but I don't have very much respect for his business ethic. . . . I don't think it was very responsible for them to be working on their assignments one day and pick up and leave the next day."
Whether or not Bluth Productions succeeds in its grab for the Disney mantle, the company may well add some new life to a generally listless craft. "Just having another production company in the business makes us very happy," Mr. Hester adds.
On the surface, the industry appears to be thriving. The union has grown by about 500 members over the last three years, and there is a big demand for animation. Not too far beneath that appearance, though, the actual art of animation sinks in steady decay.
About 80 percent of the animation produced in this country goes to the "kidvid" market -- the cartoons that lull the nation's youth every saturday morning. The networks order up about 55,000 feet -- 12 hours' worth -- of cartoons a year, which should keep the union members occupied.
But 85 percent of that work is done overseas in Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, which cuts the cost by about 90 percent, Mr. Hester says. Several years ago the animators union won an agreement with the production companies --Hanna Barbera, Filmation, and Ruby & Spears -- that work would be sent overseas only if animators here could not meet the networks' deadlines. Apparently in response, the networks started ordering later in the year, making it impossible for the animators to keep up and thus giving the companies a reason to continue to sent the work overseas.
The end product has about as much in common with art as a daytime soap opera has with Shakespeare. Lack of time and money produce "limited" animation, cartoons where most of the movement comes from the charaters' lips and very little from their bodies. Full animation involves moving characters that move all the time.
Although Walt Disney Productions has as good as owned the full-length animated-feature market for the last three decades, its animation department has done little to further the state of the art since Disney's passing, industry veterans say. Few people in or out of the company would maintain that any of the recent Disney animation features rival a "Pinocchio" or "Snow White" or "Lady and the Tramp," much less break new ground.
Animation is essentially an American art, but most new ideas are now coming from Europe and Canada. Don Bluth's role in furthering animation in America remains to be seen. With "Mrs. Frisby," directing animator Goldman explains, "we're not so much trying to break new ground and do new things as we are trying to do them as well as Disney used to." And to make sure that none of the classic techniques slip away again, he spends two days a week training young animators. Frontiers, if there are any, will come later, he says, if "Mrs. frisby" proves successful.