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What We Learned From Ron Clements and John Musker’s Master Class at the Annecy Animated Film Festival

The Annecy International Animated Film Festival has gone virtual this year from Annecy, France, and today they offered a Master Class with Disney Animation directors John Musker and Ron Clements. The duo played a key role in reshaping the future of Disney Animation by kicking off the Renaissance with The Little Mermaid, followed by Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana.

The conversation began with both directors talking about their path to Disney and the films that inspired them. Ron Clements even showed off some crayon drawings he made as a child from the film that most inspired him to become an animator, Pinocchio. For John Musker, it wasn’t just one film but several classics including Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone. But for both aspiring animators, it was a visit to their local libraries to check out Walt Disney: The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas that cemented their decision to pursue a career in animation.

Both directors were trained by some of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. Eric Larson taught them a lot about timing, poses, and making a strong statement with their animation. Ron was selected by Frank Thomas to be his assistant, who Chuck Jones referred to as the “Lawrence Olivier of animation.” During The Rescuers, Ron learned from Frank how to emphasize what a character is thinking in his animation.

The presentation included a discussion on their writing process. Both Ron and John did storyboards on The Great Mouse Detective, but it was really The Little Mermaid where they got to define their own process. It typically starts with Ron Clements doing a draft of the story on his own before sharing it with John Musker, who then makes notes and starts a back-and-forth until they have it where they want it.

Since most of their films are musicals, they also talked about their approach to music. They shared that Howard Ashman was sent a list of all of the projects at Disney and he personally chose The Little Mermaid because he was a fan of Hans Christen Anderson. It was his idea to transform Sebastian the crab from a snooty British character to a Caribbean performer and the decisions he made on that film helped change Disney Animation forever. They selected Randy Newman for The Princess and the Frog because he grew up with New Orleans and had a great sense of the music of the region. And for Moana, they were trying to do for the Pacific Islands what The Lion King did for Africa, pairing a musician from the region with a contemporary writer and using Henry Mancini to marry the two. Lin-Manuel Miranda was hard at work on Hamilton, but was very eager to collaborate with Disney.

Ron and John also debunked any myth that Disney has a drawn-out corporate process to determine what films are made at Disney Animation. It was Ron Musker’s idea to make The Little Mermaid, one he initially pitched at the famous Disney gong show. He added that it was rejected the first time he pitched it and he actually had two pitches that year, the other being Treasure Planet. In the case of Aladdin, it was an idea that Howard Ashman introduced at the studio. Hercules was a gong show pitch, but not from Ron and John. The idea came from an animator named Joe Hadar. Moana was John Musker’s original idea and in the case of The Princess and the Frog, they shared that both Disney and Pixar were adapting versions of The Frog Prince at the time.

The conversation wrapped up with a discussion of what they’re doing now. Both directors have left Disney Animation and John Musker has been animating his own three-and-a-half minute short film from home, which he hopes to premiere at a future Annecy Festival. Ron Clements is working on a retrospective book about his forty-five years at Disney Animation. The entire presentation will be available to view from June 20th-30th as part of the virtual Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Tickets to the virtual event can be purchased for €15 (About $17 US).