Today marks the 85th anniversary of Steamboat Willie, so what better way of celebrating Mickey's birthday than going deeper into Disney's remarkable Oscar-contending short, Get A Horse!, with 2D supervisor Eric Goldberg? The hybrid of hand-drawn and CG, working off the original '28 black-and-white version of Mickey and his pals, is a meta experience, and further proof that Disney's still taking full advantage of its legacy. Here's a peek at the first minute of the film:
"I've always been interested in getting inside people's design heads and try to replicate a style," Goldberg says. "This came from my commercial days with Richard Williams. The unique thing about this was that it was Mickey at his inception [per director Lauren MacMullan] before he became a superstar. It was the wild Mickey, the rascally Mickey. And for animation what made it very interesting is that, aside from capturing Ub Iwerks' drawing style, we were also capturing his movement style."
That meant they had to unlearn most of what they know about animation because it hadn't been invented yet. There were certain things they couldn't do. "For example, Mark Henn was animating the first couple of scenes of Mickey walking toward the fence and seeing the hay wagon. He produced Mickey with this beautiful wave where he came out, overshot, and then recoiled back smoothly into a lovely hold. And Lauren wanted a change so we started monkeying around with the frames and I basically pulled every drawing on the wave. I made two frames for it to come out, one frame overshoot, and a 12-frame hold. And it goes, 'Boink.'Likewise, we couldn't put much drag on Mickey's ears."
A big challenge was capturing the timing and pacing as well as the strong graphic design of Iwerks. When Mickey points, he really points. His body makes a striking silhouette with the chest puffed out and the arm about five inches longer than it should be. But it makes a graphic statement about the directness of the cartoons.
As Goldberg admits, it took a while to evolve backwards. "The thing that really helped was aging it digitally. We cleaned it up first but then made it boil more. As a result, the drawings have the spontaneity they would've had in that era. We added gate weave, density flicker around the sides, bloom around the blacks to make it look like overexposed film, dust, scratches, neg dirt blobs. And then we did a mistake pass. We popped the paint off for two frames on Mickey's shoe. And cel shadows vary with every new drawing change. It looks like cels being pressed under the platen."
All of the hand-drawn animation was done on paper (while most of the effects animation was done on the Cintiq). Goldberg also enjoyed animating the villain, Pete, along with the hay wagon at the beginning. In fact, he says the exposure sheets read like a Chinese telephone book. It's all worked out to the music and the beats and even separate instruments. A cycle with departures in it make it look like the cigar box banjo is being played.
But coordinating with CG supervisor Adam Green and staying on the '28 model was the greatest technical challenge. "At the beginning there was a lot of discussion about how to pull it off. Sometimes it was prudent for CG to lead and other times for 2D. But, for the most part, it was done simultaneously. Our first proof-of-concept scene was animated by Dale Baer and Andrew Chesworth [in 2D and CG, respectively]. Pete drives back and forth holding Minnie by the tail and Mickey chases him from the physical theater space and dragging the curtains open. When we first saw a rough block pass, it was the first time that we knew it was going to work.
"But then I had to animate a moving background, which then angled both ways because the camera shifted with Pete. And that had to coordinate with the timing and placement of the computer animation. That process was loose but demanding."
And there were the CG camera cheats because Mickey's ears in 2D almost always rolled around on his head, so they remained circles whether he was in profile, a front view, or a three-quarter view. Plus his nose only works in profile, sticking up right between his eyes. They had to cheat that as well. One eye is also exaggerated so that it maintained the view from the front and in profile.
"The toughest scene for me was when the characters are all being chased by Pete in a circle. We saw it in story reels and decided that 2D would be best to lead and I blocked in the cycle of all the characters running around and animated both behind and in front of the screen. But that doesn't mean there weren't adjustments from Lauren: a larger take on the characters in front of the screen and a much bigger landing and arm swipe from Pete when he entered the scene.
"More than anything, getting into the spirit of the style was a liberating experience for both the 2D and CG animators. It has it origins in hand-drawn but celebrates the highest technique you can do. Likewise, it celebrates hand-drawn at its very origin."
Obviously to fully appreciate Get A Horse!, it needs to be experienced in a theater in 3-D, which you can do when it opens in front of Frozen on Nov. 27.