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COVER STORY : ‘Aladdin’s’ Inspiration? They Rubbed Hirschfeld

<i> Charles Solomon, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is the author of "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation." </i>

Like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the contemporary Disney animated features “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” looked back to the richly detailed style of the great 19th- and early 20th-Century European storybook illustrators.

But when Disney artists sought inspiration for their new feature “Aladdin,” they turned to a very different source: the elegantly minimal caricatures of Al Hirschfeld.

At 89, Hirschfeld would be a national living treasure if the United States awarded the title. His instantly recognizable drawings--all containing the word Nina , his daughter’s name--have appeared regularly in the New York Times since 1926, as well as on magazine covers, record albums and a set of postage stamps honoring famous comedians.

“I look on Hirschfeld’s work as a pinnacle of boiling a subject down to its essence, so that you get a clear, defined statement of a personality,” explains “Alladin” supervising animator Eric Goldberg, who was in charge of the madcap Genie. “There’s also an organic quality in the way one line will flow into another: It may go along the back of a neck, down the spine, across the behind and the down the leg--all in one single line that is very, very elegant. I wanted the Genie to have that kind of elegance.”

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Hirschfeld discussed his work and its relation to “Aladdin” with the animators during a recent visit to the Disney studio. Gracious and soft-spoken, he seemed a bit bemused at receiving so much attention.

“I’m very flattered that the animators say they were influenced by my use of line,” he says. “But art isn’t a 50-yard dash--it’s more like a relay: You keep handing it on to somebody else, and there’s no beginning or end to it. I didn’t invent the line: That simplification that communicates to a viewer goes back to the cave drawings at Altamira.”

“Hirschfeld’s work teaches you fluidity, appeal and simplicity,” says supervising animator Andreas Deja, who drew Gaston in “Beauty” and Jafar in “Aladdin.” “We now refer to some of our earlier efforts as ‘chiseled realism': On Gaston’s face, we established a lot of planes on his cheekbones and chin to achieve that realism. This assignment taught us to be simple and direct, then your statement will be clearer and easier to follow on the screen.”

Their efforts to achieve a Hirschfeld-inspired clarity led the artists to search for graphic signatures for their characters. These simple forms helped to keep the drawings clear and consistent.

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“Aladdin is composed of two interlocking triangles formed by his chest and his pants; Jasmine is sort of pear-shaped,” Deja says. “Jafar is basically a T--a very skinny body with these broad shoulders. I kept that T shape in mind while I was animating: making sure it came through kept me from cluttering up the drawings.”

“In animation, it’s important to break your character down into the simplest basic shapes possible, so that everybody has an easy handle on drawing him,” says Glen Keane, who supervised the title character. “At one point, we had 22 animators working on Aladdin, so it was really important to have a simple system for drawing him.”

The simplified, more two-dimensional characters dictated a new style of animation for “Aladdin,” as the realistic movements of Belle and Beast would seem inappropriate. The artists devised a broader, more cartoon style of motion that was partially inspired by the Warners and MGM shorts, as well as the wilder moments in earlier Disney features, particularly the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in “Dumbo” and the title song from “Three Caballeros.”

The freewheeling Genie posed special problems. Often an animator working with a zany character either just bounces the figure around or overanimates until the character wriggles like a blob of mercury. Neither communicates much to the audience.

For the story to work, the Genie’s thoughts and movements had to be easily read on the screen, even when he turned into a dragon or a caricature of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Goldberg sought the animated equivalent of Hirschfeld’s distillations of a celebrity’s personality through expression, pose and body language.

“There’s an elusive essence to a character that enables you to recognize a friend a block away, even if he’s wrapped in a huge overcoat,” Hirschfeld says. “There are no rules to capturing that essence, but when a drawing succeeds in doing it, everyone is aware that it works.”

Goldberg’s solution was to stress clear poses that defined each movement, poses that tell the audience what the Genie is thinking and doing at a particular moment. Once the Genie strikes a pose, the animators use small motions of his hands and head and changes in expression to keep him lively.

“Because the Genie is such a fast-moving character, paring things down to their bare essentials meant that you could telegraph an attitude--the audience sees it and reads it, then you go on to the next one,” Goldberg says. “We took great pains to get in and out of the attitudes very quickly--the animation is zippy and fun, but we milk those attitudes like a good character actor.”

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Keane found that attitudes were also the key to making the more realistic Aladdin an effective character.

“The problem with a human character is you think you’ve done your job when you’ve drawn a convincing anatomical representation of a human being,” he says. “You think, ‘Oh good, the nose is in the right place, all the muscles are there, and he’s got five fingers--OK, I’ve done it.’ But you really haven’t done anything: It’s like saying, ‘I’ve written a sentence’ when you’ve just put down a bunch of words from the thesaurus.

“We had to make a statement that said something about Aladdin every time he appeared on the screen. I tried to get the animators to use simple poses that made clear, positive statements, so the audience would understand who Aladdin is and what his attitudes are.”

After seeing the work-in-progress version of Aladdin in New York, Hirschfeld pronounced it “a first-rate job” and was “amazed that 600 artists can get together and produce something that looks like it was drawn by a single artist.” He sees the influence of his own work most clearly in the Genie and the Flying Carpet.

“I’m more sympathetic and understanding of the abstractions than I am of the realistic representation of human behavior,” he says.

While he praises the human characters in “Aladdin,” he also expresses a reservation he has held since he saw “Snow White” in 1937:

“To copy nature realistically frame by frame is no great accomplishment from my point of view,” he states. “It’s stultifying, and it deprives animation of its greatest strengths. I don’t approve of this taxidermy of human behavior that marks so many of those characters: If you want that realism, use real actors--there’s no shortage of actors or actresses, or cameras that can photograph them.”

Although he describes himself as “too old to learn about how animation is done,” Hirschfeld speaks enthusiastically about the medium, which he believes is one of the few areas of the graphic arts that are still progressing.

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“If I were a younger man, I’d be tremendously interested in animation,” he says. “I think the medium is still in its infancy. Its limits are unpredictable--I wouldn’t even venture an opinion on where it can go, because it’s incalculable. Even after the artists seem to have conquered everything, there’ll still be some lunatic around who will have an idea that will advance it a little further.”


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