Interview with Disney Animator Ron Clements on Moana and the Future of Hand-Drawn Animation

Ron Clements, the mind behind such classics as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, recently spoke to me and HeyUGuys about his Oscar-nominated animation sensation Moana. In a wide-ranging interview he also shares his thoughts on the future of hand-drawn animation, how he feels about Guy Ritchie’s remake of Aladdin (let’s hope Jason Statham will be cast as the Genie) and his relationship with frequent collaborator and co-director John Musker.

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Moana marks your first computer-animated movie; I think it still clearly retains that traditional Disney ethos, which I appreciated, but what do you think you were able to achieve creating Moana using CGI that you couldn’t with traditional animation, and do you think traditional animation still has advantages over CGI in other ways?

Well, I love traditional animation; John (Musker) and I both love traditional animation and we hope traditional animation has a bright future. With Moana at the very beginning of the project 5 years ago, we considered traditional animation but fairly quickly I think I felt – and I think John Lasseter felt – if for no other reason than what we were trying to do with the Pacific Ocean and bringing the ocean to life as a character and what we could do with the lighting of the ocean, with the refractiveness of the ocean, the beauty of that along with the environment itself. When we went to the specific islands there is [sic] something so evocative about that environment and the beauty of how it affects you emotionally is such a huge part of that world, that we felt in this movie that we could capture that in a way you just wouldn’t be able to do the same in a hand-drawn film. I tend to feel, story-wise, a hand draw film tends to work better in something that is more graphic or more stylised and that didn’t feel like the right approach for this film.

A lot of the stories in your movies are centred around a combination of mythology and the human condition. Hercules is based on Greek mythology, Aladdin Middle Eastern mythology and Moana Polynesian mythology. What do you think it is about mythology that seems to lend itself perfectly to these type of stories, and is there any other particular culture’s mythology that you would you be interested in building a story around in the future?

Well, I mean with mythology, fantasy is certainly a huge aspect of that – we like fantasy even without mythology. Fairytales, I think for that same reason, are appealing in animation and I have always liked fantasy. I have liked going beyond reality and films that have a sort of magical component to them, even since I was a kid that was very appealing to me. So I think since animation is so visual you look for things like that in a characters like Maui, for example. I mean, really, the beginning of this project was John Musker who felt like he wanted to set a movie in the world of the Pacific Islands. He started reading the Polynesian mythology, which he was not familiar with, and he got me into reading it and reading about Maui. We didn’t know that mythology, we tend to know obviously Greek mythology, which we are familiar with. We got really excited about the possibilities because it’s so visual, and anthropomorphic nature is a challenge – I think – to do, but a really fun thing to do in animation. It just seems to lend itself naturally, I think. As far as other things, I know we have always been fascinated by Norse mythology and at one time or another we’ve been interested in doing something with Norse mythology. Who knows.

Your films, I think, are a celebration of a diverse range of cultures and are often the first positive encounter children will have with these different cultures in cinema. But do you think there is a certain sensitivity and a guardedness that people have, in regards to how their culture is portrayed nowadays, that makes depicting certain things in animation form more difficult?

It is more difficult, this movie was difficult, more difficult than we anticipated to begin with. Originally, we read the stories. It seemed very very fun and ideal for animation, and we pitched a sort of Maui-centric story to John Lasseter, our boss, and he loved the world and the mythology and he loved the character of Maui, but said you’ve got to dig deeper and really dig deep into the culture. That led to our first trip over 5 years ago, where we went to the islands of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and other islands. But right away, our first day in Fiji where we started, we encountered more weariness – I think – than we expected. There was a sensitivity about stereotyping, a sensitivity about how Polynesians have been portrayed in other movies, concerns about cultural identity, about the loss of cultural identity, about appropriation, various things. Although, once we got to know people and barriers broke down, people were also very open and very excited about the possibilities for something like this, if we could get it right. So, I think we came out of that trip very inspired but also aware of kind of a responsibility that maybe we hadn’t been aware of before we went there and met the people. I think we came back with a feeling that this is going to be a lot harder than we thought but also maybe more gratifying and worthwhile if we could do it justice, do it truthfully.

Well, I think you certainly do it justice for sure.

Actually, the reaction we’ve had since the movie has come out has been really gratifying. I mean, all over the world but in the islands people have really taken the movie to heart and seen it multiple times and bringing [sic] their children. It’s had a very positive impact, which is what we hoped for and so that’s been really cool.

Both you and John Musker have a long history of collaborating together, having met during the production of The Fox and the Hound, I believe. What is it about your partnership that has allowed you to work together so well? Do you both approach creativity from the same perspective, or do you think it is a contrast of ideas that compliment each other that has led to the success of the partnership?

I think it’s both, I mean we sort of became friends fairly early on, we are exactly the same age and we are both from the Midwest in the United States. I’m from Iowa, John’s from Chicago; although, I’m an only child and he has like a family of seven, with brothers and sisters. We kind of grew up watching the same TV shows, reading the same comic books, watching the same movies, have similar tastes I think, definitely. But I would say we have a lot of differences in the way we approach story and entertainment, and our own sensibilities sort of contrast quite a bit in that respect. We actually started collaborating on The Black Cauldron and we had a kind of difficult experience on that film but kind of bonded at the same time because we both loved the books, which that movie was based on. We had kind of a shared vision of that movie, unfortunately our vision wasn’t shared by the directors on the project. But we became closer and then we worked together on The Great Mouse Detective and then co-wrote the script of The Little Mermaid together. But we kind of chose to go into this partnership. There have been other teams where people have been kind of put together, teamed up by the studio but that wasn’t the case with us, we collaborated intentionally.

I mentioned traditional animation before, obviously you have a massive affinity for it, given your history. But why do you think it has declined so much in the American movie industry, while something like Anime in Japan, for instance, still seems to be going strong?

That’s a good question, it’s hard to say definitely. CGI animation has certainly become more of the focus. There are so many things you can do in CGI animation in terms of lighting and texture and camera movement. John and I still love hand-drawn animation, we feel like there is a future for hand-drawn animation. As far as why it has declined, I don’t know, things go in and out of fashion. I know that stop motion animation is still going fairly strong and I think there is an appeal to it. I know there are many people who love hand-drawn animation and would like to see more done with hand-drawn animation. We were happy to have a kind of nod to hand-drawn animation in Moana with Maui’s tattoos and the living tapa paintings. Yeah, I don’t really know exactly but I think just taste and I’m sure the one thing that CGI animation can do with a film like Moana certainly, where we were dealing with something like a living ocean and wanting to bring the Pacific Ocean to life, I think there were things we could do in the movie for this story that just couldn’t be done in a hand-drawn film. But I think there could be a story that could be told very well in a hand-drawn film that it would be the ideal medium for that.

Currently Disney seems to be mining a lot of their back catalogue for inspiration going forward – The Jungle Book, Beauty and The Beast, and so on. Do you think that is a good idea, or would you like to see more emphasis on original creations, and is there any movie that you guys have been involved in that you hope won’t be remade?

(Laughs) I mean, certainly, they’ve done a really beautiful job with the films, which I think as long as they keep doing that, it will continue to be a mine that can be mined. I think The Jungle Book was a beautiful film, Beauty and the Beast coming up is a beautiful beautiful film. I do think myself [sic] that they would do well to still keep looking for original ideas as well because I just think that creativity is important and new ideas can really ignite things and excite things, I hope they do that as well. In terms of projects, I know we’ve never had a movie remade into a live action film but they are planning live action remakes of both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. I know Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved with The Little Mermaid, which is one of his favourite movies of all time, so I’m really curious what is going to happen. Then Guy Ritchie is doing a take on Aladdin. That will be a little something different, I think. I mean, when these films go into other areas like Broadway shows or movies, they’re like your grandkids, your curious, you hope for the best but you don’t feel quite as responsible so that’s good.

Originally published on March 31, 2017 for HeyUGuys.

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