How Disney’s Once Upon a Studio brought back Robin Williams’ Genie — without AI

Disney’s new animated/live-action hybrid short Once Upon a Studio is kind of like the final battle in Avengers: Endgame: packed with every single relevant character you could possibly think of. The short, meant to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Walt Disney Animation Studios, features 543 characters from throughout the company’s history — including some that fans thought we might never see again, like Aladdin’s Genie, voiced by the late Robin Williams.

Polygon was on hand to view the short at a Los Angeles preview for Disney’s upcoming feature Wish. Once Upon a Studio follows Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they gather animated characters for a 100th anniversary group photo outside of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building. About halfway through, as portraits of Disney’s animated characters come to life and roam the studio’s halls, à la Night at the Museum, Genie shows up alongside Frozen’s Olaf the snowman (voiced by Josh Gad) and speaks a couple of lines that aren’t familiar from Aladdin. As the filmmakers repeatedly stressed, they didn’t use special effects or AI to craft the moment, unlike other filmmakers resurrecting cast members for movie roles.

“It was actually direct lines from past recordings,” producer Yvett Merino told Polygon at the preview. “When we do animated recordings on any feature, there are a number of takes. So we were able to find this line that fits so well in our short.”

[embedded content]

AI has been an intense topic in Hollywood throughout both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, with the WGA winning concessions in its new contract to limit AI use. Earlier this month, Williams’ daughter Zelda shared on Instagram how disturbing it’s been for her to see instances of AI re-creating her father’s voice, calling the facsimiles, “at their worst, a horrendous Frankensteinian monster.”

And Disney doesn’t intend to create its own version of that monster. “We are a flat no on [AI] right now,” producer Brad Simonsen told Polygon. “Matter of fact, you’re not allowed to use AI in the building.”

The Once Upon a Studio creative team, including directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, reached out to Robin Williams’ estate early on, sharing storyboards of the short and outtake selections from Aladdin. As Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer (and Frozen director) Jennifer Lee put it, the company got the estate’s blessing to proceed.

“It was so important to us to share our earliest version of the short with Robin’s team,” Merino said. “So many of us who work here at Disney Animation were inspired by Aladdin and Robin’s performance. It meant the world that they said yes to his inclusion in the short — and [it was] so special that Eric Goldberg, who animated Genie for the [original] feature film, did the animation here as well.”

To the directors and producers, Goldberg was the key to truly honoring the iconic character. “When you animate a character, you develop a relationship with that character, and you know who that character is,” Merino said.

Animated Disney characters surround a receptionist’s desk at Disney Animation, including Merlin from The Sword in the Stone; Mrs. Potts, Chip, and Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast; the Mad Hatter and March Hare from Alice in Wonderland, Moana from Moana, Flounder from The Little Mermaid, and more, in the Disney short Once Upon a Studio Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Simonsen added, “What Dan and Trent were specific about was, we were hoping to get back the animators [who originally served as lead animators on some of the short’s characters], because in 2D, in hand-drawn, a supervisor actually led for that character. They were the ones who kept that character on model for the whole show. So bringing back those folks who led those characters was a dream.”

Goldberg not only handled Genie, but served as the overall head of hand-drawn animation on Once Upon a Studio. And when the moment came to bring the Genie scene to life, the directors essentially handed him the wheel. “We storyboarded the moment out and we said, ‘OK, Eric, do your Eric Goldberg thing and bring the magic,’” recalled Abraham. “And then he did.”

Lee said Williams’ performance still has an impact on her more than three decades later. “Genie is such an important character to so many of us,” she said.

And that kind of impact makes Williams’ place in Disney animation’s 100-year history permanent. “I just think that we couldn’t have made this short without Cinderella,” Abraham explains. “We couldn’t have made this short without Stitch. We couldn’t have made this short without Robin Hood. And we couldn’t have made it without the Genie. He’s just such a part of our history, our legacy.”

Once Upon a Studio will debut on Sunday, Oct. 15 during the Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration special at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC. A streaming date has not yet been announced.