SARS from space

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Disney deflates a Pixar short

I recently went to see Finding Nemo, and I must say, it rocks the house with furious vengeance. Before the main feature, though, Disney shows the classic Pixar short movie Knickknack — which Pixar first created in 1989, to showcase the potential for 3D animated flicks. I first saw Knickknack back when “festivals of animation” used to tour college campuses.

But it appears now that Disney — which distributes Pixar films — decided the old short needed some editing. According to a story in USA Today:

The short follows the hapless attempts of a lonely snow-globe snowman to escape his domain and join a plastic Miami beach bunny. The movie was released on a G-rated 1996 video collection called Tiny Toy Stories. But in that version, the Miami beauty and a mermaid who appears at the end of the short were more well-endowed than they are today.

“In the original, the girls have breasts the size of large grapefruit,” says animation fan Raymond Tucker of Greensboro, N.C. “In the new version, the breasts just aren’t there.”

It’s not clear whether Disney or Pixar made the changes. The story goes on to point out some really fascinating examples of other edits that Disney has made to classic animated movies, including:

In the short The Three Little Pigs (1933), the wolf originally tried to get into a pig’s house by pretending to be a Jewish salesman, with a mask and a Yiddish accent. The scene was re-animated, probably in the 1940s, to make the wolf look and sound more like he does elsewhere in the cartoon.

My bet is that we’ll see far more of this revisionism as time goes on. After all, it’s not that easy to seamlessly edit a hand-drawn classic animated movie; matching the style of an old master is quite tricky. That’s why, in some cases, Disney has simply excised scenes that are too hard to alter. When the movie Melody Time from 1948 was released on DVD and video in 2000, Disney removed Pecos Bill’s cigarette from every single frame. And one entire scene — where Pecos Bill grabs a thundercloud and squeezes out a lightning bolt to light his cigarette — is entirely removed.

The point is, it’s infinitely easier to edit a digital movie than a hand-drawn one. After all, it’s just bits: You can go back in and completely rewrite the script if you want. Indeed, today’s special-effects masters think of a movie as being “shot” in the camera. You create the scene, render it as a 3D environment, then decide where to “place” the virtual camera — the way the audience will view the scene. But that scene remains as a full, 3D environment, which you could dust off 30 years later and completely “reshoot” if you wanted to.

In a way, that’s kind of cool; I’d be interested to see what would happen if — 20 years from now — you let the makers of Toy Story back into the data and redo their film, with a bunch of different cinematic ideas! Indeed, if Disney were to play its cards right, it could resell the same movie over and over and over again, letting different directors take a crack at shaping the material, much as a you can sell the same rock tune or hip-top track by giving the raw material to a different producer (with a totally different style) and turning them loose.

But on the other hand, cultural revisionist work is problematic. After all, when Disney cuts out that antisemitic scene from The Three Little Pigs, it robs us of a document that helps society remember just how blatant antisemitism has been throughout history.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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