****This article was written by Nancy Beinman and Aimee Major takes credit only for the typos. The article save necessary comments like this one is unaltered from its original form. The original article was given to me by a friend as a photocopy and contained B&W images of Aladdin, The Great Mouse Detective, and Musker and Clements. I did not scan the images because of their poor quality. Nancy Beinman reserves all rights for this article, please do not redistribute or abuse it. Thank-you.****
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN Musker AND RON Clements January 12, 1993 by Nancy Beiman
John Musker and Ron Clements have been a directorial, writing, and producing team on THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, THE LITTLE MERMAID, and ALADDIN for the Walt Disney Studio. Their unique blend of witty comedy, appealing heroines and heroes, and clever art direction is helping to redefine the Studio's style--and breaking box-office records. Here they discuss their background and training, and give some idea of how they work together.
NANCY BEIMAN: I guess we could start by asking you how you got interested
in animation, and what your early training was.
RON CLEMENTS: One of the first movies I saw was CINDERELLA. I think I
was 2-and that didn't make a real big impression on me. But, a few years
later, when I saw PINOCCHIO, that had a profound impact. I went back and
saw the movie about two more times, made drawings from the movie. That movie,
and SLEEPING BEAUTY, were the two Disney pictures that had a big influence
on me. I thought animation was so exciting--something to go into. I sort
of fantasized--l played that I was an animator.
NB: How did you do that? By flipping drawings?
JOHN MUSKER: By drinking....
RON CLEMENTS: I drew the characters, but I really didn't know how to
animate . I didn't know how to flip, but I drew them running around. I would
imagine that I was making an animated film, even though I knew I couldn't
since I didn't have a movie camera. A few years later I came across the
Bob Thomas book, THE ART OF ANIMATION. It made animation sound like the
most exciting thing you could possibly get into. When I was about fifteen
I got a movie camera that had still-frame capacity. I made some little super-8
films Then, started working as a TV artist while I was in high school. I
was doing graphics for the TV station in Sioux City, Iowa, which is where
I'm from. I brought some of these little super-8 films down to the TV station
and told them "We can do commercials!", so we built a kind of
crude animation setup and made little commercials for the local market.
Then, using the station's equipment, I did a 15- film about Sherlock Holmes
(that was sort of my own project, done in my spare time.)
When I got out of high school, I wasn't sure what to do. I knew I was
interested in animation, but didn't have any idea of how to approach it.
I wrote to a lot of art schools and got a lo' of brochures, but it seemed
like a lot of classes weren't geared toward working in the (animation) industry.
Someone from Los Angeles visited the TV station (in Iowa), and they saw
my film. They knew someone at Hanna-Barbera, so they suggested I come out
here. The TV station paid my way out here, and I worked at Hanna-Barbera
for about 3 or 4 months doing in-betweens. Then I was laid off, since it
was seasonal work. I was taking classes at Art Center in the evening, (
a commercial art school in Pasadena, California) and it was there that I
found out about the training program at Disney.
NB: Did you go to Chouinard Art Institute, or Cal Arts?
RON CLEMENTS: I went straight to the Studio. I had high school training,
and the Art Center classes, and that was it.
NB: John, I know that you were in the first class at Cal Arts' Character
Animation Program, but was animation your first interest?
JOHN MUSKER: Yes. I saw SLEEPING BEAUTY and PINOCCHIO at the same time
Ron did, and 101 DALMATIONS. Those three films had a big effect on me. They
seemed more vivid, somehow, than live action films. Because of their visual
storytelling, I believe they struck a very deep chord in m, young mind.
I also watched ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and Warner Brothers cartoons on IV,
and read the Bob Thomas book. I was interested in being an animator, ( which
was a rat her odd vocational inn' rest for an eight-year-old), but ' sort
of drifted away from it ! got interested in editorial cartooning, read MAD
magazine. I was interested in caricature), and comic books. I hadn't had
any art instruction in my Catholic high school. (We studied
Greek and Chinese instead of learning how to draw,) It seemed like drawing
was sort of self-taught anyway. I had it drilled into my head by the Jesuits
not to use college as a vocational school--it was for my personal enrichment.
(That was back in the ancient days of the 60's when they'd say things like
that, and people would listen to them.) So I went to Northwestern University
and was an English major. This would force me to read all the books I really
wanted thread but had kept putting off, and I would teach myself drawing
on the side. When I got done with my schooling there, and had to cast about
for a way to make a living, my interest in animation was reawakened by a
few things that happened at that time. Christopher Finch's book on THE ART
OF WALT DISNEY came out in the early '70's. It mentioned actual animators
by name and said that this guy did that particular character The idea that
these films were made by talented people who could collaborate on a collective
artistic enterprise appealed to me. It reminded me of some experiences I
had with a church theater group which had a fun, collegial collaborative
atmosphere. I had heard Richard Williams speak at the Chicago Film Festival,
and he made animation sound like a wonderful field to go into. Then Chuck
Jones spoke at Northwestern, and he made it sound really appealing. It seemed
like a career in which you could continually be learning and growing. I
wrote to the Disney studio and asked, "Do you have this training program?
I read about it in Finch's book." They sent me some information, so
((This section was a caption under an image of the Genie, Abu,
Aladdin and Carpet:
A wisecracking Genie, a mischievous monkey named Abu and a magic carpet join forces to help Aladdin, an ambitious street-smart youth, discover his true potential, win the affection of a beautiful princess and defend the kingdom from a treacherous villain in Walt Disney Pictures' animated, musical adventure-fantasy," ''Aladdin " Produced and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements ( The Little Mermaid"), "Aladdin," Disney's 31st full-length animated feature, boasts new songs and an original score by Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken The fate Howard Ashman, Menken's Oscar-winning partner on "The Little Mermaid" Beauty and the Beast," provided the lyrics film's songs, with Tony Award-winning Tim Rice writing lyrics for the additional songs. The film was written by Musker & Clements and Ted Eliott & Terry Rossio Buena Vista Pictures distributes. ADBB
figured I'd try to get in there. I put together a portfolio and sent
one off to Disney. At the same time, l sent one to Marvel Comics. ! can't
remember in what order I got the rejections back. The studio basically said
You don't draw well enough--get lost.. Likewise, Marvel
Comics said, "Thanks for the offer, but you really don't draw well
enough--so thanks for the offer, but don't ever darken our door again..."
My well-laid plans had completely blown up in my face. Now what do I do?
One week later, Disney sent me ANOTHER note which said, "Maybe you
actually meant to send this portfolio to Cal Arts, the art school."
I had never even heard of Cal Arts, but I wrote to the school and asked
what was going on... They wrote back, and I thought that if I am interested
in animation, this might be worth exploring; but I'm only going there two
years, no longer, since I already had an undergraduate's degree, and swore
I would not become a 'professional student.'
NB: So you had no art training before you went to Cal Arts?
JOHN MUSKER: I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a summer once,
and I did continue drawing on my own. Cartoons for the school paper, that
sort of thing. When I went to Northwestern, I did take one figure-drawing
NB: Do you think that your degree in English has helped you when writing
JOHN MUSKER: I think I'm a better speller because of it. I do think that
having a broad-based liberal-arts background has helped me. Even though
Ron didn't go to college, he's pretty well-read, and that's helped him.
He has a natural inclination towards 'story'.
NB: You seem to personify 'opposite' ways of getting into animation:
Ron, the more traditional way where you learn on the job. and John as one
of the first people specifically trained to work in the field.
JOHN MUSKER: One of the differences is, that even though we're the same
age, Ron started at Disney about three years or so before I did. There was
no Character Animation program at that time.
RON CLEMENTS: At about that time, the Studio got a lot of people from
Art Center (for the trainee program.) Even though I had only taken a couple
of evening classes there, the words "Art Center" were sort of
a cods word. They wanted to see my portfolio. At that time the trainee program
at Disney's was only about three or tour years old. There were five or six
people there ahead of me. They'd only bring in a couple of people per year.
They were looking for people who were, so to speak, "untainted".
It you'd worked in the industry in other studios, that was kind of a strike
against you; they, wanted to train you from scratch and they felt that if
you learned a different sort of process, they would have to "untrain"
you. It was good that I came in fresh from Iowa.
JOHN MUSKER: In between my first and second years at Cal Arts, I spent
a summer (in the Disney trainee program) working with Eric Larson. He was
really a terrific teacher. I think that animation is best learned at the
right hand of someone who animates. Spending that six weeks
with Eric helped me when I went back into the trainee program full time--l
got to work with him again. He and Cliff Nordberg, the veteran Disney animator
who was particularly adept at broad comedy and a very gracious teacher,
were my mentors.
NB: How did you two happen to team up--was it chemistry, or were you
assigned to work with each other?
JOHN MUSKER: I think it was physics. We knew each other before we worked
RON CLEMENTS: We both were animators on THE FOX AND THE HOUND.
JOHN MUSKER: It was mainly on THE BLACK CAULDRON that we worked together.
I was appointed to work on that picture I did story work along with Ron.
RON CLEMENTS: I had been an animator for about five years I worked with
Frank Thomas and became a character animator on THE RESCUERS and PETE'S
DRAGON. I was a supervising animator on THE FOX AND THE HOUND, but started
to become more interested in story. I'd always been interested in writing--even
on the other films , I was writing down (ideas) and sending them to Frank
Thomas and Woolie Reitherman (the director.) It was very hard to get into
story., especially if you were an animator at that time. I think they valued
animators more than they did story people. I'd expressed interest in getting
into story early on in FOX AND THE HOUND, but spent a few more years in
animation until they agreed to let me try out in Story., for BLACK CAULDRON.
There was a slight factionalism in terms of the ideas on how the movie should
go between the directors (Art Stevens, Ted Berman, and Rich Rich), and the
story group (Pete Young, Doug Lefler, Steve Hulett, John and 1.) John and
I had a somewhat similar viewpoint that wasn't shared by everyone on the
JOHN MUSKER: Management knew that a tot of people were unhappy. Don Bluth
had left the studio back in '79, and though this was after that, there were
still some problems because of the(differing) attitudes of animators and
directors. They said, "We should get an alternate project going to
keep these malcontents from BLACK CAULDRON happy--a smaller unit."
Ron had suggested BASIL OF BAKER STREET as a possible property. They liked
it, so they started up a unit working on that. I was then taken off CAULDRON
and put to work on it.
RON CLEMENTS: THE BLACK CAULDRON was in production for a very long period
of time-- animation took nearly four years--and BASIL was kind of puttering
around during most of that time. There wasn't a lot of pressure on it while
CAULDRON was in production; there were only a few people on it. It was right
around the time that we were gearing up for production that the Studio went
through major upheavals. There was a takeover threat from Saul Steinberg,
and the possibility that the whole Studio would be dismantled end sold off.
BASIL, which later became THE GREAT MOUSE USE DETECTIVE, was pretty far
along story-wise when the new regime came in.
JOHN MUSKER: BASIL was the first picture that the new regime (Michael
Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney) had much to do with.
RON CLEMENTS: We were thinking that THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE would take
around two years to animate. They told us we had to do it in ONE year.
We were about it a third of the budget of THE BLACK CAULDRON
Suddenly there was this intense pressure, after this long gestation period.
"You've gotta make it fast." That was also the point at which
we moved from the Burbank lot to a warehouse in Glendale, which was a little
disconcerting for everybody. That was the beginning of a whole new phase
NB: Could you tell me whether you break up assignments because one or
the other of you specializes in a particular type of material, or whether
it just happens by serendipity?
JOHN MUSKER: We came from a system where they had sequence directors.
We like that system--some of the other directorial teams at Disney's
don't do that-they somehow both direct the entire film. We do actually divide
the film up into sequences-we did that on all the films we've been involved
with. Once ALADDIN'S script had been written and it had been broken down
into sequences, we each went off on our own with our own list, and in a
'secret ballot' said who we thought should direct what.
NB: Do you vote for yourselves, or for each other?
JOHN MUSKER: We divide up the whole film. This is what I would be doing,
this is what he would be doing..and in fact, it turned out fairly serendipitously
because of the way in which the reels are constructed. The movie is on 10
reels. It would be easier if we were working in continuity, whereby I'd
have a reel, and Ron'd have a reel. That's the way it worked out, roughly:
--I did the odd numbers, he did the even.
RON CLEMENTS: We didn't get into huge arguments about it. There were
some things we negotiated on--in particular, dividing up the songs.
JOHN MUSKER: We both like doing the song sequences, so we divided them
in half. Sometimes we both wanted to do the same song, so we'd say "Okay,
I'll give you that one but I want that one." At one point I said, "I'm
not doing much with the villain, I'd like to do more with him", and
we'd rearrange the assignments for something like that. I tended to do a
few more of the action sequences: and I'd say, Ron (because he's so genuinely
sentimental and warmhearted), has done the 'sincere' sequences. As I've
said before, "If you want sincerity, get Ron. If you want insincerity,
you get me!.
NB: But you would obviously have to touch base with one another to keep
the characters consistent. JOHN MUSKER: We've co-written the script and
gone back and forth quite a bit on that as a team. We've gone through all
the developmental steps for the movie, in terms of character design, voice
casting, and storyboards, working at all these together. Also, we attended
layout meetings together, where the actual staging and cutting was resolved.
NB: And you do have supervising animators keeping characters on model.
JOHN MUSKER: That's really the supervising animator's responsibility,
and they work with both of us.
RON CLEMENTS: We usually work together on the entire pre-production process.
It isn't until we get into animation that we start splitting things up.
When you're into animation, it's pretty hectic and pretty busy.
NB: Do you have any problem pacing the film while using this system?
JOHN MUSKER: In theory, if you've orchestrated the script and the boards,
you're thinking from sequence to sequence--this one should be slower, this
one faster. The other director can help troubleshoot, give a slightly more
objective viewpoint, if some element has gotten off the track, could be
clarified, made funnier, et cetera.
RON CLEMENTS: One good thing about this process is that you've always
got the other person, with a fresh eye. Certainly, when we divide up the
sequences, you'd tend to focus on your own more than the other person's,
but then you'd show it to the other person to get their viewpoint. You've
gotten too close to it. You can step back a bit and get a fresh opinion.
NB: Regarding the casting of voices--You had a brilliant performance from Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie in ALADDIN, and Eric Goldberg as the animator. Ihad heard that there were other interpretations of the character suggested. Did you
actually write that part for Robin Williams, and would you have had to rewrite it if you
had not gotten him to do the voice?
JOHN MUSKER: We would have had to rewrite. We did write that part for Robin
Williams, not knowing whether he would do the voice or not. In fact, we were in the
middle of the first draft when we heard that he was going to record a voice for
FERNGULLY. We thought he wouldn't want to do two voices in relative proximity to
each other. So we were concerned about that. But ultimately we got a set of tapes
while FERNGULLY was in production, and we thought it wasn't quite the same
approach. We thought we could still use Robin. At one point early on, even though
we'd already recorded with Robin, there was some sort of contractual problem which
might have meant we might not have Robin at all. We were asked by management to
draw up a list of alternate choices for the Genie. We did so reluctantly. We came up
with a list of six or eight other people, all of them very talented comedians and actors,
but it wasn't quite the same. Having worked with Robin, we saw how liberating his
approach was. We were very relieved when they resolved the contractual problems
and Robin was back 'on' again.
RON CLEMENTS: It's a dangerous situation to get into, basing a whole conception of
character around a voice talent. You don't want to do this often, but there was
something extremely unique about Robin that was tailor-made for what we wanted to
do in this movie. We never could picture it working with any other actor.
NB: I'd like to ask you about the incorporation of the Hirschfeld designs into ALADDIN.
Is this something that might be used in future films--using the work of designers from
outside the Studio, rather than doing everything in-house?
JOHN MUSKER:I think so, based on the success of this film. The push for Hirschfeid came from Eric Goldberg. When we hired Eric we wanted him to work on the Genie, which he also wanted to work on (which was good.) Some of his early designs looked
quite a bit like Robin--sort of skinny, human-proportioned guy. We felt we didn't want it to look so much like Robin. We wanted sort of a barrel-cheated Genie, so he went back to his drawing board and did some new designs. He still kept some sort of underlay of
Robin-ism in the features. Eric pushed for the Hirschfeldian approach
because he likes that drawing style, and felt it complimented the production
design. In particular, he felt that the Genie, who was this wisp of smoke,
would be complementary to the arabesques and curvilinear calligraphic shapes
of the backgrounds. We liked it, but were a little tentative at first.
RON CLEMENTS: Bill Perkins was the art director. Richard VanderWende
was production designer. Richard had set a style in the backgrounds that
also had some curvy; influence s from Persian miniatures and Arabian calligraphies.
What Eric was doing seemed to tie in with what Richard was doing. We weren't
sure at first how far to go with the style--we wanted to make sure that
the Genie had a solid dimensional fell to him and that everything didn't
get too flat. Eric quickly demonstrated how well that worked with the Genie,
and the next step was to see how far to carry that with the other characters.
There's some of that aspect in all of them, though generally the more realistic
the character, the less there is of the Hirschfeld influence.
NB: Do you consider the computer an aid in making the films, or an expensive
JOHN MUSKER We consider them an expensive sec..
NB: I noticed you tend to integrate the computer animation into the film
better than some other productions have done.
JOHN MUSKER: I think it's a really wonderful tool. You're
able to do things that you couldn't do any other way. The best way to use
them is to expand the boundaries of what's possible, while still trying
to integrate the system into the film. You want to make it work so it doesn't
look like it was generated on a computer. True students of the medium can
tell at once when we go into computer land, but you hope to disguise it
as much as possible, particularly for the layman. In ALADDIN, rather than
lighting the animation in the computer, there was an attempt to integrate
the painted texture maps that were drawn by the background painters for
the other backgrounds in the film, so it wouldn't seem as apparent when
we went from one world to another. With the Magic Carpet, we thought we
had an ideal opportunity to do texture-mapping (by Tine Price) on a conventionally-animated
character (by Randy Cartwright.) There's this hyped-up rendering on what
is essentially traditional character animation.
RON CLEMENTS: We had a few reservations about computers to begin with,
but we have become more and more impressed with the technology. It's still
in its infancy; it's one aspect of the medium that is still relatively untapped.
It seems that in each new film you can do things that you couldn't do before.
NB: You had made the first film in which the characters worked Id with
computer animation -THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE.
JOHN MUSKER: We had to sell it to management at that time, since it was
so time consuming. We COULD have done it traditionally, although it wouldn't
have looked as good. That particular sequence (a chase on the cogs of Big
Ben) lent itself to it because there were so many geometric shapes. Mike
Peraza, Phil Nibbelink, and Tad Gielow (layout man, animator and computer
animator) really pushed to make it work.
RON CLEMENTS: It was perfect for clockwork. MERMAID was tougher, though
we did use computer animation for some of the ships, and even for some schools
NB: Do you have any comments on how animation has developed in the past
20 years, and where it is going?
JOHN MUSKER: The Baby Boom generation, of which we are a part, grew up
watching animation on TV. They don't seem to have a stigma about animation.
Now they have their own children, with whom they enjoy seeing well crafted
animation. Also, the huge success of Disney animation on video tape (because
of both the video and baby booms has expanded the audience for quality animation.
RON CLEMENTS: When we started at Disney, we were really, really con scious
of a stigma towards Disney animation. It was considered to be something that
appealed to parents and their children, and that was pretty much it. An adult
wouldn't consider going to one of these films without a kid. Teenagers, college
students--you could forget about them completely. We've never thought that we
were making them specifically for just one audience. We really wanted to break
that stigma, so that these films would be thought of as something for everybody.
It seems like that's happened, and that is very gratifying,to know that the
audience for animated film has expanded.