Now that the secret's finally out about Get A Horse! being a brand new Mickey Mouse short and not some rediscovered lost gem, we can better appreciate its remarkable achievement, which I discussed with director Lauren MacMullan in her first in-depth interview.
The experience of hand-drawn and black-and-white co-mingling with color, CG, and 3-D is a both a meta Mickey event and a metaphor for Disney's resurgence. It's like a dialogue between the past and the present, ending in aesthetic harmony. It's not about technique: it's about storytelling. "Make way for the future," roars Peg-Leg Pete's horn, as Pete runs Mickey and his pals off the road. And that's what Mickey does when he bursts through the screen into our time and heroically saves the day by playing with time and space. It's further proof that Disney's back and embracing its legacy, and why Get A Horse! will be perfect alongside Frozen (Nov. 27).
"I love that early  era of Mickey -- it's how I learned to animate, back in the day [directing The Simpsons and King of the Hill] and it's my favorite era of animation, and that Mickey, in particular, is this young, fresh, underdog," recalls MacMullan, who was reunited with Rich Moore on Wreck-It Ralph. "He's more of the mouse and less of the man/boy he became later. A little ADD by today's standards, but a fuller range of emotion. He seems to be doing everything for the first time and often seems to be meeting Minnie for the first time. All I could think of was this was the Mickey that I liked. I came up with the idea of a long short and to cement it in that era, pull it out from the screen into today and lose eight decades of Mickey in the middle. And so then I realized that it could only work as a theatrical short for it to come out into the modern world."
In fact, MacMullan, who's the first female to direct Mickey, admits her initial pitch to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull was terrible. It was simply the concept and a black-and-white image. But the concept was strong enough to build on. As Catmull left early for a meeting, he turned around and said, "Hey, let's make that short!"
Working uniquely with Eric Goldberg and Adam Green as 2D and CG supervisors, respectively, along with such vets as Dale Baer and Mark Henn, MacMullan insists that she's agnostic about technique. "It's not intended to demonstrate the superiority of hand-drawn over CG. But boy are they fun when you get to see them both together. Directors always wanted to know in meetings: 'Which are you advocating? Do they want to stay in this world? Do they want to go back? Are you saying 2D's better than CG or vice versa?' No, I think they're both really viable."
But the great challenge was staying on that '28 model in CG. Goldberg called it "evolving backwards." The CG models were initially much too precise. So it became a matter of "lumping up" the models and making them look more like the drawings. And, of course, none of the drawings of that era was perfect. But it was the imperfection that gave it life.
"And we deliberately decided to take all of the textures off the characters in color," she adds. "We tried one tone -- faux fondant -- after that type of icing. And it just seemed to say: In 2D, they're made out of this animation goo and when they come into the real world they can't adapt and they're just as springy and lively and imperfect."
You could imagine how hard it was maintaining the sideways ear perspective. Not only did the top have to rotate but also each individual ear had to rotate like a separate satellite dish. And they had to tweak and cheat Mickey in CG. They tried to get the sideways mouth from the early days, but that was less successful in CG.
But all of the shots were made together, with the 2D animators taking the lead and the CG animators learning how to replicate the look so that it was the same Mickey on both sides of the screen. "One wonderful upshot is that it wasn't a traditional set up where you have one lead on this character," MacMullan explains. "It was a group shot for the last three minutes and we had to run seamlessly from one section to another. The characters had to be within expressionistic range of that era."
They even added digital film damage to better replicate the era, including gate weave, emulsion flicker, cel paint mistakes, cut out overlay, and high contrast on individual lines.
Recreating the sounds of the era was important, too, yet it was a gradual process of realization. MacMullan did some early boarding, but as they started assembling the reels with editor Julie Rogers, they pulled some of the vintage sounds (which Disney stores digitally online) because they're historically accurate.
"We found a company to help us clean up the original sound effects from shorts, though not too much," she suggests. "We wanted film hiss and pop. And that helped us distinguish the sounds behind the screen that are more modern. We also pulled sound effects from the old shorts and it turned out that they had some things at Imagineering.
"Jimmy MacDonald [the legendary sound effects artist] built a lot of his machines and instruments and we went to visit them. He had slide whistles and different pitched ocarina. There was a split up piece of bamboo that was used as fire on Bambi. We borrowed some of those. Musicians contributed sound effects, too, including the ocarina and base harmonica for when Clarabelle is in the iris squeezing her udder. That was a joke we had been losing because the animation was too smooth, so the harmonica gave it the right punctuation and it was back in."
The director even wanted the exact squeak Mickey makes in Steamboat Willie. Then a friend suggested they make Mickey all Walt to put him in the credits, and so they pieced together the sound of Walt from various shorts and built the story around it (they also utilized Billy Bletcher as Pete and some of Marcellite Garner as Minnie).
However, when Mickey enters the modern world and utters, "Red!," they had to assemble syllables from different words, which took two weeks to get right along with adjusting the animation on either side so it looked like a surprise.
But the most difficult scene was also the most hilarious: the flipping of the screen to thwart Pete, which entailed fast cuts and going back and forth between animation techniques. It all had to hang together with hand-drawn and CG animation; the CG effect of the flipping look, which involved mapping the 2D image onto a moving CG element and then bulging out and pushing in; and remixing the existing score so that it sounds modern during the sequence.
This is when the 3-D is also at its most striking, as MacMullan looked to Hugo and The Purple Rose of Cairo for inspiration. "Early Mickey shorts were theatrical events and I hope no one ever watches it on a cell phone [despite one of the best gags being a cell phone joke]."
Indeed, Get A Horse! is a joyous event and even more technically complicated than the Oscar-winning Paperman short, and I doubt we'll witness anything comparable this season.