The Oscars: Clements & Musker Talk More 'Princess and the Frog'

Ron Clements & John Musker give us their overview of their hand-drawn comeback at Disney and where it's headed in the future.

Check out The Princess and the Frog in the 2010 AWN Oscar Showcase!

Will Princess and the Frog spark the next Disney hand-drawn renaissance? All images courtesy of Walt Disney.

The long Oscar race is finally winding down, so, in anticipation of tomorrow evening's Animated Feature panel discussion at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater and Sunday's Academy Awards, we thought we'd get one last overview from The Princess and The Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker.

Bill Desowitz: Now that you're back from the international press tour, what's the response been?

Ron Clements: I would say the response we've gotten everywhere has been just really gratifying. The people who saw the movie certainly seem to really like it and we've gotten a lot of letters.

John Musker: The other night we went to the NAACP Awards. We were nominated for best picture, but didn't win -- Precious won. But just walking the press line, there were a number of African Americans who expressed really heart-felt and genuine gratitude for this movie and for the groundbreaking aspect of it with Tiana, and that was very rewarding.

BD: What about the response from fellow animators around the world?

JM:

Well, that's interesting: I spoke to Miyazaki for an hour when we were in Japan. But, of course, he never watches Disney movies [laughs], so… We talked about his movies, mostly. But we saw it in Dublin with some of the guys behind The Secret of Kells from Cartoon Saloon, and they were very enthusiastic about it and very encouraging and at the Academy [nominations] luncheon as well. Also, Nicky Phelan, who directed Granny O' Grimm, which is one of my favorite shorts this year, was very nice and enthusiastic about the hand-drawn aspect of it. And certainly they've been enthusiastic about hand-drawn animation around the world.

Disney's return to hand-drawn animation has been embraced globally.

RC: And we talked to animation students around the world.

JM: Yeah, there were a lot of students that turned out in Dublin at the IADT and they were very enthusiastic.

BD: What did they ask you?

JM: They still ask about the future of 2D and what were the biggest challenges in making the film. But certainly there seems to be a great love of 2D. I just spoke at Leonard Maltin's class and a graduate class at USC and they have a passion for 2D and want to come and work at Disney. Some of them can do CG but hand-drawn is really what they want to do.

BD:

Even though the domestic box office didn't meet expectations, you've done well overseas. But I hope they're not blaming 2D again.

JM: Yeah, there was a question about that. And so far they are looking at how they marketed the movie and sort of do a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking on that, but we're hoping to do another 2D film. We're developing some 2D ideas right now.

RC: The studio seems supportive.

BD: Well, fortunately you have John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge.

JM: Right, they both love 2D animation and if they didn't, I don't think we would've made the movie we just made, but I would say that even though it wasn't a slam dunk at the box office, the audience is definitely there for 2D.

Tiana has been a groundbreaking Princess, but Disney has to figure out a better way to market hand-drawn animation to a broader audience.

BD: There are obviously some mitigating circumstances with the Avatar juggernaut and the Alvin Squeakquel.

JM: Yeah, both of those affected our film, but hand-drawn is such a big part of the legacy and we're hoping that it will continue. We're just in development now and we're looking at a whole range of ideas and we'd love to do another one and John is behind it, and we want the studio to be behind it.

BD: Is there more of a pronounced emphasis today on marketing to boys and girls?

JM: Yes, there is.

RC: Obviously when we did those other movies, there wasn't this big princess merchandising thing. Ironically, they didn't do a lot of merchandising at all for Little Mermaid. They made some dolls and other stuff, and actually sold out immediately. So, it wasn't before the DVD came out that they had the merchandise on the shelves, and definitely the merchandise followed the movie. I think there is a little sense that our movie was perceived more as a little girl's movie than it was intended to be. Certainly, more than little girls like the movie that have seen it, and so I think it appeals to a much broader range.

JM:

But there was a challenge that marketing wasn't aware of in that the princess thing line that was created in 2001 is a double-edged sword. It skewed the audience a little younger and little more girl-oriented. Even with Princess in the title, it made it harder for young boys to see the movie because it made it seem too girly. In fact, at our first focus group screening at The Bridge, they asked this 13-year-old boy what the first was that he would tell people about this movie, and he said that it's not a girly movie. And I think maybe we should've taken that more to heart. I know in their marketing they tried to offset some of that, but I think it was harder than they realized. I think moving forward they realize they have to work harder to make sure that it appeals to all people.

BD: But now you have the Blu-ray and the DVD coming out on March 16. What are some of the Blu-ray bonus features?

JM: One of the things on the Blu-ray is they're going to have the whole movie in rough animation, so you can click back and forth between both versions. Also, on the Blu-ray, there are some deleted scenes and one of the things that's interesting is that we're going to be showing some of the live-action choreography that we did and how we adapted it for the animation, so you can split-screen this stuff and see some of the dance reference that Betsy Baytos did as a jumping off point.

BD: What deleted scenes?

Don't look for Clements & Musker to do another fairy tale movie next.

RC: There is an alternate climax [in storyboard] that involves hundreds of thousands of frogs being unleashed during Mardi Gras.

JM: Yeah, there was a sort of biblical ending that we had but, to simplify the movie, we changed it, so you can see what might have been.

BD: So, what kind of 2D ideas are you pitching John?

JM: There are some that are period and some that are contemporary and some that are musical and some that are not.

RC: I think we're probably not going to do a fairy tale. Even when we did The Little Mermaid, we actually turned down Beauty and the Beast. And Aladdin just seemed like it would be a fun Arabian adventure to do next, so I think we're looking at some different areas of storytelling.

BD: What are the challenges that appeal to you?

JM:

Whatever we do will have legitimacy for 2D and not CG. There are different techniques with After Effects and stuff like that.

BD: Your film reminded us again that it's such a different aesthetic with so many artistic possibilities yet to explore.

JM: Right, I think that's what we want to exploit: what hand-drawn does particularly well.

RC: We always describe it as a different paint brush. In general, we look for strong stories and strong characters and interesting worlds that lend themselves to hand-drawn more. But this is getting harder and harder to do with an Avatar that lets you tell any kind of story in any kind of way.

JM: It's interesting, the other night at the VES Awards, during his acceptance speech, James Cameron said that we're all warlocks and magicians and people don't understand what we do and we should keep it that way. And hopefully we are all doing these magical tricks.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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