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I thought about this the first time I visited Disney Land. There I saw a 3D model of Mickey in real life.

When he is not facing the camera, his ears are sideways, and appear as you'd expect them to appear if you look at them from that angle.

However, if you see and show where Mickey is rendered in 3D, you would see his ears flat and round whatever angle he is facing.

Not only that, his second ear (the one farthest from the camera), changes position, and is shifted downwards, almost as if it does not want to be eclipsed by the ear in the foreground.

I can understand hand drawn animation reasons for doing this, but having a CG animation mimicking this effect makes it hard for the viewer to understand the physics of Mickey's model.

Mickey's ears are weird

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    In Disney's short Get a Horse they had to have Mickey go in between hand drawn and 3D animation, and Disney animators worked their magic to make Mickey's ears and nose behave like his hand drawn ones. The short and how they did it is found in the bonus features of Frozen. (The short is also on Netflix) – Grant Davis Dec 5 '15 at 1:12
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To make the Mickey symbol more recognizable, the more authentic depiction was abandoned. From Wikipedia:

Ub Iwerks designed Mickey's body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey's success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences. Mickey's circular design is most noticeable in his ears, which in traditional animation, always appear circular no matter which way Mickey faces. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark. Even today, the rudimentary symbol Mickey Mouse is often used to represent Mickey (see Hidden Mickey). This later created a dilemma for toy creators who had to recreate a three-dimensional Mickey. In animation in the 1940s Mickey's ears were animated in a more realistic perspective.

This unrealistic depiction is so iconic, it was even replicated somehow in 3d later on. Says John Ford, one of the animators of the video game Epic Mickey:

We did some tests with Mickey without ears that were facing the camera and it just didn’t hold up,” said John Ford, one of the animators at Junction Point, “so we decided to go with the facing ears. We had some really smart programmers write code that would always make sure that, no matter which way Mickey was facing, you would have ears that not only faced the camera correctly but also oriented correctly on his head".

In the end, cartoons aren't exactly about realism but about expression. As animator Richard Williams says in his book The Animator's Survival Kit:

Good drawing is not copying the surface. It has to do with understanding and expression. We don’t want to learn to draw just to end up being imprisoned in showing off our knowledge of joints and muscles. We want to get the kind of reality that a camera can’t get. [...]

Many cartoonists and animators say that the very reason they do cartoons is to get away from realism and the realistic world into the free realms of the imagination. They’ll correctly point out that most cartoon animals don’t look like animals - they’re designs, mental constructs.

Here's an example of a more realistic perspective approach in the 40s that was eventually scrapped:

enter image description here

  • From a perspective based more on hand-drawn animation than just Disney and marketing, simplified designs are also a lot easier for the animator to work with, and can be a cost saving measure. One of the reasons there's a fairly drastic shift in art style from Batman: The Animated Series to The New Batman Adventures, even though both are in the same continuity, is the show simply didn't have the budget it did before. Simplifying the characters made it easier for the animators do do more with less time while keeping the characters recognizable. – MattD Dec 4 '15 at 13:43
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    True, but isn't it more difficult to maintain this in 3d (as the video game animator suggested)? I think that's what the OP was getting at. – Walt Dec 4 '15 at 14:22
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    Likely not, since you have computers handling the placement and rendering of the ears. Running the algorithm that handles this several times to make sure it looks and feels right was likely key, but once that's all set it's simply a matter of working with the algorithm and its API, at least that's what I would assume as a developer myself (albeit not for video games). Once I write code that handles a particular feature I need, it's simply a matter of implementing and re-implementing as needed. – MattD Dec 4 '15 at 15:51
  • @Walt (Yes)​​​​ – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 4 '15 at 21:44
  • This being Disney, there's also a big chance that it's more important for them to keep Mickey's original trademark features than "making it easy" for the animators. That's their most recognizable character after all. – Luciano Jan 19 '16 at 14:36

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