Saturday, 23 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - A Gift 'Horse'

This past Thursday night, I attended a sneak peek screening of Disney's Frozen. But I left before the movie started. It looks terrible. I'll eventually give it a try, but I just couldn't commit to it that night. I had to buy champagne flutes. Y'know, important stuff. But I did make time to stay for the first 7 minutes prior to Frozen, because screenings are preceded by a new Mickey Mouse short entitled 'Get A Horse!' And oh boy, is it a wonderful way to celebrate Mickey's 85th birthday!

Entertainment reporter Jim Hill sold me on it before I even watched it, in an article he wrote this week for The Huffington Post. In it, he informed me of some interesting facts about this new "old" cartoon.

It's directed by Lauren MacMullan, who worked on decidedly non-Disney fare like The Simpsons, King of The Hill and The Critic prior to joining the House of Mouse. Her first gig at Disney was Wreck-It-Ralph, where she worked with another former-Simpsons director, Rich Moore. Lauren had been discussing her love of old Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Rich encouraged her to pitch some ideas to the head of Walt Disney's Animation Studios, John Lasseter. Apparently Disney had been shopping around for a way to celebrate Mickey's birthday anyway, and Lauren's clever cartoon concept was green-lit in the first meeting.

"I re-watched a lot of the old black-and-white cartoons", she said. "And I just loved how Mickey could do anything in those shorts. How, if he wanted to tip his hat to Minnie but Mickey wasn't actually wearing a hat at that time, he'd just lift his ears clean off his skull. I wanted to tell a story that was set in that anything-is-possible universe. So I came up with a premise that I thought was kind of unusual."

Without completely ruining it for you, this cartoon is not what you'd expect. Especially considering the clip they released...

When talk of this short hit the Internet this past summer, Disney positioned it as a "lost" film from the golden age of cartoons. Later when the filmmakers started hitting festival circuits, that news became bogus, as it was revealed that it would include more current flourishes to represent the Mickey Mouse of today.

Keep in mind that in a theatre, you'll be watching that above clip on a big screen, wearing a pair of 3D glasses. It'll seem awkward at first, and then not long afterwards, the cartoon will explode - becoming more experimental to reflect current technology in a completely entertaining and offbeat way. It's rare that 3D is treated properly to enhance the product. This one does so successfully. As my friend, Mark, stated after watching it - "There was better use of 3D in those 7 minutes than there was in all of Thor." I couldn't agree more.

Apparently this cartoon took about a year to make, and was basically 2 animated films in one - one part traditional hand-drawn 2D, and the other CG/3D. When you see the movie, you'll find it difficult to catch everything happening in a single sitting. It really is like trying to watch 2 films at once. You'll also appreciate the seamless melding of the old (or what looks like the old) with the new. Knowing some of the behind-the-scenes stories beforehand on both sides helped me to appreciate the work even more.

The 2-minute 2D intro (which is obviously highlighted in the above clip) is meant to represent the first Mickey Mouse of the 1920's, as created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

To capture the old-timeyness of 1920's Mickey Mouse, actual voice recordings of Walt Disney as Mickey were found and used in the film. Finding the right archival material to fit the script was pain-staking. In fact, his utterance of the word 'red', for example, didn't really exist. But sound technicians were able to piece it together after 2 1/2 weeks of massaging proper syllables.

The other attention to detail that I love in the 1920's section, is the devolution of modern-day animation. Basically the animators had to forget everything they were taught, because techniques of today didn't exist back then, when Disney and Iwerks were cranking out cartoons. This gives the film an unpolished but nostalgic feel.

Lead animator, the talented and passionate Eric Goldberg, who trained himself to mimic this 1920's-style of drawing, spoke to how current technology was also used to set the film back 85 years. "We cleaned it up first, but then made it boil more," he said. "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."

I love that term! A "mistake pass"! Goldberg and the animators purposely went back and planted mistakes in select scenes, to give it a more rushed, novice feel. "We'd tell Gina Bradley, our head of scene planning, that she needed to go back into a particular scene and, for just two frames, make the buttons on Mickey's pants go from being white to black."

The last 5 minutes, or the more present-day portion of the cartoon, also involved an impressive attention to detail, which you'd never really consider unless you actually had to work on the short. For example, you know how no matter which way you look at a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse, you always see his full ear profile? Like, whether it's from the front or from the side, you always see his ears looking like this - Mickey Mouse. Well, a 3D rendering is meant to achieve a more realistic look - but to keep the short cartoon-y, the makers of 'Get A Horse!' had to "unrealistically" alter those ears to fit his trademark profile in the side-shots.

As you can see in the above still, a large part of the outside action takes place on a CG rendered stage. This involved a lot of pre-visualization as to how the cartoon would look on the big-screen, as described by director MacMullan.

"Our head of tech did a lot of research into what the average dimensions are for a modern-day movie theatre. With the row of seats, if you're too high or too low, the stage feels wrong and it has to work in these parameters. I've been going around to film festivals with the short, and we've had a wide variety of theatres, and it's interesting that different jokes play differently in different theatres."

Depending on where you're sitting, a different level of realism can be attained in different parts of the theatre. "When we showed our crew the short for the first time, the art director brought his 5-year old son to see it," she said. "They came in late, so they were sitting pretty close, and he told me later than when Mickey comes out of the screen and lands on the stage, for 5 minutes afterwards, his son would be looking around for him."

I was sitting to the front left while watching this, and can pinpoint at least 2 scenes in particular where it was like the action was meant for me and only me. It made me wonder what the right hand side of the theatre was experiencing. Let's just say they take full advantage of the space provided.

Anyway, I feel like I've already given away far too much about this cartoon (uhhh...spoiler alert?), but I hope you'll still consider seeing it when it hits theatres this Wednesday with Frozen. If you're a cartoon buff, it's both a loving nod to animation's roots, but at the same time, an encouraging look at how CG can still honour and even enhance those basics established by pioneers like Disney and Iwerks.

Best of all, it's a return to form for Mickey Mouse, who deserves this newfound attention. For too long he's languished as this homogenized shadow of himself - the brand! But now with this new short, and the great new TV series that I gushed about not-so-long ago, he's like this fresh new face. Kudos must be given to the current Disney regime for continuing to embrace and encourage creative departures like this - a lot of which push the envelope of what you'd traditionally expect to see from Disney. And regardless of your preferences (2D vs. CG), they still know how to bring in both adult fans and kids alike. Frozen doesn't seem like my cup of tea, but be damned if this cartoon didn't lure me into the theatre. Well played, Disney. Well played.

I've spent a lot of time here blathering on about technique and "the art form", which is important, I guess. But I like that director MacMullan knows the other key to making a good cartoon.

"For the most part, we just tried to make it as funny as we could," she said. "A nice ramification is that people seem to be happy to see him, and it's been great making people laugh. When is the last time Mickey Mouse did anything that could make you laugh?"

That last statement shouldn't be a game-changer, but it is. Someone give this woman an Oscar and a feature length film!

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