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Disney Animation Veterans Ride the CG Tide With ‘Moana’

Ron Clements and John Musker have just about seen it all in their 30-some years at Disney. They are largely credited — as the creative powers behind 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” — with launching Disney’s animation renaissance following a period of less-than-successful films for the studio. Today, their seventh animated collaboration, “Moana,” is the writer-directors’ first CG-animated project; Jared Bush wrote the screenplay.

Moana” tells the tale of a head-strong teen who defies her village’s ban on sailing the ocean in order to save them from destruction. The movie has been a learning experience for the seasoned veterans.

“We had to learn a whole new pipeline,” Musker says. “The way to get from script to storyboard is the same, but once you get into the production process, it is a different thing. It’s less linear.”

In hand-drawn animation, artists go from storyboards to drawing the sets and figuring out where the cameras are going to be, to character animation, followed by cleanup, painting, then placing that on a painted background. “Then you’ve got a finished scene shot-by-shot,” he explains. “In CG, it’s much more erratic. You’re shown scenes that are animated, but you say ‘Is that the real sky?’ And [the animators] say, ‘Forget about the sky. That’s not the real sky. We’ll put that in later.’

Then we ask, ‘Is that tree going to be the real tree?’ And they say, ‘No, that’s not the real tree.’ ‘What about those rocks?’ ‘No, they’re not going to be there. You’re just looking at this one thing.’”

“ ‘Are you OK with the sparkle on this thing?’ “ interjects Clements.

In many ways, the processes are flopped, they say. Getting started goes much more quickly in traditional, hand-drawn animation, than it does in CG.

“Very broadly, in 2D you can get going faster,” says Musker. “I have a piece of paper and a pencil, and if I want to explore how a character looks or moves, I just go. You do it instantly. In CG, you have to sort of build that character in the computer. You have to rig it to control how it’s going to move. But once you get going, you iterate more because everything’s sort of there. Or you can reiterate just parts of scenes more easily, where if you had to redraw the scene in 2D it would be a kind of nightmare.”

To prove the point, Clements points out that while they’ve been working on the film for about five years, “We really got going on the production in January. The bulk of the film has been made just since then.”

In some ways Moana’s journey mirrors Musker and Clements’ own as they’ve weathered the choppy seas at Disney over the past 30-odd years.
Clements and Musker came to the studio in the 1970s excited about animation, but the studio was going through a difficult period after founder Walt Disney died in 1966.

The executives at the time were still trying to decide if they wanted to continue making animated features and weren’t really looking toward the future.

“I came to Disney a year or so before CalArts started its character animation program, then there was a period when there were a lot of young people coming into Disney very excited, very passionate about animation and looking to the future,” says Clements.

“But the films actually being made at the time weren’t necessarily the most inspiring,” adds Musker. “Tim Burton, Brad Bird, we all came from CalArts. Maybe Brad was the most gung-ho of anybody: ‘Yeah, man animation! We can change the world!” We had this rose-colored view because at CalArts, it was a utopian world where everyone could have an idea and everyone is listened to. It was so collaborative. Then we got into the real world and there was hierarchy and bureaucracy. You were not necessarily encouraged about your ideas at times by certain people.”

Says Clements: “I think here was a feeling at Disney that it was exciting to be there and learn the craft, but everybody was waiting and wanting to do something. We went through our own personal dark period with ‘The Black Cauldron,’ which is a story in itself. ‘Black Cauldron’ was a very difficult film that took a long time to make. We were on it for about a year and then they broke off a little satellite group of people who were really frustrated, and that group went on to make ‘The Great Mouse Detective.’ John was actually brought on to help direct ‘Black Cauldron.’

Musker adds that although he was brought on as a younger voice, “the older people I was working with didn’t like any of my ideas. We had Tim Burton doing designs that were so great, but the directors looked at them and said, ‘Nah, these are too weird. Get rid of these.’”

It was about this time that big changes were happening in Disney’s corporate offices.

Saul Steinberg was trying to engineer a corporate takeover of the company. “If he’d bought it, his intention was to break up the company, sell its assets, make a lot of money and, essentially, kind of destroy it,” Clements recalls. “The film library, the parks, there wouldn’t be a Disney anymore. But that didn’t happen.”

Adds Musker: “Instead, Roy Disney paired up with the Bass brothers from Texas and they pulled in Frank Wells from Warner Bros. and Michael Eisner from Paramount …”

“… who brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg and then everything changed really, really dramatically,” continues Clements. “Out of that, I would say ‘Roger Rabbit’ was the first thing that really kind of woke people up.”

Musker and Clements had worked together at the studio for years before they got the chance to direct “The Little Mermaid,” which began a new string of animated hits for Disney.

“I pitched ‘The Little Mermaid’ in a gong show for Jeffrey Katzenberg,” recalls Clements. “The gong show was a thing Michael Eisner brought over from Paramount. He brought in a bunch of story guys and directors and had everybody bring in five new ideas for animated features. I had come up with five ideas, but this was the one I’d liked best. I had gone into a bookstore and I read …”

“You stood in the bookstore reading, too cheap to buy the book,” interjects Musker with a chuckle.

“No, I bought the book,” Clements fires back. “I still have the book.”

“Yeah, yeah. You bought the book,” says Musker.

“It was a book of fairy tales and one of them was ‘The Little Mermaid,’ “ Clements goes on. “I had never read it before and it seemed like it had a lot of potential. I wrote a basic two-page outline, but when we reconvened in the gong show, it was gonged.”

The studio was in the process of developing a sequel to the live-action mermaid romance “Splash,” and thought it would overlap too much.

“But two days later, they’d read my treatment and liked it. They called me back and said, ‘We actually think there’s something to this and we want to develop it,’” Clements recalls.

The two turned again to literary sources when they pitched the idea for their new film, but initially the main character wasn’t a plucky young woman but a tricky demi-god.

“When we were casting about for ideas for a new film after ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ one of the arenas we were looking at was the Pacific islands,” says Musker.

“I was intrigued by the Pacific islands, having read novels by Melville and Conrad, and seeing paintings by Paul Gaugin that made them look so beautiful. It seemed a rich environment to build a story on. And that led me to read Polynesian mythology, which I’d never read before. It was an amazing, rich vein of storytelling. I discovered in that there was a character named Maui, who I’d never heard of other than the Hawaiian island. He was shape-shifter who had a magical fish hook that could pull islands up from the sea. He had these great epic tales built around him.”

He showed the stories to Clements and they pitched the idea to Disney Animation Studio chief John Lasseter about five years ago. “John said, ‘I love this arena. It’s intriguing, but you guys have to dig a lot deeper into the research.’”

After research trips to Fiji, Tahiti, and Samoa, they threw out the original story except for Maui and shifted the focus to the area’s tradition of navigation and the 1,000-year period when the people didn’t sail, turning it into a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl who reawakens a new era of navigation.

“So we came back with a new pitch, saying, ‘This is the world we found and the lessons we learned. They think of the ocean as alive and a real character. What better medium than animation to make the ocean live? We heard phrases like ‘You’ve got to know your mountain,’ that unless you know your lineage and where you came from, you don’t know where you are or who you are,” says Musker.

And if anyone knows their mountain, it’s got to be Musker and Clements.

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