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DRAGON’S LAIR: An interview with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman

DRAGON’S LAIR: An interview with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman

Animation veterans Don Bluth and Gary Goldman are in the thick of their Indiegogo campaign to help bring the classic game Dragon’s Lair to the big screen. After some complications and a switch from Kickstarter, they recently celebrated surpassing their goal of $250,000, which they will use to hire a writer and create four minutes of animation to pitch the film to financiers.  They still have nearly a month to go.  Animation Scoop contributor Leslie Combemale talked to both Bluth and Goldman about their plans for the film and their experience with crowdsourcing: 

Leslie Combemale: What’s your explanation for the continued interest in Dragon’s Lair?

Gary Goldman: I think that because of the experience that people had in 1983 when they saw this game, I think they were kind of really overwhelmed by the look of it. They were actually looking at what could be called first-class theatrical style animation on a videogame that they had some control over, and it was an experience that was a major event for them, and they still remember it. And there was, at the time, I would have to say, of the 8,000 machines that were put out there, in the arcades in the United States alone, there could have been millions of people that saw it when they were somewhere between 9 and 25 years old, that it stuck with them. Today this game is an app in the Apple store and also on Android stores, and people are buying that app. And I’m assuming it’s those are people who played it originally, or they’ve passed it on to their children. And we think that people remember the title Dragon’s Lair, all over the world, because people from all over the world buy the app. 

It’s like having a title from a number one selling book from 40 years ago, that we want to try and use that title to make a successful movie, you know? We think it’s a title that lots of people all over the world can remember.

Don Bluth: I have a little different spin to add to that too. I noticed a lot of people, when they’re in those formative years, whether it’s the teen years or high school, things leave a strong impression, images in their head that they never get over. A song, a movie experience, it can be anything like that. I think Dragon’s Lair to a certain age group was like that.  They appreciated what was on the screen, but I think with all of their companions, they played together to try to win, and it was such an unusual looking arcade game. So, I think there’s a lot of nostalgia involved in it. The reason that kids today are buying, I think it’s probably by the encouragement of their parents who had a good time with it. This is what I did when I was a kid too.  I mean, there are people that look at movies like Sword in the Stone, and say ‘Oh, that’s my favorite picture!’ and I usually scratch my head and say ‘How old were you when you saw it?’ and when I find out the age that they were, it fits into this theory that it’s about nostalgia, whether they were in high school or they were very young.

LC: And maybe it works that way too with the game.  Like when people see Bambi, they may be only 25 and they think Bambi came out for them, but it came out in 1942, so their grandparents saw it, their parents saw it, now they’ve seen it.  Perhaps with Dragon’s Lair it’s the same in that it’s on all of these different platforms, and kids are experiencing it for the first time by downloading it, and they have a different experience of it, but now it’s multigenerational.  I understand it’s one of only three video games in the Smithsonian, is that true?

GG: You know, there may be more now, but that’s what we were told a long time ago when it went into the Smithsonian.

LC: That’s the coolest thing! Do you happen to have one of the original arcade games yourself?

GG: We did, at one point. We actually sold the one we had for our studio.
LC: Oh, you gotta make the money to make the movies, right? (They laugh) So that’s how that works. The movie is going to be an origin story for Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne, right?

GG: Yes, it’s a prequel.

DB: A lot of people probably with their imaginations are thinking that we’re going to do something that looks exactly like the game. You know, they have their favorite characters, some say Giddy Goons, I haven’t a clue why. Some say the Lizard King, I still don’t know why. Once you take this mythology and you put it up on a big screen, it really has to have more weight and body to it than was demonstrated in the game itself. So, I’m not sure anyone has, so far, come forward with something that says ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we saw…’ Nobody’s done that yet, and I myself am scratching my head trying to say what is after the…..? It’s going to be hard to figure that out because, basically, Dirk was a very clumsy kind of ne’er-do-well guy, and poor Daphne was an airhead, so we have to go way way way out of those prototypes to make something that’s worthy of the big screen.

LC: You mean that has a kind of mythological gravitas?

DB: Yes. You know what, the thing I’m aware of nowadays is that we’ve lost ourselves as a society, maybe a world society we’ve lost a lot of personal mythology. We’ve lost all the personal heroes that are there, and we live in a vicarious world on the big screen, and a lot of people are on the small screen with all their electronic things. So what can we aspire to, who can we make our heroes? And how can we create story and character where people can say ‘Ah, this helps explain life to me!’

LC: Who can we connect with?

DB: Yes. Religion works for some people, and it doesn’t work for other people. So how do you explain our existence? How do you explain what we’re doing here on the earth? How do you explain what we should be doing, or why are we warlike? Why are we so violent with each other? And why has part of our society risen up and decided that everyone that isn’t them must die? These are questions that are really hard, that you say ‘how are you going to put any of that in a cartoon?’ 

LC: There’s always a little of some of that, you know, in a good cartoon. There always have to be lots of layers.  Inside Out is a great example of that.

DB: That’s right, I think even in Bambi, and I can point to that one with great confidence, it teaches about living with death. And if a movie doesn’t deal with some part of the reality of living, then I think it’s failed as a movie. If it just rattles the chairs, then what good is it?
LC: Do you have one idea you actually do have set in stone for the movie that you can reveal to the readers of Animation Scoop?

DB: Yes, I think we can say that we’re trying to explain who Dirk is, because we don’t say anything about who he is, in the game. We’ve said he was born of royalty. Because I think the destiny of all men is to be kings, the destiny of all women is to be queens. In some fashion or another, that’s the destiny that we call it family but it’s supposed to be that. So, literally, in the mythology that we will create, he is a king, but does not know it. It got interrupted when he was just a child, and so, he’s whisked away by some power, and raised so he doesn’t know who he is. So, somehow, the movie will deal with who he is, and hopefully eventually go to him taking his place leading and directing others as king of the kingdom.

LC: That’s great! Can you talk a little bit about the switch from Kickstarter to Indiegogo? What would the difference be between what the original of the $550,000 and the $250,000 you’re now going to be using as a goal on Indiegogo? I know it’s a shorter pitch video, but can you talk a little bit about the switch? Because I know it requires a little bit of fluidity to try to do crowdsourcing, as you’ve probably discovered.

GG: When we were in the middle of the Kickstarter campaign, it felt like we rushed in, and some of the structure of it, we knew about the rewards we were going to try and provide, and try to keep it at a reasonable cost, considering what money we did get that was going to be used for shipping and manufacturing. We were told, also, that we went in for way too much money. If you can pick a lower price there’s a chance that you would succeed, and actually, maybe excel from what you were asking for in the first place. 

One of the main things that we’re looking for is to be able to bring in a top writer. Even if it’s only a portion, what we want to do is collaborate with a writer on the bullet points of the story, and maybe even be able to pay him for the first thirty-page treatment, so that’s why that number was there. When we got about ten days into that, Indiegogo phoned us and said ‘You might be better off over here with us, because we have a whole film and gaming department, and PR and other things that can help you along the way.’ As we saw that our goal was slipping away, we said ‘Then let’s shut it down so nobody’s hurt, even ourselves. And we’ll switch over.’

They basically told us that if we’re trying to do a deal with a studio, for instance, we don’t want to approaching them in the middle of December, because they’re all going on ski vacations, and they’re gone for three weeks before you can really do the deal. At the same time, when we did our deal for American Tale, we did it in December. Started on the 4th or the 5th of December, and then had a deal by the 29th, and Don had people animating by 20 days into January, and with no script. At the end of that, we actually put an American Tale in the theaters at Thanksgiving time that year, which nobody in those days was doing, and it worked beautifully. So, we listened closely to what the complaints and comments were out on Kickstarter, and we reassembled what we had with changes to the perks, and we’ve got a lot more backers now. 

LC: What’s been the most challenging aspect of the campaign?

GG: How far we can reach, because, obviously Don and I can reach out to the animation people, but what do we do with the rest of the world? It looks like we can reach as many as half a million people, but actually, when you think about raising this kind of money, you really need to get up into a million or a million and a half people, so if you get 30% of them, you might have some serious numbers in contributors.

LC: And what about the brightest and most fun aspect of the crowdfunding?

GG: Well, for us it’s the first time, it’s going to be a whole learning experience, and it’s amazing to us when you see somebody’s going to jump in, and I think we’ve some in at $5,000. That’s a lot of money for somebody who’s going to get no equity in the product, other than all the rewards before that, and even the involvement of master class with Don, or even online time with Don for a day of just a lesson.

DB: Let me say, I think the most joyful part of this whole experience has been to realize that there are a lot of people out there who step forward with their pocketbook, who’ve said that they like traditional animation, and they would like that to have a resurrection, a renaissance. That’s been encouraging to me, because I’ve thought until now that maybe the whole world was over there with the CG animation, and that was it, end of story.
LC: No question there’s still huge interest. Do you have some idea how you’re going to get the majors to buy into the idea of making a largely traditionally animated feature, when the artists love it, the fans love it, but it seems like the major studios just won’t use anything that’s traditional animation anymore?

DB: Okay, I have two thoughts there. One of them is that the most important to interest a studio in distribution, or even funding, is it needs to have a really good script. One of the things we’re doing with crowdfunding is we’re trying to find someone with a track record. I think that’s very important. The next thing is that the studios will say ‘Animation is dead, we don’t want to try and put money into distributing one,’ but then, if enough people, a world audience, say they want it, we can put those statistics on the table of such a studio head, and say ‘Look, there are people out there who want this. Do your own research and find out if it’s worth it.’ Because, somehow I know it’s going to come back, but it’s how to get the financial world to embrace the idea.

GG: I too think there’s a chance we’ll be able to generate interest among individuals interested in financing such a movie.

LC: How do you see balancing the movie based in 2D and traditional animation, using computer computers and CGI to enhance it?

DB: I don’t think it has to do with the process, whether it’s CG or 2D. I think it has to do with the style on the screen, what it looks like. If we can get something up on the screen that looks like that golden age of animation, when Walt was really trying to create art, that’s the way of it. But there has to be that excitement with the staff to build this picture, because they love using the pencil and paper to create whatever it is, that creates that form of artwork, because certainly CG does not look like 2D. That’s a totally different look, just as watercolor paintings don’t look like oil paintings.

LC: Right, but it is all art.

DB: Right, it’s all art. Now, if you can create that art with the beautiful color that we’re used to seeing in traditional, it creates the magic of that traditional look. I’m a little worried about the fact that CG is moving themselves too close to live action. I can’t really call that animation anymore; I call that puppetry. When you move too close to live action, now everything is shaded and now we put skin that has pores in it on all of the characters.  Why not just hire an actor?

LC: You have a really amazing crew and team of artists set up for Dragon’s Lair. How do you see those people you’ve hired, and their experience, coming to bear? 

GG: I know that they want to be involved and I think the issue is that we’re not going to be in the same building. We’re here in Phoenix, we’ll probably be the hub for the story. We have some people here to work on it, but people elsewhere want to work on it as well. I think we’ll probably end up with two or three locations, including Florida, that’s where Dominic Carola is, and he’s got quite a good crew down there. I think it would be fun to bring them on board, and I think they would like it because it’d be feature film instead of shorts. The same goes for L.A., I think it’ll work because of all the telecommunications today, and people have been doing this as contractors for years, and now, ever since the shutdown in 2004 of the Disney Group, and ours in 2000 with Fox, there are a lot of people out there that don’t want to move over to CG, and they’re really good animators.

DB: Let me add something to what Gary just said, I think if you provide a platform in which these people can express themselves as 2D animators, they’ve learned a skill that’s not easy to acquire, a lot of them have sacrificed much to get to this level. I think if you give them a stage on which they can perform, they will not only be able to earn a living doing it, but be grateful. One of the things Walt Disney said, years ago, is ‘you’re not making cartoons’,  because there’s a lot of 2D animators out there who make cartoons, ‘but you’re trying to make a form of art’. And the beauty of it is, that thrills you when you watch it, is that it is artistic, and it’s something that feels like it has a soul. You can make an animated film that does not have a soul, that is possible, and I’ve seen a lot of that. It’s when this business action takes over and dictates what the picture looks like, to save money, that suddenly it starts to look a little thin, and doesn’t have the power that it should have as a piece of art.

LC: How are you going to break down the project with the animators? Are you going to do the more traditional way of having character leads and people that are in charge of one particular character, or is everyone going to work together? There have really been so many changes in the way that animated films have been built, lately, I’m wondering what you think is the winning way to do it.

DB: It is good to have an animator who, let’s say, works on the human figure, at Disney Milt Kahl was the one was called on anytime there was a need to animate the human figure. And there were other people who were called on to work with funny characters, everyone had their special talent, so you cast them appropriately. But the more that everyone can get a little piece of the pie, and could animate all of the characters, that would be ideal, but I don’t think the talent works out like that. I think the talent feels really very diversified, so if you’re smart you figure out what people can do best.

LC: I just want to mention that those who are interested in supporting your campaign, especially for artists and fans of traditional animation, you have some really great backing rewards like traditional drawings, and live mentoring, and animation tutorials, and the set visit, so I think animation lovers who want to hear stories about the recent history of animation, that’s a great opportunity that a lot of artists and fans of animation would love to have. Do you have any other perks that you’d like to mention that you’re excited about?

GG: One of the latest ideas that came up was to make signed DVDs of the movies we’ve done in the past, like a whole set of our independents, there are twelve of them. You know, for the collectors, there’s a lot of them. We just did a couple of hours at a fanfest here in Phoenix, and we were surprised there were people lined up before we arrived to the place, and it gave us hope. 

LC: You have James Lopez of Hullabaloo working on the film, and he is also using crowdfunding for Hullabaloo, his 2D-animation-focused film series. How do you see the future of 2D animation?

DB: I think this is a distribution question. The distributors, and I mean the studios, have a sort of monopoly on distribution of film. If they read the whole idea, maybe those are the people we should be talking to, because if distribution can happen, then money is there. If money is there, then tradition can find its place again. It definitely has to be a restoration because it’s definitely gone away, so we need to focus on how to distribute it. I’m waiting for someone to figure out how to distribute online. If you can bypass the studios, that would be the perfect advantage.

LC: Well, they’re working on it, there are lots of people working on that.

DB: We could even take up Netflix, with what they’ve been able to do with making wonderful projects for the TV, feature films, live action mainly right now. But there may be room for animation in there.

LC: Distribution through other platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and the like offer opportunities for artistic freedom, among other things, that the majors don’t. So that definitely could be in your future as well.

DB: This is just a theory, but if Netflix took this and it actually worked and made them money, the studios might soften their hearts.

LC: That’s exactly right. Well, I appreciate that you guys are thinking outside the box to make something happen that has tradition stamped all over it.  I wish you guys the very best in making this happen. We’re going to come back and check in with how things are going as things progress.

DB: That’s great, Leslie, thank you so much!

To support their efforts or for more information about the campaign, go to their Indiegogo page:

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