Of Mice and Maui | Ron Clements and John Musker on the Journey to ‘Moana’
For many of us, the imaginations of Ron Clements and John Musker were a defining element of our childhoods. These two filmmakers have been responsible for animated classics like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules, to name a few, and over their combined tenure at Disney Animation they have watched the industry evolve from two-dimensional drawings to three-dimensional computer imagery. Heck, many of of their own films bridged the gap: The Great Mouse Detective infused 2D animation with CG elements, and the underrated sci-fi/fantasy Treasure Planet could not have been possible without marrying the two mediums together.
Ron Clements and John Musker are back this week with Moana, their first solely CG-animated feature, an ambitious and adventurous fantasy adventure about a young Hawaiian woman who takes it upon herself to find the egotistical demigod Maui, and convince him to help her heal the world. It’s a lusciously animated motion picture, and one of Disney’s best animated films.
I sat down with Ron Clements and John Musker with the Pacific Ocean just off to one side, to talk about the evolution of Disney Animation from The Great Mouse Detective to Moana, and the impact Pixar has had on the creative drive at their studio. And because we live in the 21st century and everybody has their favorite fan theories, I also asked them to debunk a few of those.
Let’s get started…
Crave: Not only is Moana coming out, but it is also the 30th anniversary of The Great Mouse Detective.
John Musker: Yes! A movie that he pitched. It was his idea to do that. Yeah, it’s the 30th anniversary.
Ron Clements: I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan growing up and somehow, to me, I don’t know… Disney and Mary Poppins and British things, they fused in my mind and I thought it would be fun to do Sherlock Holmes in animation. Then I saw these books by Eve Titus, Basil of Baker Street, so yeah, I pitched that a LONG time ago.
I think it’s an underrated film in many regards and I’m a big fan. What I think is interesting is that it’s one of the earliest animated films to incorporate CGI into the animation…
John Musker: It is.
Ron Clements: Yeah, yeah.
…and now here you are making your first fully CG-animated film.
John Musker: That’s true.
When you were making The Great Mouse Detective did you ever think to yourself, this is the future? That eventually you would be making a film using only this technique?
John Musker: I didn’t really think of that. I think really when TRON came out, and when John Lasseter was picking up stuff from TRON and then going to Pixar and then developing all that, I thought there would be more and more uses. I can’t claim to envision that you could do an entire feature in that [medium].
Ron Clements: We saw Toy Story in its early stages and I think we realized, whoa, this is Snow White again. This is hugely impactful.
John Musker: But certainly the ocean in our movie, in this movie, compared to the ocean in The Little Mermaid, there was so much more we could do with it and we were just dazzled by the technology. And they developed new tools even within the CG world that they didn’t have to make this work. It was crucial because so much of the movie was going to take place on the ocean, and we wanted the ocean to a character and have thoughts and feelings and emotions.
Obviously Moana has many visual elements that benefit from the CGI approach…
John Musker: In terms of the decision, 2D vs. CG?
Actually, I’m thinking about your other films. Something like Treasure Planet could have conceivably been made in this fashion. What was it that kept you from going CG until now?
John Musker: Well, we love hand-drawn. I’d say that’s one of the reasons…
Ron Clements: Yeah, and Treasure Planet is actually a hybrid film. It sticks its toe in the water and yet I think in our minds that’s how we conceived it, as a hybrid film. I think it would have been tough at that time. The thing that’s happened, particularly at Disney I think, even more so than Pixar, is the development… like with characters – particularly a character like Moana – now you kind of accept it, but that’s very difficult, the more realistic human characters…
John Musker: You look at the early days of CG compared to now. Tin Toy, the little kid in that and stuff.
Ron Clements: Even at the time we were doing Treasure Planet I think we felt like CG animation wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough for the kind of acting and things, with some of the tone of that movie. It’s grown…
John Musker: By leaps and bounds.
Ron Clements: There are all kinds of things that you can do that you couldn’t do. Even with Moana there were a lot of question marks. There were these things, we wanted to be able to do this living ocean, we wanted to be able to this living volcanic monsters, we wanted to have tattoos [that move on their own], and it was sort of like, “Okay, there’s aspects of this that we don’t know how to do this. But we’ll figure it out! We’ll figure it out in time.” [Laughs.]
Was there anything they didn’t figure out? Was there anything beyond our capabilities?
John Musker: No.
Ron Clements: Not really.
John Musker: I mean, they sometimes found ways to make things work even that we don’t know, or they could even matte paintings on the Te Fiti character, that’s the living island at the end. In the very last shot where she closes in, there’s things where they projected [images] onto a dimensional surface. There’s a different methodology than some of the other shots.
Ron Clements: We had a good budget on the movie. It’s an ambitious movie. Not a humongous budget; there were budget limitations [to] some degrees, and time limitations so that you have to figure out solutions, whereas if you had unlimited money or unlimited time, maybe you wouldn’t have to figure out those.
John Musker: But in the early days of when they were working on this film, the water scenes wouldn’t render at first. There was as issue! [Laughs.] Yikes! If water scenes don’t render we’re in big trouble. We weren’t aware of it at first and then they said, “Yeah, we can’t get [it right].” Because there’s like deep space water and near water and getting those to marry together and render properly, they had to work around it a few times but thank god!
Ron Clements: The good thing on this is that we started this movie five years ago, and we kind of knew, even at least four years ago, some of the challenges that we were going to be dealing with. So there was time for research and testing and development before we got into the really crunch period, of now we’ve just got to make the movie.
John Musker: Yeah, they developed a library of core effects for the water and things like that, which we couldn’t have got done. Even, they did tests on the buoyancy of the boat on the water and how to make all that work before we put any scenes into production.
When Pixar came on the scene, and then merged with Disney, it seemed for a while like Pixar made the CG-animated non-musicals and then Disney made the 2D-animated musicals…
John Musker: Yeah, yeah right. I know. Right, yeah.
It seems now we’re at the point where both groups are challenging each other and everyone has to step up their game.
John Musker: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s true.
Ron Clements: We’re sibling studios…
John Musker: …but there’s some competition.
Ron Clements: We’re very friendly with each other and we know everybody. Well, we don’t know “everybody” but we know the directors and we’ve known them for years.
John Musker: Pete [Docter], Andrew [Stanton], Lee [Unkrich]…
Ron Clements: And we show each other the movies. We took Moana to Pixar and we showed it there, and they bring their movies down to Disney. But there is this challenge, I think, with the two studios. John Lasseter is there as the parent…
John Musker: We compete for John’s time, a little bit. John Lasseter spends two days a week down at Disney, the rest of the time up there.
Ron Clements: Three days at Pixar, we don’t get…
John Musker: But there are times when they feel like they are a little neglected and there’s times when we feel like, “Hey, we should be [getting more attention].” So he’s really unbelievable, that he flies back and forth every week for ten years.
You said you brought Moana up to Pixar. What sort of notes did they give?
Ron Clements: A few notes. They said they loved the ocean character.
John Musker: They said do more with the ocean and the tattoo, because they were so unique to the film. We had less of that in the movie, so we put more of that in. One of the other big notes was, when the ocean picked her as a toddler, they felt like she should do something for the ocean to pick her. So that whole thing with her helping the turtle to shore, that came out of that Pixar screening. That idea came up there, so that got developed there.
That’s a good note.
John Musker: Yeah, that was a good note because her empathy and her concern was the reason the ocean hands her the heart of Te Fiti, and brings it to her.
What is the one fan theory you’ve heard about your other films – The Little Mermaid, Hercules, whatever – that just baffles you? Where you’re just like, “What?!”
John Musker: There’s that thing going around that had to do with even Frozen. The parents in Frozen were in The Little Mermaid?
Publicist: [Clarifying] The theory was the ship that sank Tarzan’s parents was the ship that Ariel is swimming around in. [Editor’s Note: And some also claim that ship was carrying the parents from Frozen.]
Yeah, that the ship is the lynchpin of Disney Animation somehow…
John Musker: Yeah, right, [as if] it was something that was planted years before and now it’s surfacing.
Ron Clements: I think there’s the theory that in Hercules, Aladdin is briefly in Hercules because of this streak of purple.
John Musker: Really? The shooting star?
Ron Clements: The shooting star. I think some people think that’s Aladdin on the magic carpet, because he does go to Greece. But that is Pegasus.
John Musker: No carpet there, yeah.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.