Monday, March 09, 2015

Joining the team on Don Bluth's Rock A Doodle

 I had just wrapped up animating duties on a television series called 'Slimer and the Ghostbusters' for DIC Enterprises back in 1989. These were cartoony segments where I was able to animate scenes with some full animation and cartoony poses. I was out of work and had just got married; not a good combination. 
I had recently submitted my portfolio to Disney studios and was waiting for some sort of response. In the meantime, Bill Hanna of Hanna/Barbera Productions got my number from someone who labeled me as a hot talent and called me regarding a position as an animator on Jetsons: The Movie. I met with Mr. Hanna, accepted the position and was fired within a week. (More on that hilarious story in an upcoming post). The reason for the sacking was that I was assigned to a Rosie The Robot scene and Mr. Hanna was quite upset with the animation. "She moves too much!" he kept saying. (Really, no joke.) That may explain why the studios' product was so limited in movement as Mr. Hanna liked it that way. Actually, I was really proud of the work I had done. But none of that mattered now. I had lost my job on a major theatrical feature project. What now? 
Well, here's a classic text book example of  When one door closes, another opens.  
Back in late 1979, I was excited about a new animation studio formed by a group of Disney animators led by Animator-Producer-Director Don Bluth. They had just released a theatrical fully animated half hour cartoon shown on HBO called 'Banjo The Woodpile Cat'. This little film looked fantastic. The designs were fresh, the backgrounds sparkled and the animation was top notch. On top of that, it had really nice effects animation. I had liked Bluth's animation in the recent Disney films and realized that this was where the magic was coming from. In my opinion, Bluth was beating Disney at their own game. Their next film would be 1982's The Secret Of NIMH; a sleeper of a movie that would forever change the business. I became an immediate fan and knew I had to work for them. 
Fast forward to 1989. 
A portion of Don Bluth's animation team had returned from Ireland and set up a small studio in Burbank, California called West Olive, Inc to work on sequences of Sullivan Bluth movies. The unit was set up by Producer/ Master animator John Pomeroy with Directing animators Lorna Cook, Linda Miller and Ken Duncan as key members of the new unit. I caught wind of this and found out that the studio was located within a few blocks of my apartment. I quickly put together a portfolio and dropped it off to the studio. 
A few days later I was invited to the studio to do a clean up inbetween test. Now, I would love to say that I walked in and breezed through the test, no sweat. 
The reality was that I actually stressed myself out before, during and after taking the test. I had second guessed my abilities all the way through it. I wanted the job that badly.
A day later, John Pomeroy himself called me back to say that the test looked good, but that there were no spots open for a rough in-betweener at the moment. However, he was looking for an animation trainee and wanted to know if I would come back and test for the job. Needless to say, I was excited about this and agreed to come back for the animation test. I felt more relaxed about this because I was more in my comfort zone when animating. The test was Charlie The Dog (from All Dogs Go To Heaven) jumping onto a box. 
All I remember is enjoying the test and being satisfied with the results. I had finished the test in a timely fashion and even had time to finesse the drawings. The next day John called to tell me that the test looked good and... to see if I could start work Monday. I was elated to say the least. The next couple of months would be very challenging to me, mainly because of two facts. 1) I was now working with some of the top talents in the animation business and 2) I needed to make sure my work was of exceptional quality so that I didn't embarrass myself...or worse, get fired!   
 I'll save some of my experiences of working on that movie for a later time, but let's say, it wasn't a cake walk...But I did learn a helluva lot.   
I really enjoyed working on Rock A Doodle. The picture had tremendous potential and I was excited about the possibilities. It was a fun concept with some terrific surprises and the characters seemed to be well formed. Unfortunately, shortly after I arrived, problems began to surface. Victor French, then known as an actor from Highway To Heaven, was brought in to direct the live action sequences for the film. He became very ill and had to exit the production (he died a short while afterwards). Don Bluth took over the live action direction. Goldcrest, the motion picture company that was funding the movie, stepped in to question story direction and design choices. Some very funny sequences ended up being cut from the picture and a portion of the movie had to be re-animated for being too risque. As the reels started taking shape, story problems became clear and it was decided that narration had to be added to make the story flow better. 
Overall, the movie was plagued with problems. 
I wish that I could say that the movie would go on to become an animated classic; it had all the makings of a hit movie. We had great animation talent, catchy songs, neat sequences, super voices and a retro cool concept that featured a Rooster that resembled Elvis Presley. Regardless, many people love this movie. I still have a fondness for it for many different reasons.  
If you haven't seen it, here is a behind the scenes look at Rock A Doodles' production in Ireland (Part one is above, Part two is below). I also included the theatrical trailer which includes the neat computer animated/ classically animated effects opening to the picture. Unfortunately, you won't see me in any of the documentary footage, since this was shot at the main studio in Dublin, Ireland. I was on the other side of the pond at a small satellite studio in Burbank, California!  Enjoy.    


Christopher Sobieniak said...

Thanks for the history, Brian!

Brian Mitchell said...

Yes sir. Can't believe that this happened 26 years ago!