Interview: ‘Aladdin’ Animator Eric Goldberg on Working with Robin Williams


One of Disney’s most beloved films – and arguably, one of its best – finally gets the HD treatment this month with the release of Aladdin Diamond Edition on Blu-Ray. Longtime fans can expect to be transported to a whole new world, and will be dazzled by how incredible the remastered film looks in this stunning release.

Aladdin played a huge role in my childhood and holds a very special place in my heart, so I was honored a few weeks ago to sit down with Eric Goldberg, the supervising animator for the Genie, to discuss his work on the film. It was an informative and fascinating conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

When you first began working on Aladdin, how long did it take you before you knew you had something special?

Eric Goldberg: Well first of all, the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, had been working on it for at least a year or so before I got on. They were doing visual development, they were rewriting the script, there were all sorts of things that were happening, but they hadn’t done any of the voice casting yet. Eventually, they lured me over from England to come join them, and there was talk of maybe getting Robin Williams to do the Genie’s voice, but it wasn’t carved in stone. But one of the talents that they have is to write the script in the voice of the actor they would like to have, so they wrote the Genie’s lines, and you could tell they wrote it for Robin.

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They gave me the script about a week before I was due to start, and they said “take a look, and see if there’s a character you’d be interested in.” So I’m reading it and the Genie is leaping off the page, so I go in the following week and I’m thinking “I hope they give me the Genie, I hope they give me the Genie.” And when I got the job I was actually so excited that I locked myself out of my rental car. Thus, my inauspicious start to working for Disney.

It’s interesting, because John and Ron wrote the Genie turning into different archetypal characters – he would be an evangelist, a game show host, a soldier, whatever. But it wasn’t until we actually got Robin in the booth that he gave us all of his celebrity impressions. And we all looked at one another and said “we can’t not use this stuff. We have to have the stuff in the movie.” We always knew the Genie was going to be metamorphosing into different guises, but we expanded to allow for Robin’s amazing inventions.

I had heard that early in the process you took footage from one of Robin’s standup performances, and animated the Genie to sync up with that audio. Is that true?

Eric Goldberg: Yes, that’s exactly right. What happened was that Robin was in talks, and John and Ron said “here, take a couple of riffs,” so I took his Reality: What A Concept album and picked a couple of lines to animate as the Genie. Now, you have to understand how special and novel that was just for me, because I come from the world television commercials. I had my own company in London and I would do TV commercials, and the most you would get would be somebody on the street saying “Hey, I saw your commercial on TV last night, good job.”

Photo Courtesy of Geek Tyrant

Photo Courtesy of Geek Tyrant

So flash forward, the tests are completed, and in comes Jeffrey Katzenberg with Robin Williams on his arm to look at what I’ve done. It was like “oh my God, I’m in Hollywood.” It was one of the great moments in my life to have made Robin Williams laugh. And I think he could seethe potential that animation could really have for his style of comedy.

This is a very circuitous route to answering your question, about when did we know we had something special. We knew this was not the type of humor that you normally sauna Disney film. First of all, it was somewhat topical – although that didn’t bug us, because we looked at it in the same way you look at Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1940s. Those were topical then, but they’re still fun to watch now. And when you’re older you find out who Greta Garbo is or who Clark Gable is and so forth and so on. So we kind of thought of the Genie in a similar vein: no matter what impression he did, it’s kind of like a little time capsule, so to speak. And the other thing we made sure of was that there was always a funny drawing to go with whatever Robin turned into. So even if the six-year-olds don’t know who Ed Sullivan is, he looks funny, so it works.

So to have that kind of freedom, and the irreverence that Robin brought, it kind of suffused the entire movie. I found that I could do things visually that I wouldn’t have had the chance to, if Robin’s humor hadn’t given us the license. For example, originally at the end of Friend Like Me, it was just all of the stuff being sucked back into the lamp and that was the end of the number. So we had a preview screening, and John and Ron and the executives come back and one of the executives says, “We’re not getting any applause at the end of the number.” So I put an “applause” sign on the Genie’s back, and it stayed in the movie. I can’t do that with every character, but that character gave us license and we could do gags on top of gags.

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Probably the most famous one was, during the recording Robin was riffing, and when the Genie doesn’t believe Aladdin is going to use his third wish to set him free, he goes, “yeah, right, boo-woop!” John and Ron didn’t know what “boo-woop!” was. And I said, “well, that’s Robin shorthand for telling a lie, that’s Pinocchio’s nose growing… can I please turn the Genie’s head into Pinocchio? We own the character.”

So we did, and at the next preview screening we get so many laughs that it was killing the next line, so they had me go back and expand the scene a little bit to let the laughter die down.

I have to imagine that as chaotic and frenetic as Robin’s energy was, putting him in a sound booth and trying to get him to stay on track would be something of a chore.

Eric Goldberg: Robin was one of the most generous performers I’ve ever seen, because unlike a lot of people’s perception of him, he didn’t bounce off the walls all the time. He wasn’t “on” all the time, he actually stored all up. And when I say a generous performer, that means he stored up until the microphone came on, and then out it all came, and at the end of the session he would be drenched in sweat, he had given it 150%.

And he could go a long time without taking a break, which I realized to my horror at the first recording session. John and Ron said “do you want to go out on the stage and look at Robin’s facial expressions and mannerisms?” And I said “yeah, that’s a great idea.” So Robin gets going and I’m sitting there for at least a half hour creased up, trying not to laugh, because I’m three feet from him and I’ll kill the recording if I start laughing. Finally, he takes a break and I’m like “okay, I’m going behind the glass now, thank you.”

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Another fun part of the process was the editing, because Robin gave us so much material, and often in a bed of riffs he would say one golden line. So John and Ron and I had written transcripts of everything Robin recorded, and the audio, and we would go through and highlight individually. Then we would get together with the track, with our highlights, and compare notes and put in the ones that made us laugh the most. For example, when he did the bee, he did four or five pages of bee riffs, just buzzing around Aladdin’s head. But he only did “stop her, stop her, want me to sting her?” once. So we plucked that out.

Another thing he did was to do a line as written, but to do it is 20 different characters. So the line where he’s explaining the rules of the wishes – “no substitutions exchanges or refunds” – he did it as Groucho Marx, he did it as WC Fields, and he did it is all these different characters. So when we got back to Burbank, we basically said “okay, the Groucho goes here,” and we pulled that one, but we had a lot of others.

I’m not sure if you know about one of the extras on the Blu-Ray. For years, John and Ron and I wanted to do something with all that great material that Robin did that’s not in the movie. So for a few months, I sat there and listened all of Robin’s takes, pulled what I thought were the funniest ones, and storyboarded them. And they’re on a special segment of the Blu-ray called The Genie’s Outtakes.

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That’s so awesome! There’s always been this legend that there were just hours and hours of audio from Robin’s recordings, and to know that we’re finally going to get to see some of that is just mind blowing.

Eric Goldberg: We had wanted to do it for the longest time, the three of us. In fact, when the DVD came out, John and Ron had an idea that it would be the Genie coming in to audition for the role of the Genie in Aladdin, and we would use the outtakes that way, but it didn’t really fly during that period. Then when Robin passed unfortunately, we all started thinking about this segment again, and that being a nice tribute. So we talked to David Jessen and Disney Home Entertainment, and he though it was great, and John Lasseter thought it was great. But he said “don’t do the audition thing, make it real outtakes.” And I think that was a great call, because you remember the line that was in the movie, and now here are a half a dozen more that are just as funny.

I just had a blast doing it. One of the great things about being able to listen to that material again is listening to Robin putting down the takes – and there’s often a lot of stuff in between the takes that’s also gold, so some of that’s in that segment as well – but the thing that really endeared me was that he cracked himself up. It was just so charming, and he was having such a good time doing it, and I think that’s really the Robin that will live on. That’s the Robin who loved to entertain people and the Robin who loved to make people laugh, and that’s certainly the one we knew.

Aladdin Diamond Edition will be available on Blu-Ray on October 13. Check out our review right here, or click this link to purchase.

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