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Disney Director and Alumnus Talks of his Animated Approach to Work

John Musker (WCAS75), a writer, director, and animator known for such films as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Moana, shared tales of his colorful career with students at Annie May Swift Hall on October 19.

A Wildcat and Chicago native, Musker recounted multiple stokes of genius, a hefty dose of good luck, and close encounters with legends, both established and very much in the making. The first such encounter came when Musker was an undergraduate at Northwestern, and Chuck Jones came to campus to speak. The famous Warner Bros. director, who created such memorable animated characters as the Road Runner and Wyle E. Coyote, was an early influence on Musker’s career and gave the young student a taste of what a life in animation can bring about.  

“I came to Chuck’s lecture, and he showed about six or eight of his great cartoons including What’s Opera, Doc? — a mix of Bugs Bunny and (German composer Richard) Wagner,” Musker said. “He made it seem like you could be in animation and still be learning things even in your 60s, and that seemed appealing to me, as a 20-year-old.”

After Musker graduated from Northwestern, he sent sketches and drawings to both Disney and Marvel, hoping to land a job as an animator or cartoonist. Both rejected him, but Disney suggested that he apply to California Institute of the Arts, which began a new animation program in 1975. He heeded Disney’s advice and was accepted to the program — and found himself in the same graduating class as John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar, and Brad Bird, who wrote and directed The Incredibles. Famed director Tim Burton, who wrote and directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, graduated in the class right behind Musker.

At the end of his first year, representatives from Disney came by to look at students’ work, which Musker’s instructor had told them to put on a reel. “I’d never done animation before, and this was the first animation I’d ever done. It had no sound. It was just a simple pencil test,” he said of the animated short of a woman walking slowly toward a bar, and a bartender taking notice. “They liked it well enough that they offered me a job, unbelievably, not realizing they’d rejected me the year before.”

Once at Disney, Musker worked on The Black Caldron for a short time, as well as The Great Mouse Detective, which he co-directed with Ron Clements, who is a frequent collaborator.

“Live action directors say ‘action’ and ‘cut’ but I used to always joke that animation directors say, ‘draw’ and ‘erase,’” he said, adding that directing an animated film is much like directing a live action one. Animation directors work to elicit performances from their animators and their voice talent, just as live action directors work with their actors to encourage their best performances.

One of Musker’s and Clements’ greatest co-directorial performances was The Little Mermaid, which Clements pitchedto Disney executives.   

The Little Mermaid was a big success, but we had no idea when we were working on it that would be a success,” Musker said. “We knew we liked it, and we liked the songs, and we’d heard the songs hundreds of times and we never got tired of them. It wasn’t until we previewed the film that we screened the film in front of a public audience in Burbank in 1989 that the studio started realizing what they might have.”

Musker and Clements would go on to direct Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana. It was Musker who wanted to cast Robin Williams for the part of the genie in Aladdin, so they used footage of Williams’ stand-up routines and created a rough pencil-sketch animation to conceptualize the idea. Musker showed his Northwestern audience the early animation to the audience, adding that after Williams saw the short, he signed on for the film. Musker did the same for Dwayne Johnson and his character, Maui, in Moana.

“We only wanted Dwayne, nobody else,” he said. Musker spent time in Fiji, Tahiti, and other islands in the Pacific to gather inspiration and relentlessly research Moana, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. He also hired then-relatively unknown lyricist and musician Lin Manuel Miranda to do the title song, “How Far I’ll Go.” This was before the first performance of his trailblazing, Tony Award-winning musical, Hamilton.

“We’d liked what he’d done with (his musical) The Heights,” Musker said. “So, we hired Lin, and then he mentioned he had this musical he’d been working on for a few years, this hip hop thing involving the founding fathers, and we thought, ‘well, good luck with that,’ and he’ll be done with that soon and then he can focus on our movie. Only it turned into a worldwide phenomenon… We’d have Skype calls with Lin appearing on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and he’d talk to us about songs, dressed up in his Hamilton costume, eating Chinese food, an hour before the play was about to go on.”

Musker also spoke about how the line between animation and live action is blurring, with films such as Avatar, The Jungle Book and the upcoming remake of The Lion King (costarring School of Communication alumnus Billy Eichner), which will be entirely CGI, mixing live action and animation in new and interesting ways.

Renee Jacoby, a Communication Studies junior, said she found the talk riveting.

“I’m a big Disney fan and I thought it was so cool to hear him talk about his experiences,” Jacoby said. “I’m not sure what I want to do when I graduate, and that’s part of why I came tonight, to hear about options. I liked that he took a different path, and it makes me think there are more paths out there to take.”

Musker spoke as a guest of the Office of External Programs, Internships, & Career Services (EPICS)

– Cara Lockwood