Lauren MacMullan’s Get a Horse! : Breaking the Fourth Wall

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Get a horse animated short Lauren Macmullan Disney’s Get a Horse! was one of the nominees for the Best Animated Short Oscar, but it lost to Mr Hublot. The 3D short directed by Lauren MacMullen features Mickey and Mini Mouse in a mixed media of hand-drawn black-and-while animation blended with computer-generated color 3D animation. Get a Horse! is not only a true technical feat, but also a creative allusion to two of’s favorite topics: self-reference and the lie of reality.

Get a Horse! Disney Short

The film is produced by Disney Studios and screened in theaters together with the animated hit Frozen, winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Get a Horse! took about 18 months to finish, said producer Dorothy McKim, and 125 artists overall worked on the project—what McKim calls “a great tiny little team” (interview below). With its 6-minute running time, Get a Horse! confirms Drew Christie’s claim that animation is very time-consuming.

The team for Get a Horse! used Walt Disney’s original recordings of Mickey Mouse’s voice, but ran into a problem when it could not find a recording of the word “red.” To re-create the word, the artists took individual syllables and strung them together.

Self-Reference and Reality in Get a Horse!

The mixture of 2D hand-drawn and 3D computer-generated animation separates the reality levels in Get a Horse! in a way similar to Sarah Polley’s different camera filters for Stories We Tell. But Sarah Polley did it for a live-action documentary, while Get a Horse! introduces contradiction to its reality depiction—it aims for as much realism as possible through meticulous attention to detail and 3D technology, but at the same time does so through animation, a medium inherently fictional and unrealistic. Michel Gondry recently used animation for his documentary about Noam Chomsky, and he did so specifically to enhance the subjectivity and illusion of film: “Animation […] is clearly the interpretation of its author. If messages, or even propaganda, can be delivered, the audience is constantly reminded that they are not watching reality. So it’s up to them to decide if they are convinced or not.”

Get a Horse disney short animation film Lauren Macmullan

2D hand-drawn animation blends with 3D computer-generated in Disney’s Get a Horse! short animation

Get a Horse! does the opposite. Through mixed media and self-reference, it tries to distinguish between an unrealistic vintage 2D film look, and reality outside of the 2D film through realistic 3D animation. The film also cleverly plays with time and history, although in a different way than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does.

The film begins with a black-and-white hand-drawn animation that imitates the late 1920s animation style. The director used filters and other effects to create the vintage look for the beginning of the film. From the white strips running on the screen to the title’s old-fashioned font, the film is consistent with the vintage look of cartoons.

In the beginning of Get a Horse!, the villain Pete is driving on the road behind Mickey Mouse’s car. Pete wants to overtake Mickey, and his honk yells “make way to the future.” When he gets mad at Mickey, Pete says “I am going to knock you right into next week.” The line is a reference to the film’s clever treatment of time and history. In an interview, MacMullan said, “It’s a line I wrote because he doesn’t only knock Mickey into next week, but into 2014. He overdid it.” 

Right after the threat, Pete hits Mickey’s car and he and his friends are hurled into the surface of the film screen, which bubbles out towards the audience. This is the film’s first self-reference, which establishes the physical existence of the film and its “filmness”—in a way similar to Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice.

Get a Horse is attentive to the smallest details. The director explained:

One thing we did, very subtly, is that while Pete is bouncing him [Mickey] against the screen, the light is slowly fading up on the stage — very slightly, so it’s almost subliminal. 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.”

After Mickey is thrown against the film screen, he appears on the audience’s side and in front of a stage in a cinema theater. He now appears in 3D computer-generated animation (created with Maya software) that depicts him as real as possible. One of his friends lands among the cinema audience, spills popcorn and nachos, and causes someone from the audience to yell at them.

In another time reference, Mickey’s cell phone rings with a popular iPhone tune. He calls Pete, who answers on his vintage 1920s phone.

Get a Horse disney short animation Lauren MacMullanThrough their physical proximity and depiction in the cinema theater, the 3D cartoon characters now appear to be in “real life” next to the audience, despite their implausible cartoon features. Get a Horse! thus introduces two levels of reality: one is the “film world” of hand-drawn animation, the other one is the “audience world” of computer-generated animation. But of course, the “audience world” is itself part of the “film world” of Get a Horse! The 3D “audience world”  tries to simultaneously set itself apart from the 2D world through visual distinctions such as black-and-while/color, old/new, 2D/3D, and to blend with the real-world audience watching Get a Horse! through film-within-a-film elements.

When Mickey and his friends discover the flatness of the screen (in contrast with their 3D images), they find they can turn it upside-down, rewind, or forward it—thus further call attention to the unrealistic “filmness” of the 2D images. (Michael Snow famously examined the flatness of the film screen and its illusion of space in his seminal experimental film Wavelength.)

Get a Horse! thus is in constant contradiction of its own reality modes—it portrays characters as realistic as possible, emphasizes every subtle detail (curtain movements, light, popcorn), but at the same time introduces utterly unreal cartoon elements.

The Film of the Film Get a Horse!

Interestingly enough, someone recorded a cell-phone version of the screening of Get a Horse! As unappealing as it sounds, in the case of this particular film it introduces a unique element of realism. Because the 3D action in Get a Horse! purports to happen in a movie theater, a recording of the animated 3D theater in an actual movie theater further blends reality and fiction. The recording introduces a whole new level of reality to the already complicated reality modes in the film—it even has its own “audience world” references when a person walks in front of the screen twice.

But the cell-phone recording is by no means a substitution for the real film. It is only a film of a film within a film.

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