Let’s get this out of the way up front: I’m not a fan of 3D movies. I think they’re a scourge, a nuisance, a gimmicky money grab that’s rarely worth the extra expense. Given the choice, I’d almost always rather see a film in plain old 2D, and I’ve never walked out of a theater regretting that decision. I want to firmly establish this point so when I say that Disney’s new 3D Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse” is a brilliant, genuine visual treat you will understand it’s not an opinion I came to lightly. When I say it’s the best narrative use of 3D I’ve ever seen, know that’s not just effervescent hype. This is the real deal.
“Get a Horse” will be a little bonus gift for audiences who see the new animated feature Frozen in theaters beginning November 27. Audiences at the 3D showings will also get the short in 3D, the best way to experience it, in my opinion (I’ve had the privilege of screening it twice now, both times in 3D). I’m sure the charm of it will still come across in two dimensions, but without the full 3D effect you’re missing out on something truly special. And I never thought I’d say that about any 3D film.
I should advise you at this point that there are some delightful surprises in “Get a Horse” that may be spoiled in the remainder of this article. If you want to go in without knowing anything about it, come back and read the rest of this after you’ve seen it. If you’re like me and don’t mind knowing every last detail going in, by all means read on.
Continuing the metaphor above, this little bonus gift comes wrapped in many layers. The first is a painstakingly faithful recreation of an original 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon. Although it may look authentically vintage, there is no lost or restored footage in “Get a Horse,” as you may have been led to believe if you’ve seen any of the studio’s coy publicity for it. Every frame is brand new. The only element taken from the archives is the voice of Walt Disney himself as Mickey, pieced together from different sources to match the needs of the script.
Director Laura MacMullan (the first woman to have a solo directing credit on an animated Disney film) and her team went to great lengths in production to emulate the rubbery, free-form style of famed artist Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s early collaborators and the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. At a recent press screening, MacMullan explained that as far as technology has come, we still don’t have the ability to effectively mimic the fluid quality of those early black-and-white cartoons. As she puts it, “They seem to be made of ink and expressiveness and humor.”
To fully capture the look and feel of an authentic 1928 cartoon, all of the 2D animation in the “Get a Horse” was drawn just like they did in the old days, with pencil on paper. Then it was put through an extensive aging process to make it look 85 years old.
“We created a bunch of ways to simulate digital film damage,” MacMullan said. “And this was a matter of adding some gate weave, scratches, and dust. They shot on high contrast film so the blacks start to bloom and the whites kind of blow out in this really nice way. There was emulsion flickers. We discovered at one point that what we thought was happening was that the electrical system in 1928, as they shot each individual cell, the current wasn’t steady. So the lights kind of go up and down. And then we also added stuff like cell shadows and then at the very end we had to go back and carefully add mistakes, because that’s the way they did it. They rushed through it.”
“Get a Horse” marries form and narrative in a way that’s not only innovative, it’s magical. This is where the big reveal comes in and the technology takes over. The story features a hayride gone awry when Pete shows up in an automobile and steals Minnie away from Mickey. At one point during the action, Mickey bursts through the screen into the real world and transforms from a flat, black-and-white drawing into a fully dimensional, colorful figure. At this point, the 3D effectively becomes part of the story. What follows is a wonderfully madcap chase as the characters jump in and out of the screen through what appears to be a tear in the very fabric of space. And the effect is so seamless it’s easy to forget the incredible amount of work it took to achieve it.
To accomplish this tremendous task, the project required close collaboration between the two halves of Disney’s animation studio—2D and CG. Eric Goldberg (co-director of Pocahontas and animation supervisor on The Princess and the Frog) led the 2D team, while Adam Green (an animator on Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph) was responsible for the CG aspects. Since the majority of the short involved shots with both elements, the two groups each had the opportunity to take the lead in creating portions of the action sequences, sharing shots with each other as much as four times a day. It took 18 months in all to complete the dazzling seven minutes of footage audiences will see on the screen. But there’s so much packed into those seven minutes, you may feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth before the main feature even starts.
“I still can’t believe we got to make this short,” MacMullan said as she finished her presentation. “And I’ll just close by saying people call this the animation industry, but to us it’s an industry of hands and drawings and light and motion. And I’m so happy that we got to make this little engine of joy.”