-Writings on Disney History, along with insights on other films, animation, and cartoons
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Friday, February 28, 2014

Al Hirschfeld and Eric Goldberg

-This will be a multi-part series of writings on subjects in direct relation to, as well as branching off from, Rhapsody in Blue from Fantasia 2000. It will cover everything from Al Hirschfeld to George Gershwin, as well as the Disney artists themselves.

Hirschfeld and Goldberg
Eric Goldberg, by Al Hirschfeld

Hirschfield caricature and Disney animation did not meet for the first time in Fantasia 2000. Instead audiences were treated to a wild and zany character voiced by Robin Williams and animated by Eric Goldberg in the 1992 feature film, Aladdin.
         By the time Eric Goldberg first arrived at the Disney Studios to work on Aladdin, he was already an animation veteran, having worked extensively in London alongside the legendary Richard Williams, and at his own studio, Pizazz Pictures, producing television commercials. Goldberg was also schooled in the classics of Hollywood animation as well, and greatly revered the legends of Disney and Warner Bros. His wife, Susan, also an artist, was a graduate of Cal Arts, and knew the likes of John Musker and Tim Burton. John Musker, along with Disney veteran Ron Clements, would direct Aladdin.
Eric Goldberg
Goldberg comments on his arrival, “I was lucky enough to get the assignment of animating the genie in Aladdin. And since I was the first animator on the project, I was the first one to try and figure out what kind of style we should have for the characters in the film. So I turned to one of my great artists heroes, the legendary Al Hirschfeld.” Production Designer Richard Vander Wende had done very curvy conceptual designs for the world of Aladdin, what Goldberg describes as “Hollywood Arabian,” where s-curves come into prominence, with very little use of angularity or straight edges. These were based strongly on studies of Arabic calligraphy and Persian miniature paintings. “And so I thought,” Goldberg comments, “curvy environment, curvy characters…who does curves the best in the world: Al Hirschfeld.” Hirschfeld art had been a great passion of Goldberg’s since his parents first exposed him to the caricaturist’s work. The Genie would be his first great tribute to his hero.
Goldberg cites the “organic line work” of Hirschfeld in the Genie’s design; “one shape leads organically into another shape.” In both Hirschfeld’s caricature and the Genie’s adopting of forms, “the pose indicates the character’s personality.” Whether it is Groucho Marx or Rodney Dangerfield, the pose is very specific to the character, defining each version of the Genie.
The Genie
Image Source: http://cappatoons.com
          The Genie himself was a living caricature. Musker and Clements were eager to set the story apart from any other medium. They were concerned that Aladdin lent itself more to live action rather than animation. Making the genie a shape-shifter firmly cemented the story in the animated medium. And many of the shapes that the Genie adopted were of popular personalities of the day, in effect Genie-style caricatures of celebrities matched with Robin Williams’ skillful impersonations. This was a bold move, to make such contemporary references in a Disney feature, which are normally angling for “timelessness.” But, as animator Will Finn comments, “The really exciting thing to this group of animators was that we were going to make a movie that was in some sense a satire [or a caricature] of a Disney movie.” And animator Andreas Deja adds more, “My assistant “Kathy Bailey” [once] came running into my room, she said, ‘They’ve lost it! You have to go outside and look at the storyboard. They have the Genie turning into Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ So I run out there and he’s not [just] turning into Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he’s turning into all kinds of other current personalities.”  In a way this reflected particularly the aptitude of Robin Williams, which so heavily defined the Genie’s character. But it also reflected a tradition of caricature running deep in Disney lore and in the Hirschfield-esque designs, though certainly on a more subtle level than Williams’ performance.
Though Hirschfeld had been such an influence on Goldberg, he did not actually meet the master caricaturist until the production of Aladdin. Goldberg remembered:
“Halfway through the film we were in New York, actually to do a press rollout. So I phoned him up; believe it or not he was in the phonebook. And I said, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but my name’s Eric Goldberg and I’m working on a Disney feature called Aladdin and we’re doing a presentation about making it. I would love for you to come down because we acknowledge how influential your work was on the film…’ And he said, ‘Well I’d love to come down but I got this deadline for The New York Times. I got to do three drawings by Monday and so another time maybe.’ I hung up the phone and thought, ‘The guy’s 87 and he still has deadlines!’”
Sometime later, a charity work-in-progress screening of the film was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Goldberg was given the honor of being Al and Dolly Hirschfeld’s handler for the evening. “Sweating bullets” the entire time, Goldberg had finally met his hero, who very much enjoyed the film, commenting, “it looks like it was all drawn by one hand.” Hirschfeld and Goldberg remained friends afterwards.
Goldberg and Hirschfeld
Image Source: Aladdin DVD http://www.amazon.com
          About a year later, Hirschfeld paid a visit to the Disney Studio for a “week of teaching.” Goldberg remembered, “He taught caricature lessons and I did a couple of onstage interviews with him and things like that…we got to take him to Disneyland.” At this same time, Goldberg, along with his wife Susan, presented Hirschfeld with the idea of a film set in New York City in the 1930’s to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and in the style of Hirschfeld’s caricatures. “I asked him to design all the characters in it,” Goldberg said, “He wrote a very gracious letter back that basically said, ‘If I was fifty years younger, I’d jump at the chance…’ 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.”
         This would set the stage for the greatest fusion of Hirschfeld caricature and Disney animation yet to be produced. “We had the distinct pleasure,” Goldberg notes, “of working directly with him on the film both as our inspiration and as our artistic consultant.” For Goldberg, it must have made coming to Disney all the more worth it. “One of the great things about working on these films is that sometimes you get to meet your heroes,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to have met and known Al Hirschfeld, to have learned from him, and to have visited him in his home studio where he created so many unforgettable images, images that would one day inspire the Aladdin crew to create a curvy, streamlined world of fantasy, romance, and humor.” 
Image Source: Aladdin DVD http://www.amazon.com

-Stay tuned for more writings regarding the music of George Gershwin and ultimately the Rhapsody in Blue sequence from Fantasia 2000 itself.

-A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin. Prod. Leonard Maltin. Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.
- "Eric Goldberg (film Director)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Goldberg_%28film_director%29>.
-Ghez, Didier, ed. Walt's People Volume 4. Vol. 4. N.p.: Xlibris, 2007. Print.
- Solomon, Charles. "The Goldbergs: Two Peas in a Pod." The Goldbergs: Two Peas in a Pod. Animation World Magazine, Dec. 1999. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.awn.com/mag/issue4.09/4.09pages/solomongoldbergs.php3>.

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