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The Irascible Ron Clements and John Musker Talk ‘Moana’

More than 40 years after joining Disney, the veteran ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’ directors’ latest animated gem hits the theatre.

Years ago, I had the good fortune of taking a tour of Disney’s Burbank lot led by legendary Disney animation director John Musker. Though he’d probably drawn the short straw, “taking one for the studio PR team” by leading a group of Oscar-nominated animated short directors and colleagues around the vast studio grounds, he was patient, engaging and most of all, incredibly entertaining. From Dopey Drive, to the old feature animation building, the “morgue,” even a non-descript sound stage and an old animation diorama in an admin office hallway, each and every place we visited had a story, and his stories were fantastic – you really felt like you’d been let in on a slew of intimate Disney secrets that somehow vaulted you into an “inner sanctum” of select individuals who knew more than even most seasoned Disney veterans. John wasn’t just sharing facts, random trivia or pre-digested items from a brochure – he was sharing a piece of himself, his own version of Disney history and the importance animation played, and still does, in that history. Hearing a gracious and humble account of his and directing partner Ron Clements’ own place in that storied history made the morning that much more special.

As the directors behind The Great Mouse Detective (1986), The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), Treasure Planet (2002), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and now Moana (released today), Ron Clements and John Musker have directed seven Disney animated features together over a span of more than 40 years. Their film, The Little Mermaid, arguably was responsible for resurrecting Disney’s feature animation business from oblivion and ushering in the renaissance of the modern feature animation age.

Together, the two Midwesterners are an amusing team, continually cutting each other off mid-sentence to finish a thought, get a word in edgewise or embellish a point, correcting errant facts and mis-remembered timelines, John never far from a subtle, or not so subtle humorous quip or dig about the topic at hand or Ron’s take on a subject. They’re thoroughly enjoyable to talk with – their knowledge of animation, it’s inherent artistic beauty, difficulty and power came through in everything we discussed.  In separate interviews this past summer at the Annecy Animation Festival and a week ago in Los Angeles, we talked at length about their brand-new film, the beautifully animated and poignantly performed coming of age story, Moana, which hits theatres today, sure to entertain audiences around the world.   

Dan Sarto: Where did the idea for this film come from? What was the genesis of the story?

John Musker: After The Prince and the Frog, we developed a project for a year, based on a book we eventually couldn't get the rights to. We were like, "Now what are we going to do? What's another idea we can develop for a feature?” For me, I was certainly into different arenas and the South Pacific was intriguing. I had been to Hawaii but never to Tahiti. I’d read novels by Melville and Conrad about the exotic landscape. I knew the paintings of Gauguin. You see the sculptures from that area. I thought about all that and it seemed like a rich, fertile and visual world that hadn't been explored a lot. That led me to start reading Polynesian mythology, which I had never read before.

It's a tremendously rich vein of storytelling. I discovered the character of Maui, who I didn't know existed, who was this demigod shape-shifter bigger-than-life cultural hero who could pull islands out of the sea. For many of the islands of the Pacific, their myth is that with his magical fish hook, Maui pulled them right out of the water. This felt so ripe for animation to me. I mentioned this to him [pointing to Clements] and he started reading the stories as well. We cooked up a basic outline that we pitched to John Lasseter. He loved the arena and loved the basic idea of a story set in that arena. But, he said we had to dig deeper into the culture. That’s what prompted our research trip.

Ron Clements: Which is not unusual. John [Lasseter] is a fanatic about research -- he wants you to dig deep. In this case, it meant we had to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world and spend quite a bit of time there. We were the envy of many people at the studio.

JM: Rich Moore [director of Wreck-it Ralph] kept saying, "I went to an arcade in Pacoima."

RC: The truth is we did not want to do this in any sort of tourist fashion and the trip was set up very much to not do that. We wanted to meet with people who lived on islands, who grew up on islands, find out how that affected their lives and how that affected their philosophy of life. We met with villagers -- we spent time in villages that had no electricity. We were welcomed into those places and made part of the community. We met elders as well as experts, anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists. It was a very transformative trip. It was an experience. We didn't quite know what to expect and we came away from it, I would say, having learned a lot of things we didn't expect to learn and being moved in ways we didn't expect.

It hugely affected the story in this case. When we came back we pretty much threw out most of the story we had. We retained the demigod, the character of Maui, but aside from that we reinvented the story. One of the first things we brought in was this aspect of navigation and how important that was to the cultural identity. We found out amazing things these people had accomplished years before the Vikings or the European explorers and we knew right away that was going to be a real key part of the story.

DS: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but I’d be remiss in not asking. You’ve both had storied careers at Disney…

JM: Checkered careers.

DS: [Laughs] We have a publicist here so I have to be careful.  You've directed some of the most precious films in animated history let alone the Disney library. How different is it to direct a film at the Disney of today, compared to directing The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, films that led the resurgence of animated features, more than two decades ago?

JM: This one's been interesting because it’s our first CG feature. In a way there are some analogies to Mermaid, just in the sense that we were in uncharted territories on Mermaid as well. To do a full out musical at that time, that hadn't been done at the studio for a while -- and we hadn't done one ourselves.

In the case of Mermaid, there hadn't been a fairy tale done at the studio for 30 years, since Sleeping Beauty, so that was a new thing. We wanted to do a movie that could stand on the shelf with those past films. During the making of the movie, we were inspired by Howard Ashman's and Alan Menken's music -- we heard it hundreds of times and never tired of it. That was no guarantee the audience was going to like it. We were the audience. We were trying to make a movie that we liked and we didn't know if it would play well or not.

I do remember Peter Schneider calling us into his office before the movie came out, and somehow Steven Spielberg had seen a screening as it was near completion, maybe even done, and he said [in a nasally voice], "Steven says it's going to make a hundred million dollars!"

We were like, "Really, Steven said that? Okay. I hope he's right.” Speaking for myself, I had no idea if audiences would like it as much as they ultimately did. When you're in the thick of it, you don’t think about that. It was a hard movie to make and you wanted to make something good. But you can make something good and people may not necessarily embrace it. There's no guarantees in any of this, on this movie as much as any other one. There are a lot of vagaries involved and you see some things better in hindsight. Certainly, when you look back at that era it looks different now than it did when we were in the middle of it.

Even working on AladdinAladdin was very much an uncertain movie. We were coming after Beauty and the Beast, that's a sincere movie, and then we do this comedy. Beauty and the Beast was the toast of the town when they had the work in progress screening and we're like, "We're doing this comedy. Is anybody going to…are they going to think this is a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch?" As much as I like "Saturday Night Live," is it going to be here today, gone tomorrow? It didn't turn out that way and I'm glad that it didn't.

DS: So how has this directing experience been different?

JM: There was a lot of newness about Mermaid when we were doing it. There's newness on Moana in terms of the whole process because we hadn’t done a CG film before and we’ve had to learn a whole new pipeline. It isn't the same production pipeline.

Things don't move through the system the way they do in 2D, which was a more linear process. We storyboarded, we laid out, we animated, we cleaned up, we painted backgrounds, we put in the color. This one you see color scenes much earlier but they're unfinished and they have elements that are missing. It's more zig zaggy jumping…you see things more finished, then they're less finished, then they're more finished. It's a bit maddening, but it's also a more iterative process in CG. In hand-drawn, you couldn't take that same animation and say, "It would be cool if we changed the camera move on this and we shot it from this angle over here." CG, because that performance exists, it liberates the camera so that you can do those things.

Certainly the water on this movie…there are tools available to us that we didn't have on Mermaid. On Mermaid, we had an ocean. But Mark Dindal, who was the effects supervisor, had to find a way to simplify it to make it production friendly. In this one, simulations the effects artists can use are so infinite, so fantastic, it's an embarrassment of riches. There are challenges --we're trying to make the ocean a character. None of these effects artists have ever done anything remotely like this, where you've got to communicate a personality. You have different tools, but there are challenges that are unique. You have to come up with unique ways to solve them. But you're still creating things that don't exist, which is the thrill of any of these movies.

RC: Once again we're dealing with a female heroine.

JM: Most heroines are female.

RC: That's true.

DS: [Looking at Clements] You’ve been getting this from him for how many years?...

JM: Don’t get me started…

RC: [Laughs] We've done heroines before. This one is different in many ways. Discovering and finding Moana’s character has been challenging, but it's been exciting at the same time. I think we uncovered great aspects of her in terms of her tenacity, her fearlessness and how smart she is – her indomitable spirit makes her unique. Also, this story is not a romance. It's a coming of age hero's journey for Moana, and all those things make it new to us even though we've done a lot of movies.

JM: On Moana, we worked with artists, in their 20's and 30's, who we've never worked with before. It's funny because these men and women come up to us and say they saw The Little Mermaid when they were five and now they're animating on a movie with us. It's fun, and surreal for them, and it's fun for us to see this generational thing happening. When we started, you [motioning to Ron] worked with Frank Thomas when he was in his 60s and you were in your 20s -- it's the flip of that now.

RC: I was pretty young and Frank seemed pretty old to me at that time. He was 62 and I was 20, and now I'm 63. I'm a year older than Frank was when I started working with him. Funny how you look at things differently now.

DS: Especially when you get older.

JM: 63 is the new 64.

RC: I would say the studio for the most part has a lot of young people who are fired up and excited about what they're doing. That creates this inspiring environment…

JM: …with John Lasseter being in charge and a run of these well-made, well-told stories with engaging characters in worlds that are intriguing, one after the other. I think we are…it’s another renaissance for the studio.

DS: Aside from the longer ramp up for a CG production, you can produce a considerable amount of animation in a relatively short period of time.

JM: You can reiterate it too.

RC: And change it. From a Monday to Friday, individual animated scenes…they would look quite different when they were reviewed…

JM: In just a week.

RC: In just a week. That's very different than hand-drawn.

DS: How does the CG process change your co-directing dynamic? Or does it? Does it empower you more? Is it just as intuitive? How is it different for you?

JM: It's still pretty intuitive, I think.

RC: In CG animation, I'll say there's more fine tuning that you can do.

JM: And there are iterations. You can take scenes and do different acting approaches on them more easily. Certainly you can move the camera around -- if there's some staging issue, you can take care of that. It still may require some change in the animation, but you don't feel things are as rigid as if it was a hand-drawn film. If somebody animated a scene, we would be loath to…we’d give notes, but not to reconceive it.

CG gave us an opportunity that if something was bumpy, we could even reconceive certain scenes. We wouldn't do that in hand-drawn. That was one of the differences.

In hand-drawn animation, with the shape shifter Maui, you could just draw him different, bang bang bang. But in CG, we were told, "Wait, wait, wait a minute. This is CG. We have to have a limit on how many times he can transform." We learned you've got to build that new version, you've got to rig it. You can do certain transformations, but he can't move when he transforms.

We had to work those limitations in. We pushed the boundaries as much as we could, but it wasn't quite as pliable as hand-drawn in that sense.

DS: Moana, at its heart, is a musical. So, the film isn’t simply story, story, story, stop, sing a song, story, story, story…the song is the narrative.

JM: It is the fabric, basically.

DS: It's completely the fabric. So how do you write and animate songs when the story is so fluid and subject to change so far into production? The story is so…

JM: …In flux? Obviously, some songs went away because the story changed.

RC: There were some songs that went away. That will happen. It's a process. You never want to do story, story, story, stop, and have a song where you could lift the song out. You want to use the songs to tell the story.

JM: But that means when there's a story change, some songs may also have to change.

RC: The first song written for the movie, for example, was written about two years ago, I think…

JM: It was two and a half. “We Know the Way,” the voyaging song was the first song written for the movie. We always knew we wanted a song that would communicate to an audience the exhilaration of being on the open sea…the Islanders’ pride. That was the first one we conceived.

RC: Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda], Opetaia [Foa’i], Mark [Mancina]…that song was written in New Zealand the first time the three of them got together…

JM: Opetaia really led on that song. He wrote it in Tokelauan and Samoan. Lin came later on that one.

RC: The history of navigation was so important to Opetaia...

JM: When you talk about the fabric of the movie…

RC: What I was going to say was that that song originally was the opening of the movie.

JM: We thought we wanted people right away to know about voyaging and all that. Ultimately, we decided we’d like a prologue, based on various input, where we really setup the Maui problem of the movie. So, we created a prologue that went at the beginning of the movie. Then, it was like, where is that song going to go?

It was John Lassiter who pitched, it would be great if that idea is seen through the eyes of the protagonist. He's always saying, "Tell it through the eyes of the protagonist. It will help your audience relate to her." In other versions, she had a sense of what the past navigation was like. But in the final version of the movie, it was almost being kept a secret from her.

That happened a few times. Songs got repositioned, lyrics got adjusted. It's an organic process. It isn't like you start out, the songs are all there, we're done, go.

DS: Now make your movie…

JM: It’s tough for the musicians.

RC: As things start to come together…it’s just like everything else. The story is in flux for a while, and that's true of most of these movies. We have an advantage in an animated film that a live-action film doesn't have. We actually can storyboard the movie and put it up on story reels and watch a version of the movie before we make the movie. You're used to that process. Some people have a tough time watching story reels or getting much out of them at all. People who work in animation are pretty much used to them. Certainly John Lassiter's used to them.

You watch something, kind of get a sense, and then it's sort of beaten to death and torn apart and put back together again.

JM Hopefully not to death…

RC: Well, beaten…

JM: Into submission, maybe.

RC: Each one is like a draft of the script. In some ways though, because it's a musical, it's a little bit like theater.

JM: It's like workshopping a play. You're rewriting on the fly a little bit and hoping they keep production at bay long enough to make the changes. That's the challenge.

RC: Right.

JM: With CG, in some ways it works because it takes so long to get setup. You've got to build all these assets. You've got to build the characters, you've got to build the world, you've got to rig the characters, you've got to do all that. While you're doing that, you're tearing apart the story -- maybe by the time all the characters are rigged, the dust has settled on that “everything else.” But I don't think we did any animation on any of these songs that got rearranged…

RC: No, no.

JM: …Did we? They all relanded before they actually got animated. Most of the movie was animated in the last six to eight months. It was crazy.

DS: Really? Usually I’m told the last 18 months and even then it sounds nuts…

JM: Six to eight months. We couldn't believe it, coming from our 2D background…"We can really do this this in that amount of time?" But we saw it done on the last several movies.

RC: It's like, once everything is built, you've got your characters built, you've got your sets built…

JM: And we had 90 animators. On other movies, we had 50 animators. 90 terrific animators.

RC: It was exhausting. We were working 12 hour days every day plus Saturdays for a pretty long time. Week-by-week, you’d see the movie progress. It wouldn't seem fast, I guess, to people who are used to CG animation, but for us, things were moving incredibly fast.

DS: Animation, more than most industries I know, reveres its elders. It venerates its elders.

JM: It does, that's true, that's true. We did…

DS: Each generation speaks in reverential tones about the folks that taught them. Especially at Disney. Having recently spoken at length with Byron Howard, Clay Kaytis, Lino di Salvo, John Kahrs, folks that were the youngsters not too long ago, but now are the new wave of animation directors…

RC: Part of that, too, with animation specifically, but I think in a lot of other areas…the real way to learn to be an animator is to work with the master animator.

JM: Like working with a mentor to learn the craft…

RC: For me, I was an animator and Frank Thomas was my mentor. Again, like you say, revered. It was such a cool thing. I worked with Frank for about two years.

JM: There's a sense of handing the baton to the next generation.

DS: There are very few people in this industry that get the chance to helm even one big studio animated feature film. You guys have been at Disney, literally for years…

JM: Yeah, he's [pointing at Clements] been there 43, I've been there 40.

DS: The fact that the organization put you at the helm of this film…

JM: Are they crazy?

DS: They're obviously not crazy. From a personal standpoint, how does that make you feel, the fact that they still want you in that key leadership role because of your unique talents and because of what you bring to the continuum of Disney animation?

JM: I think John Lassiter is the key to that. I went to school with John. I think he knows the Disney legacy, and he knows what Ron and I have done. Even when he was at Pixar, he knew what we did down at Disney. He had invited us to come up to Pixar if we wanted to work there. If we ever wanted to do a feature, he was like, "The door is open to you guys." I think he knew our abilities.

He's a filmmaker, so I think that made it easier for him to embrace us as filmmakers, even to bring us back when Michael Eisner had kind of thrown us out of the studio. He thought, "No, no, you guys, I know your talents. You should be doing stuff here." There is this continuity.

We feel good about it. I like working with the younger people we got to know because we weren't in the CG world. There's a whole bevy of artists, male and female, hugely talented, that we worked with for the first time on this movie. There were literally hundreds of people we had never worked with before. We didn't know what they did. We knew the movies we’d seen were great…like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Suddenly, to actually work with them and learn what they really did, I feel enriched because now I know these people.

RC: They were excited. A lot of these people, they were kids when The Little Mermaid and Aladdin came out. In some cases, they were inspired. For me, Pinocchio made me want to become an animator. Some of the young artists, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast was what made them decide, "That's what I want to do with my life." There's an aspect of that that I don't think we thought about too much, but that was sort of cool.

Eric Goldberg, who animated the Genie in Aladdin…just working with Eric Goldberg was really…

JM: The young CG animators, they were thrilled to get a chance to work with Eric, who’s sort of a living legend, to learn from him, his lessons about comedy, timing, overlap and all that kind of stuff on how to approach a scene.

DS: Disney has taken some hits in the press regarding this film and the issue of cultural appropriation, that you have no right to incorporate Pacific Islander religious and cultural heritage into your film. It seems you guys have bent over backwards to be inclusive and respectful. How do you respond to that type of criticism directed at this film? You're artists, you're filmmakers, you want to tell this story. Should you be precluded from doing that?

RC: People feel how they feel. People who have seen the movie [who have Pacific Islander heritage], the reactions we've gotten have been really gratifying in terms of feeling that we did what we hoped we'd do. They saw a lot of what we hoped they would see, in terms of getting certain things right, that reflect a truth about the culture, as opposed to things that were stereotyped or just felt like we didn't make an effort to get it right.

JM: Shakespeare drew on Italian comedies for his own work. He drew on stories from other cultures. That's been a tradition of art. I don't think an artist should be restricted to only telling stories that happen in his or her own backyard. I think we'd all be the poorer for it, if you could only do that.

Doing it sensitively is important, and good, but I don’t think there should be limits put on artists that dictate, "You're not allowed to look around the world and see stories that are interesting."

RC: We both grew up in the Midwest. If the only thing we could do is tell stories about life in the Midwest, that probably wouldn't be so good.

DS: Wouldn't be as many musicals.

JM: Wouldn't be as many musicals. Aside from stories about Chicago. There's some great blues music in Chicago.

Dan Sarto's picture

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