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Eric Goldberg: The Guy from Cherry Hill

Tom Sito chats with the veteran animator about his life, his work, his new book, and the time he substituted for a gorilla.

Eric Goldberg.

Eric Goldberg.

Cherry Hill is in the part of New Jersey just across the Delaware from Philadelphia where the Jersey Turnpike ends. It is George Washington territory; it's also Harold & Kumar territory. In such rich cultural environs was the hero of our story, Eric Goldberg, was raised.

He began to draw around the age of three. His dad worked in a meat-packing plant in Philadelphia. He used to bring home big rolls of pink butcher paper and markers for Eric to draw with.

Like all kids of his generation, Eric enjoyed the parade of classic cartoons on TV Saturday mornings. He especially liked the Woody Woodpecker Show because Walter Lantz himself would do a segment where he explained the process of animation and invited kids to draw. Eric and his brother Elliot would take turns drawing Woody and his friends.

From this early point, Eric already began to comprehend the mysteries of animation. By age six he was making his first flip books. For his bar mitzvah he asked for a Super-8 camera with a single-frame shutter so he could make his own films. At age 15 he started to enter films into the Kodak Teenage Movie Awards, winning the Grand Prize in 1974. At the ceremony, he befriended a fellow young animator named David Silverman (The Simpsons Movie). As a result of his prize, he was invited to be a contestant on the early game show To Tell the Truth, hosted by Gary Moore.

Eric Goldberg: They told me that they were originally going to schedule a gorilla trainer, but because it was January in New York, it was too cold for the gorilla, so we called you!

Besides Walter Lantz, the other cartoons Eric came to admire were those of Chuck Jones. He studied Chuck's work so closely, and in the end mastered his style so completely, that I remember he once executed an ersatz Chuck Jones drawing complete with signature. It was so good that it even fooled Richard Williams! I asked him about this.

As a youngster, Goldberg especially liked the Woody Woodpecker Show because animator Walter Lantz would explain the process of animation and invite kids to draw. Eric joined in. © Universal Studios.

As a youngster, Goldberg especially liked the Woody Woodpecker Show because animator Walter Lantz would explain the process of animation and invite kids to draw. Eric joined in. © Universal Studios.

EG: As a teenager, I always gravitated to the Chuck Jones cartoons -- and I love all the Warners directors -- because they made me laugh, and the animation was beautiful. Moreover, they made me laugh because they were witty. Witty in their timing, their expressions, their staging (mostly by Maurice Noble) and their verbal wordplay, so often provided by Mike Maltese. Jones had a way of being funny, elegant, and literate, all at the same time, and for me that elevated the content of his cartoons beyond the belly laughs. I got to know him in earnest through Susan (Eric's wife), who was working for him on Mrs. Doubtfire, as well as through Chuck's associate producer Steve Fossati. We used to visit Marion and Chuck with bagels and cream cheese in hand, and Chuck was a great boon to me through some of the more difficult times on Pocahontas. During one meeting, where I was bemoaning executive involvement on the film, he looked at me matter-of-factly and said, 'Well, you know, they'll always hate you because you can draw and they can't' -- words that have helped me many times over the years!

Eric attended Pratt Institute in New York City, and got his first animation jobs there. In 1975 he joined the ranks of Richard Williams' grand effort forming on 46th St. to do the animated musical Raggedy Ann & Andy (1977).

EG: I had the world's worst interview with Richard Williams. I stammered and dropped my film reel, which unwound across the floor. Michael Sporn and Jim Logan teased me about it for years!

Eric became master animator Tissa David's lead key assistant, who claimed that "only Eric knows best how to clean up my Annies." After the production wrapped and the New York operation struck their tents, instead of drifting west to Hollywood, like most of us did, Eric went east across the Atlantic to rejoin Dick Williams in the U.K.

EG: After Raggedy Ann & Andy was done, I went out to L.A. to meet with Ralph Bakshi about getting a job as an animator on his Lord of the Rings. But before I could relocate my stuff, I got a call from Dick Williams in London. Dick said, "Oh! Don't go there! Come here to London and work for me. I need you to animate a pot-bellied kangaroo…" Now, who can turn down an opportunity like that? So I packed my bags to go to London.

Richard Williams. Photo credit: Jacob Sutton.

Richard Williams. Photo credit: Jacob Sutton.

The London animation scene in the '70s and '80s was one of the most vibrant periods in animation history. Before the Maastricht Treaty removed nationalist trade laws, you had to make separate commercials for each individual country -- Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark and so on. And all of them came to London to get their work done.

EG: Many of the ad agencies in London at the time were staffed by idea guys who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge as Ancient Languages and Poetry majors, and this was the best job they could get. Their ad copy tended to be very witty and, best of all, they left the visuals up to us. [Eric here adopts an upper crust, Commander McBragg accent.] 'Oh, you know, just do something funny…' In later years the agency people who came along were more graphic arts and media majors. Their copy was simple, but they were much more apt to challenge you on every color choice. At the time, the late 1970s, Dick's 13 Soho Square studio was known amongst local London animators as 'The Monastery.' ('You see people go in, but you never see them come out.') For me, it was a great learning experience, working alongside Dick, Art Babbitt, and Ken Harris, as well as the phenomenally talented Richard Purdum and Russell Hall. No one anywhere in the world was producing animation of such high quality at the time, and I count myself most fortunate to have had that as my educational petri dish. Late nights? Undoubtedly. Hard work? Of course. Deadline pressures? Too numerous to mention. But if I had it all to do over again, I'd do it just that way.

At 13 Soho Square, Goldberg worked with top animator Ken Harris and did the rough inbetween work on some of Harris' scenes in The Thief and the Cobbler.

At 13 Soho Square, Goldberg worked with top animator Ken Harris and did the rough inbetween work on some of Harris' scenes in The Thief and the Cobbler.

Richard Williams augmented his Soho Square staff's skills by bringing in Golden Age Hollywood animators to train them -- legends like Babbitt, Harris, Chuck Jones and Grim Natwick. Eric was very influenced by Harris, one of the finest of the character animators for Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes crew.

EG: Ken Harris is the reason I animate the way I do, and I admired his scenes for years without knowing that he in fact had animated them. When I met Ken at Dick Williams' London studio, I finally cracked the code of which scenes were his. (The BBC ran Haredevil Hare one weekend, and Ken said he animated the scene of K-9 walking backwards, and the one of Bugs squeezing himself into the top of the rocket ship prior to blastoff. "Aha! That's how he draws Bugs Bunny!") I had the chance to rough inbetween some of his scenes on The Thief and the Cobbler and analyze his working methods, but I really didn't understand how an 80-year-old guy could produce 30 feet a week of gorgeous animation without breaking a sweat. Dick explained how Ken knew exactly where to place the poses, and exactly how to draw the breakdowns, so that the rest of the scene was largely inbetweens, save for eccentric actions and lip sync. I animate that way to this day.

For the next 13 years, except for brief interludes, Eric Goldberg made London his home. He married Susan, a Cal Arts character animation alumnus, who worked for Jack Zander in New York. Together they moved out to Old Blighty, bought a house and raised two daughters. Eric joined two former Williams alumni, Mario Cavalli and Pam Dennis, and they started their own studio, Pizazz Pictures. There they attracted many future animation talents like Theresa Wiseman, Gaston Marzio, Caroline Cruikshank, Pete Western and Ted Hall. For many years, Pizazz was one of the top commercial houses in London, along with Klacto, Grand Slam, Dick Purdum's, Carl Gover, and Passion.

Tom Sito: What drew you to return to L.A. after having your own successful company in London?

EG: In 1982, when we were in L.A. to do Ziggy's Gift, Susan had introduced me to many of her Cal Arts compatriots, including Hendel Butoy, Darrell Van Citters and John Musker. John and I clicked, and continued a mutual admiration for several years after [Susan and I] had returned to London. In the summer of '89, I attended an animation festival at the AFI in L.A. with my Pizazz commercials reel, and Disney honchos Charlie Fink (then head of development) and Bill Matthews (in charge of training and recruitment) were in the audience. They asked if they could show my reel at the studio and I said, "Sure." For an entire year after that, Charlie phoned me, at least once a month, to ask, "Wanna jump ship yet?" Further enticements included the knowledge that John Musker and Ron Clements were embarking on Aladdin in the coming year. I was impressed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid, and started to feel that if I didn't make a move soon, I would miss the crest of the wave of Disney Animation's newfound popularity in my home country. The turning point came one night as I was running for a train after a day of stress and meetings at Pizazz. Having just made it, I stood there with my heart beating so wildly it practically popped out of my chest. I decided then and there that I needed to remove stress from my life, and that maybe animating at Disney was my ticket. I distinctly remember your [Tom Sito's] reaction was, "You're coming to Disney to avoid stress???"

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (above) and The Little Mermaid impressed Goldberg and got him to think seriously about moving to Disney Animation. Courtesy of Disney. © Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Ent. Inc.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (above) and The Little Mermaid impressed Goldberg and got him to think seriously about moving to Disney Animation. Courtesy of Disney. © Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Ent. Inc.

Once in Los Angeles, Eric Goldberg set about making Aladdin's Genie one of the most memorable personages in the Walt Disney pantheon. He joined art director Richard Van Der Wende and layout supervisors Rasoul Azadani and Bill Perkins in strategizing an overall style for the picture -- fluid and deceptively simple, a unique look for Disney. It owed more to the design style of famed Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld than to Milt Kahl. Some Disney purists grumbled, but Aladdin became a critical and commercial smash hit. Goldberg later had the opportunity to create a more direct homage to Hirschfeld ("The Line King") in his sequence for Fantasia/2000, based on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

TS: What was it you liked about Al Hirschfield's work?

EG: I had been aware of Hirschfeld's work ever since I was a little scraper, and loved the fluid line work. My interest peaked during high school, when our yearbook advisor, an art teacher named Judy Leopold, turned me on to finding the NINAs [Hirschfeld would habitually hide one or more renderings of his daughter's name in his drawings], as well as some of the finer points of his work. I continued to find like-minded Hirschfeld fans as a student at Pratt, and often made pilgrimages just to drool at the Margo Feiden Galleries, where Hirschfeld drawings and prints were great in number. In fact, the first piece of art that Susan and I bought together was a beautiful print of a geisha drawn in brush by Hirschfeld. As I got further into animation, I always felt that his work was very relatable to the most fluid of Disney animators, Freddie Moore. They shared the ability to have a single line organically describe a shoulder, a spine, and the flip of a foot, without having to pick up the pen, and also shared the eye to find the simplest, most communicative pose that expressed so much about the character.

Once ensconced at Disney, Goldberg set about making Aladdin's Genie one of the most memorable personages in the Walt Disney pantheon. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Once ensconced at Disney, Goldberg set about making Aladdin's Genie one of the most memorable personages in the Walt Disney pantheon. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Eric joined forces with Mike Gabriel to direct Disney's Pocahontas (1995), then animated Phil the Satyr in Musker and Clements' Hercules. He left the Mouse House for a time to direct the Warner Bros. animation crew on Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), but is back now, working with longtime collaborators Musker and Clements on the upcoming The Princess and the Frog.

Recently Eric Goldberg paused from his work to write out his own ideas about character animation in a new book, Character Animation Crash Course! (Silman-James Press).

TS: What made you want to write a how-to book?

Goldberg paid homage to artist Al Hirschfeld in his sequence for Fantasia/2000, based on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Goldberg paid homage to artist Al Hirschfeld in his sequence for Fantasia/2000, based on George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

EG: Lots of animation books on the market, while thoroughly inspirational, never gave me the nuts-and-bolts information about animating that I really craved. Why does something look a certain way on screen? How are the drawings, and timing, and spacing conceived to get that particular effect? And how do you make a character distinctive, unique, believable, emotionally engaging? I was convinced it wasn't by magic, and once I started doing weekly lectures and notes on the subject for animators at Pizazz, I realized there was information there that wasn't being seen anywhere else. The notes got xeroxed and passed around the industry for a couple of decades, which I always thought was cool and flattering -- a bit like folklore, if you will (or even if you won't). But once they started to appear, without my permission, on the Internet, and [when] I learned that animation teachers at colleges were using them as syllabuses, it seemed like an official book from me was in order. I'm really glad it's finally out there in this form, because it includes the CD of tests (something I always envisioned for it) and lots of new information created after the original notes. Truly, it's the book I wish I had when I was starting out.

Though he never crossed the Delaware in an open boat, nor spent an evening driving around lusting for a White Castle burger, Eric Goldberg has achieved legendary status in our animation business. His flawless technique and superb drawing skill ranks him as a worthy successor to his mentors Chuck, Ken, Al and Dick. It'll be interesting to see what new work will come from the Guy from Cherry Hill in the years to come.

Tom Sito is an animator and a friend of Eric Goldberg's since the Gerald Ford administration. He is currently completing an update of Halas & Batchelor's Timing for Animation, due out in 2009, and is also writing a history of CGI.

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