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.