SDCC 2009: Disney Animation Round Two – Ron Clements and John Musker

08.17.09 8 years ago

Time to get these done, yes?

I’ll have three of these today and tomorrow, and I apologize for them lingering as long as they have.  The second of the Disney animation roundtables I attended, following the chat with John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, was with the directors of “The Princess and the Frog.”  That is to say, Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker.  Their first three movies are all Disney pictures that hold up, and they helped rebuild the company with “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Aladdin.” 

So this is all in the same room, happening one right after another, like we’re speed dating.  It’s a dosey-do of some of the biggest names in modern animation, and we can still see Lasseter and Miyazaki walking away as Clements and Musker sat down, everyone at the table greeting them warmly as they reset their various recording devices:

Drew McWeeny:  So, this is the return to hand animation, and you guys… obviously there was first big wave in the 90’s and in the late 80’s,  and there were a number of directors who made what are considered now the classics.  And of those guys, you guys got to be the ones to come back and kick start this next… hopefully the next wave of hand animation.  Is that exciting for you?  And how did you guys end up being the ones to spearhead this?

Musker:  Well, I mean… I think as John Lasseter says… I mean, Lasseter’s approach at Disney is exactly the same as his approach to Pixar, and it’s like a filmmaker led studio in the way that directors are very empowered, I think.  That’s kind of the way they are.  We had left Disney for about 6 months.  I think John coming onboard brought us back when…

Clements: We kind of had run afoul of the previous folks, and they turned their backs, sort of, on us.  I mean, basically they didn’t have much confidence in us making a film.  And John brought us back.  John knows our work and everything, and when we came back, it was John who sort of said, “Do we want to do 3-D or 2-D?”  And we pitched to John, “We’d like to do a hand-drawn fairy tale.”  He’s a huge fan.

[more after the jump]

Musker:  Yeah, I mean, I think we knew that we weren’t going to get a big argument about that.  At the same time, if we’d said we wanted to do a film in 3-D, I don’t think we would have been pushed to, like… “No, you’ve got to do it hand-drawn.”  It was kind of… everyone was kind of on the same page.  We knew that John wanted to bring back hand-drawn animation.  We definitely wanted hand-drawn animation to come back.  We just needed to find the right vehicle, and really early on, we pitched this project as a hand-drawn film and as a musical, and John and Ed [Catmull] were… it was sort of an immediate green light.  “We want to do this.  We like the story.  We like the characters.  We want to make this.”

Clements:  Obviously, it’s a little daunting because there hasn’t been one done in… sort of a Disney feature, a hand-drawn feature… in awhile.  But we have previewed the movie, and an interesting thing coming out of the comments of the audience was it was a total non-issue… the hand-drawn vs. the CG.  It was just a story and characters, just as it should be.  The films that we’ve worked on, I think, had more to do with issues with story and character than with the actual medium of how you tell that story, I believe. We will see.

Musker:  They’re just different mediums.  Like someone would describe it as different paintbrushes.  Certainly digital animation is going to be around forever, and it’s going to continue to progress.  I just think we felt… and John, ironically, is the biggest fan of hand-drawn animation around… that there should be… Disney should keep doing those kinds of movies.  But it was, in fact, like building a studio from scratch in a way.

Clements:  We brought people back who were out of the studio, and some people were out of the industry because there wasn’t that much work outside Disney.  But it was great… we were able to build an all-star team because there wasn’t that much resistance.  It’s a great line-up.

Musker:  And even people… I mean, many, many artists moved into digital animation, but almost everybody that we wanted really, really wanted to come back.  Because as much fun as digital animation is… it’s a little different process.  It’s a little bit more like puppetry, very sort of advanced puppetry.  The artists who did the drawing part just missed it.  They just missed it, even though they enjoyed doing the digital animation.  There was something that just didn’t feel quite as satisfying to them.  So pretty much everybody that we wanted to come back wanted to come back and do it again.

Drew McWeeny:  Now you say you’ve shown the film the preview audiences?

Musker:  We actually have.  Incomplete.  An unfinished version.

Clements:  A work in progress.

Drew McWeeny:  This is obviously a different era.  You guys, when you made your earlier films, it was not the Internet age, and it wasn’t the same kind of feedback.

Musker:  I know.  Whole different thing, right?

Drew McWeeny:  So now you’re getting pre-judgments on films, and you’re obviously… because you’re dealing with characters who are of a different ethnicity than the former Disney princesses, you’re both getting praise for doing that and drawing early criticism from people who haven’t seen the film.  What response do you have when you’re getting that kind of pre-judgment, and does it affect your work at all?

Clements:  It doesn’t affect our work.  I think the bottom line is that the criticism has come primarily from people who have not seen the film, who don’t know the context of the film, who don’t know the story of the film.  From almost the beginning when this film was announced… I think it was announced at a stock holders meeting about 2-1/2 years ago, I think… there’s been, like, speculation on the Internet.  A lot of speculation, and that sometimes it’s like a different world like you say.  I think we’ve certainly realized with this movie that it’s kind of a huge responsibility and we’ve got to be really sensitive to all the aspects of the audience.  And we’ve done a concentrated effort to be that and do that while at the same time wanting to make the movie we wanted to make and feeling good about the story.

Musker:  On the film “Up,” it seemed like on the Internet there was some buzz here and there, like after I saw the trailers.  Every person was saying, “Oh, the trailer… I think they’re finally going to stumble.  After this film, they’re over. They’re going to miss it, boy.  They’re going to miss it.”  I told them, “What do those guys know?”  And then the movie comes out and it’s like… and again, it’s hard to represent some of these films in thirty seconds, in a one-minute trailer, but then when people see “Up,” it’s like, “Oh I’m crying,” and it’s flying…

Clements:  We sort of pitched this movie to different groups, from the point where we started it, and to various groups and representative groups and from the very beginning, from the pitches, we got a very, very positive reaction to the actual pitches of the story, and then as we showed sequences, we got a positive reaction, and as we previewed it, we’ve gotten a very, very positive reaction… so that, I think, has been encouraging to us… so that we felt like we were on the right track and basically the movie is doing what we want it to do, which is to bring audiences together.  We’ve gotten pretty much the same response from all audiences regardless of their ethnicity, and that’s what we wanted.  So I think people’s concerns when they actually see the movie and see how the story works… I think for most people, those concerns will be appeased.  I mean, there always will be controversy…

Musker:  Entertainment Weekly‘s Top 25 most controversial films… with “Aladdin.”  It made 21st.  We juuuust made the list.

Clements:  We made the top 25 with “Aladdin.”  So controversy?  We’ve been there.

Question:  So, officially, is it similar to the ’90’s revival of Disney movies or is it much closer to the ’40’s classics?

Clements:  Both.

Musker:  Both.  The style of the movie is very much, and it was a deliberate choice, evoking I would say two films most strongly… “Bambi” and “Lady and the Tramp”.  “Bambi” more for the bayou, because a lot of the movie takes place in the Louisiana Bayou, and “Lady and the Tramp” more for the newer city of New Orleans.

Clements:  In terms of our character design, we tried to go with really round, dimensionally volumetric characters that are like the ’40’s and ’50’s, and that sort of thing where it really looks more like “Sleeping Beauty” in the later years, sort of really trying to get that illusion of sort of a viability of squash and stretch.

Musker:  There are aspects of Princess Tiana that are definitely unlike any princess we’ve ever done or Disney’s ever done.  And I think they can account their own kind of personal experiences in terms of… and there are… it kind of felt like we wanted this to be very, very… a Disney film… and it isn’t ashamed of being a Disney film.  It really plays up it’s Disney-eque qualities, but at the same time we wanted it to kind of have a little bit of a different… almost like a re-examination of Disney from a little bit of a different perspective.  So it’s very Disney, but it’s a little different than any Disney movie you’ve ever seen in terms of the story and characters and how that plays it.

Question:  Is the character of Faithful Henry from the original Princess and the Frog story present in any way in the film?

Musker:  No.  No.  It’s kind of… it’s almost an original story. It’s actually… there’s a book…

Clements:  We bought the rights to a book called “The Frog Princess”…

Musker:  By E.D. Baker.  And there’s a basic premise of that that is incorporated into the movie, which is the idea that we have two frogs thrown together, going on an adventure together, and kind of falling in love in the course of that, where they start out kind of not really getting along at all. They’re kind of coming from different kinds of life experiences.  But the book is basically… it takes place in kind of a fairy tale land, so this is more about the Americanization of it, with the sort of New Orleans 1920’s and the way the whole magic is used.  It’s kind of an original story, but it draws on the Grimm fairy tale, “The Princess and the Frog,” for its basic…

Question:  Are you concerned that… again, because we’re going back to the roots of Disney… the younger animators who are coming up are not honing their craft in such a fashion that, assuming that the film is going to be a success, there will not be enough people to actually fill that void to produce other films like “The Princess and the Frog”?

Clements:  We actually do have younger animators on the movie as well as veterans, and we’re really hoping to bring on more, as we were in the ’70’s.  We were part of the original training program taught by the Nine Old Men.  And we really feel like we want to pass on this legacy.  We have a number of animators in their 20’s on this show.  I’m almost surprised in a way, because there have been fewer jobs now. So many kids at Cal-Art and these other art schools love hand-drawn animation and have continued to sort of gravitate toward it even in the face of some difficult economic times.

Musker:  And actually we’ve got some definite rising stars in a group of animators that kind of right out of Cal-Art.  They sort of move really quickly, and they’ve done some beautiful work that’s been done by some really young animators.

Clements:  So I think John is sort of interested in that, really to help… I think the loose plan is they’re hoping that hand-drawn animation will continue and every few years there’ll be a new hand-drawn feature.  In order for that to happen, they do have to continue to sort of expand the ranks, and I’m hoping that this… obviously if this film comes out and doesn’t do well, that may slow things down.  But I’m hoping that it will do well, and certainly John is committed to it almost regardless, because it’s just the art form and the Disney legacy, and that’s such an important part of their legacy.

Musker:  For us, we started at Disney… we both started… I started about three years before John, but we were both in the… I was 20 when I started and we were working with mostly like guys in their 60s.  You had guys in their 60s and guys in their 20s and not a lot in-between.  Now we’re a little closer to… [laughs]

Clements:  [laughs] We’re in our 50s working with guys in their 20s.


We thanked them as they stood to head to the next table.  Both guys, class acts, and I really am curious to see what twists they’re playing with a formula they helped to perfect in the first place.

I remember the heyday of the Disney animated musicals at the El Capitan, when it was a ticket so hot people scalped it.  And I’m not exaggerating.  The limited runs of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” were tough to get.  They were booked weeks and even months ahead of time.  And even after the film opened wide, the El Capitan stayed sold out.  You had to buy your “Disney Christmas Movie Event” tickets eeeeearly if you were interested in going.  The second they went onsale.  I know it’s never going to be quite that culture again around Disney (or at least, I’d be shocked if they ever quite recaptured that sort of lighning in a bottle relevance again.  That’s no slight to Disney animation.  I think it’s possible they might reinvigorate the form and have a huge commercial success in the process.  But phenomenon level?

Mark it on your forecasts.  Keep your eyes here for more coverage leading up to release.  “The Princess and the Frog” is an important movie for Disney, and one I’m eager to see.

“The Princess And The Frog” opens in theaters in limited release on November 25th, then opens wider on December 11th.

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