Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have been working on Disney movies for over 30 years. With credits to such classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladin, Hercules and The Princess and the Frog, they are no strangers to entertaining millions in their animated storytelling.
Take all of that and turn it up a notch by giving these two CGI and Lin-Manuel Miranda along with an extremely talented cast; then you have Disney’s latest blockbuster, Moana.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker
Moana is your first primarily computer animated film. What new challenges or new opportunities did that bring to the creation of the film?
Ron: Some things are the same regarding the script and the storyboarding and the voice actors. I mean that that isn’t different. But the actual production process is quite a bit different. We had to have tutorials before even the movie started.
John: Yeah, Steve Goldberg worked on Pros and gave us a tutorial and said these jobs don’t exist in CG. These do exist and it’s a whole different thing, and one of the big things is in hand-drawn you can get going a lot quicker. You know, you have a piece of paper, a pencil, and you can start exploring the characters.
In CG they’ve got to build the characters, literally create them in three-dimensional space. They’ve got to rig them which means they’ll put all the armature in there so they can move around. They got to create the world they work in, so, it’s a longer set of time.
Ron: All the environments, every leaf on every tree.
John: Also, we had the crazy thing when we go to these review sessions when the movie was being done in CG where we’d look at it and say okay, “So is that the real sky in that shot?” And they say, “No, no, that’s just a placeholder. Forget the sky.” And we go, “Okay, but those trees, we should take those…”
“No, no, the trees were going to trade those out later for the real trees.” And then we’d say, “So we can ignore those rocks?” “No, the rocks are the real thing.” We wouldn’t know looking at it which one was real. We had people helping us all the time.
Ron: There are amazing things. I mean with the camera movement and the textures and the hair–.
John: And certainly, the ocean in the movie we were able to do stuff in CG.
Ron: And the lighting. There’s a lot of cool things you can do. But a lot of things even that had to be figured out in the movie. Even the idea of a living ocean that has a personality of a monster, a lava monster, and some of those things where character animation and effects animation merge. That isn’t done usually.
The two of you have directed three out of the now five princesses of color for the Disney film franchise. What steps did you take to respect the culture?
Ron: Well, the big thing was we did a huge research five years ago when we first pitched the movie. We spent like three weeks in Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti. We met with cultural ambassadors, linguists, and anthropologists.
John: Yeah, we got to sail in Fiji with navigators, and we tried to connect with those people and the culture. We learned how proud they were of their background as the greatest navigators the world has ever seen. They use dead reckoning to find their way across the sea.
Ron: And the importance of respect for nature, respect for the environment and also the interconnectedness, extended families and the idea of your heritage and your legacy. We heard this expression in Tahiti, know your mountain. And your mountain is essentially everything that led up to you, all the people that led up to you, everything that happened, all of the things that if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t exist. And they said if you don’t know your mountain you don’t know who you are.
John: One islander shared, “For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time can you be swallowed up by our culture? We took that to heart. That became sort of our mantra as we did the movie over the course of the years and we kept people involved from the Pacific islands. We had an oceanic story trust that we bounced story ideas off of costume ideas, the way the characters looked throughout this process. We would Skype with them. They came out to visit sometimes. And case in point, Mali, in the early going he was bald. He had no hair.
Ron: A little more like Dwayne.
John: When some people from Tahiti saw it, they said no, no, no, long hair is part of his power. So, he’s got to have long hair. So, we, okay, forget it. He’s going to have long hair. There are this great Polynesian football player’s long hair and people from the islands we had seen these great dudes with great manes of hair. And so we gave him that kind of hair because I can’t imagine him now without that.
I read somewhere that the movie started about Maui and it evolved to Moana. Can you tell us more about that?
John: I was intrigued with the area of the Pacific islands. And then that led me to read Polynesian mythology and then I read about this guy Mali who was unbelievable. He was you know, a shapeshifter. He had a magic fishhook. He could pull up islands. He had tattoos. He was kind of a superhero. And I was like, “Why has this never been done in a movie before?” And so I showed it to Ron. We pitched a simple idea to John Lassiter–.
Ron: Based on the Myths of Maui.
John: Mighty Maui was the original title. Then John’s like, “You got to do research. You got to go to the islands.” And when we went there, and we heard about navigation, and all this and it was Ron’s idea. What if we have a character called Moana, which means ocean and we built it around her, someone who wants to be a navigator like her ancestors? And Moana we sort of saw as a true grit type story, where she is this determined, forceful individual and she teams up with kind of a washed up, you know, some down on his luck–.
Ron: Or at least a flawed, seriously flawed demigod.
John: But she’s the focus of the story and so it was a challenge when we were making the movie always to keep her at the center. Sometimes Mali, because he’s kind of like a fascinating character, he could start to rise up, and we said no, no, this has got to be in the service of her story. Our producer was very strong in terms of keeping the focus on Moana when Mali threatened to take over sometimes.
Ron: Yeah, it was a hero’s journey. We thought of a hero’s journey for Moana. She’s on a quest to save her people. She faces numerous obstacles. She’s resilient. She’s also empathetic, which is an important part of who she is and fearless and that she finally proves herself and becomes the person that she’s meant to be.
Please tell us you two are doing more movies together.
John: Yeah, I mean we don’t know what we’re doing after this one. This has been five years in the making, and we’re doing a couple of months of promotion then I think we get a few weeks off. Who knows what we’re doing. There’s a lot of great movies in the Disney pipeline after this from these various directors.
Can we talk a little about all the Easter Eggs in Moana?
Ron: Did you see Sven?
Ron: He’s the easiest one.
Are there others?
John: Yes, there are a lot of them.
Ron: There are many others and we will not tell you what they are. We will give you some clues. I will say what they are but not where they are. And they’re really interesting, and some are very difficult. Some are a little easier; some are not. But Olaf is in the movie. And you might think how can a snowman be in there but he’s in there a couple of times.
John: In a tricky way. Flounder from Little Mermaid is in there briefly.
Ron: You may have seen Flounder, okay. And actually, Flash, the sloth from Zootopia.
John: Baymax was in there.
You’re just making stuff up.
Ron: No, we’re not. And McGilla Gorilla is in there. No, no. All those are in there. But it is like a where’s Wally. You got to kind of look at the right part of the screen to find them.
John: Wreck-it Ralph and is in there very briefly.
Ron: And the reason he’s in there, some people ask why is he in almost one of the last images of the film? And the reason is there’s been a little tradition in the last few years that something is acknowledging the next film. So our production designer at the last minute said, “Let’s put Ralph in the credits because he’s going to come up.” So, we saw, and we liked it and said yeah, let’s leave it in there.
MOANA is in theaters now!
*I was invited by Disney to attend the Moana Event to share my experiences with my readers. All opinions are my own.