Producer Dorothy McKim stood patiently at the front of the Haras auditorium, waiting for the applause to die down. 800 animation fans filled the Annecy Festival's main theatre to capacity, packed shoulder to shoulder, all waiting for a chance to see Disney's newest cartoon short, Get A Horse. As the applause died down and calm was restored, Dorothy welcomed the audience and began the program by telling the crowd it had been 85 years since audiences caught their first on-screen glimpse of Mickey Mouse. Then, she introduced Disney’s legendary Eric Goldberg to walk us back to the days of Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy. After a truly “thunderous” round of applause, Eric regaled the audience with a short history lesson, explaining that while Plane Crazy was actually the first Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie was the first released in theatre’s with sound, which made the film, along with Mickey, an overnight sensation. The lights dimmed and both these two 1928 classics were shown.
Lauren MacMullan then took the stage, introduced as Disney’s restoration director. She began to explain how 18 months ago, some artwork had been found in the estate of a collector. After putting a sample of the artwork onto an overhead projector, she began describing how the drawing style, yellowing paper color and double peg bar, along with the notation of “MM4”, which stood for Mickey Mouse 4, dated the work back to 1928, meaning it was a lost short that fell right between Steamboat Willie and Barn Dance.
Then, she went on to describe they’d also found a lost “positive” print, which was more difficult to work from than a negative print. Referring to the newly restored short, she told the audience, “This has never been screened before, but you are going to be able to see it here today.” Somewhat mysteriously, she concluded her talk by saying that there would be a slight stereo effect because of how the film was being produced for a feature. Then, the lights dimmed, 3-D glasses were affixed and the “real” show began.
It’s impossible to describe the “restored” Get A Horse without revealing the true genesis, and genius, of the film. Without giving away all the film's secrets, it's a beautifully crafted “period piece” where the cast of characters is literally chased from the minimalist black and white 2D animated world of 1928 into the boldly colored, stereoscopic 3-D and CG world of 2013, Get A Horse is the brainchild of the film’s actual director, the previously introduced restoration director Lauren MacMullan. And while instant communication has rendered moot the notion of a “secretive” event ever being secretive again, Disney is to be applauded for choosing such a storied animation festival, with such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd, for the film’s premiere, which in a Twitterific world, may never quite be viewed by audiences again with the same sense of blissful, ignorant surprise as was generated in the first public screening. The beauty of the program’s setup and the manner in which Disney’s team promoted this exclusive screening made the audience’s surprise and response both unique for the Annecy festival and dare say, for the animation community as well. Their ovation for the filmmakers was long, loud and heartfelt. A great moment of well-deserved acclaim for a group of talented individuals who took arguably the most hallowed iconic character in the history of media and, completely under their own studio’s radar, produced a clever, funny and visually stunning new Mickey Mouse short.
As MacMullan explained to the audience, the short came about after prompting from Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore, who told her Disney was looking for some new Mickey Mouse ideas for TV. This seemingly easy development task was made more difficult by the reality that Mickey boasts a huge history over the last 8 decades, handling countless high-profile entertainment duties, produced in a number of styles, leaving little viable uncharted territory that would meet studio approval or more importantly, be any good. A truly daunting task.
For MacMullan, the earliest Mickey was always the most appealing, when he was fresh, rascally and funny. As she shared with AWN later that evening, “I like 1928. I like the very early style of animation. It's what got me into animation. Because it was easy to draw. You could draw it fast. It was all circles and tubes. There was a “take no prisoners” approach to comedy, like Ub Iwerks was making all sorts of things up as he went along. Mickey was this little underdog. He didn't have a mortgage. He didn't have a dog that he had to wash in a bathtub. They [the original Disney shorts] were depression-era comedies. Everything was just starting. It was very fresh and lively. So I was thinking, ‘How can we get back there?’” A throwback 1928 styled short was pitched, John Lasseter approved and 18 months later, the world has Get A Horse. Finished just the previous Thursday.
MacMullan, along with the film’s producer McKim, lead 2D animation supervisor Goldberg and CG animation supervisor Adam Green, spent the rest of the program breaking down the production, sharing details on both the 2D and CG animation process. Yet another treat was watching Eric draw today’s Mickey Mouse on the overhead projector, then on a superimposed sheet of paper, draw the Mickey Mouse of 1928. It’s hard to describe the joy of watching Eric draw. Obviously, there are many talented artists and animators. But somehow watching him draw Mickey Mouse so matter-of-factly, so effortlessly, so officially, to the delight of the crowd, it felt like you were watching the original, like everyone else was a mere poser, an imposter. We often bemoan that fact that as far as the public is concerned, animation has no “stars” besides the characters themselves. Well, based on the Annecy audience’s reception and the tremendous industry-wide respect he continues to garner, Eric Goldberg is as close to a “rock star” as our industry gets.
A screening of the short a second time and the presentation was complete. As the four stood for a final ovation, it was clear we’d all witnessed something quite special and quite sincere. Something very cool indeed.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.