What were the most challenging scenes to animate in the Oscar-Nominated shorts? I posed this to all five directors: Lauren MacMullan (Get A Horse!), Daniel Sousa (Feral), Shuhei Morita (Possessions), Laurent Witz (Mr. Hublot), and Max Lang (Room on the Broom).
Of course, for Disney’s extraordinary Mickey Mouse hybrid, Get A Horse!, the biggest challenge was the bravura finale in which Mickey and his pals go in and out of the screen to save Minnie from the lecherous Pete. Everything comes together in this hilarious and thrilling mash-up of techniques, and it required an unprecedented collaboration of hand-drawn and CG artists.
“It’s really good that it came at the end because we didn’t know how to do it until we were at that scene,” MacMullan admits. “The whole short was a process of learning it. And it’s a really good thing that we started with the 2D and then added more and more difficult things as we went along. And it required everyone working on it in animation, editorial, sound, music, and effects. And we had precious little time to do it and was in different forms in the storyboard that I did.
“It originally started out as a zoetrope, but for technical reasons it didn’t work. It relies on a revolving image that doesn’t give you a sense of timing for the jokes. That was the first incarnation and then somewhere down the line, John Lasseter got the very good idea to add bits of music from our old section and use them for each little flip so that it becomes this semi-modern day remix sound of the original bits of music.”
“And that shot too of when they’re going in and out of the screen was passed back and forth four times in one day between Eric Goldberg and Adam Green and Bruce Wright. It was so great to watch and to see the hand-drawn animators and CG animators work so closely together.”
Goldberg, who was in charge of 2D, says it was certainly the toughest sequence for him they’re in that surreal loop that defies time and space. “We saw it in story reels and decided that 2D would be best to lead and I blocked in the cycle of all the characters running around and animated both behind and in front of the screen. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t adjustments from Lauren: a larger take on the characters in front of the screen and a much bigger landing and arm swipe from Pete when he entered the scene.
“Lauren sent notes to the 2D animator and then back to the CG animator so it became this constant game of tag. Todd LaPlante and Gina Bradley were the hub: data managing between 2D and CG so they could comp together. The integration of 2D characters on screen and CG characters on stage required the matching of eye lines. So we were on the same page, I received drawings from the 2D guys before they were shot. And I sent our CG renders to them.”
But while Green found the sequence the most fun, the complexity caused an anxiety attack. “I was stressed out and I started to get down. And I stopped and I said to myself: ‘OK, I’m working at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, animating Mickey Mouse with Eric Goldberg, and Mickey Mouse has Walt Disney’s voice. I think this is pretty cool.'”
In Feral, the striking story of a wild child trying to re-integrate into civilization, the opening was the most challenging and most important for Sousa. “In it, a rustic windmill emerges from the darkness and we gradually realize that there’s a naked child inside. The image of the windmill comes up from time to time throughout the film, and I never really explain its significance. It’s one of those motifs that are impossible to write about in a written treatment or a script, because they are a bit surreal and hard to justify. But in the context of watching the film and being immersed in the emotion of the moment, it makes perfect sense.
“So initially I had a lot of second thoughts about putting it in at all. The real reason why it is there is because of a memory that has been with me since I was a child. I grew up just outside of Lisbon, Portugal, in a somewhat urban environment. But whenever I wanted to be alone or get away from responsibilities I would run to the edge of the nearby woods. There was an abandoned windmill standing at the top of a hill that demarcated the edge of civilization, and it started to symbolize a kind of passageway into another realm, in which time behaved differently and the same rules did not apply. It was a place to hide, like a womb.
“So when it re-emerged in the film, I think it took on a motherly quality at the beginning, and at times it was almost like a life-giving deity. But it was also a manifestation of the boy’s state of mind, so it could be peaceful at times, and angry and destructive as well. Eventually, it became one of the most important elements of the film.”
With Possessions, Morita wanted to explore objects that appear as junk taking on a real existence in this re-imagined ghost story, and the most difficult scene was the emergence of the final ghost, which is a junkyard dream. “So, I created it putting weight on 3-D images of clothes and other items as well as the basic concepts of the drawings in the hope that those characters might have images to raise unique sounds such as chin chin, gacha kocho or koto koto,” he says. “The ghost appearing at the last part was something combined with those things. Though it looked complicated, it could be created rather easily in our own ways.
“Animation and modeling of the scene is made by me. We were a small crew so each person worked for various sections according to circumstances. It was made with combination of about 20 components, but in 3D CG technology, it could look different by changing the angles and layouts. Japanese colors were not intentional but results of our thinking much of the patterns. It cost a lot if we had it designed and colored by professional designers. We were so flexible and I think this is one of the [great] benefits.”
Meanwhile, the ever-expanding Robo Pet provided the most difficult challenge in Mr. Hublot. For the OCD character afraid of change, it poses a real dilemma. Does he get rid of the pet or the house?
“It’s at this moment that we can feel there is something changing in their relationship,” Witz explains. “It’s about 10 shots when he’s growing. We tried a lot of things with scale to have the right size of the dog. The bigger the dog, the better. For me, it was as if he touched the ceiling with his head. It can’t be bigger or something will go wrong.”
Witz plays against convention in that it’s not a monster that’s growing, but an endearing pet. He says it’s a statement about dog owners loving their young dogs but not as much when they’re fully grown and demand more attention. When you have a pet you can’t imagine what will happen next beyond just being cute.
“For me, it was like being in a theater, watching a slice of life of Mr. Hublot and Robo Pet. And the 3-D version is very nice, too. We think they are in front of us, just like in real life.”
For Room on the Broom, in which a friendly witch has a difficult time accommodating a needy group of animals, Lang says it was most difficult animating them all together. “Each character would interact and each movement would then affect the broom and each movement of the broom would affect the movement of the characters. And it was much harder than The Gruffalo because we were animating a human character.
“We had never done that before. The closer you get to reality with human proportions, that was a new challenge that we weren’t prepared for with the witch. The only way we could do that was with good animators.
“She travels and helps others and it was a challenge to design but she’s such a great role model. Every time I watch it with my daughter, I’m so happy to show her that there’s more to aspire to than being a princess. And it’s so nice to portray a witch like that. When you look back in history, they are never just people who are different — they were burned. It’s about change and we started with that family motif, but our production was a bit like that too.”