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12 Facts About The Secret of NIMH

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Disney has had a stranglehold on animated feature films ever since Walt and friends made the first one, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. But there have been occasional challenges to Disney's dominance over the years, none so dramatic as the one represented by Don Bluth and The Secret of NIMH. Released in the summer of 1982, at a time when Disney’s Animation Studio was struggling (these were the The Fox and the Hound/The Black Cauldron years), The Secret of NIMH saw a group of traditional animators attempt to unseat Disney—or at the very least to rattle the company out of its complacency. It was like David and Goliath, except that David lost and motivated Goliath to try harder. Here's a trove of information about everyone's favorite non-Disney animated classic. 

1. IT WAS MADE BY FORMER DISNEY ANIMATORS WHO WENT ROGUE.

In 1979, while Disney was in the middle of production on The Fox and the Hound, animators Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, and Gary Goldman left the company, joined by a handful of other members of the animation staff. They were frustrated by Disney's bureaucracy and assembly-line attitude, and they believed Disney was neglecting certain animation skills and techniques that would be vital in the years ahead, especially as their veteran artists—the legendary Nine Old Men—retired or died.

2. THE FILMMAKERS WORKED FASTER AND CHEAPER THAN THEY HAD AT DISNEY.

Disney's The Fox and the Hound cost $12 million. The Black Cauldron, released in 1985, would cost $44 million. The Secret of NIMH? A cool $7 million. Furthermore, it was produced in 30 months—half the time Disney's 'toon features took. 

3. A TOY COMPANY MADE THEM CHANGE THE MAIN CHARACTER'S NAME.

The 1971 novel from which the book was adapted is called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The title was shortened for the movie, and Frisby—which is pronounced like "Frisbee"—was changed to Brisby to avoid trademark problems with Wham-O, the company that makes America's favorite flying disk.

4. DISNEY TURNED THE BOOK DOWN.

According to writer/producer Gary Goldman, animator Ken Anderson first took the book to Wolfgang "Woolie" Reitherman, Disney's chief animator. Reitherman's reply: "We've already got a mouse."  

5. THE MOVIE ONLY TELLS US ONCE WHAT "NIMH" MEANS.

It's the National Institute of Mental Health, the research facility where rats were being experimented upon. Characters in the movie only call it "NIMH" except for the very first time it comes up:

FARMER'S WIFE: Dear, a man came by today, from NIMH.

FARMER: NIMH?

FARMER'S WIFE: Yes, you know, the National Institute of Mental Health. He was asking if we had noticed anything strange about the rats on the farm...

Anecdotally, when we mentioned this on Twitter, we were surprised to find that many fans of the film never realized what "NIMH" meant. 

6. THE MOVIE NEVER TELLS US ONE IMPORTANT CHARACTER'S NAME. 

Jenner, the conniving rat who sabotages the plan to move Mrs. Brisby's home and kills Nicodemus, is assisted by a reluctant sidekick. But this beta-rat becomes conscience-stricken, turns on Jenner, and is ultimately the one who kills him. It wasn't until after the film was released that its makers realized the heroic rodent's name is never mentioned. It's Sullivan.

7. IT WAS DRAWN BY THE SAME HANDS THAT DREW XANADU'S ANIMATED SEQUENCE.

One of the first projects that Bluth's new company took on was the two-minute animated scene in Xanadu (1980), the famously bad Olivia Newton-John musical. The side project put The Secret of NIMH under an even tighter schedule, and animators were known to take cat naps under their desks while working long hours. 

8. THERE'S HIDDEN SYMBOLISM IN TWO CHARACTERS' SIMILARITIES. 

John Pomeroy, one of the chief architects of the film, said it was intentional that the Owl and Nicodemus have the same walk, glowing eyes, and speech patterns, meant to imply they were two different physical incarnations of the same mystical character. There was even some talk of having the same actor provide the voices for both characters, but it was determined that the film needed as many different celebrity voices as it could get.

9. THERE WERE MANY SIGNIFICANT CHANGES FROM THE BOOK.

Mrs. Brisby's magical amulet isn't in the book at all. As the three producers explained in a letter to a school class that asked about the changes, "The amulet was a device, or a symbol, to represent the internal power of Mrs. Brisby … A visual extension of an internal (and harder to show in a film) power."

Other alterations: Nicodemus was turned from an ordinary rat into a wizard; Jenner, merely a traitor in the book who leaves the colony, was made into a full-fledged villain; and the ending was changed so that Mrs. Brisby's children are saved by Mrs. Brisby, not the rats. 

10. DOM DELUISE TURNED JEREMY THE CROW FROM A MINOR CHARACTER TO A MAJOR ONE.

The rotund, jovial comedian was one of America's favorite funnymen at the time, thanks to his association with Mel Brooks, Burt Reynolds, and The Muppets, and his regular appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Just as Robin Williams would do with Aladdin's Genie a decade later, Dom DeLuise expanded Jeremy the crow's role by hamming it up and improvising during the recording sessions. The producers (who supposedly all chose DeLuise for the part independently of one another) responded by incorporating his ideas into the script. DeLuise would later provide voices for several other Don Bluth productions. 

11. STUDIO POLITICS PROBABLY DOOMED IT.

Bluth and company made their deal with United Artists. But UA, after having its best year ever in 1979 (thanks to Rocky II, Manhattan, and Moonraker), fell apart completely in 1980, when Heaven's Gate proved a disastrous flop. UA's corporate owner sold the studio to another company, Tracinda, which also owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; in 1982, Tracinda merged them into MGM/UA.

The new bosses weren't as interested in NIMH as the old bosses had been. The release date was moved up from late August to early July, putting it in competition with E.T., Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, and Annie. What's more, instead of giving the film a wide release, MGM/UA opened it on less than 100 screens and expanded very slowly—so slowly that by the time it rolled out, the advertising had come and gone and people had forgotten about it. NIMH grossed around $14 million in theaters and didn't become truly profitable until it found an audience on home video. 

12. JOHN CARRADINE DID HIS LINES IN ONE TAKE, ON PAINKILLERS.

Producer Gary Goldman told an online forum that the great John Carradine, hired to lend gravitas to the voice of the wise Owl, arrived late to the afternoon recording session and seemed to be intoxicated. Carradine's agent confided that the 75-year-old actor suffered from near-debilitating arthritis, the medication for which made him loopy. Also, the agent said, he'd probably had a martini at lunch. Goldman, Bluth, and their cohorts used coffee and conversation to get Carradine sharp again. Once he was sober, he recorded his lines, declared each delivery to be the best performance he had in him, said he wouldn't do retakes or alternate versions, and left. "Good thing he gave a great performance," Goldman said.

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10 Fast Facts About Cars
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Pixar

Pixar’s Cars was released on this day 12 years ago. So put on your helmets, rev those engines, and let’s take a look at some behind-the-scenes facts about the Oscar-winning animation studio’s fastest-moving film.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY AN UGLY DUCKLING-TYPE STORY ABOUT AN ELECTRIC CAR.

Cars started off life as Little Yellow Car, about an electric car that faces prejudice from its gas-guzzling counterparts. Pixar animator/artist Jorgen Klubien, who developed the story during production on A Bug’s Life, was inspired by real-life automotive history from his home country of Denmark.

“In the 1980s some enthusiastic folks got the idea of making a three-wheeled one-person car that ran on electricity,” said Klubien. “They put it into production and it worked great in the city, but out on the highway it was too slow. People also thought the car was ugly. I thought the electric car was ahead of its time, and it struck me as odd that my fellow Danes didn’t agree. It reminded me of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. This famous Danish character wasn’t accepted at first, but in the end it proved to be right on the money.”

The story was deemed too slight to carry an entire movie, but the small-town setting remained an inspiration.

2. ITS CO-WRITER/DIRECTOR PASSED AWAY DURING PRODUCTION.

Cars is dedicated to Joe Ranft, the film's co-writer and co-director, who died in a car accident on August 16, 2005—while Cars was still in production. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), which Ranft executive produced, is also dedicated to him.

3. MATER IS BASED ON A REAL-LIFE NASCAR ENTHUSIAST.

The country bumpkin tow truck Mater got his name from NASCAR superfan Douglas “Mater” Keever, whom the filmmakers met while on a research trip to North Carolina’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now called the Charlotte Motor Speedway). Keever has a voice cameo in the film, as the motor home who says “Well dip me in axle grease and call me slick” early in the film. (Keever improvised the line, which was originally “Well dip me in axle grease and call me lubrication.” Producer Darla Anderson opted to change it, Keever speculated, because “maybe she thought it sounded sexual, I don’t know.”)

4. MANY AUTO WORLD LUMINARIES LENT THEIR VOCAL TALENTS.

Reigning racing champ Strip “The King” Weathers is voiced by legendary racer Richard Petty, who has the same nickname as his animated counterpart. Weathers’s wife, credited as “Mrs. The King,” is voiced by Petty’s wife, Lynda Petty. Several other automotive notables contribute their vocal talents: announcer/former racer Darrell Waltrip plays “Darrell Cartrip”; Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s radio show Car Talk, voice Lightning McQueen’s sponsors, Rusty and Dusty Rust-eze; and racers Michael Schumacher, Mario Andretti, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. voice automotive versions of themselves. (Despite voicing announcer “Bob Cutlass,” sports analyst Bob Costas doesn’t actually cover racing.)

5. SEVERAL ACTORS CHANGED FOR INTERNATIONAL RELEASES.

For Cars’s UK release, Jeremy Piven was replaced as the voice of Lightning McQueen’s never-seen agent Harv by Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. “The King” was also voiced by different racers in some international releases, as Richard Petty isn’t as well known outside of the United States. In Germany, The King is voiced by Formula One champ Niki Lauda, while in Spain he is Formula One’s Fernando Alonso.

6. MOST CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON REAL CARS.

Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Chick Hicks are all original Pixar designs, but most of the other characters are based on existing cars. Among them are Doc Hudson (1951 Hudson Hornet), Ramone the body paint specialist (1959 Chevy Impala), tire salesman Luigi (1959 Fiat 500), hippie Fillmore (1960 Volkswagen Microbus), military surplus store owner Sarge (1942 Willys Jeep), and Mack, the truck that drives Lightning around (Mack Superliner). Sally, as a 2002 Porsche 911 Carrera, is the only Radiator Springs character modeled after a contemporary car.

7. IT BROUGHT A NEW STANDARD OF REALISM TO ANIMATED FILMS.

Cars was the first Pixar feature to utilize a technique known as “ray tracing,” which properly renders the way light passes through and collides with surfaces. More simply, it enables artists to accurately depict reflections without having to go through and “paint” them individually. Ray tracing takes up a massive amount of computer power; as a result, each frame (or about 1/24th of a second) of Cars took an average of 17 hours to render. Some frames took up to a week.

8. IT WAS PAUL NEWMAN’S FINAL FILM—AND HIS HIGHEST-GROSSING.

Cars marks the final film of Paul Newman, who in addition to being an actor/entrepreneur/philanthropist also became a racing enthusiast after starring in the 1969 racing drama Winning. Cars is also the highest-grossing film of Newman’s career (not adjusted for inflation).

9. ONE OF LIGHTNING MCQUEEN’S CHARACTER INSPIRATIONS WAS KID ROCK.

To help get a handle on the character of rookie racing sensation Lightning McQueen, directing animator James Ford Murphy “put together a series of little bios of great personalities that were really cocky but really likeable.” Among the people he pulled inspiration from were sportsmen Muhammad Ali, Charles Barkley, and Joe Namath, plus musician Kid Rock.

10. YOU CAN VISIT THE MOUNTAIN RANGE THAT SURROUNDS RADIATOR SPRINGS IN REAL LIFE (SORT OF).

The mountain range surrounding Radiator Springs is inspired by the real-life Cadillac Ranch, an outdoor art installation located outside Amarillo, Texas that consists of heavily spray-painted Cadillacs, half-buried facedown in the ground.

Additional Source: The Pixar Touch, by David A. Price

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Finding Nemo
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Although we now recognize 2003's Finding Nemo as one of Pixar’s most critically and commercially successful films, the underwater masterpiece didn’t exactly kick off production as a guaranteed goldmine. Here are a few little-known facts about the rocky road leading up to the film’s status as a bona fide blockbuster, on the 15th anniversary of its release.

1. THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY THE DIRECTOR’S OVERPROTECTIVE NATURE.

“Autobiographical” isn’t exactly the first adjective you’d expect to assign to a road comedy about marine life, but Finding Nemo co-writer/director Andrew Stanton’s story came from a very personal place. As a relatively new father during the film’s development, Stanton found himself at odds with his proclivity to veer into overprotective territory, much in the way viewers see Marlin combating his neuroses in raising his son Nemo. Stanton also had a love for all things aquatic that dated back to a childhood fascination with his dentist’s fish tank, so he used this lifelong interest as a funnel for a deeply emotional story about the challenges of being a good father.

2. ANDREW STANTON WROTE A SCRIPT LONG BEFORE HE WAS “SUPPOSED TO.”

Pixar’s multi-tiered film production process begins with a basic premise pitch to the creative higher-ups, followed by (for all greenlit projects) a written story treatment. Stanton already had a script completed before this second step took place, the only Pixar project to proceed in this manner. 

3. IT TOOK ONLY ONE WORD TO GET THE GREEN LIGHT FOR FINDING NEMO.

“You had me at ‘fish.’” That is precisely what Pixar’s chief creative officer told Stanton following his exhaustive pitch for his passion project.

4. THE MOVIE’S ART TEAM WENT THROUGH MARINE TRAINING PRIOR TO PRODUCTION.

A scene from 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Disney Pixar

In order to get the look and the feel of Finding Nemo’s characters and world just right, Pixar’s in-house art team was required to take courses and audit lectures in marine biology, oceanography, and ichthyology while enrolling in scuba diving classes.

5. DOGS WERE USED AS MODELS FOR THE FISHY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS.

While the Pixar team’s extensive research on the denizens of the deep yielded a wide variety of spectacular shapes and colors perfectly suited to an animated feature, the underwater populace proved consistently lacking when it came to one anatomical component. The dull eyes of the average finned critter weren’t especially conducive to building expressive characters, so Pixar had to look elsewhere for its optical models. The crew chose one of the most openly expressive members of the animal kingdom on which to model the eyes of its fish characters: dogs.

6. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT HAD A DIFFERENT TREATMENT FOR THE BARRACUDA INCIDENT.

At first, Stanton kept the inspiration for Marlin’s overprotective attitude—the loss of his wife and all but one of their unborn children in a barracuda attack—a secret to reveal gradually through intermittent flashback sequences. Ultimately, this technique made the revelation obvious and anticlimactic while making Marlin feel substantially less likable, so the script changed.

7. MEGAN MULLALLY WAS FIRED AFTER PRODUCERS HEARD HER REAL VOICE.

In the early 2000s, Megan Mullally was best known for playing the rude and eccentric Karen Walker on Will & Grace. Chief among the character’s recognizable characteristics was her high-pitched voice, which Pixar producers apparently thought would be perfect for an animated fish. Upon hiring Mullally to voice an undisclosed character in the movie, the crew discovered that the actress’s natural voice was of average pitch and that Mullally was unwilling to reproduce “the Karen voice” for the film. As such, Mullally was dismissed from the Finding Nemo cast.

8. GILL WAS A VILLAINOUS CHARACTER IN AN EARLIER VERSION OF THE STORY.

Willem Dafoe as Gill in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

While the combination of somber coloration, a scowling beak, and the menacing vocals of Willem Dafoe render Nemo’s fish tank pal Gill an intimidating presence, we learn soon enough that he is in fact a good guy who has the best interests of his fellow captives at heart. The original cut of Finding Nemo was more ambiguous about Gill’s integrity, however, making him the owner of a falsified identity that he swiped from a nautical-themed children’s book housed in the dentist’s waiting room.

9. ALBERT BROOKS REPLACED ANOTHER BIG STAR.

Although Albert Brooks’s background in films like Broadcast News and Mother seems like it would have made him an obvious candidate to play the high-strung Marlin, the first actor cast in the role was William H. Macy. The Fargo star recorded his dialogue for an early screening of Finding Nemo, but producers ultimately felt that he lacked the warmth required for the role of the father fish.

10. THE DIRECTOR RECORDED ALL OF ONE CHARACTER’S DIALOGUE WHILE LYING ON A COUCH.

Stanton never intended to commit his voice to the final cut of Finding Nemo, but only to sub in as a placeholder until the right actor could be cast to play Crush, the easygoing sea turtle with the California accent. Perhaps due to his understanding of his vocal contribution as merely temporary (or maybe, in fact, to get into the “slacker” mindset of his character), Stanton recorded all of Crush’s dialogue while lying on a couch in the office of his co-director, Lee Unkrich.

11. THE CEO OF DISNEY THOUGHT FINDING NEMO WOULD BE A FAILURE.

The combination of a poorly cast Marlin, an unsympathetic Gill, and the running flashbacks made the earliest versions of Finding Nemo feel pretty dismal. Still, nobody was quite as defeatist as Michael Eisner, the Walt Disney Company's then-chief executive officer. Eisner predicted the underwater adventure would be a “reality check” for the yet unchallenged Pixar. Eisner’s only positive spin was that a commercial struggle would be helpful during contract renegotiations with the Disney subsidiary. Of course, Eisner’s judgment (and fund-cutting aspirations) came up short when Finding Nemo became Pixar’s highest grossing film—a superlative it would maintain until the release of Toy Story 3 in 2010. It has since been surpassed twice more: first by 2015's Inside Out, then in 2016 by its own sequel, Finding Dory (which maintains the top position).

12. THE MOVIE’S POPULARITY LED TO POPULATION STRESS FOR CLOWNFISH.

Albert Brooks and Alexander Gould in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

Children were so taken with the adorable Nemo following the release of the film that demand for clownfish as pets instantly skyrocketed. Excessive capture and sale of the ocean dwellers led to a steep decline in the organic population of the species; some natural habitats, such as the waters surrounding Vanuatu, saw a 75 percent drop in clownfish numbers.

13. THE MOVIE ALSO LED TO SOME MISGUIDED FISH LIBERATION MOVEMENTS.

On the other hand, Finding Nemo’s anti-tank agenda did provoke a few ecologically-minded viewers to set their aquatic captives free. Unfortunately, not everyone took the necessary steps to ensure that their newly liberated pet fish were being transported to amenable waters. Certain marine communities suffered from the introduction of predatory and venomous species in unnatural locales, resulting in, once again, ecological imbalance. 

14. SEVERAL ORGANIZATIONS RELEASED “ANTI-FLUSHING” PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS FOLLOWING FINDING NEMO.

While tanked fish Gill’s proclamation that “all drains lead to the ocean” contains a grain of truth, the movie fails to acknowledge the fact that a flushed fish is unlikely to survive a trip down the typical drain. Water treatment company JWC Environmental and Australia’s Marine Aquarium Council were among the companies that offered public warnings that flushing would prove fatal to any pet fish. The former organization suggested that a movie that realistically portrayed a household sea creature’s voyage through the municipal sewage system would be more accurately titled Grinding Nemo.

15. A CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR UNSUCCESSFULLY ACCUSED FINDING NEMO'S CREATORS OF PLAGIARISM.

Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Nicholas Bird in 'Finding Nemo' (2003)
Pixar/Disney

A year before the release of Finding Nemo, French author Franck Le Calvez self-published the children’s book Pierrot Le Poisson-Clown, featuring a young clownfish on a quest to reunite with his estranged mother. (In fact, Le Calvez first wrote the story as a screenplay in 1995, but was unable to generate interest in the concept.) After Pixar’s admittedly similar tale hit theaters, Le Calvez sued the studio for copyright infringement, but lost two lawsuits and was ordered to pay $80,000 in damages and court costs.

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