john-musker and ron clements interview

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements are the directors behind Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Great Mouse Detective, Treasure Planet, and Disney’s last hand-drawn animated feature film, The Princess and the Frog. Over the past 20 years or so they’ve helped create some of the studio’s most iconic scenes.

Their latest is Moana, a large-scale musical they first started thinking about five years ago. Set on an island in Polynesia, the story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as she leaves her island, travels the Pacific Ocean, and goes on a spiritual journey with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). They encounter all kinds of monsters, danger, and beauty on their adventure.

We recently discussed Moana‘s scope, the realm of monsters, how the story changed, Jemaine Clement, and more with the directors behind Disney’s latest animated picture, which features original tunes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina.

Below, read our John Musker and Ron Clements interview.

I was glad I went into this movie blind. I hadn’t seen the trailers, and I was surprised and impressed by the scale of Moana. It’s huge. 

Clements: It’s the biggest movie I think we’ve ever done, certainly in terms of the scope and the amount of special effects and the world. It was funny, it was challenging, there were aspects of the movie I think, certainly for us… It was our first digital form, our first CG film, we’ve done hand-drawn films. There were challenges that I don’t even think we realized going into it how challenging some of those things would be.

Musker: So much of the movie takes place on the water, and the water was the hardest thing to animate. It’s always in motion, and then we wanted it to be a personality in the movie based on our trips to the South Pacific five years ago, where they talked about the water like it was alive, the ocean had feelings, and emotions, and we said we’ve really got to get that into the movie, but that meant our special effects who would normally do just the water… We had to team them up with character people who do the characters and acting so it moved not only like an ocean but have it really react, act, to be happy, sad, confused, frightened, whatever it might be. We’d never tackled anything like that before. We had the animation staff, and we had to develop new systems and they just had to work out. It was figuring out how can we communicate those things.

Clements: Plus, we had a big lava monster and we go to the underworld. The staff is so good. In every department just over the last few years, the animators, the layout artists… We have tech anim, which we didn’t even really know that much about, but tech anim people do the clothes, they do the hair, they do the ropes, they do the sails. Stuff that you don’t think of that much, but even what they did with the hair, with Moana and Maui’s hair, is really —

Musker: It was wet, it was dry, it had to blow in the wind —

Clements: And the textures…

Musker: They created strand by strand which is certainly a different way than they’ve ever done before, so it has a really lyrical, beautiful, believable motion, it really is amazing.

Clements: The set designs with all of the islands and the lighting, there again, in digital animation lighting is so important, in little ways, more like a live-action film because there’s so much you can do with lighting and textures. We were blown away by stuff we were seeing along the way as everything started to come together.

Moana Trailer

You mentioned one environment I’m curious about, the Realm of Monsters. I imagine you both saw hundreds of designs.

Musker: We did. That sequence has evolved a lot because at some point there were more monsters down there and there was a great range of visual development on that. A lot of times on something like that we develop it visually first before the script even gets written and so, they came up with ideas of people and creatures. At one point, it was more of the underworld where you saw even figures there that lived there, like the people that had passed on to the next life, but we focused on…

Clements: We focused more on the monster realm, which actually exists in the mythology. We did a lot of research. There’s a monster or demon realm within the underworld which is, in the myth, a world that does exist under the ocean…

Musker: When originally we had that Tamatoa character that Jemaine Clement did for us, the giant crab, he originally was a headless warrior. We read the Myth of the Headless Warrior and we thought that seemed cool and we made him a collector, we put him down at the bottom of the ocean, but then he didn’t speak at all.

Clements: We also had a giant crab, and the different thing was…

Musker: We had a different scene where we had a giant crab so we wound up combining them, he became a crab and then he could speak and then it just, with the way it worked out, it seemed like we ought to do a song with him, so Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote a song for him, the last song —

Clements: Originally there was a different song I think, which will be on the double DVD but there was a song called “Warrior Face” which was the song that Moana and Maui sang together, but as the story developed it felt like —

Musker: They were bonding almost too early.

Clements: The idea of doing this kind of anti-theme song with Tamatoa —

Musker: The theme of the movie is like, “Listen to your inner voice, it’s all inside,” interior things and so the crab could do the anti-theme, you know, it’s all the exterior, it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside, it’s all the outside, so, it was fun to go counter to our own theme.

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