Even if you don’t know exactly who Eric Goldberg is, you certainly know his work. The long-time animator has worked on such classic Disney films as Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Emperor’s New Groove. Additionally, he directed Pocohontas (along with Mike Gabriel) as well as segments of Fantasia 2000. His latest credit is the Disney hit Moana — which is coming to Blu-ray March 7th — where he served as the hand-drawn animation supervisor.
Recently, we here at Laughing Place had the opportunity to talk to Eric about his history with Disney and why he think now is such an exciting time for animation — even for a hand-drawn guy like himself:
Laughing Place: What’s it like to work with people who the films you worked on might have brought them into animation to begin with. Is that weird? Do people fawn over you at work?
Eric Goldberg: Okay, nobody fawns over me. Let’s get that right on the table. Nobody fawns over me. However, Hyrum Osmond and Amy Smeed who were our animation supervisors for the whole film put it this way. They said it was very exciting for them to actually be working with people like myself and John [Musker] and Ron [Clements] and Mark Henn and people who kind of made the films that made them want to be animators. They thought that was a kick and never thought they’d have that opportunity. For my part, I loved working with them. The fact of the matter is a character like Mini Maui wouldn’t have come off without a huge amount of collaboration between the hand drawn animators and the CG animators. It didn’t matter where an idea started as long as by the end of the film, by the end of the scene, it came off the right way. Often the CG animators would come up with really fun ideas for the Mini Maui scenes because they knew what the were capable of doing with the CG Maui that would have a bearing on what would happen to Mini Maui, and vice versa.
One of the first scenes I worked on was with a guy named Justin Weber. We said I think it would be funny to poke Mini Maui in the belly for big CG Maui to poke Mini Maui in the belly. And I said great, yeah, let’s do it. So we figured out exactly which frame number Justin’s CG big Maui finger would make contact with Mini Maui’s belly. Once it makes contact, then I have to animate Mini Maui reacting to that contact, and so on and so forth. That’s kinda where the magic starts is that you’re both animating characters in the same scene who react to one another. I think that’s really what made the relationship really fun.
LP: Was combining 2D and CG animation a difficult task?
EG: There were a lot of things to consider with that. Not the least of which was how much our drawings would distort or look out of place once they were textured onto CG Maui’s body. Fortunately our tech folks figured it out so they could have a certain amount of distortion so it followed, say, the form of Maui’s bicep, but not be so distorted as to look weird. There are ways that they figured out to be a able to push and pull various points on Maui’s CG body to get the drawing to look right, but not get Maui to look distorted. They would develop a skinny sliding technology that allowed for that as well. There was all sorts of stuff that they could do that enabled us to have that relationship.
And then there’s the performance relationship as well. But once they got it all … I’ll add here, whenever John and Ron were looking at scenes for approval, 99 times out of 100 what they would be seeing is a combined test of both the CG animation and the hand drawn animation mapped on it. So we can tell right from the get go if their eye lines are working, if the timing is working between the two characters. We were always judging it on the basis of how does this scene work with these characters in it, and not, okay, first we do a piece of 2D animation and hope it works once we put it on the body. It had to have that kind of iterative process for it to work.
LP: You had “Paperman,” you had “Get a Horse” — we’ve had a lot of work where traditional hand drawn animation has been in one way combined with computer generated animation. Did those steps lead up to the ability to do Mini Maui?
EG: I think they played a role in a specific way. They created a program here called Meander for “Paperman.” It’s creator is Bryan Whited. That allowed us to draw on top of computer animation and let the computer animation to give you that look. It could follow a textured line around the character. When we were animating the “You’re Welcome” song, a lot of it was supposed to look like painted tapas that had torn edges around them. That’s what Ian Gooding, our production designer wanted. Our cleanup lead, Rachel Bib, used Meander that had been developed on “Paperman” to do the clean up to make it look like paint strokes for those particular sections. That had a direct line impact. And I think also understanding how the two of them can work together when you conceive them. A lot of that great stuff came from story crew. Not even worrying about technical stuff, but just conceiving that there’s gonna be hand drawn and CG animation together in he same frame, and how do we accomplish that.
For something like “Get a Horse,” the reverse was true. We had a template for what Mickey Mouse looked like in 1928. We had to animate him that way in the hand drawn to make that work. Well, the computer animators had to cheat their 3D animation of Mickey to make it look like it was exactly the same Mickey in front of the screen and behind the screen. Things like your standard Mickey ear cheats as his head goes front face to profile, his ears remain facing forward. We had to do those cheats in 3D, which are not that easy to do. The fact that we could do it and pull it off and nobody questioned it meant that we got that thing to work. He was always Mickey no matter what medium he had been created in. For something like Mini Maui, there was a lot of uncharted territory that we had to go into. We didn’t know if we’d be able to make a relationship between a CG character whose really big and beefy and a little drawing that happened to be located mostly on his left pectoral. So we kind of learned as we went along.
I think that kind of spirit has infused Disney animation ever since its inception. It’s not, well we can’t do that, it’s this is what we’d like to do, now how do we do it? The fact that we can find solutions for those things is amazing.
LP: It’s no secret that any organization has its ups and downs. But you’ve been able to be at Disney animation during two peaks of their performance. Obviously your work on Aladdin was groundbreaking, and this new era we’re in combining the worlds of Ron and John, but also the new comers like the folks that won the Oscar last night. Do you feel like you’re reliving the old days, or does this feel like an exciting new time?
EG: This is a new time. To a certain extent, when we were making our films in the 90s, we always felt like it was continuation of what our heroes had created in days of yore. Certainly it had a contemporary spin on it, films like Aladdin. But we always felt that it was connected because of the hand drawing. In this case, I think it’s something new. I think what the studio is doing right now is saying, yes, let’s embrace all the principles and ideas that were formed in the legacy years, and now lets apply them in a way that nobody has ever seen before. I think that’s new and exciting. It’s great working with the people we have here at the studio right now.
LP: How do you get new ideas and new perspectives?
EG: You know, I’ll put it to my training with Richard Williams. Back when he was mentoring me in London. One thing that he made very clear to us was that you can animate any style well. Not only did we have to draw it, we had to animate it with all the great principles of good animation in tact. So what’s happening now at the Disney studios is kind of an extension of that. At least it is for me.
These are new techniques we have in the paint box, but we are still giving them the same values of good character animation, good animation, that we would have in the hand-drawn days, and utilizing hand drawn in different design ways, different techniques to be in our CG films to me is an extension of animating things in different graphic styles that I got from Richard Williams. The fact that I can animate a Mini Maui character who is highly graphic and pantomime and still have him fit within the design elements of the film and the design elements of the tattoos is something that came from my early training of you can animate anything you set your mind to.
LP: You mentioned the folks that mentored you, like Richard Williams. Outside of what you’ve already mentioned, is there a piece of advice that you give to the folks that are looking to you as their mentor?
EG: You know, if there’s a general piece of advice that I give, I’d say it’s observe and caricature. This is what all my animation heroes did. They would observe the way people walked, the way animals moved, the way somebody would turn their head, they would make these observations. Then they would caricature them so that they are larger than life. So you’re not just eaping realism, but you’re bringing heightened realism to it. Caricature doesn’t necessarily mean a big nose. It means taking somethings essence and really clarifying that and making it viewable and understandable for an audience. I think we are doing that in the CG animation in the same way we would do that in the hand drawn animation.
Moana is now available in Digital HD and will arrive on Blu-ray on March 7th.