10 secrets of Disney's Oscar-nominated short 'Get a Horse!'
If you’ve seen Frozen, you’ve seen the cutting-edge/old-fashioned Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse! (And given Frozen’s box office at this point, we’re guessing that means everybody.)
But even if you’ve already watched the nuvo-retro Mickey movie, which combines an old-school 1930s hand-drawn style with state-of-the-art digital animation and 3-D effects, you probably haven’t seen everything the Oscar-nominated short has to offer.
EW has an exclusive clip of the Walt Disney Animation Studios film – when things go from flat to flat-out crazy. Director Lauren MacMullan walked us through all the little details, hidden and otherwise.
So here they are, the video and secrets of Get a Horse!
1. WHICH CAME FIRST …?
“One of my favorite little details happens at the very beginning,” MacMullan says. “[The villain] Pete pulls up in his car, and there’s a chicken that’s following the hay wagon, and his horn startles the chicken. It happens very quickly, but you can see the chicken get so startled that it lays an egg and runs away — and then the egg itself develops legs and runs away.”
She says that was part of their homage to early Walt Disney animation: “They often took the time to have a bit of business with some character in the corner.”
This hidden moment also has a callback in the conclusion of the short. “At the end, when all the characters swarm back into the screen, and it goes back to black-and-white, there is a chicken that comes out of nowhere and goes into the screen,” MacMullan points out. “Followed by an egg with legs.”
2. FEELING HORNY
“Make way for the future!” honks Peg-leg Pete’s horn.
“That [vintage] animation era has a lot of inanimate objects coming to life,” says MacMullan, who personally animated that shot herself. “You could say they went out of their way to think that there could be life in anything. Anything could start to speak or dance. So the boundaries were hazy with car parts.”
Who did the voice? “That was one of our story artists, Raymond Persi,” MacMullan says. “He’s done some little voices here and there. He did the voice of Gene in Wreck-It Ralph, one of the Nicelanders — the mean Nicelander.”
“I think that horn effect was actually achieved by him barking out the line and holding his nose at the same time,” she adds. “That’s how high-tech that recording session was.”
3. WEIRD SCIENCE
“The characters are sort of a bit human, but also a huge percentage of animal,” MacMullan says, pointing out the story’s odd biology. “A lot of the animal characters have a choice of walking on four legs — as Horace Horsecollar does as he’s pulling the wagon — or standing up and walking around, like he does later on, when he comes back from the concession stand.”
Unlike with 1942’s Bambi, when Walt created a habitat at the studio so animators could study the movements of actual fawns, there was no such examination made of barnyard beasts for Get a Horse!
Believe it or not, real cows rarely try to play their own udders like a bagpipe. “There was no extensive research,” MacMullan jokes. “’Hey, she spat out her tail again! I don’t think this is going to work!’”
4. EYEBALL STARE
In another old-time animation reference, Pete’s lovelorn gaze becomes a series of dotted lines, aimed squarely at Minnie. “It’s the classic joke,” MacMullan says. A lot of early cinematic cartooning borrowed its storytelling language from comic strips before establishing its own. “In many of Disney’s Oswald and Mickey shorts, they would still have words appear above a character’s head, or they would indicate a motion with those dotted lines,” she says.
And here, the dots prove to literally exist — drooping when Mini spurns him. “That moment is the first slight inkling that somehow the cartoon is going off its rails a bit,” MacMullan says, referring to the upcoming transition to 3-D. “There’s a pause in the music, and you don’t know quite which way it is going to go from there.”
The internal logic behind the entire short is then revealed in one line – something many people have missed. “If you listen to what Pete says when he gets really mad, he grabs Mickey and says, ‘I’m going to knock you into next week!’ It’s a line I wrote because he doesn’t only knock Mickey into next week, but into 2014. He overdid it.”
5. SAY IT, DON’T SPRAY IT
When Peg-leg Pete first lays eyes on a shimmying Minnie, there is some copious drool. “We wanted to establish him as someone pretty reprehensible right away,” MacMullan says. “We also had some alternate [gross behaviors] early on, where Pete would try to impress Minnie by smiling, and a tooth would fall out. And we had him doff his hat to say hi, and there’s a black mass underneath that matches the shape of the hat. Then it would break away into a cloud of flies. The drool was really reining it in for us.”
That unsanitary habit came in handy later in the short, when Mickey bursts through a hole in the screen, and a large-looming Pete slobbers toward the screen. His drool problem helps establish the two planes of existence.
“We wanted to show that there’s this hole in the screen, but Pete is still back there,” MacMullan says. “We thought, ‘What if we just have one giant crystalline drop of drool come through?’ There’s even a lovely little sound effect when it lands — a little ping!”
6. BOUNCE HOUSE
When Mickey and Horace are hurled against the screen, it bubbles out toward the audience in the first hint of 3-D in the short. Then they hit a few more times before popping out. “We had quicker versions of that,” MacMullan says. “But it was too fast. So we had him hit and push out farther and farther, just so people have a moment to wrap their minds around what is about to happen.”
“One thing we did, very subtly, is that while Pete is bouncing him against the screen, the light is slowly fading up on the stage — very slightly, so it’s almost subliminal,” she adds. “Then when the lights come up fully, and there is suddenly a stage there, the audience feels like they knew the stage was there already.”
7. THE CHEESIEST EFFECT
When Mickey crashes into the audience, the collision leads to some tossed popcorn and also “some very high-tech nacho cheese animation,” as MacMullan points out. “We wanted something to fly up from the crowd that clearly established it as the modern time. We couldn’t think of anything better than nachos, which are clearly a movie treat of today.”
It’s hard to catch, but there’s a carefully hidden Easter Egg in this moment. “The 3-D effects guy who was animating the cheese created a single frame where the flying nacho cheese forms the Disney ‘D,’” MacMullan says.
8. BETTER RED THAN…
When Mickey lands in the world of three-dimensions and full color, he is shocked to see that his little shorts are brightly rendered, and speaks the color out loud in amazement. But that led to a major problem for the filmmakers – they were recycling Walt Disney’s original Mickey voice recordings, and wanted to fully credit the founder of the studio for performing the part.
But the word “Red” could not be found in any of those audio archives.
“For whatever reason in these black-and-white shorts, they didn’t talk about color!” MacMullan says. “I even asked them to look and see if there were any ‘50s era [propaganda] shorts where [Mickey] might be talking about communism. That didn’t work out either, but it was worth looking for.”
They never actually found the full word. If they wanted to use only Walt’s voice, they had to get crafty. “It was actually three little sections: a ‘Ruh’, and an ‘Eh’, and a ‘Duh,’” she said. “We just took syllables from other words and strung them together.”
9. INSANE IN THE MEMBRANE
Even though cartoon humor comes from not making sense, MacMullan says the movie needed a few loose rules for how the screen worked as a barrier between the hand-drawn and 3-D worlds. The screen can be punctured, but it can also be pinched back together and resealed, like clay. “I always thought of the screen as stretchy, but thin,” she says. “It’s a little tougher than Saran Wrap.”
Even though it’s absurd, for the story to be followed, the animators felt obliged to make some gesture toward establishing logic in the subconscious of the viewers.
After Mickey bursts through, for instance, they wanted to expand the scale of the screen from a square to a large rectangle. Why? They needed more space for the action.
The question was – how? “As Pete drives away, Mickey actually moves the curtains and stretches the screen from the 4:3 ratio to the 1:85. It seemed like it was going to be a problem, like, ‘How do we widen the screen enough?’ And then we decided, why don’t we just cheat and have Mickey pull the curtains back. It worked wonderfully, because no one ever questions it!”
Still, there won’t be any MIT lectures given about the science of Get a Horse!
10. WIND KNOCKED OUT
MacMullan says the comedy of this early style of animation comes from a kind of twisted literalism.
You can see what she’s talking about in the very final shot of this clip. Mickey has lost Minnie to Peg-leg Pete’s clutches, and sighs deeply — as he does, he shrivels like a balloon. “It all comes from that style of animation where you could, say, infinitely expand your leg, if you wished to,” MacMullan says. “It’s an expression of your emotion.”
In this last moment, “Mickey is at his most defeated and smallest,” she says. “That’s the thing about cartoon characters — they are the embodiment of things we would say, like I’m at my lowest point, or he is deflated. Mickey literally deflates.”