to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
Is the Inside Joke on its Way Out?
animation fan, right?
you are! Otherwise, what would you be doing here, reading stories
on the Digital Media FX Website? So you've undoubtedly heard about
some of the stories surrounding Touchstone Pictures/Amblin's 1988
release, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
How -- if
you go frame-by-frame through the scene where Baby Herman exits
to his trailer -- you can watch this tawdry little toddler grope,
then leer up at a production assistant. Or how -- much later in
the film -- Jessica Rabbit appears to be panty-free as she flies
through the air following a car crash involving Benny the Cab?
And let's not forget about that single frame of film that shows
Bugs Bunny giving the finger to Mickey Mouse.
So why did
Roger Rabbit's production team slip all of this off-color
imagery into what's arguably supposed to be a family film? Was
this a deliberate effort to corrupt America's youth? Someone's
ham-handed attempt to put one over on the boys back in Burbank?
Nah. The truth
of the matter is that the animators who worked on Who Framed
Roger Rabbit slipped these risqué gags into the picture
*NOT* because they were trying to make a statement, but rather
because they were just trying to amuse their co-workers.
true, kids. But slipping off-color jokes or odd bits of business
into finished cartoons just to amuse the production crew is an
animation industry tradition that goes as far as anyone can remember.
Even back in the 1920s, animation pioneer Max Fleischer was supposedly
doing this. I've heard stories that Max would allow his animators
to include a single frame of Betty Boop nude from the waist up
in every one of her shorts. Since films are projected at 16 frames
per second, there's virtually no way that this quick image of
the topless toon would register with moviegoers. But the animators
who worked on that cartoon would know that that naughty image
was in there... somewhere. And that secret knowledge that they
were somehow putting something over on the public would make the
production team very happy.
This is why
I honestly think that this subversive tradition has been kept
alive for so long. Animators -- who spend far too much of their
time working on family friendly material. Singing mice, dancing
bears, etc. -- have a desperate need to sometimes put something
over on the public.
in the age of the Internet, what was supposed to be a secret laugh
shared just among colleagues can quickly become common knowledge.
And anyone with a DVD player (and plenty of patience) can toggle
through a film and find all the allegedly offensive frames.
an animator supposed to do now? How will they still be able to
share a sly gag with their co-workers when publications like "Entertainment
Weekly" are only all too happy to tell outsiders about where
all the inside jokes are located? Worse than that, how is this
animation tradition supposed to survive in an age where small-minded
people keep seeing salacious material where none actually exists?
Just for the
* No, the
minister in the first wedding sequence in The Little Mermaid
isn't really glad to see Ariel. The petite preacher isn't sporting
an erection. That's just his knee poking out from under his
* And no,
Aladdin -- while disguised as Prince Ali -- doesn't say a line
of dialogue where he tells all "Good teenagers, take off
your clothes." Clean the wax out of your ears, people.
At this point in the film, Aladdin's trying to keep Rajah from
eating him. What he's actually saying is "C'mom ... Good
kitty. Take off and go."
finally -- No -- there's not a scene in The Lion King
where the word S E X magically appears in the sky. Rather, there's
actually a moment in the movie where the adult Simba flops down
among some flowers. As the petals from the flowers and some
leaves fly up into the air, they briefly form the letters S-F-X.
department at Disney Feature Animation do you suppose animated
all that airborne debris? You guessed it. The Special Effects
department. Or -- as it's more commonly abbreviated -- SFX.
the rumors surrounding these three Disney films have spread far
and wide. Members of the Christian right particularly had a field
day with these stories, endlessly reporting the urban legends
that had sprung up about The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and
The Lion King as established facts. They constantly cited
these allegedly pornographic sequences as prime examples of how
the Disney Corporation was directly contributing to the moral
decay of American society.
the Mouse didn't help matters in January 1999 when it had to recall
3.4 million copies of The Rescuers. Why did Mickey pull
this 22-year old film off the shelf? It would seem that -- again,
as an inside gag -- someone working in the background department
placed a teeny tiny reproduction of a Playboy centerfold in the
window of an apartment building that Bernard and Bianca fly by
in the movie. Though the objectionable image is only visible in
two frames of the film (which means that the naked lady is up
on the screen for an entire 1/8th of a second), Disney still pulled
all Rescuers videos and DVDs off the market in an effort
to shore up its reputation as a producer of clean quality family
So where does
this leave Disney animators today? Given the hyper-sensitive times
we live in, where everyone in the entertainment industry seems
to worry about the political correctness of everything they say
or do, can the tradition of the somewhat racy inside joke secretly
inserted into an animated film still survive?
the huge amounts of money that the Mouse pours into the production
of these feature length projects (as well as the huge profits
makes off of these movies), it's pretty obvious that today's animators
have a lot fewer opportunities to slip somewhat risqué
material past studio execs. The suits who are currently in charge
of this arm of Disney Studios are all terrified that their film
could be the next one to be recalled. That's why they now put
every single frame of each new animated release under a ridiculous
level of scrutiny.
me? Just ask the poor SFX animators who handled the "Hellfire"
sequence in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. These
poor guys were under specific orders that the fiery sprite version
of Esmerelda (you know, the flaming version of the beautiful gypsy
Judge Claude Frollo envisioned dancing in his fireplace?) always
had to appear to be fully clothed.
Or how about
poor Aaron Blaise and Broose Johnson, the supervising animators
for Yao, Ling and Chien-Po in Mulan? They spent hours in
meetings with Disney Studio execs, painstakingly mapping out where
each character would go in that film's skinny-dipping sequence.
Why all the extensive planning? Mouse House lawyers wanted to
make sure that everything that needed to be covered up *WAS* covered
up in this part of the movie. They were all terrified at the idea
of even a single frame of frontal nudity accidentally making it
into the finished film.
So does this
mean that we're never ever going to see another inside joke in
a Disney feature film? Hardly. It just means that the production
team will have to work that much harder to sneak this stuff by
Mouse House management.
it helps a lot if the top guys on your film are willing to play
along. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale -- the directors of Beauty
and the Beast and Hunchback of Notre Dame -- love putting
odd little touches into their movies that only their production
team will appreciate. Witness the road sign in the wood that points
the way to Anaheim and Valencia or the satellite dish hidden among
the rooftops of Paris in Hunchback.
Or how about
Ron Clements and John Musker -- directors of The Great Mouse
Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules?
These guys delight in inserting incredibly subtle stuff (a tiny
Mickey, Donald and Goofy seated among the concert-goers at the
start of Mermaid, the
Beast's cameo -- hidden among all the Sultan's toys -- in Aladdin)
to the blatantly obvious (The gags involving Pinocchio & Sebastian
the Crab in Aladdin, Scar's rugged appearance in Hercules).
current king of the inside joke at Disney Feature Animation would
have to be master animator Eric Goldberg. Why for? Well, pull
out your copy of Fantasia 2000 and take another look at
that film's "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence. In particular,
pay close attention to all the names on the signs and the buildings
that you spy in the background.
in the great Al Hirschfield tradition (Hirschfield -- the noted
New York Times caricaturist -- has hidden his daughter Nina's
name into almost every cartoon he's ever drawn), Goldberg had
the name of virtually every person who worked on the Gershwin
section of Fantasia 2000 folded into the backgrounds for
this sequence. Take another look at this beautiful little piece
of film. You'll see that there are literally hundreds of WDFA
employees' names hidden in plain sight.
not forget that Disney doesn't have an exclusive when it comes
to slipping in sly tributes and inside jokes into its animated
films. The next time you watch Brad Bird's wonderful The Iron
Giant, pay close attention to the two elderly engineers who
are explaining to authorities what happened to their train. Do
these gentlemen look familiar? If you're any sort of an animation
fan, they should. Those two railroad men are legendary animators
(and noted train enthusiasts) Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
So the inside
joke -- though obviously under fire from humorless studio executives
-- appears to be hanging in there as an animation industry tradition.
In fact -- from what I hear -- several of this year's upcoming
animated releases will be loaded with these types of gags. Particularly
Dreamworks SKG's Shrek, which reportedly makes dozens of
jokes at the Walt Disney Company's expense.
By the way,
if you come across some subtle gems -- inside jokes, slight tributes
-- in upcoming features that you think animation fans might enjoy
hearing about, drop me a line here
and I'll be sure to spread the word.
In the mean-time,
does anyone know if there's any truth to the rumor that -- in
"Atlantis: The Lost Empire" -- Wise & Truesdale
actually pay tribute to that 1974 Walt Disney Productions' live
action adventure film, "The Island at the Top of the World"?
I keep hearing that the Hyperion airship makes some sort of cameo
appearance in the film. Has anyone else heard anything about this?
here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.
Jim Hill is
an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the
entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital
Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed
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advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.
of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim
is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney
World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites.
He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.
You can email
Jim Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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