Back in the summer of 1983, at the peak of the arcade craze, when a swell day at the mall's cavernous gaming lounge included spending hours feeding quarters into machines like Galaga, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Tempest, Joust, and Defender, a revered king of the arcade was crowned.
This new industry player would revolutionize gaming forever. Wheeled into the crowded arcade confines around the United States, Dragon's Lair featured the medieval adventures of Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne in the world's first animated laserdisc video game.
Manufactured and distributed by Cinematronics, Dragon's Lair was an instant hit, with its digital-age technology and top-notch animation driven by the legendary ex-Disney animator Don Bluth (Pete's Dragon,The Secret of N.I.M.H., The Land Before Time, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven). Wishing to return to classical stories with strong villains, re-introducing high-level special effects, and quality animation, Bluth with partners Gary Goldman & John Pomeroy had led a defection from the Mouse House back in 1979, taking 14 other animation artists and technicians with them and forming the indie animation studio Don Bluth Productions in Studio City, CA.
Seen in the opening sequence in the premiere of Stranger Things 2, Dragon's Lair is the grail-like fantasy game Dustin, Mike, Will, and Lucas are enthralled by as they attempt to navigate Dirk through a stone dungeon and ultimately to his skeleton-transforming demise.
It was one of the first 50-cent stand-up arcade consoles in which your choices affected the gameplay direction, and there would often be a line snaking out the arcade doors with kids and adults alike waiting to join the quest and polish off a handful of coins.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Don Bluth and his producing and directing partner, Gary Goldman (Titan A.E., Anastasia), about the origins of Dragon's Lair, the cultural impact it had on society over the past 34 years, being in the Smithsonian Institution, and their Indiegogo campaign to deliver a future full-length Dragon's Lair feature to generations of fans who have grown up with their characters, games, and animated classics.
Enter the daring domain of Dirk and Daphne and hear two animation legends look back to the heydays of video games — and learn what tomorrow holds for a feature-length Dragon's Lair prequel adventure, which they are working to make right now. Early production sketches below feature the distinctive art of Don Bluth, with background paintings by Don Moore.
Are you surprised Dragon's Lair has such an effect on people after 34 years?
DON BLUTH: I am, yes. Because Dragon's Lair, when we were making it, actually was something to keep everybody busy until we could find another feature. We didn't think of it as the Lord's Prayer at all. But it was fun, and everyone on it had fun while they were working on it, because it was about a knight that seems to be somewhat inept, and yet in spite of being inept he manages to succeed. Which is the story of Charlie Chaplin. He's inept, but he's clever enough to stay out of the way of the train. That probably describes every man, so we're all running from some thing that's pursuing us, but if you manage to not be overcome and to win, there's a thrill in that. And I think that's what the game had.
When we tried doing the second game we said let's pump up the visuals, let's make more eye candy, let's go into fairy tale books, we'll go into Alice In Wonderland, we'll go into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Strangely enough it was not as successful as the first one, which was simply "rescue the girl." But it surprised me because it's a linear game. All you have to do is make the right decision to get to watch another scene. And nowadays the games are really complicated and sophisticated so I don't know why it's still there.
Do you remember the initial hype when Dragon's Lair hit arcades?
GARY GOLDMAN: We were awestruck. We didn't know anything about gaming and we tried to make the game be as much of a story as possible. And that's what Rick Dyer wanted, he wanted to tell stories with arcade games. He was a smart guy. What he saw in The Secret of NIMH is what he wanted to give the game, that same high quality animation for it.
Were there any Hollywood rumblings for a Dragon's Lair feature back then?
GG: It really wasn't the time for it. But within a year later, by the middle of March in 1984, the arcade market went down after we finished Space Ace. We were done with 70% of the sequel, Dragon's Lair 2: Time Warp. Dragon's Lair was so unique and different. Even today everybody loves the first game but Dragon's Lair 2 is just beautiful to look at. We went to the largest arcade in the world in Denver and it had everything — miniature golf, water slides, and a huge arcade, and they had Dragon's Lair featured in the middle of the room with spotlights on it and three monitors on the top of the machine and a long red carpet with gold ropes that kept people in line. We were there at 9:30 in the morning and there were already forty people in line waiting for their turn to play. They only had one machine. It blew us away. It was like going to see a Steven Spielberg movie or Star Wars.
You're attempting to raise funds for Dragon's Lair: The Movie and had a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $700K. What's the status of the screenplay and what are you and Gary trying to do with this prequel story?
DB: Gary kinda insisted on the prequel idea and we're taking a big risk there because that means you have to go back and look at Dirk before he looks like Dirk. So I'm going to try and minimize that a bit. We have about a 20-page treatment right now and we need to finish up the screenplay. It's got a lot of really exciting visuals in it but what I like about it is we maintain the character of Dirk in which he still bungles, he still doesn't know quite what he's doing and it starts when he's a kid. He meets Daphne when they were betrothed when they were just kids, She was from another kingdom and he was a prince and we didn't know that before. He didn't like being there, didn't like being betrothed, didn't like girls at age eight. Someone says "say hello to her" and he sticks his tongue at her and she slugs him in the jaw. So you get off to a really ripping good start when they're just kids. He says "I'll never marry her, ever," and runs out of the palace.
While that's happening, Mordroc, who's only in our second game as the villain, wants to be king and Mordroc wants Dirk's father's kingdom and he's willing to kill for it. So he and a little friend of his who knows black magic, they create a dragon, and the dragon decimates the palace and everything is burned and the king and queen are killed. Dirk and Daphne escape and are raised somewhere out in the swamp. What happens to them in the swamp and how he finally turns into the warrior he is? He's a kid and now with a girl he doesn't like, and what happens as they grow up.
Eventually you know what's gonna happen because Mordroc came in and took over his father's kingdom so Dirk is gonna go back and fight this guy and it's gonna involve the wizard's black magic and how can this little nobody who doesn't have magic defeat that. The villain has bigger than just mortal abilities.
GG: We've done almost 11 versions of the script and we think it has structure problems and we're gonna have to bring in an A-class writer to do a doctoring. Personally, I like the script because it's full of humor and it's dark and light at the same time. We did a short piece already for the contributors on the Indiegogo campaign and we have some interest from people who were involved with The Secret of NIMH and we're hoping he'll deliver financing for it. There are many distributing companies that don't know how to sell animation. The next step is financing. The budget for this is something like $70 million and you can only raise so much on crowdfunding sites. Once we get the first $500K we can hire a screenwriter and then we can really jam and Don can start storyboarding.
Will Dragon's Lair: The Movie be hand-drawn animation or a blend of classical style and CG?
GG: We have people on staff that think it should be all hand-drawn and that anybody that does CG is an animation terrorist. We cannot just stop the world and make the Cadillac look like 1953 because that was a great year. My theory, and Don agrees, is that even if we can come up with a way of doing CG backgrounds and environments and the characters are animated, that would look good. We've been working with computers without cameras since 1994. You're scanning everything in there and doing whatever you want with it.
Why wouldn't you take this project to previous partners like 20th Century Fox or Steven Spielberg?
GG: Because in the end you usually don't get a share of the profit. Fox was very good to Don and I. We were treated very well and we got all the goodies as if we were executive vice-presidents; even back-end residuals as Producers/directors. That was the best. But, that was because Bill Mechanic, Chairman of Fox Films’ supported us. He hired us to help build a feature animation division for Fox.
With all of our other films we never saw a sharing of profits. Basically, big studios funding and distributing product demand turnover of your copyrights to the product, the character designs and title. We want non-studio investors and we will seek out the best we can find for distribution.
Are you having fun with the story and is it bringing back memories of the early '80s when Dragon's Lair first came out?
DB: Actually it does and with today's society it's different. We can't make Daphne an air-headed blonde that sits in a bubble. But then the people that watch Dragon's Lair want to see that so can you explain why she's air-headed? That's the challenge and what you have to do is make her in control of it. Maybe Daphne puts on that show for Mordroc. She's actually very, very smart and articulate. And I think what we did in the beginning when she socks Dirk in the jaw, you know right now that's not airhead. And when we get them out in the swamp where they're forced to work together in this hostile environment, she's going to be the one with all the brains. But she can play the other part so it's a mask she puts on.
There are only three video games in the Smithsonian: Pong, Pac-Man and Dragon's Lair. How do you feel about its legacy being immortalized?
DB: Maybe that's why it's there, because it made a mark. With Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, they were pixelated games and with Dragon's Lair, along came the laserdisc, which allowed us to randomly access any place on that disc. Which means we can show scene after scene of whatever we want. We said, "wait a minute, we can show visual pictures on the screen that would be really fun to look at, not just pixels." So the moment it arrived in the arcades and there were pictures and cartoons on that screen, then it became more intriguing because it was a quantum leap forward. Right after that, everybody in the gaming business started doing visuals and left the pixelated things behind. It was a turning point for the gaming industry.
GG: When we first heard that, which was within a year after it came out in June of 1983. By the summer of 1984 we heard it had gone into the Smithsonian. It was so different. We didn't know what we were doing. We'd been shut down after Secret of NIMH for a 73-day strike and that October, creator Rick Dyer drove up from San Diego with the head of Cinematronics and they loved it and wanted to come in and partner with us on a new game called Dragon's Lair. We didn't know s*** about laserdiscs, we were animators! We just agreed to everything and the union had nothing to do with gaming back then so we could bring our crew back.
It was going to cost $1.3 million to do and when we previewed it at the Chicago Arcade Convention that year it was a hit. We brought in a publicist we knew from Disney and she basically made the Don Bluth name and Dragon's Lair a household name. It was really freaky. At that show, with only three rooms finished, which was three or four minutes of gameplay, they sold over $8 million worth of arcade machines with the promise they'd all be ready in three months.
For all its beauty and innovation, Dragon's Lair is a tough game to play. Have you ever played it and are either you or Don good at it?
GG: (Laughs) No, neither Don nor I. I tried and he tried. We even did it recently at a retro arcade down in Mesa, Arizona. This guy took us down there and they had a Space Ace and a Dragon's Lair in there and they get a good crowd.
Had you heard of the live-action feature being developed by MGM based on the Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH book?
DB: It seems to me that nowadays at studios what happens with a lot of features is they look back and say "well it was good, it's a franchise, let's redo it." And sometimes it's not the best. The big question is the story that Brisby (Frisby in the book) tells, is that really a story that would be better told in live-action or does it seem like it's gonna be a CG puppet thing? I don't know. Secret of NIMH is an interesting story because it's about the question of do you have responsibility once you gain knowledge? Or if you're ignorant, like the animals were before they got the injections, then there'd be no sin there. But if you learn something, and you realize you're intelligent, then with that comes a responsibility. If they hang onto themes like that, that would be pretty good.
I've always wanted to go back and do a sequel to NIMH where they actually got to Thorn Valley but MGM went out and hired some guys and went over and did one and it's not real great. What they did was animate it without having a really good drive in the story. And so it's not memorable, you don't hang onto anything there because it doesn't resonate inside a person's psyche or their soul. So regarding someone doing it in live-action, well, God love 'em, let's see what they do. I don't know why they keep doing this. It would be just as easy to sit thoughtfully down and come up with another story that's original. But if you change the form you change the message. I think it's the corporate desire to take whatever franchise they can and turn it into more money. It's a soulless attempt to make something that you think might be beautiful but only if it sells. It doesn't bode well for our future.
Of all your works, which one is your favorite?
DB: Secret of NIMH. I think it's because it's the most honest and that one was from the heart. Everything after that, in came executive producers and merchandisers and marketeers, that said "no, no you can't do that" and "no, no don't do this." So we began to have a governor put on the creativity. Fight as we did, and we had many battles over trying to believe in a creative idea. Even with NIMH the money people said, "no, you cannot kill Jenner," and "no, you cannot put warts on that man's hands," and we just kept holding our ground. But we had to fight for it because conservative will say "no, no, give me what Disney is doing so I'll make some money." There's a difference between something that's faked and something that's real.
What was the most important piece of info you received while apprenticing or working at Disney?
DB: As I began to work with masters of animation I learned that there was a procedure to allow artwork to happen and that helped me to be able to direct. I had to leave the animation board, stop animating and direct while I was there. And to me that was sad because I wanted to draw. I gave up the aspiration of being the best animator I could possibly be because I had to go and think something different. I had to think about what is story and what has impact for the audience and where does the camera sit and what is the music that helps the emotional tug at your heart. So all those things are little pieces, chapters of my life growing up. Then when I sit down to make a drawing it's not a bunch of lines on a piece of paper, it's a symbol for someone I know that has a life and a personality.
GG: For me, I didn't know anything about animation. I came out of art school. Just being there at Disney was everything. Within six weeks all the guys in the animation training program got to see a screening of Pinocchio and I sat there awestruck. I hadn't seen an animated Disney movie since I was eleven years old. When I came down I felt no bigger than a gnat. Six of the legendary Nine Old Men that did this movie were STILL there! Frank Thomas was my mentor for two years then I got promoted to an animator on Winnie The Pooh and worked with Frank all the way through Robin Hood. I was awestruck and intimidated but they were great guys. There were things in Fantasia or Pinocchio that were incredible and a lot of times they couldn't remember how certain things were done since there were so many different people on the projects. Pinocchio had 1,200 employees on it alone. Some of the techniques like exposures and transparencies we researched and experimented with on these ancient cameras. What we got at Disney was inspiration. What we got was dedication. What we got was passion.