Disney animated films are something many of us can say had an impression on us growing up. While all of the directors of Disney’s animated films are extremely talented, there’s something about the dynamic duo of Disney Legends Directors Ron Clements and John Musker that have been incredibly impactful.
Last month while I was in Los Angeles for the red carpet premiere of Moana and the press junket, I was able to capture an exclusive interview with Disney Legends and Moana Directors Ron Clements and John Musker and talk with them on their first primarily computer animated film. You know it’s going to be an entertaining interview when John Musker walks into the room and says he’s Dwayne Johnson.
On the challenges of working on a primarily computer animated film, how it is different, and the opportunities it presents
Storyboarding and scripting an animated film is primarily the same whether is hand-drawn or computer animated, but there certainly are some things that are different, especially at the production end of things. Ron Clements said they actually received tutorials on how things worked in CG before they started.
JOHN: Yeah, Steve Goldberg worked on Pros and gave us a tutorial and said these jobs don’t exist in CG. These do exist and it’s a whole different thing and one of the big things is in hand-drawn you can get going a lot quicker. You know, you have a piece of paper, you got a pencil, you can start exploring the characters.
In CG they’ve got to build the characters, literally sort of create them in 3-dimensional space. They’ve got to rig them, which means they’ll put all the armature in there so they can move around. They got to create the world they work in. So, it’s a longer set of time.
RON: All the environments, every leaf on every tree.
JOHN: Also, we had the crazy thing when we were watching we go to these review sessions when the movie was being done in CG where we’d look at it and say okay, so is that the real sky in that shot? And they say no, no, that’s just a placeholder. Forget the sky. And we go okay, but those trees, we should take those– no, no, the trees, were going to trade those out later for the real trees.
And then we’d say, ‘So we can ignore those rocks?’ ‘No, the rocks are the real thing.’ And we wouldn’t know looking at it why one was real and one—.
RON: It’s very complicated. There are so many different stages.
JOHN: We had people helping us all the time.
RON: There are amazing things. I mean with the camera movement and the textures and the hair—.
JOHN: And certainly, the ocean in the movie, we were able to do stuff in CG.
RON: And the lighting. There’s a lot of, a lot of cool things you can do. But a lot of things even that had to be figured out in the movie. Even the idea of a living ocean that has a personality of a monster, a lava monster, some of those things particularly where character animation and effects animation merge, that isn’t done usually.
There were a lot of things just to figure out how to do it and a lot of really smart people that sort of said, ‘We actually don’t know how to do this, but we are confident that we will figure it out.’
JOHN: ‘We’ll figure it out before the end of the movie.’ And they did. They really did.
On working on Little Mermaid and now Moana, did the transition from 2D to 3D their vision
JOHN: Well, it was interesting even just in a superficial way and that a lot of the animation we work on, the CG animators, a lot of them are in their 20s and 30s. They saw The Little Mermaid when they were 8 years old, and they’re like, ‘This is what got me in animation. I’m working with you old guys.’ So that was kind of fun.
RON: Yeah, I was 20 when I started at Disney, been there 43 years. I think John’s close to that or—.
JOHN: 40, I’m 40, yeah.
RON: I worked with Frank Thomas, who’s a legendary animator, who was my mentor and he was 62 and I was 20, and now I’m 63 and we’re working with a lot of very, very young people and really—people that are really excited and gung-ho and they’re just so eager and it’s really great.
JOHN: It was fun on this movie though, because in terms of the CG and the hand-drawn, we got to use both. And Eric Goldberg who did The Genie and Aladdin did mini-Maui. So, we were able to incorporate hand-drawn elements. And a lot of the younger [animators], were thrilled to get a chance to kind of work with Eric, where they would do the CG Maui and he would do the hand-drawn part and they could kind of learn from Eric and see his techniques in terms of the acting and his timing and his comic sensibilities. And it really, they were thrilled to get a chance to learn from this kind of living legend of animation. So, it’s been fun for us to learn new things and work with new artists. So, that’s been the really fun part of all this.
On directing 3 of the 5 Disney movies with princesses of color and the steps they take to respect yet share their culture
RON: The big thing was we did a huge research 5 years ago when we first pitched the movie. We spent like 3 weeks in Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti. We met with cultural ambassadors, linguists, anthropologists, sailors, and chiefs—
JOHN: Yeah, we got to sail in Fiji and navigators and we really tried to connect with those people. Oh, tough gig. You got to go to Tahiti for 3 weeks. No, but we really try to connect with the culture and learn how proud they were of their background as the greatest navigators the world has ever seen.
They use dead reckoning to find their way across the sea.
RON: And their connection to, the importance of respect for nature, respect for the environment and, and also the interconnectedness and extended families and the idea of your heritage and your legacy. We heard this expression in Tahiti, ‘Know your mountain.’ And your mountain is essentially everything that led up to you, all the people that led up to you, everything that happened, all of the things that if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t exist. And they said if you don’t know your mountain, you really don’t know who you are.
JOHN: We also heard this expression on another island, he said for years we have been swallowed up by your culture. And he said this all in Tahitian, translated to us. For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time can you be swallowed by our culture? We absolutely took that to heart. That became sort of our mantra as we did the movie over the course of the years and we kept people involved from the Pacific islands. We had an oceanic story trust that we bounced story ideas off of costume ideas, the way the characters looked throughout this process.
We would Skype with them. They came out to visit sometimes. And case in point, Maui, in the early going he was bald. He had no hair. Some drawings were—.
RON: —a little more like Dwayne.
JOHN: We’ll do it more like Dwayne Johnson, but then when some people saw it from Tahiti particularly they said, ‘No, no, no, long hair is part of his power.’ So, he’s got to have long hair. So, we, okay, forget it. He’s going to have long hair. So we looked at this great Polynesian football player’s long hair and people from the islands we had seen these great dudes with great manes of hair. And so we gave him that kind of hair, and then I can’t imagine him without that.
RON: Moana has great hair too.
JOHN: It’s a good hair movie.
The movie was always a hero’s journey, but originally it was Maui’s journey, not Moana’s
JOHN: I was intrigued with the area, the area of the Pacific islands. And then that led me to read Polynesian mythology and then I read about this guy Maui who was unbelievable. He was you know, a shape shifter. He had a magical fishhook. He could pull up islands. He had tattoos, kind of a superhero. And I was like, ‘Why has this never been done in a movie before?’ And so I showed it to Ron. We pitched a simple idea to John Lassiter.
RON: Based on the myths of Maui.
JOHN: And it was even kind of called the ‘Mighty Maui,’ actually, was sort of the original title. Then John’s like you got to do research. You got to go to the islands.
And when we went there and we heard about navigation and all this and it was really Ron’s idea, what if we have a character called Moana, which means ocean and we built it around her, someone who wants to be a navigator like her ancestors. And Maui we sort of saw as a true grit type story, where she really is this determined, forceful individual and she teams up with kind of a washed up, some down on his luck—.
RON: —at least a flawed, seriously flawed demigod.
JOHN: But she’s the focus of the story and so it was a challenge when we were making the movie always to keep her at the center. Sometimes Mali, because he’s so you know, he’s kind of like a magic character, he could start to rise up and we said no, no, this has got to be in the service of her story.
Our producer was very strong in terms of keep the focus on Moana when Maui threatened to take over sometimes.
RON: Yeah, it was really a hero’s journey. We thought of a hero’s journey for Moana. She’s on a quest to save her people. She faces numerous obstacles. She’s resilient. She’s also empathetic, which is an important part of who she is and, and fearless and that she really finally proves herself and becomes the person that she’s meant to be.
One of Ron’s earliest jobs at Disney was working on Pete’s Dragon. On what it was like seeing the live action version of Pete’s Dragon and Elliot come back?
RON: Well, it was interesting. This is probably going to be bad but we’ve been so busy, and we were literally in a period where that film came out we were working 12 hour days and Saturdays.
JOHN: He refused to see it.
RON: No, I wanted to see it. I would really have liked to see it. It was fun working on Pete’s Dragon. It was second thing, the first thing I worked on at Disney was The Rescuers. And then Pete’s Dragon right after that. And it was fun just a live-action animation.
JOHN: I almost worked on Pete’s Dragon but I flunked my in-between test. Actually, was a true story. Brad Burton and I were new trainees just as I was getting going, they said we need more help on Pete’s Dragon. Here, do this test where you do the in-betweens, the drawings between the drawings. And our drawings were so crude they said, ‘Okay, forget it, don’t go.’ So, we didn’t get to work on Pete’s Dragon.
On doing more movies together
JOHN: We don’t know what we’re doing after this one. This has been 5 years in the making, and we’re doing a couple of months of promotion then I think hopefully we get a few weeks off. Who knows what we’re doing. There’s a lot of great movies in the Disney pipeline after this from these various directors.
RON: Some have been announced I think and some are kind of—. That’s great and there’s a version of Jack and the Beanstalk that Nathan Greno is working on. And there’s a bunch of cool movies. Chris and Jen Lee, sequel to Frozen, which is getting going now. So yeah, there’s some great movies coming up, yeah.
On Easter Eggs in Moana. Squirt in the very beginning, which was adorable and of course Sebastian in the end credits, and Sven.
JOHN: Yes, there are a lot of them.
RON: There are many others and we will not tell you what they are. We will give you some clues. I will tell you what they are but not where they are. And they’re really interesting and some are very difficult. Some are a little easier, some are not. But Olaf is in the movie. And you might think how can a snowman be in there but he’s in there a couple of times.
JOHN: In a tricky way. Flounder from Little Mermaid is in there briefly. You may have seen Flounder, okay. And actually, Flash, the sloth from Zootopia.
RON: Baymax, Baymax.
JOHN: Baymax was in there.
RON: And McGilla Gorilla is in there. All those are actually in there, but it is like a Where’s Waldo. You got to kind of look at the right part of the screen to find them.
JOHN: And Wreck-it Ralph and is in there very briefly. You may have seen Wreck-it Ralph.
RON: He’s in the end. And the reason he’s in there, some people ask why is, he’s in almost one of the last images of the film? And the reason is there’s been a little tradition in the last few years that, that there’s something acknowledging the next film.
So our production designer at the last minute said, ‘Let’s put Ralph in the credits because he’s going to come up.’ So, we saw and we liked it and said yeah, let’s leave it in there.
On the Realm of Monsters and it’s feel being like a cross between Alice in Wonderland meets Oogie Boogie
RON: Well, because actually undersea colors actually are so high key and Gooding, our production designer, very well known, said when we go below the sea there’s that kind of phosphorescence that’s down at the bottom of the ocean.
JOHN: And they’re jumping off a cliff and going down under the ocean to a world in the ocean is from the mythology that was inspired by the—
RON: There’s other worlds that they thought of. And in fact, even when people die there’s a myth that the next world is you jump off a cliff and you go to the bottom of the sea and there’s a thing called Xibalba, which is sort of the realm of the underworld almost.
In our case, this is the realm of monsters.
JOHN: We have some monsters that didn’t make the cut. There are 8-eyed bats. We have bats in there, but there was a giant sort of 8-eyed bat. That was in the myth and it was fun to explore that. We liked the idea of getting contrast from the world of the movie because you’re always on the boat so long and up on the surface we thought we wanted to break it up and have a different area to sort of explore so that was the origin of Lalotai.
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