Noell Wolfgram Evans: What input did you have with the story/script for Aladdin?
Eric Goldberg: "Script" is a very loose term when applied to an animated film, since what winds up on the screen is a combination of screenplay, storyboard (where new dialogue and action is often hatched), actors' improvisations (Robin Williams, anyone?), and contributions from animators, producers, production artists, and darn near anyone else who has a good idea. So, although I wrote a few Genie lines when storyboarding, more of my creative contribution came as visual support to the humor: If the Genie said "Alaskan King Crab", I stuck Sebastian on his finger. If the Genie did game show spiel, I turned his smoke tail into a microphone and cord.
Could you talk a bit about the influence the work of Al Hirschfeld had on your Genie designs?
I had long been a fan of Hirschfeld's work, searching for the Ninas every Sunday in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, and marvelling at the grace, fluidity and simplicity in each new piece. When I started on the film, a lot of pre-production backgrounds had been painted by our production designer, Richard Vander Wende. They were marvelous—beautifully rendered with light, shade and texture, but designed with bold, curvaceous shapes that reflected Arabic calligraphy and S-curves found in the objects and architecture. I was the first animator assigned to the project (the rest were toiling away on Beauty and the Beast) and it seemed to me that curvy characters would fit into curvy environments, so I began waving the Hirschfeld flag to John [Musker] and Ron [Clements], the directors. There were several other good reasons to go in this direction, especially for the Genie. Hirschfeld could boil down the essence of a personality into a few bold strokes, using strong attitudes in his character poses that read instantly—perfect for a Genie who has to be a lot of personalities in a short space of time. Hirschfeld used to say, "When I don't have time, I make a complicated, fussy drawing. When I do have time, I make a simple one," indicating the effort it takes to find just the right lines and shapes for an elegantly realized portrait. I took this to heart (and still do), and found that the simpler the Genie became, the better he got. By stripping him of extraneous clothing and detail, it became more and more possible to increase his freedom of movement and lightning-quick shape-shifting. Eventually, the Hirschfeld bug caught everyone, and all of the supervising animators designed their characters as a group effort, maintaining the same design conventions throughout the entire cast. We also strove to replicate a "thick-and-thin" ink line in our clean-ups, as seen in Hirschfeld's drawings, which had the benefit of also resembling the look of classically inked cels from Walt's golden era. When Hirschfeld saw the final film, he gave it one of his highest compliments: "It all looks like it was drawn by one hand."
Legendary Disney animators Freddie Moore and Ward Kimball were also huge influences. Not only were they the "cartooniest" animators from Walt's day, they were also the most innovative and free-spirited in their animation, going more for stylized, unrealistic movement and graphic appeal. I'm also a huge fan of the shorts from other studios, particularly Chuck Jones at Warner Bros, and Tex Avery at MGM, both of whom were masters of split-second timing. And of course, I have to mention the huge influence of Robin Williams himself, whose vocal pyrotechnics gave all of the Genie animators the license to go even nuttier, treading into areas of humor that had never been seen in a Disney film.
Was there a conscious effort coming off of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid to make a film like Aladdin that pushed the boundaries a little further, that was a little more open and free?
Not so much a conscious effort as a realization that that's what we were actually doing. Because of the overlapping production schedules, Beauty and the Beast was still being made while we were in pre-production on Aladdin, so there wasn't even a direct comparison to make. It did become clear, however, that comedy was going to take center stage in this one, and that involved taking creative risks that would not have been taken in previous efforts—I can't see turning the Beast's head into Pinocchio for a couple of seconds without completely alienating the audience, but if you're a Genie, why not?