Jim Hill explores animation inside jokes and how technology is changing the dynamics of such jokes.
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Back to the Drawing BoardBack to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
Is the Inside Joke on its Way Out?
by Jim Hill

You're an animation fan, right?

Of course 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.

Strange but 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

So what's 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 record:

* 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 robe.

* 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."

From The Lion King*And 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.

Now which 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Of course, 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 entertainment.

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?

Well, given 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.

Don't believe 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.

Of course, 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).

However, the 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.

Carrying on 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.

And let's 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?

Click 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 to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive an advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.

Based out 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 stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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