We've Got Hollywood Covered

Legendary Disney Animator Eric Goldberg on the Future of Hand-Drawn Disney Animation

The animator behind the Genie in ”Aladdin“ gets the spotlight in the Disney+ series ”Sketchbook“

Disney+’s “Sketchbook,” streaming now, is a fascinating and emotional look at the artists behind your favorite Disney characters.

The set-up is simple: each episode has an animator instructing you on how to draw a Disney character. Their instructions are informative and easy to follow, but the real treat of each episode is getting to know the animators a little better. You hear them talk about coming to the studio and navigating various productions, all the while offering helpful hints and gentle encouragement.

One of the very best episodes involves Eric Goldberg, the animator behind the Genie in “Aladdin” (the character he instructs you how to draw), Louis in “The Princess and the Frog” and Phil in “Hercules,” among many others. (He also co-directed “Pocahontas” and directed two segments of the underrated “Fantasia 2000.”) Incredibly, he stuck with the studio after it almost exclusively switched to computer animation, providing 2D elements to projects like “Moana” (he animated mini-Maui) and a series of special projects, including nighttime spectaculars at the Disney parks and a Cirque du Soleil show at Walt Disney World.

TheWrap sat down with Goldberg at Walt Disney Animation Studios to talk about “Sketchbook,” a new program at Disney to teach hand-drawn animation and whether or not Louis will return for the upcoming “Tiana” series.

What was it like telling your story and did it inspire you? Do you want to write a book or something now after this?

I don’t know about writing a book. I have an animation book out there and I’m currently toying with a sequel. But I think everybody’s story is different. I thank my lucky stars that I was around to still learn from the people I admired, to understand how they approached it. And of course, one of my great mentors, by the way, was Richard Williams, who brought over all of these great classical animators to teach us and to carry it forward. And so, to an extent, I feel like I’m carrying it forward from that generation.

It’s true. You’ve carried the torch for traditional animation throughout the years. Do you take that seriously?

I think all of us here at the studio who are in the 2D side want to feel like we are keeping it alive. And to a certain extent, it’s nice that we have this venue of creative legacy to help us do that with these park shows and things like that. Cirque du Soleil was fantastic to work with, Drawn to Life. And it was a wonderful project to be involved in. And those people took a huge deep dive into not just the animation process, but the hand drawn animation process. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show or not.

Not yet.

When you do, I think you’ll appreciate just how much love was put into it from the Cirque side, in terms of trying to present to people what the beauty of hand drawn Disney animation is. And they really got it and ran with it.

One of the things you’ve worked on recently is the “Mickey in a Minute” short that appeared as part of the new Mickey Mouse doc coming to Disney+.

I’ve been really lucky the last couple of years. And again, I have to use Amy Astley as one of my champions that way, where opportunities have come up, and she has said, “There’s this Mickey Mouse documentary that they’re making and they might want some animation for it.” We all got together, several of us animation artists and the director, Jeff Malmberg, and various other people. And we just spit-balled various ideas as to what that animation would be. And eventually they went with this idea that I had of Mickey getting sucked into the vortex from “The Little Whirlwind” and going backwards through his greatest hits. And it was so much fun to do because they basically let us do what we wanted to do. It’s not like we didn’t have feedback from people on the lot and people who were in charge of the Mickey franchise and from Jeff who directed it and all that.

But that’s all fine. The fact of the matter is we got to do it the way we wanted to at full production value the way we wanted to. Just being able to make decisions to say, no, the giant from “The Brave Little Tailor” has to have shadows because he had it in the original. Those kinds of things, those are important to us to really make it work. I don’t know if anybody will ever notice, but on the Mickey lariat scene, where I’m trying to imitate John Lounsbery, if you look at the animation that was produced for those segments, it’s got a thicker, black outline and thinner internal outlines and we did the same thing on the Mickey animation, just to get that look right.

These are angels dancing on the head of a pin details. But they feel right. They feel right to get the ink colors right. To get the fact that in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Mickey had a color separation over the whites of his eyes that he never had in any other film. And we put that in. Those kinds of things mean a lot to us because it means we’re doing it right. It means we have so much respect for the original things that inspired us. That to be able to take it to that degree. I mean, I studied frame for frame the tornado in “The Band Concert” and reproduced all the effects animation myself for all of that. I analyzed it and figured it out and broke it down into what’s a fanning background. What are the superimposed parts? What’s the debris? It’s challenging, it’s time-consuming. But if you don’t do it right, it’s not worth doing it.

Can you talk to me about the new crop of 2D animators that are coming in?

Well, we went through over 2000 applicants and I have to credit Matt Roberts, who’s our head of talent dev, going through those 2000 and whittling it down to a mere 150 that we had to go through to pick our eventual six. And the fact that they are here means they’re pretty good. But we also recognize within them that there is more for them to learn just by being here and being mentored by us who are trying to keep the torch lit. And I’m not saying that to be pretentious, but I mean, I learned a lot when I first came to Disney, just about how collaborative the nature of the filmmaking is here. One thing that always impressed me about working on a John and Ron movie is how collaborative they were, but they still wound up making it tonally a John and Ron movie every time out.

And that impressed the heck out of me and trained me about how to deal with crews and other people who want to bring something to the table. And I feel that way about this new crop of trainees that we’ve got in is that we’re going to teach them to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. But they’re going to bring something to the table too. If they didn’t already have something, they wouldn’t be here. And it’s hard to whittle it down to that number of people. And there were many, many, many people who were very, very good. It was actually quite heartening to see how healthy hand-drawn was from college students and recent graduates amongst these applicants. That’s pretty cool, to be honest.

And it’s like I was saying, the fact that they want to learn it and that they’re doing it is impressive and wonderful. And I think they’re going to be the next generation. We’ll see how things pan out in the year that they’re here. But after four months, they’ll get to work on production stuff. And we have production stuff coming through the pipeline that I can’t tell you about. But they will be tailor made for it. It’s going to happen soon and it’s got a deadline and it’ll be great to have them contributing to that particular film. It’s the perfect thing. I can’t tell you too much, but it will involve the classic characters.

Well, too, you look at the Short Circuit program and almost every one of those has a 2D element too. Do you feel like there is some pent up demand for it?

Absolutely. And also on the part of the CG animators. It’s interesting when they were doing “Wreck-It Ralph 2,” and you had the whole princess section in there, the CG animators put together pencil tests from the scans in the ARL [Animation Research Library] of lots of princess scenes that they wanted to study, whether it’s “Snow White” or “Pocahontas” or various other things that they could refer to for how to animate those characters. Whether they’re animated in the CG or not, they know they could go back to those original resources and study them and glean from them. And I don’t think there’s ever been a lack of interest in the legacy or the hand-drawn, but I think we’ve had more and more opportunities of late to actually include it as part of the process and part of the content.

There is the “Tiana” show coming up. Is Louis going to be a part of this show?

I am not sure to give you an honest answer. It’s still very in-development right now in terms of the content. We don’t know what the content is going to be, but I suspect yes, there will be han- drawn in it. Absolutely. And we will see how that transpires, and there’s other content coming down the pike as well that will involve hand-drawn in both the Disney+ stuff and the shorts we’re doing and the features we’re doing. All of a sudden, it’s burgeoning again, which is a perfect time for us to have these trainees here and be on the ground floor of that. That’s great.

You mentioned Ron Clements and John Musker. Have they reached out to you about working on DC’s “Metal Men” at Warner Bros?

They have not. Well, they are still friends, obviously, and we’ll see what happens, but I have a feeling that’s going to be largely a CG film anyhow. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen in the next few years. But I mean, to be honest things like “Spider-Verse” excite us here. We see how they’re using the medium in a variety of different ways and that’s exciting. And we want to do things at this studio that really break the mold, really do things in an interesting way with what hand drawn is capable of doing. And of course, with my background, working at Richard Williams, he forced it into us that any style could be animated whether it looks like wood cuts or whether it looks like the Mona Lisa and oil paints or whether it looks like “Tom and Jerry,” any style can be animated and animated successfully. And I will always hold that with me throughout anything that I do here at Disney.

“Sketchbook” is now streaming on Disney+.