Fantastic Films June 1982:

The Secret of NIMH


by Paul Mandell

A paper match lights a candle by itself and the room brightens in unison. Then a pair of strange hands dips a quill pen in an inkwell. Instead of the pen scribing a parchment, vapor spews forth from the well. The vapor swirls around and a sparkling dust precipitates, falling onto the parchment and burning the words in. Like the writing of the tablets in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the letters flicker amorphously, then cool off for the audience's perusal.

This, the art of classical animation, a memory at the Disney Studio, is finally enjoying a renaissance in Don Bluth's production The Secret of NIMH, a United Artists release. Long, beckoning shadows, lush backgrounds and scintillating light phenomena, all elements that helped lodge Snow White and Fantasia in the public's consciousness, are once again seeing the light of day after decades of neglect.

Bluth, having been regarded as one of Disney's brightest young animators, formed his own production company in 1979 when he, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman organized a mass resignation from the Disney animation department. A dispute over artistic control motivated their departure. With NIMH, Bluth and company have made an all-out effort to restore the lost glories of classical animation to the screen. Typical of their artistry is the animated two-minute love sequence for Universal's Xanadu.

Based upon the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C O'Brien, the new film revolves around an intelligent race of super-rats, the product of scientific experimentation, and the plight of a family of field mice living in a cinderblock, threatened by extinction with the coming of the spring thaw. The maternal character, Mrs. Brisby, must find her way out of a mystical subterranean lair, a torrential rainstorm, and an escape from a menacing rat, all of which call for animation and atmosphere far removed from the conventions of "limited animation." On the surface, one might suspect The Secret of NIMH to be merely an ambitious case of children's fare, but surprisingly, the dramatic values and anthropomorphic characters enable the film to be appreciated on an adult level as well.

In order to recapture the beauty of classical animation, the Don Bluth crew has combined lavish color with multiplane techniques, once a staple of the Disney product. But today, audiences ask for more. They want to be dazzled. To bring that special magic to countless cels of ink and paint, the talents of special effects animation are required--virtually an art form in itself. One key member of Bluth's team is Dorse Lanpher, who functions as director of effects animation.

An industrial design major at what is now called Art Center College of Design, Lanpher felt the frustrating need for self-expression. "I quit art school in 1956. For me, that's when animation started. I had heard that the Disney Studio was looking for people to work on Sleeping Beauty. Oddly, I had never really thought about animation before. So I walked down Mickey Mouse Lane and got myself a job." On Sleeping Beauty was a fledgling assistant animator named Don Bluth. Ironically and inevitably, both men are now dedicated to revitalizing the artistic integrity that seems to have been abandoned by their alma mater.

After doing effects animation for The Rescuers in 1975, Lanpher helmed the special effects animation department at Disney's, where he worked on Pete's Dragon, which combined live action with animation, and did animated enhancements for The Black Hole. He also worked on The Fox and the Hound, marking his exodus from the Disney complex and his new teamwork with Bluth.

The opening sequence in The Secret of NIMH as described in the first stanza is an illustration of Lanpher's thinking. A hologram sequence in this film is a tour de force of Lanpher's work. There is also a flashback of when the rats went through experiments at NIMH (The National Institute of Mental Health) which eventually led to their intelligence, for which Lanpher had to create an array of psychedelic as well as supernatural effects.

As of this writing, paint and special effects are still being committed to acetate cels at a frantic pace. Lanpher was kind enough, in the midst of this chaos, to reveal some of the secrets behind the magic he's incorporated into The Secret of NIMH.


Interview with DORSE LANPHER

FF: How do you feel this film conpares with the Disney product?

LANPHER: For one thing, we have many more supernatural elements in the picture, with heavy emphasis on special lighting effects. The environmental effects are standard, but we've created certain magical situations that are sort of the surprise features of the animation.

FF: Could you talk about the hologram?

LANPHER: Well, the rats have developed a society which in some ways is advanced to man's. Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, has constructed a hologram which allows him to see into the future or outside his underground domain. We call it a hologram, but actually it's like his TV set. The background, of course, is painted on a separate cel, but the effects for the hologram are accomplished by using standard animation techniques, which we then shoot backlit under the camera.

FF: How many elements went into the hologram vortex?

LANPHER: I think the original hologram scene had about eleven passes through the camera: one pass,which is shot top-light on the animation stand to photograph the background, and the other passes are filmed backlit, with mattes holding out various elements for the purpose of color saturation. Again, it really isn't a hologram in conventional terms. It's really a hoop with spinning blades in the center, locked onto a stand. When the blades start spinning, they generate electrical energy. And as it gains speed, there's an image that occurs within the sphere, which to me was the most challenging to do as animation.

FF: What techniques have you used to heighten the credibility of these pyrotechnics?

LANPHER: I animated what I would call fireworks on paper and shot them onto what we call litho negs or Kodaliths. That gives us a high-contrast negative with a clear image. That goes under the animation camera with backlight, colored by many filters and gels. That's been a standard technique in some of the live action-effects films like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

FF: Could you describe some other sequences that you consider elaborate?

LANPHER: It's interesting. We have one sequence right now in which we're experimenting with a computer. We don't have what we want yet as of this interview, but there's a sequence where Nicodemus is telling Mrs. Brisby the story of how the super-rats came to be. He summons up this image on the hologram and tells how the rats escaped from NIMH, how they were injected with substances which allowed them to learn to read. In that sequence, there's a montage of scenes going into the DNA molecule. It's a stylized space-trip, so to speak, into the molecular structure of the rats, where particles start exploding and changing.

FF: How does the computer contribute to this?

LANPHER: It's a standard computer, but what we have it rigged to do is allow a print-out drawing, so that we have a sequence of drawings that animated. I haven't seen the results yet. I would say that most of the visually eye-grabbing animation comes in the form of energy and light, using holdout mattes and backlight. Toward the end of the picture, there's a sequence where Brisby's house, a cement block, has sunk into the mud. She discovers energy in this amulet that the rats had given her, and she summons this energy to raise the block out of the bog.

FF: When one thinks of classical animation, the old disneyesque rotoscoping techniques come to mind. Have you made use of that?

LANPHER: Yes, but not in the way you might think. We're using a form of rotoscoping mainly to impart realism to moving objects, to have them conform to the actions of the characters. For instance, we've constructed several set miniatures. Models. There's a sequence where Mrs. Brisby is trapped in a farmer's bird cage. We've taken a regular bird cage model, painted it black and white so that we could photograph it against light blue. We shot it at 96 frames per second to get a sharp image. Then we print the film back at 24 fps and photostat the frames as black and white prints. We used those as our animated cage, as it swings and is affected by Brisby's actions as she tries to escape.

FF: Do you mean you're using photostats of live action contrast prints as the actual backgrounds for the film?

LANPHER: There's a bit more to it than that. After the stats of the bird cage have been retouched and redefined, we make xerox cels of those. And those are painted as standard animation. The whole point of this is to get a more believable effect on the screen while leaving the animals characterized. There are subtle nuances you can get by using the actions of a model, things that would take you so long to animated, the cost would be prohibitive. We then animate our character into that action, and add animated effects to that for a very believable picture. Actually, there's an even more elaborate scene which made use of this technique. The rats take Brisby through a canal into their cavern. We've used models of boats for similar effect. So by photostating, editing, xeroxing, retouching and painting, we're ready for the animation phase.

FF: Disney used to rotoscope, for certain sequences, live actors, which gave unusual realism to the characters themselves, and Ralph Bakshi has made entire films using this process. I presume you don't subscribe to this.

LANPHER: We haven't used roto'ing the way Bakshi would. We use it much in the same manner that the landscape painter would as he sits down and looks at a background scene. We use it as a foundation, but that's all. It seems to me that if you roto the whole thing, you might as well have shot it in live action and left it that way. I believe Time magazine described Lord of the Rings as "actors trying to get out from under the paint." We feel that rotoscope technique is a valuable tool in animation, because it does give you the foundation to start from. That saves a lot of time and money.

A good animator will use the rotoscoped characters, but then will edit and enhance that action.

FF: Do you feel that the characters in the film sort of stand out from the background intentionally, in a kind of bas relief way, to delineate them from their environment?

LANPHER: I don't think it was even in Don Bluth's thinking to try and do that, or to do anything that Disney has or would have done. The backgrounds were designed to look like part of a natural environment, so that the audience is caught up in the filmic experience, rather than having them perceive the backgrounds as paintings. The characters really do work with the backgrounds rather than against them. We've used an airbrush to give the characters were rendered, along with the voice talent, to give people the feeling that they are watching creatures rather than cartoons. What we're trying to do is make a film in which the audience is embraced by and involved in the experience. Which is something that anyone who makes films strives for, animated or live.

FF: You mentioned xeroxing. Could you expand on this?

LANPHER: Most of the drawings are xeroxed onto cels. Disney started out with xeroxing, but the animators fell in love with their drawings and didn't want to remove the sketchy lines. So the xeroxed outline ended up on the screen, with all of the animator's little scribbles. They did clean it up after a while, but xeroxing on a cel always resulted in a line that drew attention to itself. What we've been doing on NIMH is cleaning up the drawings. We have a very thorough cleanup crew, resulting in a very clean, thin line. When the cel is painted, the xeroxed line drops into the color, resulting in a more accurate representation on the screen of what the original drawing looked like. In the old days, the inker would make his or her own judgement as to where the lines went. So the characters would crawl around and look unsteady when projected. What we've done in eliminating this is, I think, something that hasn't been done on an animated feature.

FF: Are you using any new equipment?

LANPHER: Nothing that hasn't been used before. But we've constructed twocranes (animated columns) from the ground up. These cranes have a multiplane capability, which again is not new, but hasn't been used in a very long time. Disney has a couple of multiplane monsters that take four to six guys to operate.

FF: Could you describe, at this point in time, any other sequences that are key to the film's extraordinary visual sense?

LANPHER: The picture begins in what we call Nicodemus' "studio complex," the rat's civilization. What we've attempted to do is give the picture a lot of depth by using heavy color and a lot of animated shadows. We see Nicodemus writing in his journal about Brisby's husband, who was killed in his attempt to aid the rats. A vapor comes out of the inkwell, sparkles fall from the vapor, and it causes the paper to glow as if it were energizing from the inside, with the letters having a laser effect. There's a lab scene in which a large kerosene lamp causes all the metal and glass objects in the room to glow in a mystical way.

We have a scene where a secret potion is poured into an envelope, and the effects are quite scintillating. Also, there's a scene where Mrs. Brisby is caught in a rosebush--sort of the security system of the NIMH rats--and gets enveloped in these `automated vines,' another example of where we've electrified the environment. We also use, in addition to Kodaliths, what we call slotgags, which are moire patterns that are moved back and forth under the animation camera to generate different images.

FF: It all sounds pretty good.

LANPHER: We hope so. Of course, we're attemting to do what any filmmaker would do, which is to have color, music, and effects work in unison. It's what any violinist tries to do, to get you caught up in the sound that he makes and allow you to forget that he's playing an instrument. If he hits a bad note, it's like seeing a microphone in a live film, or a cel flash during animation. I think what you will see is a film that is advanced not only in the animated sense, but in a filmic sense. We feel it's better than anything that has been done in the genre. That's not to say we're going to top a classic like Snow White. But using the techniques that we have today, combined with love and care, and a storyline with good character development, we feel positive that it will turn out to be everything that we had hoped for.


Interview with Director DON BLUTH

by Tim Hildebrandt and Ted Bohus

FF: When did you first pick up a pencil?

BLUTH: WHOA!..that goes pretty far back. I remember that I went to see Disney's Snow White in 1941. I guess I was four or five at the time and I was living in El Paso, Texas with my folks. I remember coming home from seeing Snow White and trying to draw all the things that I had seen there. I used to get a cardboard bos and put the little pieces of my drawings in the box and cut out a hole, peek through and say, "Wow, that really looks like something I saw in the film."

FF: Do you remember how old you were when you first started animating?

BLUTH: I think I was about ten, maybe earlier. By that time the family had moved and I was living in Utah on a farm. It was a very isolated area, way out in the country, a little place called West Mountain. We used to ride our horses, for entertainment, but the Disney films were really what kept the kids in our family going. Back then my favorites were cartoons like Melody Time and Midnight Music. Even then I knew I wanted to be a part of those films, to go to Disney Studios someday and become an animator. But as I grew up, other things I did got in my way, and I got sidetracked. Finally I overcame those obstacles and got serious about animation again. Since then I haven't been able to leave it alone. Making pictures move is a fascination that I'm sure many people feel, particularly those of us who like to play with a pencil and draw. It's one thing to make a good drawings, but it's a whole other world to make that drawing come to life, to make it move like it really is a living thing.

FF: Did you ever do flip books?

BLUTH: Yes, all through grade school I did flip books. At home I tried to emulate what I saw on the screen because it was so inspiring.

FF: When did you start working for Walt Disney Productions, and how did you actually get that job?

BLUTH: I started working for the Disney Studio clear back in 1956, when I was about eighteen years old. I worked there for a year, I left, when to college and did a lot of different things. Then I got serious about animation again in 1971 and returned to Disney, entered a training program, and started animating, almost immediately, on Robin Hood. I stayed there for a period of nine years, and then I left in 1979.

FF: Did you ever work directly with Walt Disney when you were there at Disney Studios?

BLUTH: Back in the old days when he was still at the studio, I remember talking to him on several occasions, but never nuch more than, "Hello, how are you?" I did run into him one time when I was playing volleyball though, and I remember him saying something like "Keep it up, you'll live longer!" But there is one thing that stands out in my mind. When Walt was in thebuilding, there was this euphoric feeling that we weren't working for a corporation, but that we were working directly for him. Everyone really wanted to please him. He was very much the "father image."

FF: When do you feel that the quality of the Disney movies began to decline?

BLUTH: That's a question that's hard to answer. I think they kept trying to improve in a technical way, but the stories began to dissipate. It was almost like an inverse proportion, the more technical they became with the film, the less the story seemed important. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was a highly technical film, but the story had nowhere near half the strength that Snow White had.

FF: Is it true that at about that time, Disney had lost interest in animation?

BLUTH: He was building Disneyland then, and I think his mind was very preoccupied with the theme park. He was spending about 20% of his time with the animated product and 80% with the theme park. Where your heart is, is where the good things happen. So right there is probably when the quality of the animated movies began to go downhill. Jungle Book, on the other hand, had some very fine moments in it. It seems to me, Walt was involved in Jungle Book, although Woolie Rietherman took the reins when Walt died, in the middle of it. The pictures that followed, (The Aristocats, and The Rescuers) can be attributed to Woolie Rietherman, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. My hat really goes off to Woolie Rietherman a lot, because I think he was trying very hard to do what he thought was the decent thing. The alternative was to close the studio down.

FF: Was Walt Disney's participation in the films, mainly editorial?

BLUTH: Yes and no. He was a great storyteller, and he participated in the story meetings and guided the story in the direction he wanted it to go. In a way he was an editor, but he also gave the writers and animators ideas about the characters he wanted to see and the music he wanted to hear. He was really a total entertainment package. Putting all the elements together to make up the whole picture was really what he did best. So he did much more than just edit.

FF: What was your personal favorite Disney film?

BLUTH: Well, I go back to the classics. Pinocchio and Bambi rank high on my list.

FF: Is that for the total film or the technical effect?

BLUTH: No, the total film. I think that's because I see in a film like Pinocchio, a marriage between all of the elements of film...the music, the colors, the story, the character designs, the pacing of the film, all of the crafts in the film which could be individualized, despite each other. All of these things were working together. When a character felt an emmotion of joy, for example, all of the colors began to feel the same emotion. The colors took on the characteristics of the joys and emotions of the storyline, and the music did the same thing. So all of the strengths of the artwork were building themselves on an emotion. The same was true when depression, anger or violence became a necessary part of the plot. The colors becamse orchestrated, the instruments were orchestrated, the pacing was orchestrated and they all worked together to create a complete emotional feeling. In the later pictures that I worked on, the music was tacked on; it wasn't an integral part of the process of making the film.

FF: What do you think it would cost to make a film such as Pinocchio today? One character alone, Honest John or Gideon for example, required such detailed drawing, all those colors and inking...

BLUTH: I don't know what Pinocchio cost, but I know what it costs today to make a picture of that kind, because we've got some characters in The Secret of NIMH that require 24 colors, so I would say it could cost perhaps 25 million dollars to do Pinocchio today.

FF: Do you think Disney will ever finalize The Black Cauldron? Do you think they have the capability to animate those kind of characters?

BLUTH: At the present time, I don't think so, because the staff is so young. I do believe they could though, if they got a good training program together, and if they could find a strong organizational leader, who is demanding and loves animation, such as Walt did.

FF: Are you talking about a new head of the studio, a director, a producer?

BLUTH: It has to be a director. But if this man has control of the animation department and he is not edited or infringed upon by someone over him, and if he loves animation, he could rally his people to that cause. They have the finances, but they need the leadership.

FF: When and why did you leave Disney to start your own company?

BLUTH: Basically we left for two reasons. We felt that it was time to stop putting new wine in old bottles. We wanted to start anew so that we could eliminate all the corporate red tape that was stopping us from succeeding. Artwork, any really progressive artwork requires risk and experimentation. The longer a corporation has been around, the more it tends to become more conservative, to cater to it's largest audience. Contemporary animation needs to have a rebirth, an opportunity to express itself with new ideas, even if those ideas are risky. That's what art is all aobut. So we felt that if we left Disney we could again take those kind of chances.

FF: Were you preparing for this break-away when you experimented with the newer animation techniques in your own short film, Banjo? Were your resources limited or did you have backing?

BLUTH: Banjo was out of our own pockets. That film was an opportunity for us to try out a lot of experimental techniques, ones which, at that time, we knew nothing about. But when we began that project, it was not with the intent of leaving the Disney Studio, only with the intent of learning. But about three quarters of the way into Banjo, did we realize that it could become a "lifeboat," and decide that we could springboard off of it. So our purpose changed and we decided to leave the studio. I think that one of the things Banjo did was to open our eyes and our understanding to a degree where we had to ask ourselves, "Wait a minute, these are new techniques that could actually be realized? Could we put these new ideas into a picture right here at Walt Disney Productions? So why aren't we doing it?" We would go back to the studio and say, "Hey you guys, look at this! Let's put this process into the picture." but they would say, "No, that costs too much. Kill it..." And we would be voted down. The frustration of not being able to implement what we knew we could do, was part of what drove us out.

FF: At that point you had Banjo to take around and show to investors. Is that what got you the financial backing to do The Secret of NIMH?

BLUTH: Yes, that's correct.

FF: Was it solely on the quality of that reel?

BLUTH: Yes, on the quality of that reel, and also on the fact that the other businessmen who were working with us, handling the money and the finances were also ex-Disney men who had been fairly high up in the studio. I'm speaking of the Aurora partnership. They left about two years earlier than we did, and they were already into finding money and producing films. So when we came along, they were interested in backing a film such as ours, because they felt that what we were doing was exactly what they were looking for.

FF: How did the story for NIMH develop?

BLUTH: The story is based on a book that I'd read while I was at Disney Studios, called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Many books came through the studio; we read them and then decided if they were good film material. Ken Anderson and myself were the only ones that felt strongly about this particular book, that it could make a really good animated picture. So when it came time for us to leave the studio, I read it again and proposed it to several other of my partners. And they all liked it.

FF: How detailed is the animation in this new film? Are there shadows and airbrushing in The Secret of NIMH?

BLUTH: Yes, lots of shadows. We have sprinkled that kind of detail generously throughout the entire picture. Airbrushing on individual characters, however, we have not done. There are some airbrushing techniques used in the effects areas. The cells are xeroxed, not inked. We have figured out a way to make the xerox look very much like an inked drawing.

FF: Disney seemed to attain that technique to some extent in Fox and the Hound.

BLUTH: They are able to reproduce various shades of grey now, some of the dark browns and very subtle tones.

FF: Did you use any new techniques in NIMH, or resurrect any old secrets from the Disney Studios that haven't been used before?

BLUTH: We used a lot of the old techniques that are standard, again going back to the classics. But we also tried many new experimental processes. For example, we have incorporated a lot of backlighting, where you draw the effect that you want and then you photograph it onto litheloid and backlight it under the camera. The effect you get is a very soft glow. For example, fire. For many years Disney has traditionally painted fire yellow and orange. In NIMH we have not only painted the fire, but also cut out a design of that fire, put a colored gel over the top, backlit it with a very strong light, backed the camera up and passed the film over this backlit process a second time with the lens out of focus. It makes the fire much "hotter" and also gives it a halo effect. They never did that at Disney.

FF: The trailor for the film looks wonderfully much like the old Disney films.

BLUTH: Thanks, we tried to create a dazzling effect on the screen. There's lots of light; light seems to be the thing that attracts the eye the most. It glitters and it twinkles and it has subtlety of color.

FF: Do you photograph live models and use rotoscoping for the human figures in animated sequences such as the one in Xanadu?

BLUTH: Yes, we use the tracings as a guide, sometimes altering or exaggerating them 50%.

FF: You're in post production on NIMH now?

BLUTH: We're in the latter part of production. Editing is what I generally consider post production, and we haven't reached that point yet.

FF: Is the budget holding well?

BLUTH: Yes, we're in good shape. We will probably come in under budget.

FF: Did you animate any of the film yourself?

BLUTH: Yes, I animated the sword fight sequence.

FF: When we visited you three years ago, we were very inpressed with the miniature sets that were under construction. Have you gotten a lot of use out of them?

BLUTH: Yes, we have. We used them for layout perspectives. In fact, we've photographed them until they've literally fallen aprt. We've tried to get very unusual dramatic angles in all of our layouts. So what we did was build sets for many of the more dramatic settings, using different props and photographed them. They've been a great aid.

FF: Did they aid the background painter?

BLUTH: Yes, they were especially helpful in that area.

FF: In what medium are the background paintings done?

BLUTH: They're done in wash, tempera and some acrylics. We have a young man here who paints in acrylics and gets a result that I've never seen before. He paints in thin, thin layers.

FF: It seems that The Secret of NIMH is going to be a commerical success in the theaters. Do you have any future project that you are preparing for?

BLUTH: Yes, we do, we have another feature, that we're working on. It's budgeted at eleven million. I can't tell you the name of it right now, but I can tell you that it's set in the future and takes place after a nuclear holocaust, when the humans and the animals that remain are trying to put their world back together. We're very excited about it, and will be getting started into production in a couple of months.

FF: Good luck to you with The Secret of NIMH. It sounds like it will be just the kind of film all of us die-hard animation fans have been waiting for.

BLUTH: Thanks. We just hope everyone has as much fun watching it as we did making it!