Quite simply, if the CG Mickey couldn't match the hand-drawn model refashioned to look like the 1928 original, the Oscar-nominated Get A Horse! short wouldn't have worked. And that was the responsibility of CG supervisor Adam Green (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled), who worked side-by-side with 2D supervisor Eric Goldberg. Indeed, Green was mentored by Goldberg during this unique production that brilliantly encapsulates the history of Mickey and Disney.
To achieve the rougher performance of '28, though, they had to "evolve backwards," as Goldberg suggests. "That meant snapping into poses very hard and leaving them there for two or three frames at a time," Green explains. "The CG animators had to retrain themselves because today's style is so much more fluid. For instance, whenever they spline a shot, often the computer will put in subtle drifts that carries from one shot to the next. We took that out and let the character stop moving completely, which is sometimes a cardinal sin. But we found it didn't sell the effect if we didn't do that."
Director Lauren MacMullan's vision of going back to Mickey at his inception entailed using CG as a tool but didn't limit the capacity of CG to keep Mickey on model. That meant a lot of cheating, of course. They pulled his ear off at times and his head wasn't always connected in manipulating the rig, but the front ear needed to be back a bit and evenly spaced, as did the back ear.
"I have to admit that I didn't know a lot about that Mickey era. And so when I went researching the 1928 shorts I was shocked at how many there were and how funny they still are. That type of humor and wackiness is for us now a treasure trove. Every morning we'd watch another short and immerse ourselves in the 1928 style by osmosis."
The integration had to be tight and seamless for the small team of 14. They did dailies together, and jointly performed rounds, and teams formed between animators. So you'd have hand-drawn vets Dale Baer and Tony De Rosa paired up with CG animators who had been at Disney less than five years.
"To see them share ideas and work together across the board was an immense surprise for us. It so satisfying to see this [ode] to cinema and Eric as a mentor taught me a lot," Green admits. "Eric is really good at getting a shot to work without you ever feeling like it's not your shot. And Eric and I both came to the realization at the same time that 2D animation and CG animation are only different by how you make it. Our language is the same, our techniques are the same.
"For example, we both block a shot on 4s and 6s. And then they start their revisions and break things down to 1s and we do our revisions and start splining. It was about the third or fourth dailies that Eric and I just looked at each other and realized we both do the same jobs. And it was a real eye-opener for both of us. Once we started digging into the short, the notes from Lauren were interchangeable."
But it was all about being nimble and quick and taking on new responsibilities: The 2D animators worked in pencil and paper, and the animation went through the pipeline and was sent to the CG animators, who projected it onto the screen and did their part. "Lauren sent notes to the 2D animator and then back to the CG animator so it became this constant game of tag. Todd LaPlante and Gina Bradley were the hub: data managing between 2D and CG so they could comp together. The integration of 2D characters on screen and CG characters on stage required the matching of eye lines. So we were on the same page, I received drawings from the 2D guys before they were shot. And I sent our CG renders to them.
"There were so many people working on it and choreographing it. For example, the screen flipping shot had a 2D animator, a CG animator, an effects animator, and layout all working at the same time. The most fun for me was when Eric and I worked on the shot when they were running in and out of the screen. And it was late at night and it's a really long and complex shot with a lot of characters. And I was stressed out and I started to get down. And I stopped and I said to myself: 'OK, I'm working at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, animating Mickey Mouse with Eric Goldberg, and Mickey Mouse has Walt Disney's voice. I think this is pretty cool.'
"And that encouraged me in the wee hours to get it done. I knew we were on to something special and that people were going to see it as this love letter to Mickey Mouse. So you have to step out of yourself and look at it from a higher vantage point when you're faced with deadlines and technical problems.
"For Lauren, the key was literally pulling Mickey from that era into modern day. That was our benchmark. But that meant we could play with Mickey before he was the corporate icon that he is today: He was the scrappy underdog and we would riff on that and be silly and whimsical. If you wanted to stretch Mickey's arms four times their length and wiggle them around, you could. There wasn't anything stopping you. And that was freeing and fun."