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Directors Ron Clements and John Musker Bring Disney’s Moana To Life

Thank you to Disney Studios for hosting me during the Moana Event. All interview photos by Louise Bishop/Mom Start.


The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. The Princess and the Frog. All of those films have the legendary directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm. If you’re a fan of Disney Animation, they’re kind of a big deal. In other words, I haven’t Disney-nerded out quite this hard since I got a glimpse of Richard Sherman at the premiere of The Jungle Book. I try to make sure everyone has a chance to ask questions when we’re doing group interviews, but I’ll confess that I snuck in two questions when we sat down with Ron and John to discuss their new film, the Golden Globe-nominated Moana.

What was it like to work on their first film that was primarily computer generated animation?

Ron : Some things are the same in terms of the script and the storyboarding and the voice actors. I mean that really isn’t different. But the actual production process is quite a bit different. We had to actually have tutorials before even the movie started.
John : Yeah, Steve Goldberg, who worked on Frozen, gave us a tutorial and said these jobs don’t exist in CG. These do exist and it’s a whole different thing. And one of the big things is in hand-drawn you can get going a lot quicker. You know, you have a piece of paper, you got a pencil, you can start exploring the characters. In CG they’ve got to build the characters, literally sort of create them in three-dimensional space. They’ve got to rig them which means they’ll put all the armature in there so they can move around. They got to create the world they work in. So, it’s a longer set of time.
Ron : All the environments, every leaf on every tree, it all has to be kind of…
John : Also, we had the crazy thing when we were watching-we go to these review sessions when the movie was being done in CG where we’d look at it and say okay, so is that the real sky in that shot? And they say, “No, no, that’s just a placeholder. Forget the sky.” And we go okay, but those trees, we should take those seriously. “No, no, the trees, we’re going to trade those out later for the real trees.” And then we’d say, so we can ignore those rocks? “No, the rocks are the real thing.” And we wouldn’t know looking at it why one was real and one…
Ron : It’s very complicated. There’s so many different stages. But it’s really…
John : We had people helping us all the time.
Ron : There are amazing things. I mean with, with the camera movement and the textures and the hair…
John : And certainly, the ocean in the movie we were able to do stuff in CG.
Ron : And the lighting. There’s a lot of cool things you can do. But a lot of things even that had to be figured out in the movie… Even the idea of a living ocean that has a personality of a monster, a lava monster, some of those things particularly where character animation and effects animation merge, that doesn’t… That isn’t done usually. So, and there were a lot of things just to figure out how to do it and a lot of really smart people that sort of said we actually don’t know how to do this., but we are confident that we will figure it out.
John : We’ll figure it out before the end of the movie. And they did. They really did.

How did they approach representing the Polynesian culture in the film?

Ron : Well, the big thing was we did a huge research trip five years ago when we first pitched the movie. We spent like three weeks in Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti. We met with cultural ambassadors, linguists, anthropologists, sailors and chiefs and…
John : Yeah, we got to sail in Fiji with navigators and we really tried to connect with those people. It wasn’t like a boondoggle. Oh, tough gig. You got to go to Tahiti for three weeks. No, but we really try to connect with the culture and learn how proud they were of their background as the greatest navigators the world has ever seen. They use dead reckoning to find their way across the sea.
Ron : And their connection to-the importance of respect for nature, respect for the environment and also the interconnectedness and extended families and the idea of your heritage and your legacy. We heard this expression in Tahiti, know your mountain. And your mountain is essentially everything that led up to you, all the people that led up to you, everything that happened, all of the things that if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t exist. And they said if you don’t know your mountain you really don’t know who you are.
John : We also heard this expression…[from an elder]…on the Island of Mo’orea and he said, “For years we have been swallowed up by your culture.” And he said this all in Tahitian, translated to us. “For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time can you be swallowed by our culture?” So, we took that-we absolutely took that to heart. That became sort of our mantra as we did the movie over the course of the years and we kept people involved from the Pacific islands. We had an Oceanic Story Trust that we bounced story ideas off of-costume ideas, the way the characters looked throughout this process. We would Skype with them. They came out to visit sometimes. And case in point, Maui, in the early going he was bald. He had no hair. Some drawings were…
Ron : …a little more like Dwayne [Johnson].
John : We’ll do it more like Dwayne, but then when some people saw it from Tahiti, particularly, they said, “No, no, no, long hair is part of his mana, his power. So, he’s got to have long hair.” So, we, okay, forget it. He’s going to have long hair. So we looked at, you know, tried this great Polynesian football player’s long hair and people from the islands we had seen, these great dudes with great manes of hair. And so we gave him that kind of hair because… And then I can’t imagine it without that.
Ron : Moana has great hair too.
John : It’s a good hair movie.

MOANA - (Pictured) Maui. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
How did the movie evolve from their original ideas?

Ron : Yeah, I mean it was actually John’s idea to originally do…
John : I was intrigued with the area of the Pacific islands. And then that led me to read Polynesian mythology and then I read about this guy Maui who was unbelievable. He was, you know, a shape shifter. He had a magical fishhook. He could pull up islands. He was covered in tattoos. Kind of a superhero. And I was like why has this never been done in a movie before? And so I showed it to Ron. We pitched a simple idea to John Lassiter…
Ron : Based on the myths of Maui and…
John : And it was even kind of called The Mighty Maui actually, was sort of the original title. Then John’s like, “You got to do research. You got to go to the islands.” And when we went there and we heard about navigation and all this and it was really Ron’s idea, what if we have a character called Moana, which means ocean, and we built it around her, someone who wants to be a navigator like her ancestors? And Moana we sort of saw as a true grit type story, where she really is this determined, forceful individual and she teams up with kind of a washed up, you know, some down on his luck…
Ron : At least a flawed, seriously flawed demigod.
John : But she’s the focus of the story and so it was a challenge when we were making the movie always to keep her at the center. Sometimes Maui, because he’s so, you know, he’s kind of like a magic character, he could start to rise up and we said no, no, this has got to be in the service of her story. So we, and Osnat [Shurer], our producer was very strong in terms of keep the focus on Moana when Maui threatened to take over sometimes.
Ron : Yeah, it was really a hero’s journey. We thought of a hero’s journey for Moana. She, she has to-she’s on a quest to save her people. She faces numerous obstacles. She’s resilient. She’s also empathetic, which is an important part of who she is, and fearless, and that she really finally proves herself and becomes the person that she’s meant to be.


How have things changed over the course of their professional careers?

John : Well, it was interesting-even just in a superficial way-that a lot of the animation we work on, the CG animators, a lot of them are in their 20s and 30s. They saw Little Mermaid when they were eight years old, you know, and they’re like, “This is what got me in animation! I’m working with you old guys, you know!” So, that was kind of fun. But…
Ron : Yeah, I was 20 when I started at Disney, been there 43 years. I think John’s close to that or…
John : 40, I’m 40, yeah.
Ron : I worked with Frank Thomas, who’s a legendary animator, who was my mentor and he was 62 and I was 20 and now I’m 63 and we’re working with a lot of very, very young people and really, people that are really excited and gung-ho and they’re just so eager and it was…it’s really a great…
John : It was fun on this movie, though, because in terms of the CG and the hand-drawn, we got to use both. And Eric Goldberg, who did The Genie in Aladdin, did Mini Maui, this tattoo. So we were able to incorporate hand-drawn elements. And the CG animators, a lot of them younger, were thrilled to get a chance to kind of, and in effect, work with Eric where they would do the CG Maui and he would do the hand-drawn part and they could kind of learn from Eric and see his techniques in terms of the acting and his timing and his comic sensibilities. And it really, they were thrilled to get a chance to learn from this kind of living legend of animation. So, it’s been fun for us to learn new things and work with new artists. So, that’s been the really fun part of all this.

Since one of Ron’s earliest jobs was working on Pete’s Dragon, how did he feel about Elliot returning this year?

Ron : Well, it was interesting. This is probably going to be bad but we’ve been so busy and we were literally in a period where that film came out we were working 12 hour days and Saturdays.
John : [Joking] He refused to see it.
Ron : No, I would like-I wanted to see it. I would really have liked to see it. It was fun, yeah. It was fun working on Pete’s Dragon. It was the second-the first thing I worked on at Disney was The Rescuers, the feature The Rescuers. And then Pete’s Dragon right after that. And it, it was fun just a live action animation.
John : I almost worked on Pete’s Dragon but I flunked my in-between test. Actually, it was a true story. Brad Bird and I were new trainees. Just as I was getting going, they said we need more help on Pete’s Dragon. Here, do this test where you do the in-betweens, the drawings between the drawings. And it was… Our drawings were so crude they said okay, forget it, don’t go. So, we didn’t get to work on Pete’s Dragon.

flounder-easter-eggWhat about those Easter Eggs in the film?

Ron : And did you see Sven? He’s the easiest one.
John : There are a lot of them.
Ron : There are many others and we will not tell you what they are. We will give you some clues. We will tell you what they are but not where they are. And they’re really interesting and some are very difficult. Some are a little easier, some are not. But Olaf is in the movie. And you might think, “How can a snowman be in there?” But he’s in there a couple of times.
John : In a tricky way. Flounder from Little Mermaid is in there briefly. You may have seen Flounder, okay. And actually, Flash, the sloth from Zootopia.
Ron : Baymax.
John : Baymax was in there.
Ron : All those are actually in there. But it is like a Where’s Waldo. You’ve got to kind of look at the right part of the screen to find them.
John : And Wreck-it Ralph and is in there very briefly. You may have seen Wreck-it Ralph.
Ron : He’s in the end. And the reason he’s in there, some people ask why is he in almost one of the last images of the film? And the reason is there’s been a little tradition in the last few years that there’s something acknowledging the next film. So Ian Gooding, our production designer, at the last minute said, “Let’s put Ralph in the credits because he’s going to come up.” So we saw and we liked it and said, “Yeah, let’s leave it in there.”

What’s next for their partnership?

John : We don’t know what we’re doing after this one. This has been five years in the making and we’re doing a couple of months of promotion, then I think hopefully we get a few weeks off. Who knows what we’re doing? There’s a lot of great movies in the Disney pipeline after this from these various directors.
Ron : Some have been announced I think and some are kind of going on behind the scenes.
John: That’s great and there’s a version of Jack and the Beanstalk that Nathan Greno is working on. And there’s a bunch of cool movies. Chris [Buck] and Jen Lee, you know, the sequel to Frozen which is getting going now. So yeah, there’s some great movies coming up.


From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes Moana, a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) meets the once-mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess & the Frog) and produced by Osnat Shurer (Lifted, One Man Band), Moana is in theaters now.

You can find all things Moana here, including full event coverage, exclusive interviews and more!

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