Excerpts from an online chat
with Don Bluth Studios

by Adam McDaniel

Movie stills © MGM/UA
Photo of Don Bluth from
Text © Adam McDaniel 2003 & 2008


AM: Having attended a screening of "NIMH" in Santa Monica back in 2003, I must say it was a thrill to see it on the big screen after over 20 years! And while the images were as powerful as ever, the presentation was in many ways a disappointment. The sound & acustics were terrible. The Nuart Theater is not particularly state of the art, and the soundtrack was played at far too high a volume. It sounded shrill -- Jerry Goldsmith's opening music was blasting so loud, some people were covering their ears.

DBS: Sounds like the Nuart folks need to balance their dolby system and check their audio levels. Most theaters are rather negligent with this regard. When we first premiered NIMH at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and The Century Theater in Century City back in 1982, Gary Goldman and Jerry Goldsmith worked with technicians from MGM/UA and Dolby to "tune" those two theaters before the opening. The sound played fantastically. But when Gary went on the promotional tour for the film, he heard the sound in 26 different theaters across the country, and not one of them played their sound very well. This has been an ongoing concern of filmmakers and sound designers. Quality control is a major element when presenting a film. Lucas offers a quality control service that will spot check theaters for distributors. We used it for the release of ANASTASIA (20th Century Fox, 1997). Looks like the Nuart needs some Quality control. We're sorry that the NIMH experience was damaged by the poor sound presentation.

AM: I felt a tinge of melancholy while leaving the theater. Perhaps seeing the film onscreen made me review it in a different light. It struck me -- while NIMH is one of my all time favorite films, it's not the sort of movie in which you stand up and cheer. It works subtly, the emotions are restrained and nostalgic, and in spite of some comic relief (ex: Jeremy the crow), there is a serious tone to the film. That's why I love it so, mind you, but that's perhaps another reason why NIMH is not the traditional crowd-pleaser. And while the Brisbys are victorious at the conclusion, there's a bittersweet sadness to everything that's happened.

DBS: Regarding the traditional crowd pleasing issue, you're right, we tried for a more sophisticated approach to this story. We really wanted to reach back to the animated feature film stories like Bambi or Pinocchio or Cinderella -- to bring dramatics and subtle humor to the medium that we felt had been missing for some time. We were criticized at the time that the film was too dark. But that was our intent. We wanted to make the film interesting for all ages -- not just children.

AM: I think such bittersweet feelings are multiplied in my heart because NIMH remains something of a privately discovered treasure that the mass audience will never really know. While cable and home video have made the film very popular, I'm sad that it's unlikely NIMH will ever be fully, wholeheartedly embraced by anyone other

DBS: Over the years, many people (fans of the film) have contacted us and really appreciate what the message of the film is and also consider the film a real "treasure", emotionally. The film does work on TV, but it has much greater impact on the big screen.

AM: From the way you described the animation process (in interviews), it sounds like it was truly a labor of it true that much of the work was done out of a converted garage?

DBS: Actually, we didn't do any of NIMH in the garage. We made Banjo the Woodpile Cat in Don's garage, a 27 minute short film, between May 1975 and December 1979. We started The Secret of N.I.M.H. in January 1980, in a 5500 square foot building in Studio City, CA. And, for sure, it was a labor of love.

Question: How did that compare to the scope of your production on ANASTASIA?

DBS: NIMH was a traditionally hand-drawn animated film and had about 100 in-house employees. Don Bluth storyboarded the entire film. We had one layout artist that followed up Don's ruff layouts, 11 of us animated; there were assistant animators, inbetweeners, Key Cleanup Artists, assistants, inbetweeners, FX animators, and their assistants and inbetweeners, editors, color modelist, three background artists, checking, xerox department, inkers, 45 cel painters working from their homes, final checking, camera, department supervisors, a production manager, his assistant, two production assistants to run errands and a receptionist. Therefore, about 145 artists and management staff, plus an outside sound designer, foley artists, sound editors, music editor, composer, a 110 piece orchestra, music engineer, final mixing engineers, payroll personnel, various vendors, technicolor personnel, negative cutting, etc. And, to bring the characters to life, the actors who voiced them.

I think there is a total of about 700 names on the credits of that film. It took 28 months to make the film from start, with no script to final delivery. We wrote the script in-house (Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and Will Finn), all four of us also animated and did various artistic functions on the film, like direct, art direct, scene plan, sound supervise, help other animators with their scenes.

On Anastasia, we had 316 in-house employees. At least 10 people in administration from a general manager, human resources manager, facilities manager, accounting, production accounting, purchasing, reception, production assistants to run errands, plus about 10 in engineering, to maintain the facilities, computer rendering, maintenance and coding. We had to learn to use the computer for many of the jobs that were once done by hand. However, we also had many more artists doing what we had once done with many less, i.e. we had 14 layout artists, 17 background artists, 27 animators, 45 artists in the cleanup department and on throughout the process. We no longer had rostrum cameras -- all animation drawings, layouts and backgrounds were scanned into the computers and inked and painted in the computer. Anastasia was greenlit in October of 1995 and completed in October of 1997. From November of 1994 to October of 1995, several writers worked on the script with story executives from 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. This film took 24 months to produce, not counting the scripting. Anastasia has well over 1000 people involved with the motion picture. All of this must be coordinated within a budget and schedule, meeting weekly quotas and inspiring performance from everyone involved.

AM: I watched the classic Errol Flynn THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD for the first time (I know, I know... Shame on me for never seeing it until now), and couldn't help but notice a striking similarity between the climactic Errol Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone swordfight...and the climactic duel between two rats in a certain animated movie!

DBS: Good call. Actually, we were inspired by three movies for the fight sequence in The Secret of NIMH: The Vikings, The Adventures of Robin Hood and...damn, can't remember the third. It was all about the choreography or the dance of the fight. We studied several films with sword fighting.

AM: MGM released the film on DVD some years ago (1998); it was one of their earliest titles. But I suspect MGM did not put the love and care into the endeavor as other recent DVDs. I have written to the marketing department of feature film and home video for MGM/UA, recommending that an expanded DVD version of the film would not only be wholeheartedly embraced by fans, but also a very commercially viable project. If they needed proof, I suggested that they do a basic search throughout the internet -- there are COUNTLESS fan page websites and fan-related art, and NIMH merchandise are, when available, hot items on eBay's roster! If a full-scale theatrical re-release isn't viable, than certainly a revamped, restored DVD is in order. Do you know of any other theatrical screenings for NIMH in the near future -- even if it is just a limited engagement? Are there any newly struck prints in existance?

DBS: We appreciate that you have written to MGM/UA. Have you received a response?

AM: Nope.**

DBS: Maybe more people should write in. We're not sure that they would take the time and the money to do a "real" survey on whether a re-release of a new DVD, or even a theatrical re-release, would work. We think that a re-release of NIMH would work as well as/or better than the re-release of E.T., just because it is animated (and because we don't have the kids say lines like "penis breath"). If they did the re-release theatrically, then a new DVD would be most appropriate. We'd be glad to provide the audio tracks for the behind the scenes issues. We are not aware of any near-future screenings of NIMH. However, we are showing a "studio" print, from the original negative, at our talk at the Savannah School of Art and Design in May (2003). We are not aware of any new prints being struck. We believe that there are about 300 release prints in MGM/UA's vaults that are in good enough shape to be used in a re-release. Maybe if you got a mass campaign going on all the NIMH websites, to have fans write to MGM/UA about a re-release or a new DVD, you could get MGM/UA's attention. You don't have to convince us.

(**UPDATE: This portion of my interview was conducted back in 2003. In early 2007, Bluth announced that Fox Home Entertainment would be releasing a remastered DVD of the film, tentatively set for June 19th. You can read my recent questions about this reissue here.)

Question (credit: Doug Hryniuk): I know you've had a history of your animated features getting a PG at first and then toning them down to get a G rating. Examples being THE LAND BEFORE TIME, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and ROCK-A-DOODLE. I feel that the MPAA has its moments of hypocrisy. ... What I want to know is specifically how the rating process works and how the appeals for softer ratings occur?

DBS: Actually any editing done to our films, including the THE LAND BEFORE TIME, ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN and ROCK-A-DOODLE, was not done to improve the rating to a "general audience" G.

On Land Before Time, George (Lucas) and Steven (Spielberg) were more concerned about causing nightmares for children than getting a G rating. On All Dogs, the folks at Goldcrest Film and Television were concerned that the Hell Hound sequence would cause nightmares and would in fact cause a word of mouth that would steer family audiences away. We would have just preferred getting a PG rating. On Rock-A-Doodle, Goldcrest's marketing rep had some issues about the owl making a skunk pie with a baby skunk voiced by a 6 year-old child actor. The skunk got away when the The Duke's nephew, voiced by Charles Nelson Reilly crash-lands in the outdoor kitchen. The rep came at us with some sort of experience about child abuse and that most child abuse occurs in the kitchen with scalding, burning etc. He made demands for us to cut material from that sequence, again not for the rating but for some personal concerns. ... But, you're right, there isn't a whole lot of discretion on the ratings board. Maybe they need some members who are parents of young children for better ratings tests. ...

One of our films that we wanted a PG rating was (for) The Secret of NIMH. Funny, even with all the support of the press and the critics, they all commented that there are dark sections of the film that could be frightening to small children. Not really sure you will get the attention of the ratings board or its members, I think they just feel that animation is for children so it's just an automatic gesture, rate it G! I often wonder if the ratings board actually looks at the animated films.

Part I: Reflections on the Film
Part II: About the Cast
Part III: About the Script
Part IV: About the Music
Part V: The Remastered DVD Release

This is a compilation of Q&As I submitted to Gary Goldman at, from 2003-2007. It also includes some excerpts posted from Goldman's answers to other people's questions; in such cases, I have credited the individual's name (whenever available), and highlighted the excerpt in red. For cohesion and clarity, the text has been edited together and presented here in Q&A format, strictly as an informational resource behind the making of the film.