With The Princess and the Frog opening wide today and with a little more distance from the film, we thought we'd delve further into the experience of making this landmark 2D feature with Ron Clements & John Musker.
Bill Desowitz: My response has been that it's like being reacquainted with an old friend and I wondered if you had a similar experience in making the film?
Ron Clements: That was somewhat our intention. Because it was a return to hand-drawn animation and the fairy tale and the musical, we embraced the Disney aspects of the movie. We didn't shy away from them. We wanted to recapture the feeling we had watching Disney films as a kid and what inspired us. And yet wanted to re-examine and reinvent it too for a new audience.
BD: And what was it like as your second go-around in reinventing 2D?
John Musker: Certainly there are similarities. Both times there was a moribund state of things before that and in both cases I think we concentrated on the movie at hand and not try and revive or revolutionize anything. We just wanted to make the best movie we could and if we did that it might achieve more than that.
The similarity is that the stakes felt really high. When we made The Little Mermaid, we had sort of been exiled from the main lot and were moved into these warehouses in Glendale. I think everyone felt a kind of do or die sense about the movie to some degree. And I'd say with this movie the stakes were high.
BD: And you were able to lay the foundation all over again. Only this time, you were leaner and meaner?
JM: It was leaner and meaner and we had to be more efficient. On this film, there were no color scenes left on the cutting room floor. We were rewriting it throughout the course of making the film: we were trying to fix problems and make things work better. But managed to stay ahead of the production that way.
BD: And it didn't hurt having your old pal from CalArts, John Lasseter, at the helm of the studio.
JM: It was a tremendous experience. He's a filmmaker and a director and he's known us and I went to school with him at CalArts, so we really spoke the same language. We had a short-hand and we never had to worry about the roughness of the presentation. He could take a rough story sketch and envision a color scene there. And it was invaluable that he brought the experience that he had. Again, he draws the analogy that it's like a pair of comfortable shoes. You push them to the back of the closet and you pull them out and put them on and you wonder why you haven't worn them again lately.
BD: And the strange coincidence of having Pixar developing their own version of the fairy tale.
RC: Yeah, I don't even think there was an awareness until John came to Disney that The Frog Prince had been developed over a period of time by both studios. And then it was certainly John's idea to set it in New Orleans.
BD: Now that it's finished, what do you think you've achieved?
JM: Aside from the fact that she's African-American, I think we broke some ground with her approach and having a princess with a career. And I think it's been fun for us to go back and do a musical. We're both fans of musicals and love the way it can interact with animation in telling a story. We feel like there's an innate appeal to it and we both enjoy getting involved with it.
RC: You know, you work on these things for quite a while and you lose objectivity. The first time you see it fresh is the first time you preview it. The first time we previewed this movie was last May, actually, in a fairly unfinished form but it was basically the movie that it is now. And we previewed for a very diverse audience that was a mixture of African-Americans and non-African-Americans and it scored very high and everyone reacted pretty much identically, as did children, and that's really gratifying because that's what he intended.
JM: When we did Little Mermaid, we thought we made a strong film. But I honestly didn't see Ariel surviving as a part of Disney culture 20 years later, and we can't say whether these characters from this film will be celebrated 20 years from now, but I hope so.
BD: How have you both matured as directors as a result of this experience?
There was a rough patch for hand-drawn animation and a rough patch for us and I would say there is value in rough patches.
JM: You don't get complacent; you can't afford to take anything for granted. I think we saw with John that we would contribute ways of finding warmth and emotion in small ways on the film.
BD: What in particular?
JM: For example, he had the idea that when Tiana is at the sugar mill that maybe her mother could bring her father's gumbo pot as a sort of house warming present. It's a way of her endorsing her daughter's dream. We had issues earlier where sometimes her mother seemed like she'd be too much of a dream killer because she was always the voice of reason. I think it was John's idea to give her that flier when she was a kid to really help carry her dream forward. These helped create longer lines for the characters in their emotional journey.
BD: By contrast, you had a situation with Bruce Smith where his idea for a very vicious death of a character was rejected.
RC: Well, that brings up a point about something we now do at Disney, where, like at Pixar, we screen the animation every day together with all the animators. It's a free forum where everyone critiques and we make decisions on what to do, and when everyone saw that scene, Bruce was kind of shocked at the reaction. It was a great scene but it went too far.
BD: What are you doing next?
RC: We're planning another hand-drawn film. And it's in very early stages right now and we presented some ideas to John that he liked and we're involved in the promotion of this here and overseas, and when that's over we're going to embark on that. But there other hand-drawn films planned ahead of us [beginning with Winnie the Pooh] and our hope is that hand-drawn will continue. That's always been the hope and the intention.
BD: And are you looking to do another fairy tale musical or something else?
RC: It's a little early but some are fairy tales and some are not.
BD: And what is Ed Catmull's contribution in helping with a more efficient pipeline, including going paperless?
RC: We tried going paperless on this movie, actually, and we did do paperless effects animation and that worked out. But with rough animation and cleanup there were problems and it didn't seem to be practical with this movie, so we went with hand-drawn on paper. But paperless could happen in the future. Ed's a great guy and is one of the smartest men in the world and is a problem solver and had a great impact on this film. It's a very ambitious movie and was done very efficiently, which is good for the future of this medium given the economic environment that we're in.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.