The Best of Both Worlds

How di­rec­tor Lauren Macmul­lan and her team crafted the won­der­ful new Mickey Mouse short, show­cas­ing a re­mark­able mar­riage of 2D and CG el­e­ments. by Ramin Za­hed

Animation Magazine - - Content -

How di­rec­tor Lauren MacMul­lan and her team crafted the won­der­ful new Mickey Mouse short, show­cas­ing a re­mark­able mar­riage of 2D and CG el­e­ments. by Ramin Za­hed

For a star who’s been in show busi­ness since 1928, Mickey Mouse is sure get­ting lots of at­ten­tion th­ese days. Af­ter mak­ing a splash with the beau­ti­fully de­signed 2D short-form se­ries on Dis­ney Chan­nel in June, the re­source­ful lit­tle guy is back on the big screen again. Mickey, along with his gal pal Min­nie, their friends Ho­race Horsec­ol­lar and Clara­belle Cow and clas­sic bad guy Peg-Leg Pete are stars of the new seven-minute short Get a Horse!, which ac­com­pa­nies Dis­ney’s fea­ture Frozen this Novem­ber.

This ut­terly charm­ing and in­ven­tive en­ter­prise is di­rected by Lauren MacMul­lan, a vet­eran of TV se­ries such as The Critic, The Simp­sons and Avatar: The Last Air­ben­der, who came up with the idea for the short about three years ago. When she was work­ing on Wreck-It Ralph, she found out from the movie’s di­rec­tor and fel­low Simp­sons alum Rich Moore that Dis­ney was look­ing to bring back Mickey Mouse. So, she came up with a sim­ple pitch that mixed the char­ac­ter’s vin­tage roots with to­day’s CG and 3-D tech­nolo­gies.

“There have been so many dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Mickey and he means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” says MacMul­lan with an abun­dance of en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm. “For some peo­ple, he’s kind of an icon on a t-shirt, but I started to think about an era of an­i­ma­tion that I loved—the rub­ber-hose clas­sic Steam­boat Wil­lie pe­riod, which has so much juicy life to it. Mickey is only con­strained by what he thinks about … he can stretch out his leg, defy grav­ity, wrap it around his head—there’s so much De­pres­sion­era in­ven­tive­ness in those early years.”

MacMul­lan’s idea was to use Mickey’s legacy and work with some of the best an­i­ma­tors in the busi­ness—in­clud­ing Eric Gold­berg, who came on board as 2D su­per­vi­sor, Adam Green as CG su­per­vi­sor and vet­er­ans Dale Baer and Mark Henn—to give mod­ern au­di­ences a per­fect blend of old-timey mouse and 21st cen­tury star. “The idea was to start the short with the clas­sic 2D Mickey and his friends, then pull it all out in color, CG and stereo­scopic 3-D, and lose all those mid­dle decades when he has a mort­gage in Bur­bank and is lec­tur­ing Pluto about be­ing naughty!”

The top brass at Dis­ney, in­clud­ing John Las­seter and Ed Cat­mull, re­ally liked her vi­sion, which pulled Mickey out of the black-and­white world on the screen and into the real 3-D universe, a la Woody Allen’s Pur­ple Rose of Cairo. “The idea would work only if this was go­ing to be a the­atri­cal short,” re­calls MacMul­lan. “I had only been at Dis­ney for a lit­tle while, and John Las­seter didn’t know me very well, but all it took was that one meet­ing with him and Ed Cat­mull who said, ‘Let’s make that short,’ as he left the room.”

Work­ing with a tight crew of about 12 an­i­ma­tors at the same time as Frozen was in pro­duc­tion, the Get a Horse! team looked at some of the old Mickey shorts to get all the pe­riod de­tails and the ap­proach to hu­mor right. “They had a great way of com­ing up with an­i­ma­tion-based jokes that are based in real life,” says the di­rec­tor. “For ex­am­ple, Mickey is chas­ing Pete and rid­ing Ho­race and he can’t quite reach Min­nie, so he shoves the horse for­ward and that ex­tends his head, or the way Clara­belle is play­ing her own ud­der. John Las­seter would look at it ev­ery so of­ten, and we’d get notes to make it a lit­tle faster and as funny as we could. When in doubt, beat Pete up! You just have to make sure your pauses are right and you’re look­ing at the right place on the screen to make a joke work. We came up with five times as many jokes as we could in­clude in it … and yes, some of them were un­print­able,” she says with a laugh.

A Blast from the Past

“For some peo­ple, Mickey’s kind of an icon on a

t-shirt, but I started to think about an era of an­i­ma­tion that I loved—the rub­ber-hose clas­sic Steam­boat Wil­lie pe­riod, which has so much juicy life to it. Mickey is only con­strained by what he thinks about … he can stretch out his leg, defy grav­ity, wrap it around his head—there’s so much De­pres­sion-era in­ven­tive­ness in those early years.”

Then, there was the mat­ter of find­ing the right ac­tor to voice the stu­dio’s top mouse. MacMul­lan says the de­ci­sion to use ac­tual au­dio record­ings of Walt Dis­ney him­self came about or­gan­i­cally. It just felt right to grab lines from the old shorts be­cause they spoke to the era so ac­cu­rately. Since Mickey doesn’t talk that of­ten, the as­sis­tant ed­i­tor had to spend months dig­ging through the archives look­ing for the right snip­pets of dia­log to match the short’s se­quences. In one case, when Mickey en­ters the mod­ern world and says the word “Red!” they had to build the word from syl­la­bles taken from dif­fer­ent words, which took them about two and a half weeks to make it just right.

To du­pli­cate the feel of the clas­sic toons from the ’20s, dig­i­tal tools were used to add faux dam­age to the short. “We needed to look at ex­actly how the film would have looked like if it was pro­duced in that era,” says MacMul­lan. “We had to add the con­trasts as the blacks were bloomed out on the high-con­trast films. Then we found out that dur­ing that time, the elec­tric sys­tem was not steady from one sec­ond to the next, so that’s why the light would fluc­tu­ate on the cels. We also in­cluded fake cel shad­ows, paint mis­takes and cut-out over­lays, which were very dif­fi­cult to do, to go back and take a mis­take path.”

One of the most chal­leng­ing scenes of the film in­volves Mickey flip­ping the screen at light­ning speed to keep Pete at bay. This re­quired a del­i­cate com­bi­na­tion of hand­drawn and CG tech­niques, which in­volved map­ping the 2D im­age onto a mov­ing CG el­e­ment and push­ing it through. In this case, an old Pop­eye car­toon which fea­tured the sailor set in the old Nick­elodeon ma­chines, proved to be es­pe­cially in­spir­ing.

When MacMul­lan and Gold­berg pre­sented the short at the An­necy fes­ti­val in June, the au­di­ence, who were led to be­lieve that they were about to see a re­cently dis­cov­ered trea­sure from the archives, was blown away by what they saw.

“It’s been amaz­ing to see peo­ple re­act to the short with such joy, es­pe­cially when Mickey jumps out of the screen.” says MacMul­lan, who grew up lov­ing Warner Bros. car­toons on TV

— Di­rec­tor Lauren MacMul­lan

and Dis­ney pics like The Jun­gle Book and Robin Hood on the big screen. “I started out in an­i­ma­tion when it wasn’t a vi­able ca­reer choice. For my se­nior project at Har­vard, I did an an­i­mated short sim­i­lar to the old shorts, fea­tur­ing some kind of a girl bug and a horse, and one of my pro­fes­sors told me, ‘Lauren, this is very lovely—but why?’ I guess the les­son is that your ca­reer path may not be what you think it would be. I cer­tainly took a very cir­cuitous route to Dis­ney. But if you work on things that you love so much that they tug at your heart, then it all ends up well.”

Mickey Mouse in Get a Horse! will play with Dis­ney’s Frozen in the­aters, be­gin­ning Novem­ber 27.

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