Improv in voice acting has been a part of Disney films going all the way back to “Snow White.” But Robin Williams’ Genie [in “Aladdin”] was something extraordinary. [Co-writer and co-director] John Musker and I wrote the original script with the specific idea that Robin would voice the genie and that he would be a visual as well as vocal shape-shifter. Robin would be encouraged to improvise to his heart’s content.
On the first day of recording [Genie’s intro] we had script pages written in Robin’s improv style and storyboards illustrating some of the visual metamorphosing we were planning. He started out recording the script as written a few times, then took off in a multitude of directions. The original scene was meant to be about three minutes long. Each take, Robin would add and embellish, so by the 25th (and last) take, the scene had expanded to about 20 minutes long! Robin kept coming up with more and more ideas. And he was consistently hilarious. At one point, we had to remove the genie’s lead animator, Eric Goldberg, from the recording stage because his uncontrollable laughter was messing up takes. Going in, I was wary we wouldn’t be able to use a lot of the stuff Robin might come up with because it wouldn’t fit the requirements of the story. But he made most of it work, albeit in ways we never anticipated. His energy was incredible. By the end of that first four-hour session, Robin was dripping with sweat, completely drained. To this day, it’s one of the most incredible vocal sessions I’ve ever witnessed.
We ended up with an enormous wealth of material. The big problem was figuring out what to use. We came up with a system. Everything Robin recorded was transcribed. John, Eric and I played it all back and circled every line and variation Robin did that we particularly liked. We gave all this to our editor, H. Lee Peterson, and he cut together a first pass of the scene. We kept editing and editing until we got it down to the proper length. Hopefully we picked the best stuff, but there was a tremendous amount of strong material that didn’t make it.
That’s how we did every sequence. Robin ended up recording about six to eight four-hour sessions. It was a marvel to watch him do his thing. It’s a very fond memory of watching a true comic genius at work.
Robin changed the way animated films were perceived. His brilliant comedy brought an adult appeal to animation that was new at the time. He was also one of the biggest stars ever to be featured in an animated film at that time. To be clear, we didn’t want Robin because he was a big star. We wanted him because he was right for the part. We wanted him because we thought his talents could bring something new and innovative to Disney animated features that could be exciting and entertaining. And he sure did!