Eric Goldberg is the legendary animator who brought to life characters like the Genie from Aladdin, Phil from Hercules, and Louis from The Princess and the Frog. He also co-directed Pocahontas, contributed the awesome “Rhapsody in Blue” segment to Fantasia 2000, and, in recent years, has supervised animation on everything from the Oscar-nominated short “Get a Horse!” to the Wonderful World of Color: Celebrate! nighttime spectacular at Disney California Adventure. His style is exuberant, playful, and sophisticated. You know, within seconds, if you’re watching a character drawn by Goldberg.
And one of the principle joys of looking through An Animator’s Gallery: Eric Goldberg Draws the Disney Characters (written by Dave Bossert) is seeing Goldberg apply his style to characters from every one of the Disney animated classics, a handful of Disney•Pixar films, and other favorites like The Nightmare Before Christmas. All in all there are more than 200 drawings. They first lined the halls of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building in Burbank and will be seen next year at Shanghai Disneyland.
We were lucky enough to spend time with Goldberg, who walked us through the development process, discussed the looming influence of Al Hirschfeld, and talked about which new characters he really, really loved drawing for the new book (spoiler alert: they’re from Frozen!)
What’s the timeline? This stuff was here and now it’s going to be in Shanghai Disneyland. How did this whole thing start?
It started with Shanghai. Dave Bossert, who’s our head of special projects, was approached by Imagineering, who told him that they wanted to build a Tony’s Restaurant at Shanghai Disney Resort and decorate it Brown Derby/Sardi’s/Hirschfeld style with drawings of the characters. Originally they thought, We can get a bunch of different artists to do it. But Dave thought that it was a better idea to get one artist to unify this because they’re from so many different films from over the years. He wanted one artist to follow it all the way through. So he figured me.
How long did it take you?
Far longer than Dave wanted me to. It took me months. And I was doing it while I was doing other projects, as well. It kind of came in as I was coming off of “Get a Horse!” Dave saw a window there and approached me. As we were doing the requested number of drawings and characters, we started to realize that there was something missing here. If we were going to cover every animated feature that was ever made here, then we have to put some more in. So we came up with the rest of the list and it eventually numbered over 200 drawings. What had happened was, to kind of show it off, they posted it in the walls in the front there and had an opening party. During that opening party, a lot of people were asking me for prints … Dave looks at me and says, “I think we should do a book.” And I said, “Cool!”
What makes Hirschfeld such an inspiration and somebody you go back to time and time again?
Hirschfeld’s work was so elegant and so iconic and, in my opinion, animation-friendly. He drew very organically. Now it’s interesting because, I’d be the first one to admit that I bow to the God of Hirschfeld, there are other influences too. When we were doing Aladdin, for example, and I was trying to wave the Hirschfeld flag on that one, nobody in the studio had really drawn like that before. So I said, “You may not realize it but you already draw like that.” Then I showed them “Once Upon a Wintertime” from Melody Time, designed by Mary Blair, and it’s got the same beautiful lines and curved shapes. It’s like, if you want to know how to handle this style, the studio’s already done it. Or you look at a beautiful Freddy Moore drawing from “Little Whirlwind” in 1941 and you get that same kind of elegance. Hirschfeld’s poses were always very strong, very clear, very readable. And my favorites of his work are the ones that are very simple. I think those were his favorites as well. He used to say, “When I don’t have the time I make a complex, fussy drawing and when I do I make a simple one.” Because it does take some effort to boil things down to their essence and Hirschfeld was a master at that. It’s just amazing.
And he was a mutual admirer?
Yes. And working with him was fantastic. First of all, I’d long been a fan. And I didn’t get a chance to actually meet him when we were making Aladdin until late in the process. Here we are, 500 people trying to draw like Al Hirschfeld and he doesn’t know that this is going on. A few of us went to New York for a rollout of Aladdin to the press about six months before it came out. We showed them the pencil test and explained the process. So I looked up Al Hirschfeld and there he is in the New York phone book. So I cold called him. “Hi, is this Al Hirschfeld? You don’t know me but I’m Eric Goldberg from Disney Animation and we would love for you to come down and see what we’re doing on our latest film Aladdin and acknowledge what an enormous debt we owe you.” “Well, I don’t know, I’ve got these drawings I’ve got to finish. Some other time maybe.” Click. So I hung up the phone and I go, “Jeez, he’s in his eighties and he’s still doing deadlines.” So flash forward to the Museum of Modern Art in-progress benefit screening of Aladdin. And I’m standing there with my wife Susan and my brother Elliott and Peter Schneider, who was then president, and he says, “Oh by the way you’re Al and Dotty Hirschfeld’s minders tonight.” Up comes the limo, out comes Al and Dotty Hirschfeld’s limo. And I’m gushing sweat. Not only was he gracious but he was very tickled by what he could recognize as his influence.
The other thing was that we had him out to the studio about a year later and we had him do caricature lessons for us. And Susan and I got to take him to Disneyland. Dolly lost her hat in Pirates of the Caribbean. They took him to the animation research library and they showed him some of my Aladdin Genie drawings. So later I said, “I hope you saw your influence in some of my Aladdin drawings.” And he said, “Yeah but there’s a lot of you in there too.” Which was wonderful. I think all artists are the syntheses of their influences.
Was it fun to go back and draw characters that you never worked on?
Oh it’s all fun! I’m a geek! It’s all fun! “Oh boy I get to draw Freddy Moore’s Three Little Pigs!” Doing some of the modern films was fun too. I had a blast doing the Frozen cast. It’s interesting. I think Dave Bossert was right in thinking let’s get one artist, in order to unify not just different art styles but hand drawn and CG and make it feel all of a piece.