Thirty years ago today the classically animated game “Dragon’s Lair” came out in arcades. People everywhere were swarming to the arcades to play this revolutionary game. Dragon’s Lair to this day is still being played worldwide on every console, computer, phone, tablet out there, you name it. We got the chance to get an interview with the director of Dragon’s Lair, Don Bluth. Don has had a huge career in traditional animation from working on feature films for Disney to directing his own feature films and designing games. In this interview you will find out more about Don’s journey that lead to the creation of Dragon’s Lair.
Question: What do you think about the success of Dragon’s Lair and how to this day, it is still popular and being played around the world on pretty much every media format?
Don’s Answer: I have to tell you honestly that I don’t know why it’s still going. I have a theory that when it was in the arcade, players loved it because it was such a different look from the old Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and those types of games. It was a video game; yet it was a fully animated cartoon at the same time.
At the time, most teenage boys wouldn’t be caught dead at a Disney movie anymore because they were branded as children’s films. Instead, they would go and play a game in an arcade, which is a little more macho, and they could look at a cartoon again and not feel ashamed.
The other thing I think is interesting is that Dirk is an interesting character. He’s funny, and we have him die so many different ways. When Rick Dyer, the creator of the original idea actually made the first 3D Dragon’s Lair, I had very little to do with it. He wrote his own script. He didn’t include any humor and he didn’t explore Dirk at all. All he did was the traditional threat, which is when you’re going to fight with some enemy. But I think in movies, anything that is visual on the screen, the important thing is character. If there is an answer to your question of why it’s lasted so long, it’s because Dirk is a funny little character. If I look at most of the very sophisticated video games now a days, the visuals are very good but basically it’s just back to kill, slash, bam, shoot, so they don’t get much character. I don’t understand why they don’t because it’s no secret the key to movies is character, not just plot.
Question: When Rick Dyer came to you with the concept of a Laser Disc Game, what was the process of creating Dragon’s Lair? Did Mr. Dyer have the characters and plot in mind or was it a collaborative effort to create the story and characters.
Don’s Answer: We had just finished Secret of Nimh, and didn’t know whether we would live to make another picture because of the finances. So what happened was Rick Dyer came to us after he saw the Secret of Nimh, and said, “I want something that looks like really high quality in 2D animation.” So we said okay, and then we listened to his story and his plot. It was interesting, but he didn’t have much character. Again it became a slash and kill thing. We worked more on character, and we had a lot of very heated discussions over this very issue, which was to make Dirk into somebody that I could relate to. Dirk represents the “every man” like Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp. He’s sort of sad and pathetic because he can’t do anything right.
He bumbles his way through everything trying so hard to triumph, and it isn’t that easy for him. He doesn’t even know that he is inept and I think what enhances a little bit of his appeal is the fact that you’re rooting for him the whole time. So I think that is part of it.
Eventually what happened is there was some collaboration that went on and then we started figuring out how to animate it. We had to decide what the threat was, and then the next scene that we animated would resolve the threat by either him defeating the enemy or him being killed. So we had to divide up the scenes in a very special way, which was not like a feature film.
Question: How do you think the look of the classical hand drawn animation played in the success of the game and it’s legacy?
Don’s Answer: I think the answer to that question is the fact that it didn’t look like Donkey Kong and it was visually interesting, which was new and innovative in its day. It has since been surpassed with all the beautiful illustrated images that are on the screen now in video games. I mean they’ve gone way beyond where we were, so once again I can’t explain why they’re still looking at Dragon’s Lair.
Question: How did the names Dirk and Daphne come about?
Don’s Answer: Well I think originally we were going to call him Dummy or Dum Dum for the D stock and someone said you couldn’t do that so why don’t we call him something really heroic. Someone threw out the name Dirk, and I just simply said “Wow! That’s a very masculine and heroic sounding name so let’s go with that one.” It was similar with Daphne. We were looking for a name that sounded feminine and soft, and one of the girls came up with that one.
Question: How did you arrive at the look for Dirk?
Don’s Answer: Well that was looking at a lot of costume ideas. Basically the look of Dirk’s face is very similar to Kay in the Sword in the Stone. He has the same kind of jaw and everything so we actually just sort of lifted it from there. For his costume, we had to do something fairly simple that the animators, who were young and inexperienced at the time, could do. So it’s not too elaborate. The backpack, for example, was something we originally thought would carry items you would collect in the game and finally it just turned into a sword.
Question: What is your favorite scene or sequence in Dragon’s Lair?
Don’s Answer: In Dragon’s Lair 2, I really like the Jabberwocky stuff in the “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” level. It would be either that or the Beethoven sequence because it has so many surprising and interesting figures in it.
Question: A lot of fans would love to see a Dragons Lair Movie, we need to see some traditional animation back in theaters, what are your thoughts?
Don’s Answer: I would love to see a Dragon’s Lair movie! I think, like you’ve indicated in some other questions, it all comes down to the funding. Right now, unfortunately I think what’s happening is that the big studios have a monopoly on distribution. The studios don’t believe that traditional animation will get an audience to the theater, and because of that they’ve gone in the direction of the CGI. With CGI, they believe that the young generation will go see it and so they’ve stayed with that medium because they feel that’s a safe investment.
Now I don’t know why, I only have a theory, but young boys feel that they can’t look at traditional animation. I think it has something to do with the teen years, growing up, coming of age, and not wanting to be classified as being a child anymore. Maybe Disney is responsible for this because for so long Disney has made traditional animation for the teenagers and little children. So what happens is the kids know these movies are for kids and when they start growing up they don’t want to go where the kids go; they want to go where the grownups go. They have to have something more sophisticated, and I think that’s why they actually pushed away from traditional animation.
Question: Financing is always a major roadblock, what do you think about Kickstarter? A lot of productions are being funded this way.
You know it’s funny you should say that because I had a phone conversation with Gary Goldman about 3 days ago and that’s exactly what he is working on. He’s trying to get us a Kickstarter page up and running to try and raise some money to fund a project. I’m even making a video to put up on the Kickstarter page.
Question: Do you personally own one of the Dragon’s Lair arcade machines? Did you ever beat the game?
Don’s Answer: No to both of them, haha.
I don’t own one but I have a good friend who lives in London who has collected so many of those units. He almost has a Dragon’s Lair museum in his house, and it’s amazing. He’s spent hundreds of dollars. He himself is a stunt man and he took a liking to the Dirk character and started collecting. But I’ve never had one personally.
Now as far as the game goes, I’m not very good at video games because my hand-eye coordination is not as fast as it needs to be. I can design them but I certainly don’t play them.
Question: Is there any difference between directing Dragon’s Lair and directing one of your feature films?
Don’s Answer: There is a big difference, because a game is interactive, and I mean physically interactive. Dragon’s Lair is a linear game, which means you make the correct decision either with the sword or by moving the joystick right, left, up, or down. If you don’t make the correct move in the right moment in time what will happen is the laser disc will shift you over to a death node and you’ll watch yourself die as Dirk.
It’s a different structure than making a film where you’re telling a story. When you’re telling a story in film I think there is interaction but it’s mostly psychological. A director of a good film has to watch what the audience is feeling or thinking. With a game, it’s more like a physical reaction that they have to go through, and it has to do with being very quick so you have to have good eye-hand coordination.
Question: When did you first know you wanted to become an animator? How did that evolve into directing, making games and creating feature films?
Don’s Answer: That’s a hard question. I knew that I wanted to be involved in animation when I was about 4 years old but I didn’t know where to go or how to pursue that goal. I knew there was a man named Walt Disney but I didn’t know what exactly that had to do with what I saw on the screen. I think I was about 10 years old before I finally figured out that Walt Disney had a studio that employed people to draw these films.
At Brigham Young University one summer I met a guy that worked there named Judge Whitaker who had worked on Peter Pan; he was an animator. He showed me a lot of things. He showed me how he drew, and then he showed me how to flip paper on the desk. All of it was so exciting to me, and that’s where I picked up a few ideas of what it meant to be an animator.
After that I think I visited the Disney Studio, graduated from High School, went to the Disney studio where they were making Peter Pan at the time, got some cels, and got a little more aquatinted with what the whole process was. Then my mom said to go to college, so I spent one year in college before I wrote them back and said, “Mom, Dad this isn’t what I want to do. I want to go to work at the Walt Disney Studio and draw for a living”. So they finally caved in and let me do that.
I went there and the first film I worked on was Sleeping Beauty, which was supposed to be the most wonderful animated film that Disney had ever made, and the studio had high hopes for it. It was fun. I have a lot of stories to tell about working on Sleeping Beauty, and I only worked there for one year during the making of that film.
After that, my church called me and asked if I wanted to go on a mission trip to Argentina. So I quit the Disney studio, flew off to Argentina, and was there for two and a half years. When I came back I worked at Filmation Studios just to earn money to pay my rent. I didn’t like it all. Finally after two years of that I went back to Disney Studio and began work on Robin Hood.
Question: Your fans would like to know what you have been up to lately? Are you working on any animation projects?
Don’s Answer: You know, I really am not working hard on anything like that. I have a script that I’m working on, which is called “The Happy Prince” but every time I write it and read it, I wind up re-writing it. So it’s not moving along very quickly.
What I am doing now is I’m directing plays in a theater. I find it very similar to animation and storyboarding because you have to tell people where to move and what their motives are and all of that.
Gary has been working with a man who is very interested in getting us back on the board to draw again, and he has a lot of money. I mean it could be that this Dragon’s Lair movie you spoke of may just happen, and when it does then I will just sort of bounce out of theater and go back to making films.
Question: What is it that makes Traditional Animation special to you?
Don’s Answer: Oh that’s easy. First of all as one who works in it, I think it’s more fun to draw the actual drawings and to find those emotions on the characters than it is to move a puppet around inside a computer. The challenge is greater; it’s harder to draw an emotion whereas in the computer you’ve got a puppet that you’ve built and rigged, and you have several expressions you can put on that puppet, but it somehow just doesn’t have the same magic in it as when you’re drawing.
The other thing is the color. I mean I really like the flat very bright vivid colors and the soft painted backgrounds of traditional animation. It has a look about it that’s just different from CG. I can compare that to watercolor and oil painting. They have a different feel when you see the subject that has been rendered on the canvas or the paper. I feel the same way about traditional animation; it’s a shame that no one has seen it as a marketing gold mine.
I think it will come back around. I do believe that somewhere someone is going to make one of those and it’s going to make a lot of money. Then all of the studios will say “Let’s go do that” because they will follow where the money is. But I don’t know when that is going to happen. As long as the theaters that show the films are monopolized by the big studios, I think we have a long wait.
Don Bluth Website
*A big thank you to the Don Bluth Archives at SCAD for providing some of these images for this interview.