Getting to the Heart of Animation with Eric Goldberg
AnimationTrip caught up with animation director Eric Goldberg recently when he visited our neighboring Laguna College of Art and Design to give an insightful lecture on the work of Chuck Jones. Goldberg’s inspiring two-hour presentation also included his personal selection of film clips that spanned Jones' career. In the audience were several notable animators and directors from Los Angeles. The event inaugurated The Friends of Chuck Jones Lecture Series at the college and was introduced by Aubry Mintz, Chair of Animation, with the following notes on Jones as well as Goldberg:
Whenever I see something extraordinary in animation I can't help but to think about the keen talent that went into the creation of a particular scene – and then sometimes a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes to mind: "Who are those guys?" Well, in the animation industry, Eric Goldberg is widely respected as one of "those guys" and, thanks to Aubry and the rest of the good folks at LCAD, we're pleased to present to you our interview with him. Also, special gratitude goes to animation director, Sam Chen, whose creative passion for filmmaking extends beyond his own film projects as our engaging and knowledgeable guest interviewer.
Sam Chen: So, thank you, Eric, for being here and sharing about Chuck Jones.
Eric Goldberg: My pleasure.
SC: It's like rediscovering Chuck Jones for us. So, real quick, if you could just summarize what lessons you've learned from Chuck Jones. I mean, what sets him apart for you?
EG: I think a big lesson is economy. Not over-animating something – only moving something... moving it well, but only moving enough to get the idea across without having to put a lot of flapping and thrashing around on top of it. You know, he really is the only animation director that I can think of whose work was funny and elegant at the same time. And he got that elegance through the beautiful poses and through knowing how to utilize them and how to convey that to his animators. Certainly, timing in a Chuck Jones cartoon is superb. There are certain technical things I've learned. For example, Ken Harris... I kind of learned, second generation, how to animate from Ken Harris because he was at Richard William's studio at the same time I was. Used to take him to lunch every Tuesday and he used to go, "Oh, I can't draw! I don't know what I'm doing! Dick does it all for me!" And he could turn out thirty feet a week when he was eighty! And it was all good! [laughing] So I would ask him, and he would give me that answer, so I went and asked Dick, "How does he do it?" And Dick could analyze it for me. Dick told me about how he uses the two poses and a skew break down drawing to give him automatic overlap so when you put in the in-betweens you get overlaps “for free.” So it's a masterly use of in-between charts with as little drawing as possible. Sure he'd go back and add bells and whistles where necessary but for the most part that's how he did it. You know, and he did it his whole life!
SC: Now did you utilize that for the Genie or...
EG: Absolutely! I mean that's the method of animating that I use, which actually isn't very different from say, Milt Kahl's method of animating over at Disney. You know, he would hit story-telling poses and then get from one to another in an interesting way. And it's a very sound method because it grounds your character but it also affords you the possibilities to get a lot of variation in the movement and the timing. The other thing that Chuck did a lot of the time is not just freeze on one of his poses. Something might arrive there fast, but it would take a couple more frames for the ear to catch up and things like that. Little subtle things that are, what we called, the “grace notes” just set the animation apart. It's not basic stuff anymore. It's just playing a finely tuned violin.
SC: Finesse... staggering and overlapping...
EG: Yeah, but it's just enough to not call attention to itself but to keep a character alive. It really is the way that I animate. And there are all sorts of little things in Case of the Missing Hare when the magician is chuckling to himself... you know, I analyzed that chuckle and it was a revelation because most people would animate a chuckle where the head's moving up and down and the mouth is opening and closing. Ken did exactly the opposite. He put the head on a smooth path and let the shoulders go up and down. And it works beautifully... it's so subtle but it, gosh, does it feel like a chuckle! [laughing]
SC: It also looks different, right? It's so out of the ordinary, but yet familiar.
SC: What about Richard Williams and Freddy Moore. What are some things you've learned from them?
EG: Gosh, where do I start? Where do I stop? Richard Williams was really my mentor, you know, in my formative years.
SC: And everyone’s because he wrote that wonderful book, THE ANIMATOR’S SURVIVAL KIT
EG: Yeah, but this is way before. I first hooked up with him on Raggedy Ann and Andy in 1975. And I was an assistant animator on that film and started to learn some things. I’d always admired his movie title work and some of his short films like Love Me, Love Me, Love Me and it was clear that this was a guy who liked going back to the past in order to recapture a lot of the qualities of the classic animation. And to that end he would employ classic animators to work on Cobbler and the Thief amongst other projects so I got to work with Art Babbitt. I got to work with Ken Harris. I got to work with Emery Hawkins. And that was great. And of course Dick was terrific at articulating work. You know, he'd be able to break a wrist ninety-eight ways before it finally resolved into this pose! And so his work always looked tremendously fluid and he was always encouraging of people who were trying to achieve that look and feel of the classic stuff. As far as Freddy Moore goes... I mean, I never knew the guy but, you know, just in terms of observation, his work had a quality that I try to employ which is that his characters look like they're enjoying themselves on the screen. Both he and Ward Kimball had that quality to their animation... that it looks like they're having fun. And there's a spontaneity and a joy to that, you know, that you don't see when somebody's just trying to just push the stuff around. Also, it's been said that Freddy just couldn't keep up with the more sophisticated animation at Disney when they started doing things like Sleeping Beauty and stuff like that. And frankly, I'm not sure that's true. I think Freddy and Ward's animation is immensely sophisticated because it takes a lot to put comedy over. You know, having co-directed Pocahontas, I can tell you that I could approve scenes on Pocahontas that were animated on eights, because she didn't move much. Okay? So if you got those, then chances are that if the in-betweens filled in the right spot, it would be an okay scene. You could never do that with the comedy scenes because they have to be that precise. You got to put in more drawings, more extra, more juice to actually get it to read. And hopefully elicit a laugh. That's a tall order!
SC: Kind of like the in-between frames that Chuck did with the exaggerations.
SC: Back to Richard Williams. Did he actually create "breaking of the joints", or, did he codify it? Was he the first to do that?
EG: No, that was Art Babbitt.
SC: Oh really?
EG: And he got that from Babbitt and he pushed it forward. But Babbitt was the first one to coin the term. And he was using it particularly about Goofy at the studio when he was animating Goofy in films like Moving Day. And it took people out of the idea of animating rubber hose animation and that you could get that same fluidity by just breaking the joints, you know, between the elbow and the wrist, for example.
SC: Even going beyond what is physically possible.
SC: Well, speaking of Richard Williams, you mentioned that you worked on Roger Rabbit 2 or at least developing it and you took it to the CG realm and you said that the squash and stretch were amazing. Can you share some of that?
EG: Yeah. It was a project that didn't get made partially because of a lot of politics. Disney would have to get in bed with Steven Spielberg again, and so on and so forth. And this group owned one set of characters and another group owned another set of characters so it just became politically unwieldy. And everyone knew going in that it was going to be a costly film. I went the CG route because no matter how well you did the 2D on top of live action, people have already seen it. The gimmick that made Roger Rabbit a success couldn't be used any more as a gimmick so I went the next step and did a CG version. And in this case, the scene was pre-animated by a 2D animator and then translated to a 3D model. Eric Guaglioneand his team down in Florida did the translation and Roger was there. I mean he was there. And what they did was basically match all the stuff that we do in 2D. They matched the strength of the poses. They matched the quick transitions from one pose to the next. They had all the overlap. It was tough to do but we did it. I mean, we proved it could be done. I mean, I don't think that anybody seeing that test would think anything other than, "Yup, there's Roger." You know, we did the same with the Genie, which we did finish, for Tokyo Disney Seas, which was a 3D and a 4D ride so to speak. It's not a ride as much as it is a stage show and the live actors work down here and the Genie works up here on the screen. But because of the element of 3D, if they're out here, and the Genie sticks his finger out here, because of the stereo, it looks like they're on the same plane. It looks like they can interact and all that kind of stuff.
SC: Now did the Florida team basically rotoscope what you guys did with CG?
EG: Yes. The difference is with the Genies I made, I made a lot of pose drawings, but the animators animated them. We didn’t pre-animate them. It was under discussion, but the studio figured they’d rather see if the animators could actually get that style of animation. So we did. I had them model CG smear drawings [Laughs] just for one frame, because the stuff wouldn’t come across the same way.
SC: Would you have preferred to use the same method for Looney Tunes?
EG: No. I’m happy with what we did with Looney Tunes. First of all, it’s a tall enough order to try to capture characters that are beloved by everybody. Any everybody has a slightly different version of who those characters are in their minds. Some people like a Clampett take, some people like a Freleng take, and some people like a Jones take. In the case of Daffy, he’s a bit of a hybrid. He’s kind of the Jones duck with a bit of Clampett looney-ness thrown in. And that was a conscious effort because we knew there were a lot of Clampett fans out there. And Joe Dante, who is as much of a geek in this stuff as I am, was wholly supportive of getting the animation to be as good as possible. He really wanted it to be hand-drawn. He felt that was the legacy of these characters and that they should be hand-drawn. I had never shown him any of the CG stuff that we had done, but for the time frame that we had, it would have been impossible to model all of the characters and manipulate them well enough to get that kind of result.
SC: Can you comment on the trend toward CG with a little bit of your personal experience with Roger Rabbit 2? What do you think of the whole trend?
EG: Well, I think there’s some marvelous stuff being done.
SC: Such as?
EG: Such as The Incredibles. Just saw it the other night. Love it. I think it’s great. There is still a wall, though, in terms of how CG animation is handled and how traditional animation is handled. In my opinion, nobody has gotten to that “golden place” yet where you wouldn’t be able to tell the two apart, at least not in anything other than small doses. And most people aren’t trying because it’s a very complex thing to do. For the Genie animation, we had to model about 400 heads, just to be able to morph from one shape to another. And if an expression is weird, you model that expression. You don’t build a rig on a head that’s so heavy and cumbersome to try to get you to that expression. You build the expression and then you play the pose, the way Chuck Jones would play the pose. I think that there’s a difference – I think it’s partially because of the subject matter in the films. The films themselves are less fanciful and trying to be more adult… they’re a little lacking magic in many cases. Now the Pixar films – and I think they’ve certainly done the best of the CG efforts – were very smart because they first chose things that they knew they could do in CG. Hard-bodied toys. Hard-bodied insects. Fish. They keep developing new ways of overcoming technical challenges like, “What does underwater look like?” and “How does clothing fold?” and that kind of stuff. And it’s marvelous. They did a nice job with hair in The Incredibles and stuff like that.
SC: It must have been a dream to work with Robin Williams as Genie. What other actor would you love to animate to?
EG: Oh, there are tons of them! Mel Brooks. Love to do something with Mel Brooks. Hmm, who else? There’s so many people where you think, “Oh yeah! He’d work!” Susan suggested Adrian Brody for something the other day, and it’s like, “Yeah! Yeah, that works!” So we’re kind of thinking all over.
SC: Last question, although I have so many more! Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for the future? Where are you going with your animation?
EG: Basically we’ve gone independent, so a lot of that means a lot of freelance work for other projects. I’m animating right now some Pink Panther titles for Bob Kurtz. We did a lot of work for the Aladdin DVD Special Features thing and we’ll probably be doing more of that work for upcoming DVD’s. I did one of the Drew Carey green screen pieces for the first show. And, other than that kind of freelance work, we’re basically trying to get our own projects off the ground. I think they can be done for a lot less money than is normally spent on animated features, as long as the money is spent in the right place, i.e. don’t waste it all for seven years, gazing at your navel in Story! Just commit to the darn thing and make it, and improve it as you’re making it.
SC: And no executive meddling?
EG: I won’t say no. [Laughs] A minimum of.
SC: And what’s in the future?
EG: Hopefully getting one of these feature projects off the ground. I can’t say more than that. But we’ve got a lot of plates spinning.
SC: Awesome. Well, we look forward to what you and your wife, Susan, will deliver. We’re dying for the next Eric Goldberg Signature piece.
EG: Thank you very much.
Transcription: Brian Crawford & Mark Barry
For more information on Sam Chen and his film, Eternal Gaze, click HERE.
To read Sam’s interview with writer/director Brad Bird, about The Incredibles, click HERE.
To read Sam's interview with fellow SIGGRAPH award winner, Chris Landreth, about Ryan, click HERE.
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