John Musker on Animation, Filmmaking, and Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers

Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho. Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Walt Disney Animation Studios director John Musker was in Chicago this week and addressed students of The Second City Training Center and Harold Ramis Film School.  I didn’t take a lot of notes during the Q&A session but here’s a recap of what I did jot down.

John Musker and Danielle Solzman.

Musker has an impressive resume over the years, having co-directed The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, The Princess and The Frog, and most recently, Moana.

As they were finishing up The Little Mermaid, both Musker and his co-director, Ron Clements, were offered a few films to direct.  They passed on Swan Lake and a film about lions in Africa because their initial thinking was “Who would want to see that?”  Ultimately, the duo decided to make Aladdin.  Both films would become massive successes but The Lion King is one of the best animated films of all time.  Would it have been the same with Musker and Clements behind the helm?  This will be one of history’s unsolved mysteries.

After a few test screenings, the studio decided not to market The Little Mermaid as a musical knowing they had a four-quadrant movie on their hands.  This marketing strategy would play out again for Disney’s 2013 hit, Frozen.

When they were working on Aladdin, they only had Robin Williams in mind for the role of the Genie.  They had no Plan B had Williams turned down the role.  Luckily, Williams said yes.

Jeffrey Katzenberg hated a test screening of Aladdin with a year and a half before the release of the film.  This was before Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were hired for the film.  They had to re-work about a third of the movie.

They had wanted to do Treasure Planet following Aladdin but Katzenberg wanted another commercial film before he would greenlight so then ended up working on Hercules.  Katzenberg compared Treasure Planet to Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The discussion turned to the old-school animation and the new CG animation.  Prior to working on Moana, a tutorial had to be created for both directors.  Musker described the CG process as  being “iterative” whereas the hand drawn animation process is “linear.”  Scenes created through CG could look finished but still have a lot of work to do.

When The Little Mermaid was released, they did get some push-back from the critics.

From the get-go, Moana was developed as a coming-of-age film and it was never ever a romance in any version.  In an early version, Moana had seven brothers but they dropped the brothers and she was pushed forward.  Auli’i Cravalho, who voices Moana, had no formal acting training and was the last person to be seen on the final day of casting.  Talk about luck!  In an earlier version, she sang a song to Maui but the story changed and the song went away.

“Things were done to make things harder to her to help her character elevate,” Musker said.

The lack of romance turned out to be a plus for the film and Musker thinks other Disney films could potentially follow in this thinking.

“There can be a musical without that yearning,” Musker said, responding to a question from those in attendance and two days later, I can’t recall if this was about Moana or The Little Mermaid.

Musker says that there are great writers out there like Jennifer Lee (Frozen), who can write but can’t draw.

Even though Disney doesn’t hear outside pitches, the animation market has grown big enough to where Disney isn’t the only option out there.

A question was asked of his advice to aspiring filmmakers.  Musker says that people need to create stories with a strong visual component, strong characters, and an appealing world–whether it’s animation or live-action.

They started working on The Great Mouse Detective with a loose outline. Once Michael Eisner came along, scripts were soon required.

There were eight different story reels (drafts in Disney speak) for Moana.  Following the story reel screenings, they would get notes from some 200 different people.

John “stupidly did not” take any screenwriting classes when he attended Cal Arts.

The creative process for Musker and Clements:

  • John and Ron hash out an outline.
  • John improvises on paper and could write up to ten different versions of the same scene.
  • Ron could borrow from the scenes that John wrote and come up with his own version.  It could be two months before John ever saw what Ron wrote.

They wrote Ursula with Joan Collins in mind but the irony is that they wanted Bea Arthur but her agent would never send her the script.  The role went to Pat Carroll.

In Hercules, they wrote Hades with Jack Nicholson in mind.  After meeting him and his daughter, Lorraine, they couldn’t agree to a deal because Nicholson wanted a lot of money and profits from Hades merchandise.  He passed on it and after John Lithgow didn’t work out, the role ultimately went to James Woods.

Musker’s advice for aspiring filmmakers:

  • Be your own toughest critic.
  • “Work hard.
  • Try and find your own voice…write what you know and feel.
  • Things driven by artists rather than executives are usually good.

It was an fun and entertaining Q&A.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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