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A Conversation with John Musker

The legendary Disney writer and director, who’s currently serving as a Distinguished Artist in Residence at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, talks about his 40-year career and the future of animation.

In a 40-year career at Walt Disney Animation Studios, John Musker was involved with – as the writer and/or director – some of the most illustrious animated features of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. Along with his longtime collaborator Ron Clements, Musker’s credits include The Great Mouse Detective (1986), The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), Treasure Planet (2002), The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Moana (2016). He was nominated for two Academy Awards and won numerous other awards, including, with Clements, the Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement from the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, in 2020.

Since officially retiring from Disney in 2018, Musker has slowed down some, but not much; he continues to pursue other projects – including an animated version of the DC comic Metal Men at Warner Animation Group – as well as take part in a variety of animation-related activities. Most recently, Musker signed on to participate in a 16-week course as a Distinguished Artist in Residence at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University. Through screenings, interviews, and discussions, the course will give students the opportunity to explore and discuss Musker’s body of work, as well as give them a unique insight into the evolution of the modern animation industry.

Since it’s been a while since we spoke to Musker about what he was up to, and because it didn’t seem fair that only Chapman students should have access to this icon of animation, we tracked him down and made him share his recent experiences, as well as some key moments from the past. (In fact, he graciously agreed to the interview, so little force was required.)

AWN: Can you tell us a little more about what you're doing at Chapman and how that came about?

John Musker: I was talked into it by Aubrey Mintz, who's the head of the program there, and whom I've known for a number of years. He's a great guy. Aubrey took over Chapman's animation school recently, and it’s been going pretty much great guns. I taught some classes inside Disney and I taught a class very briefly at what used to be the West Valley Art Center, but I haven't really done something like this before.

I'm lecturing every week for two and a half hours, alternating between talking about some of the projects I've been involved with, and then, every other week, focusing on a specific discipline – story and script writing, direction, animation, pre-production, post-production. I'm also mentoring students, which is a first for me. There's a whole bunch of students making their senior projects and I have 11 of them under my purview. So every week I meet with them and look at what they've done, and I try to give them suggestions on how to improve the communication of their ideas – how to more effectively use the medium to put those ideas over. So that’s been fun and it's been interesting to see what they're up to.

AWN: As far as new animation projects, are you really getting into the superhero business (not counting Hercules)?

JM: Ron Clements and I have a project at Warner Animation Group right now. We pitched it a while ago, and it got revived recently – an animated version of the Metal Men. It's a DC comic that we grew up on in the 60s, and Warner has the rights to it because they own all the DC properties. We're developing it with a very talented writer, Celeste Ballard. So far, we're just doing treatments, but hopefully we’ll be getting into a script soon that I hope Celeste will be writing, with us looking over her shoulder a bit and pitching ideas.

On other fronts, Ron and I actually are not involved in the live Little Mermaid production. With Aladdin, Ron got called in a few times to see a screening and to give some notes, and they actually did a few of them, which helped the movie, I think. On Mermaid, they didn't ask Ron for notes, even though he was the guy that pitched the idea 30 years ago. Generally, we’ve never really been involved in the other iterations of our projects. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it gives people a chance to reinterpret the material and try out new ideas.

AWN: Anything else? Any personal projects?

JM: In my madness, one of the things I wanted to do when I – quote unquote – retired, was to make some short films that I've had rattling in my head for a while. So I'm actually animating a three-and-a-half minute short in its entirety. It's a very cartoony little thing that I'm producing myself. It's not being done for Netflix, or anything like that. My desire was just to have some fun with this thing and go back to my roots as an animator. I want to enter it in some festivals and tour the world a little bit. Of course now the idea of being in a festival is tricky, but I'm hoping, as I take forever to finish this, that the world may come back to some sense of normalcy.

It's been a very fun process, getting back into animation. I took out my Preston Blair book and my Eric Goldberg book, and I thought about all the great animators I've worked with – what was it they did for 30 years? Then I said, “Oh yeah, I remember, sort of.” I was an animator. I animated for about five years. Then I took 35 years off.

I had to figure out way at the beginning, am I going to do this on paper – be really old school – or do I want to do it on a Cintiq using Toon Boom or TVPaint? I was going to do a John Henry versus the machine thing, where I was going to do a shot on paper and do a shot on the Cintiq, and see which one I liked better. But I was struggling on paper just getting the drawing scanned in a way that looked halfway decent. I thought, well, let me just try TVPaint, which a number of people had recommended to me. I actually really liked it and I really found it useful. So I'm doing this in TVPaint, still hand drawing it, but I'm doing it on the Cintiq.

AWN: Would you say that making a short film on your own is offering you something that was missing in your past work?

JM: I did want to do something where I had the final say, I have to admit. Even with all of the creative freedom we had at Disney – and we had a lot under various regimes – it's nice to be doing something where I'm in control. I’m still a collaborative guy, yet I'm liking doing this. It's appealing to me.

I've got about a dozen short film ideas, where stylistically I would like to try different things, not have them all look the same. Part of the appeal of shorts is that they're shorter-term projects. A feature takes you three or four years to do and you're on one thing for all that time. Of course, I've been working on this three-and-a-half-minute short for like three years, so that concept was shot to hell early on.

AWN: Speaking of Disney, The Little Mermaid is generally credited with revitalizing the studio and launching a kind of animation renaissance in 1989. When you look back on the production, did people feel at the time that this was going to put the studio back on solid ground or did they really have no idea what was going to happen?

JM: I would say it was more the latter honestly. Disney hadn’t done a fairytale in 30 years. We loved the Disney fairytales, but we didn't want to just repeat one of those. We wanted to make one that reflected our sensibilities. Does it move us? Does it make us laugh? Does it engage us? Do the characters seem compelling to us, as opposed to an imaginary group of families or six-year-olds?

We knew we loved the music. We knew we loved those songs. We liked our story and we liked our characters, but would anybody else? You don't know. Sometimes you love your project, but the world does not. I remember when we had our first public previews with a general audience, it went extremely well. Then it did even better with an all-adult audience. I think that was a shock to [then-chairman] Jeffrey Katzenberg, who walked out of that screening kind of starry eyed. He said, “I have to rethink the way I’m going to market this thing.”

We tried to pitch Jeffrey on the idea of the poster for the movie being kind of classy, to do something iconic, like the mermaid on the rock in the statue in Copenhagen. Jeffrey nixed it initially. Finally they decided to do a two-tier ad campaign for the movie, with the adult poster featuring a silhouette of Ariel on a rock. So there were debates, even internally.

Then, on Aladdin, that wasn’t a slam dunk either. We were breaking all sorts of rules. We broke the fourth wall. People said, “You can't do that. It's either going to date the movie, or it's too insincere, or the tone is not classic Disney enough. You're going too far. What are you doing? You're destroying the legacy.” Then, on top of that, as we were getting close to being done, Beauty and the Beast comes out and it's lauded, rightfully so, as this wonderful thing – a movie that we had nothing to do with. So we just were kind of cringing, like, who knows if people will go along with this or not.

And they were tough movies to make. I mean, we were getting yelled at all the time about the budget and this and that. We had all sorts of issues with things that didn't work, things we had to fix in the stories, and production issues, and then we were behind schedule and wondering if we were going to have to cut the movie to get it done on time, or we have to convince Jeffrey that the mermaid should be a redhead and not a blonde. He's like, “Guys, everyone knows mermaids are blonde. Come on. What are you doing?” We had those kind of things.

With all of those films, we didn't know what was going to happen. We just tried to make the best movie we could. We weren't calculating and saying, “If we make this much money on this one, then the next one, we can do this and it'll save the studio, and then this will be seen as a renaissance or whatever.”

AWN: During your early years at the studio, all of these seminal figures were also there: Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Tim Burton…

JM: Yes, my CalArts classmates basically. There was this big well of talent that came in from various places, including CalArts, but the studio didn't quite know what to do with them, and didn't necessarily have projects lined up that reflected the sensibilities of the people like me that were coming in. So there were some collisions that happened.

Brad was one of those casualties. He was very, very frustrated and they asked him to hit the road. It was a good thing they did, because eventually he flourished.

When Tim Burton was animating Vixey in The Fox and the Hound, we knew even then that this wasn't Tim. It didn’t reflect his sensibilities at all. When we were developing The Black Cauldron, I was trying to get Tim's designs into the movie. But I couldn't convince the powers that be that the Disney umbrella was broad enough that you could retain sincerity and conviction in the acting and the performances, but the characters didn't have to look a certain way. Tim left.

There were various people that left. I soldiered on. Although I thought of leaving at various times, I was trying to make changes and trying to empower, not just me, but these other people like Tim and Glen Keane and Ron and Ed Gombert – these people who had such a good creative voice. I thought we should channel that talent, all that creativity, which was going off into oddball side things, into the feature films and bring it to an audience and see if they like it or not. 

AWN: Right now it feels like we're in the midst of an unprecedented explosion in the volume of animated content that’s being produced. Do you think there are more opportunities for young animators than there were during your early years in the industry?

JM: As an artist – which is the way I saw these things, even if I was considered management – I always felt like it was better for the artist, and better for the audience, if there were options and people could go in different directions. When I started, those didn't exist. If you wanted to work in a feature film, there were very few games in town.

It wasn't really until Moana came out that I became aware of the importance of streaming. It just expanded its reach. It was like when we did Little Mermaid, which was popular in theaters and did well overseas, and Bill Mechanic, head of home video, said, “Forget the theatrical release, I want to put this on video.” Roy Disney really resisted it. “No, no, no, you're killing the goose. That isn't the way we do things.” He won the argument with Michael Eisner, but then, when Mermaid went out on video, it expanded the audience humongously.

Whenever something gets expanded, there is a risk, just like with expansion in sports leagues, that there could be a dilution of the product, because it gets fanned out too much. I worry less about that. I think it's a good thing. I think it does create opportunities for people who have an idea they want to sell or something they'd like to get made. I think it's good that they have those options. Not all projects will succeed, and some people will flourish, and others less so. But if I were a young artist getting into animation now, I do think that, with all these streaming services and with the gaming industry going great guns, there are a number of opportunities for your talent.

I realize 2D is still a tricky thing, where there's more of it on television than there is in features, but who knows where that may go? All the 2D drawing skills that you need to develop apply to these other forms as well. Drawing is still the best communication tool, even if you're working CG or stop motion or cut-out animation. I'm hopeful that with this proliferation there will be hand-drawn projects as well.

AWN: Looking back at your Disney career, were there any projects that got close to being made, but didn't, that you really had hoped would go?

JM: Yeah, there were definitely some. We worked for a while on a project called “Fraidy Cat,” which was a sort of Hitchcock parody that we inherited from Piet Kroon. It was just a funny thing with this phobic cat. We worked on that for a while. That was a fun project that didn't happen. Then we spent a year on a Terry Pratchett project that would've been really cool. But there were some rights issues and it got into a legal quagmire that the studio backed away from. There was a lot regret on our part that it didn't happen, and I still think it's a great property that should be done. But, yeah, that was painful, to invest a year and then have them walk away.

I was going to work with Brad on a version of The Spirit, the Will Eisner thing. Brad was trying to get that off the ground years ago, when I was at Disney, and I was going to quit and go work with him on it. I did some test animations, I did storyboards, and it would've been a really fun project. But he could not talk anybody into doing it. That's one that got away.

But that’s the nature of things. It's amazing, with both Pixar and Disney, at least during the years we were there, that things we pitched actually got made. In the live-action world, they develop 50 things and they make one of them. For a while at Pixar it was one-to-one, maybe less than that at Disney, but it was nice to know that if you pitched something that really had some promise, they would stick with it through the more troubled times during the course of its fragile and vulnerable development, and see it through to the end.

AWN: We’re looking forward to seeing your short and hopefully covering it when you eventually finish it.

JM: I think I really will finish. Assuming I do not get hit by a car in the next year, I'm going to finish it and we'll see if people like it or not. It's quirky enough that some people might just go, “Huh. Okay.” It is what it is.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.