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Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker talk Moana

// Featured, Interviews

Disney’s Moana sees animation legends Ron Clements and John Musker return to the role they find themselves most comfortable in, joint directing a Disney animated feature. When Disney looked at it’s bleakest in the early 1980’s Clements and Musker directed The Great Mouse Detective a return to the values that had arguably been missing from the directionless Disney studio, that slow burn success was followed by The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and later Hercules which should, by now, give you an indication of the pair’s hit rate.

John Musker and Ron Clements

As Disney experienced something of a lull in their feature film fortunes, John Lasseter joined and ushered in a new era with The Princess and the Frog which he approached the duo to direct, another reminder to audiences of what the studio can achieve. After another success in the traditional animated form, the pair now turn to CG for the first time and to the South Pacific to bring the tale of Moana to life which sits alongside the studios other successes in CG.

The film sees Chieftain’s daughter Moana team up with demigod Maui to battle monsters from giant crabs to the tiny but fearsome Kakamora to fulfil a prophecy that could finally link Moana and her people to the ocean once more.

I was joined by Katie Steed in Annecy for a chance to sit down with the directors responsible for the films that shaped our childhoods. Our interview started when John Musker complimented my Pixar T-shirt…

Sorry I’m not on brand for Disney today, but Katie does have a “hidden Mickey” Tattoo!

Jon Musker: We went to the South Pacific and saw them making the tattoos with a hammer and stick.

Ron Clements: We didn’t get one done but our development executive had one done.

JM: Yeah a little one on their foot, It took about half an hour.

RC: Yeah tapping away, tap-tap-tap-tap

JM – And that’s how you get the name Tattoo from tatau, they used to use boars teeth but nowadays they use needles. Some people get a lot done, the chiefs, it’s a rite of passage over there.

As chiefs of the production were you ever tempted to get anything done?

JM – (Laughs) I could show you but my white flesh would blind you! Everyone kept asking us we were there if we would get one but we didn’t, plenty of the crew wanted one though. Our star Moana doesn’t have tattoos because there was a question whether or not they would popularise tattoos for young girls, but certainly Maui has tattoos, early on we wanted him to be a walking billboard of all of his exploits, each tattoo tells one of his stories. I’m hoping we can still get the joke in the movie where he asks if anyone would want to hear his “back story” and he turns around.

Who wouldn’t want a tattoo done by Eric Goldberg? (animator who created Maui’s tattoos)

JM – I know!

RC – And who wouldn’t want one that comes to life and moves around?

JM – Eric is having a lot of fun, it’s inspiring for the CG animators to see his hand drawn animation.

RC – We actually have some tapa animation too done that way.

JM – Yeah tapa is print that they use for clothing and fabrics which is done the same way as tattoos but they use the bark of a mulberry tree using flowers and dyes and such using the pounded bark of a tree. We have a sequence that takes place on tapa which takes place on a hand woven fabric using a south pacific design.

The main cast is interesting, a celeb alongside an unknown.

RC – And yet they’ll completely hold their own against one another, Auli’i Cravalho is a great match for Dwayne Johnson and Moana is a great match for Maui it’s great fun to see those dynamics.

You’ve been part and parcel of the Disney world for years and you’d been through the…

JM – The wars…

Well! You’ve been through the Miller era, the Katzenberg era and now the Lasseter era.

JM – We’re sort of like these two old oak trees that are still around.

RC – We’ve been through some good times and some bad times, it feels right now like we’re going through a really strong period and that’s great to see.

Do you think that reflects in the work?

JM – I think John Lasseter has been a strong influence with his emphasis on storytelling and quality. He never judges anything on how much it will cost, he just wants to know how to tell the story in the best way– be also brings a lot of his own storytelling instincts to it as well as his infectious enthusiasm for the project, so all of the different projects since John came on board have been enthused with his love for the art form.

RC – The staff, which are pretty young right now, have a good median age so there’s a lot of excitement in the films.

JM – We have people animating on our films in their late 20’s who saw Aladdin as little kids! (laughs) so its fun for them, I see them tweeting “This is surreal – the 8 year old me is peeing with excitement!”

RC – It was the same for me, we were kids working with some great older artists such as Frank Thomas, Eric Larson and Ollie Johnston so we were wide eyed, big Disney fans who were thrilled to be a part of that and now you see it from the other end, all these young people who were inspired by some of the things we did, it’s not easy though.

JM – We keep changing the story so people have to work long hours to finish the movie, which is what we’re all doing now.

RC – But in spite of the long hours moral is really good at the studio and that’s a big thing – when people are happy with that they’re doing, and enjoying what they’re doing it really reflects in the work and the audience can get a sense of that.

JM – Yeah and we didn’t work on Zootopia or Wreck-it Ralph but we enjoyed those successes and I think it really buoys the studio and creates a collegial atmosphere and not competitive at all.

RC – Yeah everyone helps, it feels united, everyone helps and that is something that I’ve never really seen before, it’s rather moving.

(Katie Steed) Do you feel a lack of competition with Pixar? Do you want there films to do well?

RC – Well, we’re siblings, but we’re also Pixar fans, we know a lot of people who work there and we’ve certainly know John Lasseter for a long time, he came from Disney then ILM which became Pixar – we’re huge fans of the Pixar fans.

JM – I think there’s a great sense of satisfaction right now, we’re seeing Disney having one success after another when there was a time that Disney had become a bit of a stepchild to Pixar a little bit, I want to see Pixar films do well but I’m happy that Disney have established themselves as a brand of quality and expert filmmaking.

RC – The goal is – what Pixar achieved, and what I think Disney is achieving is trust with the audience so they know that they will see something where people have worked their hardest to make the best possible film that they can and if there is a consistency to that, which Pixar have achieved, we want people to trust the studio which is what we had when we were kids we trusted the brand because of Walt Disney, we felt with every Disney film he wanted to give the audience and experience and more than they experienced. We want Disney to continue going in that direction.

Disney’s Moana is out in UK cinemas now.

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