Following our recent sit down discussion with famed Disney animator Andreas Deja, Animated News & Views’ Christian Ziebarth met up with one of Deja’s fellow alumni at the Disney Studio, animator and director Eric Goldberg, most recently a director-for-hire on Looney Tunes: Back in Action. During the informal chat at Walt’s old Tam O’Shanter haunt, Goldberg spoke about his career at the Mouse House, taking in such characters and movies as the Genie in Aladdin, and co-helming Pocahontas.
Animated Views: Let’s start with the recent Disney Legends ceremony where they honored Steve Martin and Art Linkletter. Did you know about that?
Eric Goldberg: Art Linkletter a Disney Legend? Well, okay, he opened the place.
AV: Yeah, he opened the place, and he was there at the 50th event a month or two ago, so I guess that counts as a Disney Legend.
EG: All I remember with him is Art’s house party, but you’re too young!
AV: What was that?
EG: That was his daily, five days a week show for housewives in the afternoon. And he would interview people in the audience. Probably his most famous sequence in it was to have a bunch of like kindergarten kids up there called Kids Say The Darnedest Things.
AV: Oh, okay. Didn’t Bill Cosby kind of do something like that later on?
EG: Yeah, he tried to revive it [launches into Cosby impression] “What are you talking about? It’s Jell-O, you see, because you don’t get much…” So, anyway…
AV: I remember hearing about Art. I knew about him as I grew up, but I don’t think when I was five I could go, “Oh, yeah, he’s the guy that opened Disneyland in 1955.”
EG: I wouldn’t have known. I was, let’s see, when did Disneyland open? It was July ’55? I was two months old!
AV: I was wondering why they were making Steve Martin a Disney Legend and I didn’t want to say, “Well, he doesn’t deserve that,” but I wondered what they had to back that up?
EG: He used to play there. He used to play at the Golden Horseshoe Revue and used to do his early standup there and play the banjo. Like, you know, one of those Wally Boag guys. That’s why.
AV: Well, what I heard is somebody said, “Oh, it’s because he’s in that thing they have playing at the Opera House right now.”
EG: That’s not why. He actually used to play there. He used to do a version of what he eventually became.
AV: And he was young too, probably only in his early twenties then. I guess he wrote for The Smothers Brothers?
AV: And then the notes about the Disney Legends said he also worked in the Magic Shop on Main Street.
EG: Yeah, I can see that.
AV: He would do tricks, make balloon animals, do magic tricks in front of people, so I guess that was enough for them to make him a Disney Legend.
EG: Well, he’s a name. And, sadly, a lot of the other people are passing away this year.
AV: Did you work on that thing where he’s interacting with Donald Duck that’s playing at the Opera House now?
EG: I did one big scene, at the end, with Donald and the box of fireworks.
AV: I bet he gets really mad in it.
EG: Actually, no! He gets sneaky, but he doesn’t get mad.
AV: I’m looking over there and I see some Disney pictures on the walls.
EG: Yeah. There’s some John Hench stuff in there.
AV: One looks like Frank Thomas.
EG: Could be. They all used to come here. We used to see Marc and Alice Davis here a lot, and Frank and Ollie.
AV: I saw Ollie the other night. He was at the Cinderella screening. He said a couple of things that really cracked the audience up.
EG: Yeah, he was always sharp. How’d the film look?
AV: Oh, it looked really good. I hadn’t seen it since I was young and I remember the mice, and there was a cat, and there was a pumpkin that turned into a stagecoach. That was about it, so it was almost 99% new to me. But it looked really good with the digital restoration. John Lowry was saying that it was probably the best restoration he’s ever done out of all the things he’s worked on.
EG: Yeah, I wanted to see it but I’ll get the DVD.
EG: Frank and Ollie, Marc, Ward, Eric Larson. Actually I met Milt yeeeaaars ago.
AV: He passed away in ’85, something like that?
EG: Yeah, I met him when I was in high school, in ’72. I never met Woolie, never met Ken Anderson or Les Clark.
AV: What was Eric Larson like?
EG: Eric was a sweet guy. Everyone loved him. I gather that he, because of studio politics, was given a rough ride over there, and he was always kind of pushed aside in favor of some of the other Nine Old Men, but he was really the guy who headed up the in-studio training program to nurture new talent, and everyone loved him. I think he was a huge loss to the studio when he passed away. I know there were times that he chafed at the system that was there, although he would never say it out loud. I didn’t know him very well, I met him a couple of times, but I think it’s the kind of thing where he’d get outvoted on stuff, and, personally, what happened to me was he was very encouraging when I was trying to apply for their training program, and we went out for a visit when I was in high school and went around the studio for like two hours. Ollie showed me some stuff on the Moviola from Robin Hood and it was great. And they brought everybody, they brought Milt and Frank, and everybody else in to look at my stuff.
AV: When they were working on Robin Hood?
EG: Yeah. I was really trying to get into the place, so I finally applied and Eric Larson was my liaison, and I got thumbs down after all this encouragement. They basically looked at everything I brought in and went, “Well, that’s gag animation. We don’t do gag animation.” And they went, “Well, that’s design and we don’t really do design.”
AV: If they didn’t want gag and design what did they want?
EG: Well, they wanted what they do, to a certain extent, you know.
AV: Whatever they secretly had in mind?
EG: I guess so. Well, they also wanted malleable people. Their philosophy at the time with their training program was they didn’t want people who knew how to animate, they wanted people who knew how to draw and they’d train them. In any case, Eric was always very encouraging to me and then they turned me down and it was like pulling teeth to find out why, and these are the reasons he gave me.
AV: He turned you down or it was the powers that be?
EG: The powers that be turned me down. I think Eric would’ve had me in in a minute. That’s one reason I went to England. I just figured, “Well I’m not going to beat my head against the wall trying to get in here anymore,” and the other thing is they asked for sketchbook support from my films, so I had a lot of anti-Nixon, anti-Ford cartoons in there and then the response was, “Well, you oughtta get out of animation entirely and do political cartoons.”
AV: But you didn’t really want that to be your focus.
EG: Yeah, so it’s the kind of thing where I know he felt bad when I had to pin him down as to what happened. These are the reasons I got and I know it wasn’t his decision. Actually years later, bless Eric’s heart, a friend of mine was showing my commercials reel at Disney’s, after I worked for Richard Williams for a couple years. Eric Larson was in the audience and Brad Bird goes over to him and he says, [impersonating Bird’s voice] “So, you like that guy’s stuff, right?” “Uh-huh.” “You think he’s pretty good, right?” “Yeah.” And Brad grabs him by the shirt collar and goes, “And you let him leave, man!!”
AV: That sounds just like Brad. I remember that event at the Academy a month or so ago about the animated performance, and you were there and Brad was there. He’s just so almost like a cartoon character himself because he’s so animated, he jumps up out of his chair.
EG: Oh, yeah. It’s partially performance art, but hey, you know.
AV: It’s just interesting watching him because even when he like stayed put in the pulpit he was like, “And I wanted to get ‘a marital fight’.” And it’s just so funny, the way he said it and then he went off on his big monologue about how 2D’s going to come back once the studios see one hand-drawn animated flick does good, but he went on a big 20-minute rip session about that.
EG: I don’t think he’s wrong either.
AV: You jumped up out of your chair too! That was funny. I was talking to somebody later and I said, “I try to tell people that I know through e-mail what Brad Bird is like but I can’t encapsulate him in writing.” You can’t reduce him to a sentence or two.
EG: No, you can’t. He is what he is.
AV: So when was the Larson thing, when he said “You let him go”? Maybe like the mid-Eighties?
EG: It was late Seventies.
AV: That reminds me of Billy Crystal because he tried out for Saturday Night Live and they were like, “Ah, you’re not good enough,” and he turned out to be this major talent later on and he was on it a few years later.
EG: Yeah, but it’s funny, you know. I appreciate Brad’s sentiment but it was the wrong target because Eric probably would’ve said yes. It was the rest of the group. And I don’t hold any grudges, let’s put it that way. They weren’t looking for whatever I had at the time, so it’s the kind of thing where they had a very strong idea of what they wanted for applicants there. They basically wanted people who drew well that they could really teach from the ground up. That’s really what they were looking for.
AV: I wanted to find out more about Eric Larson. You’ve got the real strong characters like Milt Kahl and Ward Kimball, and I guess he was a little bit more subdued?
EG: Yeah, he was. He was very quiet, very soft spoken and very kind, and maybe one reason that you didn’t hear as much about him is that he just didn’t toot his own horn as much.
AV: You said he was the one that did the training program. He was the one that realized, “Well, we’re going to have to get some new people in here,” right?
EG: Yeah, he headed it up. I know many people who are now talented Disney folks or Disney folks who were talented ten years ago and now have to learn to do something else. They speak very fondly of Eric. He was their mentor. Yes, people got mentored individually, Ollie mentored Glen, and so on and so forth, but it’s a kind of thing where he was really the glue for that generation of animators coming up through the studio.
AV: Do you ever think what it might’ve been like if you’d been hired then?
EG: Yeah, I do. And you know what? I’m glad it didn’t happen, you know?
AV: It ended up working out. You ended up getting into it later on and things worked out good.
EG: Well perhaps because of the circumstances and also just my own make-up, I wound up working with Richard Williams on Raggedy Ann and then after that going to London, doing TV commercials with him and learning a huge amount in terms of graphic design, how to animate a variety of different styles. Ken Harris was at the studio, Art Babbitt was at the studio, so basically I got an animation education completely outside of the Cal Arts/Disney ethos and could develop my own style, which happily they eventually liked at Disney’s.
AV: It was really helpful when Aladdin came along.
EG: Yeah, I mean fifteen years of commercials and I think I can squeeze something into thirty seconds!
AV: So, Richard Williams. Do you have any contact with him at all?
EG: Not very frequently. He’s a little reclusive right now. He’s working on his own film, so I hear from his son Alex; animating it all himself, and he pops up every now and again to do his master classes and things like that, and we’ve had dinner a couple of times. It’s interesting because he, the last time he was out in LA, he seemed genuinely charmed and moved that people actually even remembered who the heck he was. It was kind of celebrating the anniversary of Roger Rabbit and there was a whole bunch of different things, like his master class, and I think the fact that he was getting this kind of attention, you know, from the LA animation community, I think was very heartening to him.
AV: You didn’t work on Roger Rabbit, did you?
EG: No. That’s a long story that I won’t go into.
AV: Did you have any involvement with the sequel they tried to start up?
EG: I did a test of Roger. They were talking about doing a sequel, they got Frank Marshall in to direct the live-action for a test sequence, and what they wanted to test was, “Let’s see if we can do computer props so we don’t have to rig the real props, and match characters to them. Let’s see if we can do computer props and make them look realistic, and do hand-drawn animation to match it.” And I said, “Look, the gimmick’s old already. If you’re going to make Roger Rabbit, drag him into this century, you gotta do him in CGI.” So we did him in CGI. The CG guys down in Florida did both the prop tests and the CG Roger test which I directed in California, and the CG Roger looked great. Tom Bancroft animated Roger by hand and they pulled and pushed the model to match his animation, and it just looked stunning.
AV: Did they do a CGI Jessica Rabbit?
EG: No, but for all intents and purposes it looked like very good, highly polished cartoon animation except you don’t get the foot wobble because it’s a model that gets tracked in the same way that dinosaurs get tracked in Jurassic Park, so when he’s planted on the desk he’s planted on the desk!
AV: No hovering?
EG: That’s exactly right. And the lighting looked great. It would’ve worked. It would’ve been a very expensive film to make, no question about it, and I know the studio hesitated, that being amongst the reasons.
AV: Was that before Toy Story hit?
EG: After. It was summer of ’97.
AV: So those tests might be still lying around somewhere maybe?
EG: Yeah. I don’t have a decent copy of it but, yeah. The whole Roger Rabbit 2 thing just kind of fell apart. Jim Pentecost, who was our producer on Pocahontas, had actually presented the idea that gave it some traction in the first place. But there was always this rights issue as to Spielberg and Disney and who owns which characters, and what was everyone’s involvement going to be, and the expensive nature of the film, and the idea of doing the sequel when it was already ten years later. I think everyone balked, and I can understand it. I can understand it partially because Roger himself was never a particularly appealing character. I don’t know that he can carry a movie without the gimmick.
AV: Yeah, because you have the nostalgia of all the other characters there.
EG: Yeah, I mean you’d have some of that anyway, but I don’t know if people would come back to see Roger again as a character.
AV: So you said the CG test turned out good, but was there any sort of story that was pitched?
EG: Oh yeah, that’s what I was saying about Jim Pentecost. He came up with a story that was basically Roger’s rise to fame. You know, he was teamed with a human and they were both on the road in vaudeville.
AV: Now I remember seeing Raggedy Ann and Andy when it came out. I was probably about eight or something. I remember being excited and watching it with my sister. She had the Raggedy Ann toy and I had the Raggedy Andy toy. Was it ever released on home video?
EG: Yeah, it was briefly on VHS. I don’t think anyone’s done a DVD.
AV: I don’t remember much about it. I remember I watched it. Was that kind of one of the things that broke you in?
EG: Yeah, it was my first real big professional job. I was working on that and it’s a movie that has interesting ingredients but doesn’t hold up as a movie. There’s some individual interesting bits of animation but not really a story to hold it together. The best stuff is actually Emery Hawkins’ “Greedy” in it. In rough it looks like moving garbage. It was really fun to watch.
AV: When I was a little kid Raggedy Ann and Andy were really old even by that time, but they were still kind of popular, still a viable toy. Now people just see them as a nostalgia thing, from what I could tell.
EG: Well, I think a lot of things are that way. I mean it’s pretty amazing those things had the shelf life they did, really. I mean, part of it was because Raggedy Ann was a children’s book to start with, so the books always kept it going. Probably by the time the movie came out those characters were right on the cusp of nobody remembering them, and then the movie just kind of sealed it!
AV: Now, at the Aladdin reunion they had at the Glendale library, I think Tom Sito was talking about, “Yeah, we had these really great movies like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King…” and he stopped right there. Then he’s all, “And then it went…” he said something like “went downhill”, not like that but something that kind of indicated that and then you said, “Yeah, it was Pocahontas‘ fault.” And then John Musker said, “I always thought it was Treasure Planet‘s fault.”
EG: I think Pocahontas‘ biggest sin is that it didn’t do Lion King box office.
AV: Well I remember I had brought somebody with me to that reunion and I knew she liked Pocahontas so I was telling her on the way up who was going to be there. I told her, “Yeah, the guy who directed Pocahontas is going and he did the Genie from Aladdin.” And she said, “I loooove Pocahontas.” And she went up and told you that.
EG: Yeah, that was very nice to hear.
AV: And she was sincere about it too. So when I saw her talking to you I went over and said, “I think what people think is if it didn’t do Lion King box office it must therefore be completely worthless.” And it’s this kind of thinking, you know?
EG: Well, it was a pretty strange thing when it came out. I think it did something like $140 million domestic, and $255 million worldwide.
AV: In 1995 even.
EG: Yeah, in 1995, and frankly it was only a little bit behind Toy Story of the same year. But because it didn’t do $300 million it was a failure!
AV: Yeah, Brad Bird said, when The Incredibles was about to come out, “If this doesn’t make the money Nemo made and more then everybody’s going to say it’s a failure,” and it did a little bit less than Finding Nemo.
EG: Well, people’s yardsticks are nuts these days. First of all you have to kill on the opening weekend or your movie’s dead. It’s like opening a show on Broadway now, except it costs $150, $200 million dollars. It’s because the studios financially gain the most from the opening weekend, and then they gain less and less as the movie continues its release, so they put it all on the opening weekend. But it doesn’t allow for a movie to find its audience. It’s like: “Is there an audience here? No? Goodbye.” And, you know, it’s interesting, a small movie like Napoleon Dynamite cost under half a million dollars to make and made a hundred million at the box office. And then the DVD sales went through the roof. Now that’s a hit. As far as I’m concerned that’s the way you make a movie. Keep costs low and you let it hang around to find its audience.
AV: I knew it had some real box office legs because I saw it after it had been out three or four months and then it kept going and then it peeked its way into the Top 10, which is unusual, for something to work its way up into the Top 10. So, back to Pocahontas. What are the strongest memories of working on that?
EG: The most moving thing about working on Pocahontas was actually talking to the Native American advisors that we had, and them feeling for the most part that we were really getting it right. I don’t care what various people will say: “Well, she was only 9 and he was 68.” You know, she was 12, which was of marriageable age, he was 24. They hadn’t seen women in three months. I do believe something happened, you know. In any case, I think we did right by her story and her legend. And, like I said, the advisors that we had on the show for the most part were very moved by what we were doing because they could see, particularly in Grandmother Willow, particularly in the use of the Mother Spirit in the leaves, that there were things that were very pertinent to them that we were including that wasn’t just “Disnefying” stuff. There was a point where some people were in tears because they were so happy that it had been done to that degree. And, of course, one of the main proponents was Russell Means. Now, I do have a funny story about Russell. When he came in to actually read for Powhatan, we figured, “Okay, he’s going to nail us on something. Okay, major Indian activist, he’s going to look at something in the script, he’s going to fry us.” So, he reads for us. It’s beautiful. It sounds wonderful. And then he goes, “So I’ve got a question for you guys.” Uh oh, okay, here it comes. He says, “So you guys record the voices first and then you do the drawings?” And we went, “Yes, Russell, yes! That’s exactly what we do!” He was great. He was very helpful in contributing on phrases and customs and things like that that we included in the movie. I find it highly interesting that the upcoming New World, Terence Malick’s film, not only looks exactly like our Pocahontas shot for shot but even has our same casting.
EG: Yeah, it’s got Christian Bale in it. It’s got Irene Bedard. Not as Pocahontas, as Pocahontas’ mother. I mean, it’s unbelievable how close it is, and I think there was a lot, personally, of reverse racism that went on with Pocahontas in that we would get criticized by certain people who would say, “Well, there’s no way that Pocahontas was impossibly beautiful,” you know? “It’s impossible that Pocahontas looked that beautiful.” Which is basically like saying no American Indian could look that pretty, which is bull, and, in fact, Russell Means’ daughter looked exactly like her. Irene Bedard looked exactly like her. And if you’re going to tell me that that’s impossible then, boy, are you blinkered.
AV: Well, it’s got to be frustrating for you when you see these people just make these baseless accusations.
EG: You know, I’m certainly not going to say that we didn’t change things in order to make a movie. We did. No question. I think what we did was try to retain the spirit of the story, the spirit of the characters, and, frankly, redress a little balance. I’m still watching movies on AMC where all the Indians are bad, they had years of those of those things, and I think it was one reason Russell Means was so supportive because this wasn’t that, and it was coming out from a major studio. Let’s put it this way, if Pocahontas did half of Lion King‘s business that is still millions and millions and millions of people who have seen it and been affected by it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
AV: It makes me think of a couple other things because at the Aladdin reunion Ron and John were talking about how they were concerned that they portray Arabs correctly, without being too delicate or walking on eggshells or whatever.
EG: Right, right.
AV: But it was still a definite concern for them. They said they ran everything past that one guy, Rasoul?
EG: Rasoul Azadani, our head of layout.
AV: And he was fine with it.
EG: Yep. And also one of my Genie animators, Joe Haidar, also Arabic, and he was fine with everything. You know, it’s the kind of thing where the freewheeling nature of Aladdin should’ve been enough for people not to worry too much about how a particular group was presented, while I will say that the animation medium itself is prone to caricature, and sometimes that cannot be entirely avoided if you’re making a very cartoony movie. I do not hold truck with any of the stuff that came out where they say, “Well, all the good guys are white and all the bad guys are Arabs.” That’s ridiculous. Fine, Aladdin and Jasmine sound like mall rats, Jafar sounds like he’s British, and Iago’s from Brooklyn. So give me a break!
AV: They mixed things up in The Lion King like that too.
EG: It’s the kind of thing where that just holds no water, none. I always looked at Aladdin like an animation version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Slightly politically incorrect but a lot of fun, and just a huge burlesque.
AV: Now I have a friend who’s part-Samoan and part-Hawaiian and I knew him for probably ten, fifteen years before I found out what his ethnicity was because he would never say, and he kind of wanted to not talk about it, but when Lilo & Stitch came out, he’s all, “Come on, we have to go see this, the Hawaiian part of me is genetically compelliing me to go see this movie.” So we went and saw it and he said, “That portrayed Hawaiians the most accurately of any movie I’ve ever seen.” Then later on, on some message board somebody, a non-Hawaiian person, was saying, “Oh, that movie portrayed Hawaiians so stereotyped and this and that…” but I’m like, “What you say holds no water when my Hawaiian friend tells me otherwise,” you know?
EG: There are people who will use popular movies like Disney films as platforms for their own agendas and that’s very sad to me, but Disney is a big and easy target, because it’s so public and so huge. I imagine there will be not nearly as much criticism of New World as there was of Pocahontas because I suspect not as many people are going to see it.
AV: The way I heard about New World was on a message board where somebody was saying, “There’s this live-action movie coming out about Pocahontas and maybe they’re going to get it right.” So I thought, “I gotta go look at this trailer.” It looked pretty good, the cinematography and all looked good. But it says right on there, “Based on the legends.”
AV: They can’t be any more accurate than the Disney movie. But when you come out saying, “Based on the legend,” you’re covering yourself, saying, “We’re doing the best we can.”
EG: Yeah, it’s based on the legend, which is what we did. In any case, it’s a controversial movie for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it was based on people who actually existed, so that is always going to be a controversial subject on which a lot of people have a lot of opinions, you know, and I absolutely accept that. At the end of the day you make your choices and some of them are individual choices and most of them are collaborative choices that we all arrive at together, in order to go forward making a movie, and there are many things that I’m still proud of. Rasoul Azadani was our head of layout on that one too and I actually think those are the most stunning layouts he’s ever done in his career. They’re beautiful. Mike Giaimo’s art direction was stunning.
AV: Was it supposed to have a little bit of a Mary Blair influence to it?
EG: It was a little more Eyvind Earle-ish, let’s put it that way. I know Mike Giaimo and Mike Gabriel and I were influenced by Eyvind Earle and part of it was wanting to present the new world as so beautiful and pristine that it would be a shame if something happened to it. And what Rasoul does is gives things scale that’s unbelievable, I’ve never seen anybody get scale into layouts the way that he can and so the environment is as much a character in that movie as anybody else is because you’re really talking about it and showing it in a spectacular way. Is it heightened? Sure. Of course it’s heightened. Everything’s heightened in a movie.
AV: That’s your opportunity to bring out the art of real life.
EG: Yeah. You know, if you’re not making artistic choices then just put some film in a camera and shoot. And of course people make artistic choices when they’re shooting live-action as well, so I mean it’s kind of a non-argument as far as I’m concerned. If you’re stylizing the land to say how beautiful it is in order to point out how bad it is if it gets wrecked then you’re making an artistic choice to make a story point. What’s wrong with that? You’re using the visuals to help tell that story.
AV: Now the whole If I Never Knew You scene was already done and in the can pretty much, but the reprise was completed recently for the DVD?
EG: Yes, the reprise we never animated in the original version. If I Never Knew You was completely animated; all it needed was cleanup and color and that was all ready to go, but the reprise, which had been written and recorded, we decided not to put in the final movie at that time, but it is now put in and I like them both, you know? It’s the kind of thing where I actually know many people who felt it was really the heart of the movie, as far as Pocahontas and John Smith’s relationship. When it got cut after the preview, they felt there was a hole there and I could certainly see that. At the time, it’s very difficult to know how to respond to test audiences. In hindsight, I would say that the test audience was the wrong test audience, and we acted – possibly overreacted – because the people who were not responding to it were people who would not be caught dead in a Disney movie in the first place anyway. So it kind of falsifies what your reactions should be, based on that kind of an audience, and it makes me unhappy that we were influenced in that way by a system that is not exactly flawless.
AV: I wonder if you could just get people that you know are interested in Disney movies.
EG: Well, yeah, but they don’t want to do that. They want a completely objective audience to walk in there cold, but when people go to see a movie they purchase a ticket to a particular movie because they want to see it for some reason. They don’t just walk in cold and say “Surprise me.” They’re shelling out ten dollars. So, why shouldn’t that kind of logic apply to test audiences as well? It seems a little mad not to.
AV: Joe Grant came up with a lot of good gags; a lot of the animal things?
EG: Right. Joe was our animal guy. Actually Joe was our everything guy, because Joe came up with the leaves as Pocahontas’ mother.
AV: He came up with the leaves? Because I thought he poked fun at that later on.
EG: Oh, he does. Joe was always wry.
AV: So he was poking fun at himself.
EG: Well, yeah. Somebody asked him what he thought and he said, “Too much colored wind.” And it’s the kind of thing where he would poke fun at himself but he was actually very proud of his contributions on Pocahontas, all the Meeko stuff where they get stuck in the log together and dance back and forth, that’s Joe. There were just lots of early drawings of Percy, being a very foppish pug, and some very stunning visuals like the shadows cast of the British and the Indians on the clouds coming together for savages, that was Joe, and it’s the kind of thing where I think a lot of people just think of him as, “Oh, he’s old Disney charm.” Well, he is, but he came up with a lot of great other stuff too that was very, very strong. And I think what a lot of people don’t understand about the way Joe worked was that Joe wasn’t the kind of guy who would walk into a room and pontificate about what you’re doing.
AV: You said he was always slipping notes under people’s doors.
EG: Yeah, he was a reverse pack rat. He would just leave things under the door and scuttle away and yet, by doing that he was this nuclear generator of ideas. It was unbelievable how prolific he was in that way and how much of Joe eventually did get in the movie. And, of course, he was not one to hide his opinions. So he would say, “In the blank-blank-blank here” if he felt very strongly about it.
AV: Was he pretty in tune with how the whole thing was falling in place and coming together?
EG: Very much. But it’s the kind of thing where he felt quite a kinship with Mike Gabriel. He really was working very closely with him for about a year even before I got on. I think actually of all the movies he’s worked on in the past several years at Disney, Pocahontas is the one he probably had the biggest stamp on. And he’s had good contributions on all of them, but I think that one was probably the most personal for whatever reason, and it may have just been the relationship with him and Mike and the fact that Mike so valued Joe’s opinion and his artistry.
AV: So Mike was on Pocahontas first?
EG: Yeah, I was the second shotgun director. The film was Mike’s idea. He had presented it and I had never seen anybody say yes to a movie so quickly in my life. What had happened was he actually had kind of a rough title card that looked like Princess Tigerlily and it said, “Walt Disney’s Pocahontas” and he holds it up and he says, “The story of a Native American princess who has to choose between her love of a British sailor and the needs of her own people,” and Michael Eisner goes, “Yes, let’s make it.” And it’s like, “Holey moley.” And it turns out that Eisner had actually been searching for some form of a Romeo and Juliet story to do in animation and when Mike presented Pocahontas there it was. He just thought, “That’s the one.” So it got an immediate green light.
AV: You were saying with all the notes you’d get from Joe you would make a “Joe drawer”.
EG: Yep, absolutely. And you’d open up the “Joe drawer” once in a while and you’d pull out one of the drawings and you’d go, “Yeah, that one. We need that right there.” The other thing too is that there were a lot of things that Joe would come up with that weren’t ever used in the movie but he created an atmosphere of creative fertility by doing that, if you know what I mean. Plus, just by keeping these ideas generating it was very remarkable.
AV: Were they always drawn or was it sometimes just words?
EG: For the most part it was drawings, even if it’s just a little doodle, but drawings.
AV: Well, we got on to this topic and I have with me this big long list of questions to ask. Somebody else wants to ask, “When working on Pocahontas, were you inspired by the abandoned Hiawatha project artwork?”
EG: I was. Less me than Mike and Mike – Mike Gabriel and Mike Giaimo. It did have an influence. Dick Kelsey’s artwork in particular was a big influence, and you can see certain pieces that were influential on, say, the way the Savages number was staged and executed. That certainly had the Dick Kelsey influence from Hiawatha. It’s the kind of thing where by the time I got on the project it was more about story, story, story and Mike and Mike were already heading down a certain road in art direction. Of course I had a say, but I had a huge amount of trust and faith in Mike Giaimo. I remember sitting in dailies, and the first color comes up on Savages. And Powhatan is purple, and he’s against this bright yellow fire. And I’m going, “Okay, I know you’re going to make it work!”
AV: That’s funny. The Genie was the first thing you actually did for Disney, right?
EG: Yes, that’s right.
AV: And then you went right into directing for Disney after that. Was that kind of quick?
EG: It’s the kind of thing where I like doing both. I love animating. I love directing. The studio knew I wanted to do both. At the time I think all the lead people had already been given over on Lion King so they felt, “Do you want to co-direct with Mike on Pocahontas?” And so they pitched me the movie.
AV: Was there ever a possibility you might work on Lion King?
EG: There probably was, but so much had already been done and decided on Lion King that I’m not sure they were ever really considering me in that in that vein. They wanted a co-director with Mike and I think the difficulty for me was that Pocahontas turned out to be a much more serious movie than I had originally anticipated.
AV: It was supposed to be more playful?
EG: Yeah, in the earlier versions.
AV: Whimsical, maybe?
EG: Well, whimsical and satirical to a certain extent. I always felt that you could talk about prejudice in a very satirical way and be just as effective. And we went down that road for quite some time until it was very clear that Jeffrey [Katzenberg] really wanted a very, very, very seriously-told story, and, in fact we kind of had to go through a no jokes pass until he was satisfied enough with the way the story was going. Then we kind of had to wedge comedy bricks back into an already built dramatic house, with the animals.
AV: Yeah, most of the comedy just comes from the animals pretty much.
EG: Yes, and that’s why. And my feeling is that, sadly, you could take the animals out of that movie and still have the same movie, you know? The animals are a good mirror to what the humans are doing but essentially they are not part of the plot, not really, which I find a shame. But it’s the road we were forced to go down in order to tell the story very seriously. You know, it was more whimsical, it was more satirical, it was lighter in tone when I got on to it. Peter Schneider said, “Well, it’s going to be more like Beauty and the Beast than Aladdin.” And I thought, “Well, okay, I can accept that.”
AV: And then it ended up even more serious than Beauty and the Beast.
EG: Exactly, that’s the thing. It turned into something far more serious. But at the end of the day, it had its challenges, and one of the things that I miss is that we had voice actors cast for the animals. The decision to make them pantomime was a tough one for me in particular, but I think a lot of people feel it was the right decision for the tone of the movie, and I agree you couldn’t have had talking animals, not for the tone of the movie that we currently have.
AV: Were you planning on having dialogue or just making animal noises?
EG: Dialogue. In fact, I’d gone to England to do some voice recording with people I wanted to cast. I wanted to have Stephen Fry as Percy and I wanted to have Hugh Laurie as Wiggins and we had other people come in; we had Robbie Coltrane come in and do Ratcliffe and he was hilarious. They finally let me have Billy Connolly.
AV: Robbie Coltrane, he’s the guy who plays Hagrid?
EG: That’s right, in Harry Potter. All these guys were popular comics in England. I had Chris Barrie come in, who people might know as Arnold Rimmer in Red Dwarf, and he also had been doing all the puppet voices for Spitting Image in London at the time. Very, very good with voices, he did a killer Reagan and he did some Ratcliffe reading and that was very funny. But it was decided they didn’t really want to fly to England to record voices, because they had already kind of shot that wad on Lion King with Jeremy Irons and so they wanted to contain the expense a little bit more on Pocahontas, so we had to settle for people who were here. And I shouldn’t say “settle” because David Ogden Stiers did a fine job. In fact, when he first put his Ratcliffe stuff down, the engineer who was recording him was British, and I asked the engineer, “So how do you think he sounds? Do you think he sounds British?” And the guy went, in a Cockney accent, “What? You mean he isn’t?” So that was great and he certainly had the British guy absolutely convinced!
AV: Outside of the animation fandom and people that go to all the ASIFA events, what does the general public most know you for?
EG: Probably the Genie. I mean I’ve done a lot of other things, but the Genie is probably my signature. Of my Disney work I am probably the most proud of the Genie and our two Fantasia sequences, and I say “our” because I include Susan in that. Susan did a stunning job on art direction and, frankly, we both worked together in terms of story content too.
AV: Another question somebody wanted me to ask was if your husband/wife relationship helped create some sort of synergy on those Fantasia/2000 sequences.
EG: Absolutely. Absolutely, and it’s the kind of thing where the good thing about working with Susan is she knows what I can do and I know what she can do, and we both bat around content all the time, either on our own projects or projects we’re working on for other studios. She’s actually got a very, very good story sense as well. A couple times when I was in a rut on Rhapsody, like, “Okay, Joe’s got to ice skate here. What do I have him do?” She said, “Have him make a dollar sign.” Because he needs the cash, you know, and there were other contributions like that as well that Susan came up with that were great.
AV: I know she did the water color stuff on Carnival Of The Animals, right? I wasn’t really clear what she did on Rhapsody in Blue.
EG: She art directed the entire thing. She art directed both, you know, those are her color palettes. I don’t think people understand how important color is in making these films successful. I could think of many cases in recent animation where the color choices were very poor and you can’t just say, “Well, it’s color that made it do bad at the box office,” but it certainly is an ingredient and an important one in people’s emotional response to the material, you know? And I’m a very pedestrian guy with color… the sky is blue, the tree is brown, the grass is green, and Susan is not, and that’s what’s great. It is very, very surprising what she comes up with and it always looks great and harmonious together. I always like people who use color for emotional value rather than for realistic content. I find that far more interesting and there really isn’t much of that experimentation that goes on in animation these days, frankly, especially with CGI where people want things to be pretty realistic-looking. They want to see every blade of grass.
AV: Your own Al Hirshfeld influences are clear in your character designs. How did the Genie come about, and what was his reaction to you drawing in his style?
EG: Hirschfeld didn’t know about it. Halfway through the film we were in New York to do a press rollout. So I phoned him up; believe it or not he was in the phone book! I phoned him up and I say, “Hi, you don’t know me but my name’s Eric Goldberg and I’m working on a Disney feature right now called Aladdin and we’re doing a presentation here about making it. I would love for you to come down because we acknowledge how influential your work was on the film and we really want you to know just how highly we regard your work and how it’s really helped us.” And he said, [does a Hirschfeld impression] “Well, I’d love to come down but, you know, I got this deadline for The New York Times; I gotta do three drawings by Monday and so another time maybe.” And I hang up the phone and I think, “The guy’s 87 and he still has deadlines!”
AV: Were you nervous to call him?
EG: Oh God, yes, absolutely. I’ll get to my real nervousness now though. So, flash forward to a charity work-in-progress screening of Aladdin at The Museum of Modern Art. We were all invited to come to New York for that and I’m standing at the entrance with Susan and my brother Elliot who came up from New Jersey, and Peter Schneider, who was president of Feature Animation, walks past us and goes, “Oh, by the way, you’re Al and Dolly Hirschfeld’s minders tonight.” That’s when the palms started sweating. So we see them arrive, they pull up in the limo, and we introduce ourselves. Inside I’m like, “Oh my God!” And he’s sitting next to us and the whole time I’m sweating bullets ’cause what if he hates it? What if he hates it? What if he wants to sue me? What if…? God knows what could possibly happen. Well, he loved it. It was so nice, he was so gracious and one of the biggest compliments that we got, and I say ‘we’ because it’s a compliment for the entire crew on the show, he said, “It looks like it was all drawn by one hand.” Which, from him, is a huge compliment. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of his early essays about Disney films; he wrote a piece for The New Yorker about Snow White called “Art or Taxidermy?” and what he was talking about is how the dwarves were great animation creations but that the people looked too stiff, because they had been rotoscoped and because they’re in a completely different art style. It was a very critical article and I know a lot of Disney people who still bridle at it. But I understand what he’s talking about, so for him to look at Aladdin and say it was all drawn by one hand, that’s a huge compliment from him and he loved the movie. In the end of the day I think it helped, it helped him as much as it helped us. It kind of gave him a lot more public recognition again, for him to sell his prints and things like that through Margo Feiden, and we remained friends since that point. A year later he came out to the Disney Studios and did a week of teaching. He taught caricature lessons and I did a couple of onstage interviews with him. He and Dolly were out for a week, we got to take them to Disneyland, and at that time we had presented to him the notion of doing Rhapsody in Blue (and this was in 1993) as part of continuing Fantasia. I asked him to design all the characters in it. A week or so later, he wrote a very gracious letter back that basically said, “If I was fifty years younger I’d jump at the chance but I’m afraid I’m going to have to say no,” and I felt disappointed but we didn’t give up.
AV: He was in his eighties then?
EG: Well, he was in his nineties. And I continued to correspond with him and visit him and we eventually got him to agree to adapt any of his existing work, in other words, he would trust us, Susan and me, to adapt any of his pre-existing work if Rhapsody ever got made. So, every time we would see him then in New York subsequently he’d go, “So, what’s the news on Rhapsody?” And so, for seven years, until finally they said yes it was always the topic of conversation.
AV: So the whole idea for Rhapsody in Blue had been percolating for a while?
EG: A long time, a long time, and it wasn’t really until Kingdom of the Sun went down for retooling and came back as Emperor’s New Groove that the studio finally allowed us to make it, because then they had an animation crew with nothing to do, so all of a sudden there was this great opening of talent and they said, “Okay, now you can make it.” So we did.
AV: I think one time I saw you with a bag that said Fantasia Continued. That’s what it was going to be called, right?
EG: Yeah, it was going to be called a lot of things. That was one of them. It was going to be called Fantasia 1999 as well. I said, “Just drop the other shoe and call it Fantasia/2000.”
AV: Gives you an extra year I guess! Now, when everybody talked about the Genie and the Friend Like Me sequence, to me it’s almost kind of like what animation had been waiting to build up to, you know? Because it’s so animated and bombastic. Were you trying to make it reach out and grab people? Or were you just like, “Well, we need to have a song about how he can help Aladdin.”?
EG: You know, here’s the funny thing: It’s the kind of animation I love doing and had been doing on my own in England for the longest time. When I got to Disneys everybody kept saying, “Oh, it’s great to see that broad stuff again.” And it’s like, “Well, it isn’t broad to me. This is what I’ve been doing for the past several years.” But it’s the kind of thing where absolutely it was a showpiece for Robin [Williams] and it was a showpiece for the song and it was a showpiece for animation. Here you have a character that can transform himself into anything and you have a song that tells you about it.
AV: And he can walk out of his own mouth.
EG: Yeah. What better opportunity to just go completely haywire with it? And a lot of credit has to go to Ed Gombert, who was head of story. He actually had the initial pass on Friend Like Me, even before Robin had signed, and a lot of the ideas like dancing with his hands and stuff like that came from Ed. He had the face-like hands in his early storyboards. So I think even though people consider that my signature, I have to give a big tip of the hat to Ed on that stuff too. The thing about recording it… it’s a slightly bittersweet story because Howard Ashman had just passed away and of course Alan Menken was feeling very, very sensitive about Howard and his contribution to the movie as well as his contributions to all the other Disney movies. You see, when Howard and Alan originally conceived the song they conceived it as kind of a barrelhouse, Cab Calloway/Fats Waller number and they really wanted it sung like that and played like that. John and Ron and I wanted Robin to go nuts in the booth. So Alan had Robin record what Robin called “the torture track” which was basically note-for-note correctly sung and then once it was down and Alan was satisfied we got Robin aside and said, “Okay, you’re Groucho here, you’re a Fairy Godmother here, you’re this here…”
AV: You’re a surfer dude here…
EG: Yeah, and he goes into the booth and lets it blast and in two takes we had everything we wanted and Alan was… not happy because a lot of it was not sung particularly well because he was doing different voice iterations. It was more talk-singing than singing-singing, if you know what I mean, and because of his sensitivity to Howard, which I totally understand, it was a sore point for him. Ultimately, I felt then, and I feel now, it was exactly the right thing to do for the piece. You can’t have Robin Williams do a number and not take full advantage of it.
AV: His voice just goes a million directions at once, it’s just all over the board.
EG: Yeah, and it’s like denying what the guy is great at. So I actually always felt quite a duty when we were doing Aladdin that I give the audience a really good Robin Williams performance. They had to walk out of there and laugh as much as they would at Robin Williams live and that was very important to me. I felt like it would’ve been a highly disappointing thing for them to go to a Disney movie and not feel entertained in that way.
AV: Especially when you have Robin Williams being unleashed by the animation medium. Now, when they had that DVD premiere last year at the El Capitan and they had the screening of it… I always like to see movies that have been out for a long time to see the audience’s reaction, and I’m thinking, “Every house in America has the videotape of this so they know what it’s all about,” and it gets to that sequence and it just brings down the house. Everybody’s seen it many times before but it just moved everybody.
EG: My favorite Disney animators were Freddy Moore and Ward Kimball and it’s probably no surprise. In particular Ward Kimball for his experimentation and his attempt at being a studio maverick. He would basically throw anything in that he thought would fly. And I thought, “Well, this is the kind of stuff that follows those lines.”
- IMDb Page
- Interview with fps Magazine
- Interview with Animation Trip
- Interview with Animation World Magazine
- Interview with Animation World Magazine #2
- Interview with IGN
- Interview with FSTD
- Terrence Malick’s The New World
Here’s a sketch Eric made for me based on an idea I gave him:
This interview took place on September 17 2005, at the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Los Angeles. Special thanks to Eric Goldberg for agreeing to, and participating in, the interview and to Animated News & Views editor Ben Simon for his contributions.