Dr. Toon sat down with the animation veteran Eric Goldberg to rap about his experiences on Looney Tunes: Back in Action, as well as the rest of his intimidating résumé.
Eric Goldberg is among today’s master animators and animation directors. He began his career with Richard Williams and later animated such memorable characters as Aladdin’s Genie and Philoctetes after moving to Disney. While there, Eric also co-directed the film Pocahontas before animating and directing the stunning “Rhapsody In Blue” and “Carnival of the Animals” segments of Fantasia 2000. He is currently the animation director for Warner Bros. upcoming film Looney Tunes: Back In Action.
Dr. Toon: Eric, how is post-production going on Looney Tunes: Back In Action?
Eric Goldberg: Well, we’re still in PRO-duction as opposed to post-production! We’re still animating furiously, but it’s going well. Like all movies of this nature that are expensive and difficult to make because of the live-action/animation combination, there are many changes that are still going on, all the way through production. So we have to be flexible in terms of — “Uh, oh, that line of dialogue changed!” I feel kind of like I’m a waiter who takes peoples’ food away before they’re done eating it, but I have to say I’ve got a great crew and they really do beautiful work. I think it’s going to surprise people that it has the Looney Tunes spirit.
Dr.T: Joe Dante said that one of the challenges was that he’s got human characters that are six feet tall and animated characters that are three feet tall. What type of challenge did that present to you and your team?
EG: That’s actually a huge challenge. The other factor in that is that we’ve got a Panavision screen frame as well. So, aside from the fact that you’ve got six feet and three feet, if you cut Brendan Fraser off at the knees, you’re cutting Bugs and Daffy just under the chest — or just under the head — so we have to be able to compose these things to be able to work. We do take cheats once in a while, just to make it look as if everybody’s in the same frame for that format, but it is tough. Obviously, you have to look after eye lines, you have to look after size relationships and make sure they’re consistent from scene to scene, but by the same token, I’m not above cheating for the composition of the scene to look right within the screen format.
The method has been, on this show, that we actually posed out the entire movie before it got to the animators. I used the Wacom Cintiq tablet; I can draw poses of the characters and the editors can superimpose them over the live action so we can see immediately how the scene is going to play. Everybody started dissecting all these poses as to whether they were right or wrong on the first few sequences that we did. But then, when the animation came in, they got it. They could see that Bugs and Daffy really were in that scene, acting and reacting, and so things got more comfortable.
It’s given me and the animators here more license to put in some extra bits. Little acting choices, little timing choices, some nuances that everyone’s been very pleased with. We could also throw in some secondary gags that weren’t necessarily in the poses. Which is all to the good, because I think the animators came up with some great ideas, and they all have ways of realizing something that’s beyond what an initial pose drawing would be. And that — that’s what’s going to make it all work.
Dr.T: What have been some of the other challenges in working on this feature?
EG: Aside from the technical challenges, of which there are many, my biggest aim is to present these characters the way people have loved them for years. Its actually very, very important to me. I was friends with Chuck Jones, I know this stuff backwards and forwards in terms of all the cartoons, the history and its very important to me that feels like a Looney Tunes movie that satisfies Looney Tunes fans. That Bugs and Daffy are who Bugs and Daffy are not necessarily just drawn well, but that they act the right way, that they say the right things, that they move the right way. That their motivations are clear. It sounds very high-falutin, but if youre going to have these characters sustain a 90-minute movie, youve got to treat them as though theyre real characters, and you have to be true to who they are. Because the audience will smell it a mile away if theyre not. I keep feeling like Chuck is looking down saying, OK, youd better do this one right!
Dr.T: Its been a pretty long road leading up to your position as animation director for the Looney Tunes movie. First there was a stop at Universal where you were toying with the directors job for the Where the Wild Things Are project. How exactly did you go from working on that film to this one?
EG: I was on Where the Wild Things Are for a year. I was developing it with some very talented people. We had Brenda Chapman, Sue Nichols, Jennifer Klein, all as my story crew. We had Dave Reynolds as the writer a pretty darned good crew, and I actually think we had a take on the movie that probably would have worked. I think the participants Tom Hanks, Maurice Sendak and their associated producers felt it was such an important movie that they never could quite come to terms with exactly what they wanted the movie to be. So, when the Looney Tunes opportunity came up, it was around the same time that Universal decided to either go ahead or not go ahead and so it seemed to dovetail that way.
I dont bear anybody on Wild Things any ill will. In Maurice Sendaks case, I can absolutely understand. This is his jewel in the crown, his baby, and he wants to see it done right. If were not getting whats in his head, then so be it. Whoever winds up doing the film, its always going to be a major undertaking when you take a 15-page childrens book and turn it into a 90-minute movie.
As far as ending up on the Looney Tunes movie, Allison Abbate, the animation producer, gave me a call. She said, Would you be interested in coming over and doing some consulting? So I started doing some consulting and more consulting and more consulting... and then it became permanent. The first stop was to bring me in and have me meet Joe Dante and the other producers, Bernie Goldmann, Chris DeFaria and Larry Doyle at the time Paula Weinstein was not on yet and make sure they were comfortable with what I knew about the characters. That went very well, and then we continued from there.
Dr.T: Joe Dante has always struck me as a frustrated cartoon director. He showed his true colors as far back as the cartoonland sequence in the Twilight Zone movie.
EG: I love working with Joe. First of all, I knew before I even got to this project that he was the right choice for it because he knows so much about the animation medium and about Warners cartoons in particular. Hes got so much film knowledge at his fingertips anyway. But he has such a huge respect and understanding of animation particularly classical animation that makes him the right choice for this film. And yes, he has a slightly edgy... how shall I put it... Theres certainly cartoonish elements in many of his films.
Even if he didnt know all the Jones and Clampett lore, hed still be the right guy for this. It was kind of a match made in heaven; hes given me a lot of latitude and a lot of trust in being able to bring the characters alive. By the same token, hes the director and if he feels theres something we need to change, we try and accommodate that. I would say that 97% of the time were on the same wavelength and thats made it a very fun project. Joes a very gracious guy in terms of accepting input from a lot of sides as long as it makes it better and funnier.
Dr.T: Eric, many critics and reviewers, when they saw the film Aladdin, likened your characterization of the Genie as being more along the lines of the Warners, rather than Disney, type of humor. Have the Warners cartoons really been that big an influence on your work?
EG: Without question. I think all the years I was at Disney, I think that everybody felt I had more of a Warners bent to me, which was something that I kind of brought to Disney just to make the humor a little zippier. With the Genie, he was so mercurial he had to change characterizations and attitudes so quickly that I would go straight to Warners smear drawings and all the other tricks of the trade in order to make those quick transitions. Just philosophically, I always felt that Warners animation was much better suited to comedy than Disney animation. Because its sharper. Because its more distinctive. It telegraphs an idea in a pose in a much more gettable way than the more florid animation in most Disney features.
Dr.T: The poses. Thats where your friend Chuck Jones was such a master.
EG: Absolutely. Of all the Warners directors that influenced me, he was the one that influenced me the most. I was lucky enough to know Ken Harris as well when I was at Richard Williams studio from 1977 to 1981. He was there for a couple of years working on The Thief and the Cobbler. Although, at the time, he was kind of an unassuming, self-effacing guy Oh, hell I cant draw! Dick always does everything for me! He was 80 years old and he could turn out 30 feet a week. And it was all great! Now, he couldnt explain it, but Dick could. I asked, Dick, how does he do that? And Dick said, Well, hes a master of the charts. He showed me that Ken would plan one key here, one key here and the breakdown would be askew. Then he would put a chart on it and you would get automatic overlap when you put the inbetweens in. I thought, Oh my god! Its like a light came on thats how these guys at Warners got through all that footage and it still looked great.
Its the kind of thing where it was a huge influence on the way I approached animation because I always liked snappy timing, I always liked the spirit of the forties and fifties films and I didnt quite know how they got there until Dick analyzed it for me. Then I would study it more and more, the more I wanted to learn.
I think when I was a kid, about 14 years old, I would start to notice what the directorial styles were, and one thing that really impressed me was the ones I laughed at the most, which were Chuck Jones cartoons. The ones that could kill you with just an eyebrow raised or the Coyotes ear flopping down. Why was it funnier? I realized that one of the few components that few animated films have is wit. It was a perfect visualization of wit. Its a certain conspiracy with the audience. The characters that Chuck would draw, they knew they were being humiliated, you knew they were being humiliated and they would conspire with the audience for that humiliating moment! And that takes it to a completely different level. Theres a lot of things I like about the other Warners directors. I love Frelengs timing, I love Clampetts wildness, I love the Avery spirit that suffused all of them before all the other directors matured. But, I think out of all of them, Chuck influenced me the most because of that sheer economy and wit in his work.
Dr.T: Well then, lets suppose you could have been working at Warner Bros. during the Golden Age of Looney Tunes, shoulder to shoulder with Chuck and Bob Clampett and Tex Avery. Which characters would you have loved to have animated or directed back then?
EG: Oh boy... lots of them, but my favorite is still Bugs Bunny. I just think hes the greatest animated character in history. Of all the Warners characters, hes one of the few who is actually a heroic character instead of just a character whose foibles we recognize. He lives by his wits. Hes not big enough to live by his brawn, so he has to live by his smarts. Thats a very appealing characteristic. Hes a very elegant character; if you handle him the wrong way, then he becomes grotesque, if you know what I mean.
I think that in his best moments, hes a very refined character. That doesnt mean he wont break out and do something wild once in a while. It does mean that hes a character best underplayed than overplayed. I think thats really his strength because that shows how much control he has over any situation hes in. And he makes me laugh! I love Daffy too and I love all the other characters. I also have a big affinity for Wile E. Coyote, for that matter. He has a couple of really good moments in the movie, too.
Dr.T: I remember you saying that you considered the Genie in Aladdin your most satisfying achievement. After those terrific sequences in Fantasia/2000 Carnival of the Animals and Rhapsody in Blue is that still your opinion?
EG: Thats a tough question. As a director, I am proudest of Rhapsody in Blue. As an animator, Im probably proudest of the Genie. Its like being parent to two different things. As an animator, Im proud of Carnival of the Animals, too. Its interesting that you pick those three things, because there was a lot of stuff in between, but I would have to say that the Genie and the Fantasia sequences were certainly the Disney career highlights for me. In many ways Rhapsody was a dream project that finally got realized; Id wanted to make it for seven years.
EG cont'd: Carnival was a chance to animate a sequence all the way through from start to finish. And of course, I got to collaborate with my favorite art director, Susan, who happens to live under the same roof. They were both very satisfying. Rhapsody was very personal in terms of a lot of the ideas in it and the characterizations, and the Genie, well, the Genie is what put me on the map in this country because I had been in London for so long doing commercials. I think Ill always have a soft spot for the Genie, because he was so warmly received by everybody when the film came out. Id say that the three of those projects run a pretty close equal.
Dr.T: One project that must have been a disappointment to you was the never produced Roger Rabbit sequel. I understand that you were slated to be to be the animation director and that you had even redesigned Roger for the film.
EG: Thats correct. I streamlined him a little bit so that he would look even more like a 40s character. I felt in the original version even though that was great he still had a little too much fur on him, a little too much detail to actually feel like he was really from that era. What I did wasnt a huge amount; he was still absolutely Roger to everybody who saw him. Wed actually done a CG test with Roger well, we did two versions. We did one that was traditionally hand-drawn with the tone mattes and the whole nine yards, and we did one with the same animation translated to a CG model of Roger. And the CG model worked very, very well. Better than most people would expect it to work because it had all the squash, stretch and overlap that you would associate with the character.
Thats why I wanted to try it if you can do that in CG, you can do anything in CG. It isnt impossible to get that kind of animation in the 3D medium. Its harder and requires a lot more modeling, but you can do it. As far as the actual Roger Rabbit project itself is concerned, yes, I would have enjoyed doing that. Its a shame that didnt go forward for a variety of reasons, but hey, Im working with Bugs and Daffy now!
Dr.T: You once had your own commercial studio in London, Pizazz Pictures. Have you ever considered opening another studio in the future?
EG: Once in a while, we toy with the idea. (My wife) Susan and I have incorporated as Cartoons In The Basement Inc. Its really just the two of us but if something larger would come along, I think what we would do is build up the studio for the purposes of making a particular movie and then collapse when the movie was done rather than maintaining a studio that continues to self-generate material. The biggest problem right now in animated film production is that the overheads are killing everybody. We have to find a way to produce these films more cheaply and part of it is not having a big darned building and a huge staff to maintain. So if you do it purely for the time of production needed, I think thats a viable way to go. Kind of like the old cottage industry used to be like Ferngully, for example. I dont think theres anything wrong with that; God knows theres plenty of talent around Hollywood that could do that kind of stuff.
Whether Id go back into commercials again... I dont think so. I did many years in commercials and they were a great training ground in lots of ways, but its too hand-to-mouth for me. We had a successful company in London, but wed still look up at the boards and say, What are we doing in three months? And we were still in the position of having to say yes to every job and hope that enough of them would fall away so that wed still be able to produce the ones that were left.
Dr.T: I picked up in another interview that you were interested in pursuing some personal projects of your own, like an animated musical based on the life of... Dr. Jonas Salk? Were you serious or pulling some poor journalists leg?
EG: Completely pulling peoples legs! Cant you just see dancing polio needles! Itd be great! You know, the little sugar cubes with the pink medicine on top! Itd be really good!
Dr.T: You could throw in a show-stopper musical number where they throw the crutches aside...
EG: I think Mel Brooks is listening...
Dr.T: God, I hope so!
EG: There are personal projects I would like to do. I wont go into what they are; I think therere a lot of things we can do with this medium that we havent even scratched the surface of, in terms of comedy, in terms of technique and in terms of style. There are all sorts of interesting directions in which you can take animation that arent necessarily sought after in the commercial marketplace that I think could open a few eyes. The great thing about working in television commercials for so many years is that I really learned to adapt graphically to the needs of any particular project. So, if we had to do fashion drawings one week, OK, it was fashion drawings. If we had to do woodcuts, OK, were doing woodcuts. If we had to do Tom and Jerry, OK, were doing Tom and Jerry. I still love that about the medium.
I give Richard Williams a lot of credit for that, because he was really the one in London who pushed that notion forward more than anybody else. He had that Whatever will stick on a cel kind of attitude. He would use any medium in order to achieve any effect, whether it was supposed to look like oil painting, charcoal drawings, whatever. I think a lot of people consider that you can do different styles, but sometimes the animation suffers, like, OK, if I have to make it look like this, then thats really complicated to draw Dick was never like that. Dick was always saying that it had to be great animation, too.
Weve got a sequence in this Looney Tunes film where Elmer is chasing Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre museum and every time they jump into one of the paintings, they become the style of the painting. They become Dali, they become Toulouse Lautrec, they become Munch. When people see the final sequence, I think theyll be very pleased with it. Stylistically, were matching these things in a way that you wouldnt expect. Thats one of the compelling things about this medium. You really can go in different directions and still make it entertaining.
Dr.T: What would Bugs Bunny have to say if I were to ask him what it was like working with you on this picture?
EG: (flawless Bugs Bunny imitation) Nyah, lessee... hes a control freak! He tinks he knows everything, holy Gawd! Anyway, I would hope he really enjoyed the working experience. Its certainly one Id like to repeat with him.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.