... Don Bluth

By Ted Boyke




Don Bluth needs no introduction for many a gamer who haveplayed Dragon's Lair, one of the most enduring arcade games of all time. Thestory of Dirk the Daring's quest to rescue maiden Daphne from a dragon'sclutches was wildly popular upon its release in 1984 and had a unique look,combining hand-drawn animation with videogame controls. It spawned an arcadesequel and another beloved game in the same style, Space Ace. Outside ofvideogames, Mr. Bluth is known for his many animated films such as The Secret ofNIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and more recently Anastasia andTitan AE. Ted Boyke had a chance to sit down with Don Bluth at CGE 2002.


When Don Bluth granted me an interview at Classic Game Expo 2002, all I was hoping for was an opportunity to ask him a few questions about the then-upcoming Dragon's Lair 3D videogame... I was happily surprised when the interview grew into an extended conversation that lasted over an hour! Mr. Bluth opened up and went into fascinating detail about the origins of the original Dragon's Lair arcade game, his thoughts on its popularity over the years, and how the idea to make Dragon's Lair 3D came about.

In addition, we covered his candid view on the current state of the feature animation industry (the subject of hand-drawn vs. computer animation), as well as his reflections on past films he's made over the years while working with different animation studios. Lots of entertaining anecdotes from a brilliant and friendly guy...

What follows is the full interview, which has never before been published.


DP: Dragon's Lair was a groundbreaking arcade game when it was released 20 years ago.
Have you been surprised at the large fan following and the level of interest it's maintained over time?

You know what, I have been surprised at that. Because when we originally made the game Dragon's Lair, we had no idea the impact it would have on the game market. It was something new at the time; it was the first of the laserdisc games, and random-access was a brand-new technology and everybody was saying, "A little laser can randomly access any point on a disc, which means if we create any scene, we can show them in any variable lineup."

That's what got us excited about making the game in the first place. It was Rick Dyer's brainchild, and he came to Gary Goldman and myself and John Pomeroy and said, "You know, if we can create this thing about a little knight that goes into a castle and rescues this princess Daphne," he says, "and if you fail to make the right move at the right moment, then we can just show you dying."

And what intrigued me more than anything was all the ways of showing Dirk dying. Because I thought that would be the humor of the thing, you know, how to do it so that it wasn't just gruesome or cruel or anything like that. And it's been interesting because in this new version of this game, which is out now or will be out this October, the deaths aren't quite as funny... There's a whole different thing--which I'm all set with--because there's just so many rooms. There's about 260 rooms in the new castle which you go through, but it's all about the game play.

What has stayed very much intact is Dirk's personality and his character, and I think that's one of the reasons the game has been so popular--because it's not just an action figure, it's a character. And Daphne's a character too, so that's part of what's made it work. But I've been surprised over the years. I mean, someone told me the other day that maybe 360 million people have played this game in the world. That's a lot of people.

I guess the reason that we're thinking that we could probably make this game work is because a lot of those people, when the game came out in '83, they've grown up, married and have kids of their own. So they're probably willing and wanting to share this experience with their own kids. So this may be a real 'nother windfall.

DP: How did the idea to develop a completely new 3D Dragon's Lair game come about?

Bluth: The idea... I think it was based on one thing only and that is: shelf-life for a regular video game usually is about 3 to 5 years and that's it. But Dragon's Lair, for some reason, still commands shelf-life. If you go into a store, they will have Dragon's Lair somewhere in the store. And for 18 years this has been going on. So let's say that must mean there's an audience that wants to see it.

Rick Dyer came to Gary Goldman and myself when we were at Fox making Anastasia and Titan [AE], and he said, "Would you guys consider taking your rights and my rights, and putting them all together, and let's do another one?" He says, "The reason I'm pitching that to you is because the technology nowadays is so fabulous, so far out there, that we could create something much superior to what we did before. In fact, we could give the player control over Dirk so that he controls the way he moves, where he moves, how he moves, where he hops, where he jumps, and everything. And we could still make it look like an animated film, because there's something called 'toon shader.' "

Wow. So all of that sounded really, really intriguing and interesting, and we said, "Let's do it." Rick said, "Well, this is what it's going to cost,"--and it wound up costing four times that. And he says, "And we can probably have it in a couple years,"--and it's doubled that. <laughs> So we've been working on this for about four years now, and it's also on every platform. And the one that we're looking at upstairs [in Dragonstone Software's Classic Game Expo booth] is Xbox, which is in high definition; that's what's really fun to look at.

DP: It's really clear. So when Dragon's Lair was originally designed in the early '80's, did you ever at that time envision it as a 3D action game?

Bluth: Never. Never did, no. Because we were so far from 3D, in fact 3D was just a twinkle in somebody's eye at that point. We didn't know. And the whole world's been turned upside-down recently with such successes in theaters as Shrek, Toy Story 1 & 2, Monsters, Inc., all of that. So in fact the entire movie kingdom has said, "Let's don't do drawn animation anymore, let's just do 3D animation."

So everyone's moved over there, and so we're waiting for the pendulum to swing back again, which I am absolutely confident it will.

DP: What kinds of challenges did you face in translating the world of Dragon's Lair into 3D?

Bluth: I think one we've mentioned already... One of the biggest challenges is, in [hand drawn] animation we can actually go in there and show character by the expressions on the face, you know, and how a character walks and all of that. So that you create a character, that's what animation is about. In this particular game, the 3D game, I think the animators are just getting their feet wet in that world. And although I think they've done a fabulous job in creating a character here, they're just really scratching the surface of their own technology.

And if you look at the game and everything, it's not quite like looking at an animated film, because that's total character. This, this is really movement, but it's got funny little things if you look for the humor. They're actually getting to the character. When no one's playing, Dirk will stand in a place and tap his foot--like he's laughing at you.

DP: Got a little attitude to him.

Bluth: Yeah, that's right. So there's moments in it, I think, where these guys have stretched their creative muscles. And I think that we'll see that they'll be doing more if there's sequels to this, or even if we do a Space Ace game.

DP: So was there any additional 2D animation created especially for this new Dragon's Lair 3D, for scenes like cutscenes and intros?

Bluth: Very good, you talk as if you know there was, Ted! <both laugh>

Ah yes, there was. We created about forty-five seconds, and almost a minute's worth of animation. Which you see some on the beginning, in fact there's a full minute on the beginning that's new. And then there's forty-five seconds on the end that's new. And so it's a minute and forty-five. It's for the whole opening, and then also in the track mode. And then in the very end, if you win the game you get to see this other forty-five seconds that's animated.

DP: Cool, there's a nice payoff there at the end.

Bluth: Yeah, there's a song too. <laughs> We've written a song for this game, which is a bubble-gum song and is only to be listened to once, I think. It's kind of a funny song, and it's sung by a female vocalist so we think it's Daphne who sings a song about Dirk: "He's My Guy."

Melissa Robinson: [Publicist for Dragonsoft]: Did you hear it?

DP: I saw it in the presentation, yeah.

Bluth: <shudders> Yewww...

DP: <laughs> I thought it was pretty funny. It worked well... Got stuck in my head.

Bluth: Just don't sit up in bed and start singing it at night.

<all laugh>

...Frighten yourself to death.

DP: So in addition to all the favorite rooms from the original game, does Dragon's Lair 3D feature any new previously-unseen areas of the castle?

Bluth: Absolutely, absolutely. It would have to, because mainly there's so many more rooms. In the first game, we only had about twenty-five rooms, thirty maybe, or something like that. In this game, two-hundred sixty, so that's a lot. But we tried not to get too much into, you know, the look of the 3D rooms that's just sort of right out of the software. And we tried to take a lot of painted backgrounds that we have from the first game, and other things that we've painted over the years, and wall-paper all the rooms with all these paintings so that it feels very painted. It feels like a 2D painted picture.

So we've done a lot of that. And what I like too in the gameplay is that as Dirk goes through, he has to empower himself by collecting little articles along the way. If he does not do that, he meets foes that are undefeatable. So he needs all these little gadgets and things along the way to get himself there. And Daphne is coaxing him through this; you hear her voice throughout the whole game.

DP: Kind of his guide, for the player too.

Bluth: Yeah.

DP: So, do you have any thoughts on the different video game consoles--Xbox, GameCube, PS2--and any preference for one in regards to Dragon's Lair?

Bluth: Xbox, because of the high definition. I like that a lot. There's a GameBoy too that's kind of fun, but I've only seen Dragon's Lair I [the arcade original] on the GameBoy. It's really pretty fabulous; have you seen it?

DP: I have, yeah. It's amazing that they fit it in--I mean, the cartridge is so tiny. I can't believe they compressed all of that animation.

Bluth: I don't know how they did that. We had this laserdisc before, you know, and now you just put it on this little teeny-weeny thing.

DP: And it plays and it looks somewhat like the original.

Bluth: Yeah, and I suppose they'll find some way to put this on GameBoy. I think it is on GameBoy...

Melissa: GameBoy Advance, that'd be great.

Bluth: So it's on all the platforms.

DP: So it would be really on everything, even handhelds.

Bluth: Yeah, we figured that's the best way to reach the market.

DP: I wanted to ask you a little about the "cel-shaded" or "toon-shaded" style of graphics. They've become really popular in video games these days, and as an animator, what's your take on it? Does that encourage you to go into video games more?

Bluth: I'm really glad for it, because I would hate to think that we're going to lose the look of two-dimensional animation altogether. There's something to me that's just a little too smooth and lacking in caricature in the 3D animation area. I don't know whether it is the software or it's the people working the software; I suspect the latter.

What it is--there's a Stradivarius and nobody knows how to play it. So in the years to come, it could be as more animators maybe move over and learn how to work a computer... That they will take their skills, their drawing skills and they'll learn how to fuse that in too, and we'll see whether it's the software or the players.


DP: Ever think of doing an all-new videogame in the original Dragon's Lair arcade style?

Bluth: Every night before I go to bed I do. <both laugh>

Yeah I have thought about that. But you know what? Usually with things, you go where you can find the financing to do it. And I think what Rick was saying in our meeting this afternoon was that the laser disk itself isn't out there right now, so that technology isn't there but there's other things. And I asked him one time, "Why wouldn't we do that?" and he says, "Why should we do that when we can have it even better, like in 3-D where you give them more control?" So maybe that's not going to be there for awhile unless somebody gets very nostalgic.

DP: So how about an all-new game, with this toon-shading look like Dragon's Lair 3-D?

Bluth: I think we could do it, I think we could do it... I'd love to do that because I remember when we were doing the first Dragon's Lair, I got really involved with coming up with all the little rooms and what was the danger in the room and going into it with bats and spiders and snakes. It would be good to do it. I think a lot will depend on how this thing works, this one. If this one works very well, you'll see a tremendous enthusiasm. So we'll wait and see... Perhaps there is a Santa Claus.

DP: What do you personally think is the best home version of the original Dragon's Lair? Is it the DVD, the PC or the Playstation version? There's so many different versions of it out there...

Bluth: I think that the DVD is the one that I've got. I haven't played them all. But the DVD, I'm perfectly happy with that.

DP: I wanted to shift gears a little bit and talk about the rumored Dragon's Lair feature film. Just ask you how that's coming along?

Bluth: We hit a fork in the road with that. We got the script written. It took us about a year and I think the script has a lot of stuff in it that's very, very good, and it actually is a prequel. It goes back and it explores who is Dirk and where did he come from and why doesn't he talk, you know, how did he meet Daphne and all that. Then we started getting the script to different people and we were in the business of trying to fund it so we could get it off and running, and all the characters and sets designed and everything, and suddenly we met somebody that said, "Oh, you know. You shouldn't animate this. This should be done as a live-action feature, much on the order of Spiderman." You know, so it's more of a blockbuster thing. He said, "Your script's good enough so you could go there," and then we just said, "Well, we'll just listen." So what happens is we have two different camps. One is saying, "No, we can make it over here in drawn animation," and the other is saying, "No, live action." So we don't know where it's going.

DP: If it were live action, who would you cast as Dirk and Daphne?

Bluth: I'd put David Schwimmer as Dirk.

DP: He kind of resembles him.

Bluth: Yeah, and he's just kind of got that look.

DP: Wide-eyed look, yep. And also Daphne?

Bluth: Reese Witherspoon. She's sophisticated enough that you just like her. You like her and she's smart.

Melissa: And she's very funny.

DP: That would be a good fit. Any chance of Daphne getting her own spin-off game?

Melissa: That's a great question.

Bluth: I hadn't thought about that but that would be good, wouldn't it?

Melissa: That's a great idea.

Bluth: Having gone that far yourself... Any ideas?

Melissa: I have some (laughs).

DP: Well, you could always pull the old reversal. Have Dirk be in prison and now Daphne has to rescue him.

Bluth: We could do that, sure.

DP: His bumbling finally got him captured.

Bluth: You know what, the second Dragon's Lair game... I think very few people saw it. And Dirk and Daphne did get married and they had children. They have 13 kids. And she still looks great! <laughs> She looks great and the mother-in-law hates Dirk; it makes it kind of fun. And Daphne gets kidnapped and so the mother-in-law nearly kills Dirk: "You let my daughter be kidnapped. You! I let my daughter marry a Toad!" So he goes out to save her and himself.

DP: That's available on DVD too.

Bluth: Yeah, it is.

DP: A lot of fans would love to see some of your classic animated films released on DVD in full-blown, widescreen anamorphic format. Is there any chance of this happening? Most of the DVD's now are pan and scan; they're cropped.

Bluth: Once you work with a studio on a film, the studio is sort of like this enormous clam that just opens, takes everything and then closes, and no one enters again. They own it all. And everything like The Secret of NIMH--we tried to get MGM/UA to re-release it, you know, after all these years, or to put it on some kind of format where it would do just what you're saying.

You can't even get them to sit at a table and talk about it. It gets very discouraging.

The best studio exec that we worked with was Bill Mechanic at Fox, because he was a listener. He was pliable, flexible, and said, "Well, let's see. Maybe I can facilitate that." And he could see the vision of where he could go. Universal, they've been pretty good too, but Steven [Spielberg] rules his own kingdom so you don't tell him what to do with his pictures. We had two we did with him. We did An American Tail and The Land Before Time, but you know, they put them out there. I'm pretty sure they're on DVD.

DP: They are, yeah. But I don't think he did the widescreen format.

Bluth: I think they will go where they can get the most money for the least investment. But that's generally what the rule of thumb is.

DP: Oh well; we'll keep hoping... I wanted to ask your view on this: A lot of animation studios these days--we touched on it earlier--they seem to be moving away from hand drawn movies in favor of computer graphics, in light of the success of stuff like "Toy Story," and "Shrek."

How do you feel about 3D Graphics emerging as the more dominant choice for feature film animation?

Bluth: Well, I think the work that they do and the style of 3D graphics is absolutely fabulous and I think it's a great brush to use for some stories. And there are other brushes that I think are exclusive to a different kind of story.

I'm saddened to see that everyone's pitched out the baby with the bath, in that we say that it can't be one or the other, it could be both. I mean, just because we listen to classical music doesn't mean that we can't listen to jazz. But with movies, since they are such a huge investment in money--we're talking about millions of dollars--that those who invest are just so paranoid that they are going to take too big of a risk and lose their investment, and I think that's what dictates where it goes. So everyone will go where they think the popularity takes them.

DP: Some of your movies like Titan AE and other films have combined computer graphics with hand drawn art. Would you ever want to do a fully 3D animated movie or do you prefer to stick with at least some hand drawn animation?

Bluth: I wouldn't mind doing one. However, in the orchestra if I told you I played trumpet, and someone asked me if I'd like to play violin, I just don't know. It takes so long just to master one discipline that it probably would be wiser for me to stay where I've learned. Because I think for me to catch up over on the computer, I know a lot of things about animation rules and disciplines, but to go over there on the computer and do what so many are doing very well right now would be a silly thing for me to do. And they're all over there and we're growing fewer in number over on this side of the fence so I would say, "I'll stay over here."

DP: But you'll continue to do the combination movies like Titan AE?

Bluth: Yeah, that's easy, because the computers have taken so much drudgery out of it. Just one to mention, painting the picture. It used to be that everything was wet, everything was with a brush. Everything was wiggle it in water, wipe out your brush, get a new jar of paint, spill the paint, mop it up. "You know what? You've painted all those wrong. All those jackets were painted orange--they were supposed to be blue." Now you have to take that paint off of every one of the cels in a hundred cel scene. By soaking Kleenex on the paint on the back until it buckles and then scraping it off.

Now, if you've got orange on every jacket you can just say, "All the orange jackets - make them this color." Poosh! It's all done.

DP: Just like a paint shop-type application.

Bluth: So we aren't struggling with something that no one ever sees on the screen. It just facilitates and makes it very easy. We don't have to go around saying, "Look, my fingers are bleeding. Isn't it awful?" So I would think if the machines can take the drudgery out of it and just leave us with the joy of drawing, then that's the best of both worlds--and I'll use those computers!

DP: So it makes your job easier... That's the good thing about it.

Bluth: I'm not a purist in that sense.

DP: When we were talking about the re-releases on DVD, I've heard that there was some material cut from some of your movies, some of the stuff they thought might have been too scary for kids and stuff like that. I always love the bonus scenes and deleted scenes, the extras on DVDs, and always wished to see more. Titan AE had a good amount of deleted scenes... Is there a vault of stuff for movies like "NIMH" and "All Dogs Go to Heaven"?

Bluth: Land Before Time, there were a lot of scenes taken out. They were all the way into color. Steven [Spielberg] took them out in London when he saw it. Particularly the Tyrannosaurus Rex because we did some pretty scary stuff when he was after those two kids. And Steven says, "I'll have all the mothers with their kids out in the foyer, and I don't want that!" And so we started whacking, and I think we cut out about 80 feet, which is almost a minute. Almost a minute of finished scenes of that creature which we thought were just, "Wowee!" They're gone.

And Titan AE, there were a lot of sequences and different things in there and... See there's silly things like when they go to that cantina where all those weird creatures are. We had a whole thing in there where we went into the community, we saw the monsters, we saw how Akima got her way out of there. All of that stuff came out, so all we saw was highlights. Like rocks skipping on the water. And it basically is, "Oh, there you are Akima! What kept you, captain? Let's get out of here!" <both laugh>

DP: Just cut to the chase?

Bluth: But there was a bit of a fight that went on to get them out, you know? It's all gone.

DP: How do you feel about all the sequels that come out that you don't really have much involvement with? The Land Before Time in particular has had many sequels... We've seen other companies do it too, like Disney has made Little Mermaid Part Two, etc. But in regards to your movies, it seems like a trend to do direct-to-video sequels.

Bluth: Well, the cynical answer is that the studios will go wherever they smell money. It's like sharks to the blood, and with Secret of NIMH... I cannot explain why they made that sequel to Secret of NIMH. Because they claim that it [the original] didn't make money, so what was the enthusiasm to make a sequel?

But with Land Before Time, of course it did make money--it made a lot of money. And so all the sequels, they just said, "Let's create a franchise here, let's create something that goes on and on and on." And each one of them have made money, because basically the children who watch it just see the little characters they love and so they're not discerning about whether it looks great or it's a great story or anything. But they will make sequels; I think right now the most horrible thing that's going on is at Disney, where they're making movies out of rides at Disneyland. <both laugh>

I mean, you've got a Bear Jamboree movie, the Country Bears movie?

DP: The Haunted Mansion movie is in pre-production.

Bluth: Yeah, it sounds like, you know, they're scraping the bottom of the barrel for something because they don't have any imagineers or something. <laughs> Can't they come up with something new?

DP: There are rumors that they even have a Snow White II in preliminary stages, but that they're not sure if they want to go forward with it. That would be the ultimate, you know, to make a sequel to the very first movie.

Bluth: I wonder what their trepidation is.

DP: <laughs> What's holding them back if they've already released so many other sequels?

Bluth: Well yeah, I mean, why is it Holy? I can't imagine them holding back and saying, "Oh no, let's not touch Snow White." Because they'll go anywhere, I think. And I think what they do too is they send them off to some studio in Australia or maybe they're sending them to Florida or something like that, and just sort of out of their hair. Because I know in Burbank, where the main thrust of it was, that's shutting down. They're laying people off.

And that could all change tomorrow. This doesn't mean it's anything permanent, because tomorrow all that would have to happen is a 2D movie went out there and made a lot of money, and they would all drop what's on table four and run to table one. You know, and we'd be back in business again.

DP: It's just whatever sells.

Bluth: It's whatever sells; it's the business of it.

DP: Well finally, when can we look forward to Dragon's Lair 3D to hit stores?

Bluth: Let's see... How old are you now?

DP: I'm twenty-six.

Bluth: Twenty-six... You'll be twenty-eight.

<both laugh>

No, you'll see that game by this Christmas.

DP: Oh, okay--definitely by Christmas!

Bluth: Yeah, and the movie when you're twenty-eight.



For more information on Don Bluth and his films, check out: http://www.donbluth.com/



Dragon's Lair arcade Cinematronics released
Space Ace arcade Cinematronics released
Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp arcade Leland Corp. released
The Sea Beast and Barnacle Bill arcade Cinematronics not released
Dragon's Lair 3D: Return to the Lair pc, XBOX, Gamecube, PS2 UbiSoft Ent. released

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