To celebrate the release of the of highly anticipated Diamond Edition Blu-ray release of Aladdin, Disney animator Eric Goldberg went on a press tour to talk about his work animating one of the film’s most iconic characters, the Genie.
Eric is absolutely delightful, jolly, and personable. We had the pleasure of spending 15 minutes with Eric to talk about his his role animating this iconic Disney character, the future of 2D animation, and the special work he got to do on the Blu-ray’s bonus features.
Rotoscopers: With Aladdin, it’s been nearly 25 years since it’s release. Going back, what are some of your favorite moments animating the Genie?
Eric Goldberg: All of it (laughing). I mean, I just had such a blast doing that film. It was my first Disney gig so it will always occupy a warm spot in my heart. But the things that I remember the most are the fun and the exhilaration of doing something that I knew hadn’t even been in a Disney film before. And I should make that a “we,” not just “me.” We were going with Robin Williams and betting for humor that had never been seen in a Disney film before. First of all, the complete irreverence, the speed with which it was delivered, and the fact that Robin Williams was a guy who was made for animation. If there was anyone suited for the medium other than Mel Blanc, I can’t think who it was. And so, it was just a gift to be able to animation that.
One of the first satisfying things, alright. John Musker and Ron Clements wrote the script. And they have the gift to be able to write in the voices of the actors they would like want to cast. So they hadn’t cast Robin yet, but they wrote it as if Robin had been cast when you’re reading the Genie in the script. But they hadn’t signed him yet, so they asked me, “Why don’t you animate a Genie to some of Robin’s comedy riffs off one of his albums?” So I did and they brought Robin Williams in to look at it, and it’s one of the greatest moments of my life to make Robin laugh. And then after that, he signed. So I was tickled pink and tickled pink just to be at the recording sessions.
And there was a wavelength thing that we had going, that was really cool. So he would do certain things and he’d know I’d pick up on it. So one of them that remains in the movie: he was riffing that he didn’t believe Aladdin was going to use his third wish to set him free. And he goes, “Uh huh, yeah right, Boo-woop!” And the “Boo-woop,” Ron and John didn’t know what that “Bo-woop” was. And I said, “Well, that’s Robin’s shorthand for telling a lie. It’s Pinocchio’s nose growing. Can I please turn the Genie’s head into Pinocchio? We own the character?” (laughing) And so, it’s in the movie. And a lot of making the movie was like that. If animation, which is an ultra-planned, ultra-labor intensive medium, could ever be improvisational, this is probably the closest we got to improvisational. Because we would be doing left turns based on the new funny line we’d cut in, or things like that.
And Robin’s humor gave us license to do funny things visually. You know, at the end of the film when the Genie’s been set free and he is going to go on his trip, so to speak, and he walks on and he is wearing the Hawaiian shirt and the Goofy hat. And it gets a laugh. It’s actually a joke on a joke. Because, those of your readers who remember the Animation Tour down at Disney Florida, there used to be a film played there called “Back to Neverland,” which was directed by Jerry Rees, and the stars were Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite. And in it Walter Cronkite describes to Robin, who turns into an animation character, the process of animation. So because Jerry was a friend, and he used to be an animator at Disney as it happened then he got into live action, we thought, “Ok, let’s put this in.” Because in the live-action sections, Robin is wearing a Goofy hat and a Hawaiian shirt. So it’s kind of a meta joke, if you will.
But he gave us the freedom to be able to do that. It’s the kind of thing, where, we call it “plussing” in animation. When it goes to the next department, the next department does what they’re great at and that plusses it. So in the case of him riffing the recipes to make a prince. He’s coming up with different things as he’s reading the royal recipe book and one of them is Alaskan King crab, so I put Sebastian on his finger. Then on top of that, if you listen hard, Alan Menken put a little musical sting going, “Da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daa-da-da-dah” [“Under the Sea” melody], while Sebastian’s on screen. So you’ve got jokes on top of jokes on top of jokes. And I think that kind of multi-layered humor that’s fun for adults, fun for kids, is really what the film’s above. But it also had tons of heart too. I don’t think it would be a Disney movie without the heart factor.
Rotoscopers: You mentioned Robin Williams, obviously he gave you a lot of material, but were there any challenges working with him because he has such a unique comedic style? Was it difficult at times to tame that or express it visually?
Eric Goldberg: Actually, Robin was amazing at being able to channel all the riffs through the character and through the needs of the story. You listen to all the takes and you realize just what a generous performer he was. And he didn’t do things just to make the crew laugh. He’s performing. He’s channeling it all through what the story and the character’s and story’s needs are. Which, first of all, is very very professional. And second of all, the amount of energy he put into that is unbelievable. He would be drenched by the time a four-hour recording session was done but he would have given it 158% once the mic opens up.
So, there weren’t challenges in terms of, “Hmm, we can’t really use that because it’s not appropriate for a Disney movie.” Frankly, John and Ron and I sat there and laughed ourselves stupid and the stuff that we thought was the funniest got in the movie. And for the most part, the studio said, “Yeah, okay, that works.” And they let us keep it in. We would sit there cracking up at him doing Robert De Niro taxi driver and we’d put it in the movie thinking, “They’re never going to let us keep this in. They’re never going to let us keep this in.” And they kept it in! There it is, it’s in the movie.
And part of the fun was being able to put visual things that actually helped some of Robin’s riffs. Not that he needed help, but hopefully added to the humor. So during the “Prince Ali” number, he’s dressed as both a male and female parade commentator like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which of course is always cold in New York. So there they are in the middle of sun-baked Agrabah and I had them animate steam coming out of their mouths and they’re dressed in parkas. It’s just one of those things where the lines were certainly funny, “Fabulous, Harry, I love the feathers.” It’s all really funny and we kind of had a chance to go to town and have as much fun.
Rotoscopers: Since the Genie is such a Disney icon, what do you think his legacy has been over the years?
Eric Goldberg: I think the Genie fits into the Disney canon of great sidekicks. And I’ve been fortunate enough do a fair number of sidekick characters in the films, which I love. And the sidekicks perform an important role in our films, all the way back to, say, Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. He might be the greatest sidekick ever. But he is there to, first of all, voice the theme of the movie: always let your conscious be your guide. The Genie is there to voice the theme the movie and, no matter what he turns into, he tells Aladdin, “Be yourself.” And they fulfill those roles as mentors, as teachers, and as people who really care about the main character. If you’ve got somebody who cares about that main character, you’re going to care about that main character. So that’s where I think the Genie falls. But also I would say uniquely, it’s such a fun melding of Robin’s verbal and vocal genius and the medium of animation. What the medium of animation can do with it, that I think is part of makes that character unique in the canon.
Rotoscopers: The Genie himself is this all-powerful being, but you still needed to make him have a sense of humanity. So what did you do to go about doing that? Because he could have done anything he wanted really, except that he was bound to certain rules.
Eric Goldberg: Well part of that is from the warmth that Robin gave to his vocal performance. When Aladdin asks him, “Well what would you wish for?” it throws hims. And the vocal performance Robin gives is very good, it’s like, “Nobody ever asked me that before.” And then he resists telling Aladdin. “Come on, what is it? What is it?” “Nah, nah, I don’t want to.” And finally he blurts it out, “Freedom.” And you have to play that stuff real. You have to play that so you actually believe that, despite all the external bravura, he’s still a guy who wants something, he’s still a guy who has a hole that needs filling. And those are just as important to the believability of our characters as the humor or any of the other aspects.
Rotoscopers: You’ve worked with Disney on and off over the years, and you’ve worked on a variety of 2D animated films from Aladdin and Princess and the Frog to shorts like Get A Horse!. Where do you see the future of 2D animation for the studio?
Eric Goldberg: I don’t have a crystal ball. I wish I had a crystal ball. But I will say is that I think we’re very fortunate to really understand and appreciate our legacy at Disney and, the artists who are working there, all of them understand it and know how important it is to uphold that. Whether we do it with new media, or whether we do it with hand-drawn, or whether we blend the two or whether we do it with matchsticks.
There are certain tenets of Disney films that we have to maintain. Two of them are great stories and great characters. And I think the third one really is themes that resonate with people. You can take a lot of the Disney films and boil them down to the soundbite theme, but the soundbite theme is often pretty profound. And then everything from the movie can kind of cleave to it. And so for Aladdin, it’s “Be Yourself.” Everything kind of cleaves to that: Aladdin is trying to be a phony, but it doesn’t work, the Genie is turning into a million different things, but it’s all about “be yourself.” In Dumbo, it’s like, “The little guy does good.” You see it with Dumbo and you see it with Timothy scaring the elephants to defend Dumbo. You see that theme reflected through the entire movie. And I think that’s something that Disney really excels at is finding those universal themes that everybody can relate to.
Rotoscopers: As part of the Aladdin Diamond Edition Blu-ray release, you had a special opportunity in creating one of the bonus features. Can you tell us more about what that is and what the process was like?
Eric Goldberg: So for years John, Ron, and I knew that Robin had all this great material that never wound up in the movie. And for years we wanted to do something with it. So as a tribute to him, I sat and listened to the 16 hours of Robin Williams’ takes and plucked the ones that I thought were the funniest of the ones that did not get in the movie, storyboarded them, and they are now in the special feature called the “The Genie Outtakes.” It’s the only chance you’ll get to see some of this stuff and it’s gold. It’s a short segment, but it’s plenty of material. With Robin, as normal, it’s the tip of the iceberg. But, we picked the stuff that we thought was the funniest… again! It was an absolute joy to do as a project.
Rotoscopers: If you had a magic lamp for your career for the next 5-10 years, what is one wish you could have?
Eric Goldberg: To keep doing what I’m doing and loving it. And hopefully I will have another five years to do that.
The Aladdin Diamond Edition Blu-ray hits stores October 13th. You can pre-order it here.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes