Wednesday, December 19

Disney’s ‘Get a Horse!’, partly done in a 1920s style, is up for an Academy Award for an animated short

Walt Disney Studios’ animated short “Get A Horse!” is nominated for an Academy Award this year. Here is an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the creation of one of the film’s shots.

During Hollywood’s golden age, Walt Disney Co. owned the animated short category at the Academy Awards. Ten of the first 11 Oscars presented, including eight in a row beginning in 1932, went to the company that built its now massive brand around an animated mouse.

But after three more wins—in 1953, ’68 and ’69—Disney went missing for 33 years, during which the prize went primarily to foreign and independent films, including three from an upstart called Pixar.

For guidance on how to pull a 1928 black-and-white Mickey Mouse short into computer-animated color, “Get a Horse!” animators drew inspiration from early Disney Christmas cards. Here are some examples, including comments from director Lauren MacMullan. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Last year, the dry spell broke as Disney won with the romantic and elegant “Paperman,” which ran in front of its feature “Wreck-It Ralph.” Now, the Mouse House would like to get back to its habit of winning multiple animated short Oscars in a row, while at the same time taking home its first for a movie starring Mickey.

“Get a Horse!” has had the good fortune of being seen by millions, because it plays in front of “Frozen,” but also has the problem of getting little individual attention – because its paired with blockbuster hit that is itself favorite for the animated feature Oscar.

An early pass at the action in a scene from the Disney animated short ‘Get a Horse!’ ©2014 Disney

The return of Mickey Mouse to the big screen comes after 18 years—”Runaway Brain” of 1995 was nominated but didn’t win an Oscar. In “Get a Horse!,” director Lauren MacMullan wanted to return to the original 1920s-era Mickey Mouse—not just in simple black-and-white, but in spirit. Here, he’s a rascal who doesn’t mind pitchforking an antagonist in the rear end and has stopped acting as if the responsibilities of a $100 billion-plus corporation are on his shoulders.

Computer-graphic animators get to work. ©2014 Disney

 The plot is a simple and typical: Mickey meets Minnie, the loudmouthed and lascivious Peg-Leg Pete kidnaps Minnie, and Mickey gets her back. The context is an era when wealthy city dwellers like Pete would cruise the country roads in autos and harass horse-drawn carts like the one that Mickey and his friends ride.

“It was going to be a lost short,” explained Ms. MacMullan, a television veteran making her big-screen directing debut and working with a team of 14 animators. She envisioned “Get a Horse!” as Disney’s fifth short of 1928, after the pioneering “Steamboat Willie” and before “The Barn Dance.”

Lighting adds the final touches to the scene, bringing the characters to life and adding dimension and brightness. ©2014 Disney

That presented another problem: “How do we prove to people that we did it?” Her solution: After 95 seconds looking like a 1928 short, the film switches gears and Mickey and his horse explode out of the screen, complete in color and computer-animated 3-D.

The artists of “Get a Horse!” not only had to put computer-generated imagery and hand-drawn work on-screen simultaneously, but also had to draw in an archaic style. “To get it right, we had to unlearn a lot of things we knew about making animation fluid and beautiful,” said Eric Goldberg, the head of 2-D animation and something of a legend in the field: He drew Robin Williams’s “genie” character in “Aladdin.”

Among the unusual goals for Mr. Goldberg’s team was recapturing a “rubber hose” style of the 1920s in which characters’ appendages are seemingly weightless and change shape at will: Mickey’s arm becomes a set of stairs and his mouth a bugle.

Perhaps the most special touch of all, and one likely to get the attention of the Academy’s many older voters, is the film’s use of original voice recordings by Walt Disney himself for every line of dialogue by Mickey Mouse. An assistant editor was charged with gathering “everything Walt ever said,” explained Ms. McMullan. When they couldn’t find an instance of him saying “red,” the editor strung together separate instances of the company founder saying “rrr,” “eh” and “duh.”

The result: Walt Disney’s first on-screen credit as voice talent since 1948.