Interview: Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker

Interview Simon Brew 28 Jan 2010 - 18:23

The directors of Disney's The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and The Princess & The Frog - among others - join us for a chat...

Cards on the table: I love Disney animated movies. I count among my favourite films of all time The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book and Beauty & The Beast, and could bore you senseless in a pub for hours about the likes of The Aristocats, Lady & The Tramp, 101 Dalmatians and Pinocchio.

Thus, when the opportunity presented itself to talk to John Musker and Ron Clements, the directing team that's now given Disney six animated films and has brought hand-drawn features back to the studio with The Princess & The Frog, I nearly bit their arms off. Turns out, the two of them were exactly how you'd want them to be: fascinating, intelligent, passionate and full of interesting stories. This is what we managed to squeeze out of them in 20 minutes...

 

The news that hand-drawn was coming back to the Disney studio was hugely important. But I would assume by the time you got back down to work, quite a lot of the apparatus, for want of a better word, had been dismantled?

John: All of it. They had gotten rid of many of the machines, even the animation desk that had lightboards in them. They had gotten rid of all that stuff, and we weren't sure we had even the desks to make one of these films. Fortunately, Chris Hibler, who's the manager of operations, who was the grandson of Winston Hibler who worked with Walt Disney, quickly stashed away a bunch of desks. It was almost like a fairy tale. He said, "I was told to get rid of all of these things, but I secretly stashed enough of them away to make a film."

Ron: He disobeyed orders!

John: So he revealed them to us, and we were glad. And certainly the artists, some of them had gone into CG, or gone into illustration, or gone off to work to other studios doing other things. We really had to reassemble the team and restart the production process. The CAP system, the computerised ink and paint system we had used since The Rescuers Down Under - it's been in use for 27 years - that had been mothballed. So even the software was gone. So we had to get off the shelf software.

Ron: So, really, it was not just making a movie. But building a studio at the same time. There was a little short called How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, which was the little thing to just get it going again. And then Princess came after that...

When Disney announced it was stopping doing hand-drawn animation, I always wondered what the knock-on effect was on animators down the line. You two worked with some of the greats, but I wonder now, are young, new animators coming in with CG animation on their mind, because that's what they perceive the industry wants?

John: Some of these crazy kids aren't, and they should be, probably, for their own sake! But some of them are so devoted to 2D that they studied it at - actually, where I went to school - The California Institute Of The Arts. I was there with John Lasseter, Brad Bird. Tim Burton was the year behind us. We were learning animation. There are kids still involved at CalArts who turn their noses up at CG, even though there are certainly many, many more films being produced in CG. But they love 2D so much that they're studying that. So we found some young talents, actually, who really did love hand-drawn and studied it.

Ron: Yeah, it was great. We learned our craft from the older animators, the nine old men who had worked with Walt Disney. We got to work with some of the artists who worked with Walt. And that's always how it's kind of been. A kind of a mentor/apprentice situation with animation, that's the best way to learn animation, from someone who has been doing it for a while.

So, what was great on this movie was that we kind of had an all-star team of animators. Even the animators who had moved to computer animation and were doing very, very well with CG, when they found out hand-drawn was coming back, they wanted to be a part of it again. For people who have done it, there is something much more expressive about it - from your brain, to your hand, to the pencil, to the paper. So we kind of could hand pick the people that we wanted in all areas. We had a great team working on the movie. It was really kind of emotional now seeing these veterans teaching the younger people.

Is the talent development programme at Disney still thriving?

John: There's a new version of that, where we've been very successful even in the storyboarding department, where we've had interns come in from different schools, a mentoring thing where they spent three months working under the supervision of some mentors. It's really an adaptation of the programme that we came in with.

Ron: With animators too. There were several young animators who really very quickly rose through the ranks and did some significant work.

John: Some of them women too, which was great. Because, traditionally, women haven't been animators for whatever reason. But now there's a number of young women who have learned it at school and who really seem promising.

Ron: Some really strong talents.

When it came to the film itself, there are some startling sequences in there that I don't think that you could do with the same impact with computer animation. I'm thinking the scene with the fireflies, for instance.

But the one that really got me was the villain, Facilier. I don't think that computer animated movies do villains particularly well...

John: For whatever reason, they have not. There hasn't emerged a strong villain. I think from either Disney or outside Disney...

The only one I think comes close is Monster House.

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

That's the only one that comes anywhere near.

John: And, for some reason, Pixar movies haven't tended to have strong villains.

Ron: They haven't emphasised them in their storytelling. But we've liked villains. Most of the films we've done have had prominent villains. Villains are fun. We've always enjoyed the villains, and particularly like stories that play up a strong antagonist and protagonist.

John: Bruce Smith was the great animator who did Facilier. We'd never worked with Bruce before, but he worked on Tarzan and Emperor's New Groove. And he's one brilliant draughtsman, so he really brought that side to life. We did some fun things and hired a choreographer, and filmed some dance footage. Because we really wanted him to be a Bob Fosse-esque kind of showman, who could really dance, and be smooth. We looked at footage of Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, great dancers of the 20s and 30s and tried to incorporate them into his character to make him this really snake-hipped villain.

The thing that struck me was that I took my five-year-old to see it, and Facilier's not a softened villain. And my son was a little bit scared by it, which I thought was a good thing...

John: Yeah, he was a little bit scary.

Ron: We go back to our own childhoods and, certainly, the Disney villains. Cruella de Vil had a huge impact. And when we were kids there was that witch in The Wizard Of Oz.

John: She terrified me when I was about six. And I saw her in my closet for a year!

Ron: But even though we were scared, we felt it gave the film more impact. And so we've always had scary things in the movies. We don't want them to be too scary, we try to balance it with fun and lightness. But yeah, we like to balance with the light and the dark, but put some dark in the movie.

My son then watched Snow White a day or two after...

John: What was his reaction?

He was scared a bit by that too!

John: Oh, really! [Laughs]

I think it's a thing with hand-drawn, though. Because you're not drawn into a CG arms race, this thrust to make the technology look a bit more glistening than the last film, and I think the end result sticks better over time.

John: Interesting. And I do think that a lot of kids draw, and somehow the idea of a drawing coming to life, it really hits them very viscerally.

Ron: When we were kids, I know when I saw Pinocchio it had a huge impact. I was ten years old and I went home and I was drawing the characters. And that was just a part of it. A way to hold onto the movie a little bit was to draw. It was actually after I saw Pinocchio that I thought I might try and work in that industry in some way.

And now, of course, people talk about films you've made in the same way. About The Little Mermaid, which is an amazing film...

John: It was a huge success, and it really moved over into the pop cultural mainstream. Animation was a bit in the doldrums, and we thought wouldn't it be great if we could do a film where people actually see, and you mention the characters and they understand. At first it wasn't like that, and then with Mermaid and Aladdin...

Ron: ... it kind of broke through, and that was really gratifying. The Little Mermaid was a really great experience. And working with Howard Ashman, who did the music...

The lyrics to the songs in Little Mermaid are so pitch perfect. ‘We've got a hot crustacean band' is a line that just shouldn't work!

John: Yeah, I know! Every lyric in that song is pretty priceless, I think, and Howard excelled at that. The clever wordplay, the jokes, heart and emotion in all of his lyrics, really.

When coming to this project, I understand that The Princess & The Frog didn't have to be a hand-drawn film...

John: It didn't have to be, no.

Ron: It was our choice. But it wasn't a hard choice from our point of view! And certainly from the point of view of John Lasseter it wasn't a hard choice. There's an irony to that, obviously, because so much of John's success has been with digital animation, with the Pixar films. But he also was a Disney fan even before he went to CalArts, and worked at Disney. And he loves hand-drawn animation just as much as we do. He was really sad to see it leave Disney, I think.

So when, almost four years ago, in February 2006 when Disney actually bought Pixar, and John Lasseter became the head of Disney Animation, that was a really good thing for us. I think John was probably the only person who had the clout to bring it back. And he did.

Did Enchanted help at all, because tonally that's quite close to the feel of many traditional Disney films?

John: It did help a bit, yeah. The music was great, and the re-introduction of a bit of 2D animation, a bit of a rediscovery. We liked it, John Lasseter liked it.

Ron: We were in the midst of doing this film. We pitched the idea of this version of the fairy tale - there had been various versions of this fairy tale floating around both Disney and Pixar for a long, long time. But this version we pitched in March of 2006, and we pitched it as an American fairy tale set in New Orleans in the 1920s. We pitched it as a musical, with an African-American heroine in it. We pitched it as a hand-drawn film, and John said yes to all those things.

It ties quite closely to late 80s Disney?

John: It does.

Ron: Deliberately so. It's 20 years ago that The Little Mermaid came out, and, in a way, for us, we considered that the only real fairy tale that we've done, with all the movies that we've done. Aladdin, even though it had a princess in it, we think of that more as an Arabian adventure. So, it was really fun for us to go back and do a fairy tale again. Fairy tales have always had a special place with Disney animation.

You moved on as well, of course.

John: Yeah. Treasure Planet was an action adventure, and that was the one where we really tried to blur 2D and 3D a little bit, creating environments where you could move in on a Z-axis. But this one we deliberately said let's not blur it. Let it be unapologetically hand-drawn.

What were you doing then in between Treasure Planet and The Princess & The Frog?

Ron: There's a process in the movie industry in both live action and animation called development hell! Which we hadn't actually experienced - we'd actually been pretty lucky in our careers. For the most part when we've finished a movie, we'd start the next movie. And get a green light fairly early on, knowing that the film would be made, which is a good thing! And the film would get made.

But after Treasure Planet we did go through a period where we did develop a few projects that did not see the light of day, and we did leave Disney for a period, for about six months. But at the time we left, we kind of thought it would be a lot longer than that, and we doubted we would return to Disney. But we didn't see the future and we didn't know that John Lasseter was coming.

John: But we had a number of projects that we developed to a certain point and didn't get off the ground.

Ron: Actually, they were CG projects, no hand-drawn projects. Because at the time, there were just no hand-drawn animation being considered anywhere, really.

John: We were pitching both to Disney, and to outside Disney as well. We had some ideas for some CG films, and some combination live action/animated things.

Ron: Actually, before we came back to Disney we were very close to signing a deal to do a CG film outside of Disney. But we were very happy to come back. And the environment changed considerably under John Lasseter, because he's so passionate about hand-drawn animation, and there's very positive energy that comes from him. So, it was really exciting to come back.

It's even down to inserting the Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse animation at the start?

John: Oh yeah. He changed the stationery so that it had things like that on. He's very much into the legacy. With him we can talk about scenes of animation from the 30s, and he knows as much as we do. We speak a common language.

Ron: He's involved with parks, too. And the rides, which he loves. And the toys, which he loves.

Ursula is scary in those parks! They always put her at the back of the floats!

John [laughing]: Yeah! They have her sneak up on you!

Going back and starting Princess & The Frog, did it help that you weren't on the three year cycle that you'd been on for so long?

John: Yeah, we'd been doing one every three or four years for so long, we had to step away from the merry-go-round for a while. So we were very eager to get back to it. We had a certain feeling of a mission, because it had gone away. And all the artists, equally, had a feeling of a mission. They were recharged and ready to jump into it.

Ron: I think also that there was viewing the fairy tale possibly from a different viewpoint. We looked at Disney, and there's a little bit a re-examination of Disney in this film, of Disney animation. With the whole wishing on a star, and fairy tale princess ideas. We took some of those in a little bit of a different direction.

Culturally, the significance of the film has been played up quite a lot. From yourselves, though, I always got the impression that it was just part and parcel of the story?

John: It was, really. It grew out of the fact that it was set in New Orleans. We thought it would be good to have an African/American heroine. We liked the idea we were doing something that hadn't been done before. It has more importance in the media than we necessarily gave it when we first started. We liked that challenge.

I think we underestimated how much importance it would have in the media, and because it was so culturally significant, certainly within the African-American community, there was this really pent up desire that we were really slightly less aware of to have someone who would be in that princess brand.

We didn't really think of the princess brand. When we did Little Mermaid we didn't think that. It's Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, it's underwater.

Ron: That's [the Disney princess brand] actually come up in the last few years, I think, more so. Where we see the Disney princesses more as...

John: ... a band of superheroes!

My last question is the obvious one: are you doing another hand-drawn film now?

Ron: That's the plan. Actually, the next thing that Disney is doing in hand-drawn animation is a new Winnie The Pooh feature in the style of the early Poohs, Blustery Day and Honey Tree. And the animators are having a lot of fun with that.

And we are in the very early stages of planning another hand-drawn film. We can't say what it is, but we've pitched some ideas to John. We're honing that down. But we are planning to do another hand-drawn movie!

Ron and John, thank you very much!

The Princess & The Frog is released in London today, and across the UK from Friday 5th February.

And if you want to see the short film on hooking up your home theater that John and Ron were talking about, then look no further...

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