Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker on their latest animated adventure
If you’re fan of Walt Disney Animation, it’s pretty safe bet that you’re a fan of Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who, in their years at Disney, have together helmed The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. Now, for the first time, they’re working in CG animation for a grand fantasy adventure rooted in Oceanic mythology. Moana also boasts original music by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, a script by Thor: Ragnarok‘s Taika Waititi, and voice cast led by newly-discovered actress Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as Maui, a shapeshifting demigod.
ComingSoon.net recently sat down with both Moana directors and learned what makes the new film something special. Read on for the full conversation and catch Moana on the big screen November 23.
CS: Beyond the technical side of things, does the storytelling process change at all for a CG film?
John Musker: The pipeline is sort of different. There’s more setup time in 2D than in 3D. In 2D, you can have a blank piece of paper and you can just draw a character and do a rough test animation of a scene. In CG, if you want to do a test scene of a character, first you have to build the character. Then you have to rig the character and even model it a little bit. There’s a much longer time in just getting things going.
Ron Clements: It’s even more delayed gratification, in a way, than a hand drawn film. You have to wait a lot longer to see the elements really start to come together. But then there’s also more things you can change.
John Musker: Yeah, in hand drawn animation, you’d have to redraw the whole scene if you changed the blocking or wanted to do it from a different angle. In the computer, you can just move the camera over here, play that same animation and see how it works from a different angle. It’s the same with adjusting expressions. In 2D, you’d be unravelling a lot more. CG enables you to fine tune things more and literally move the landscape around. Sometimes we look at scenes and go, “Does that tree need to be there?” In 2D, if you asked someone to move a mountain you’d get, “Are you crazy?! I spent two weeks painting that!” Not that they don’t spend a month modeling it, but it’s easy to change once it’s there.
CS: Take me back to where Moana started for you. Is this a case where an idea comes along and you claim it as directors?
John Musker: No, we generated the idea. There have certainly been assignments where an idea comes up from somewhere and John Lasseter is like, “I want you to do this idea that seems cool to me.” This one wasn’t one like that. We were trying to come up with ideas after “The Princess and the Frog” and we came up with a variety of them. One of them was sort of an action adventure thing set in the South Pacific. I had been intrigued by that area from novels by Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. Seeing things like those giant head sculptures on Easter Island, it seemed like there was a neat visual idea to it. I was thinking of Paul Gauguin’s paintings. But I didn’t actually know anything about Polynesian mythology. I decided to read some of it and there’s a rich vein of it with lots of stories that I had never heard. After reading all these tales in a bunch of books, I came to this figure of Maui, who’s very well known in the South Pacific as sort of a demigod and trickster. He was so perfect for animation. He’s a shapeshifter. He’s been through all these bigger than life events. He’s mythic and iconic and has superhuman powers. I brought them to Ron’s attention and he read them, too. We both loved them and we pitched to John a version of the story where Maui was more the lead. He loved it, but he wanted more research. He wanted us to really dig in, which led to a two and half week trip to the islands. Our amazing development department put that together for us where deeper dive people in the community — cultural ambassadors, ecologists, linguists, navigators. One day we’re in a museum seeing a little boat like the one in our film and then next day we’re out on one, sailing without instruments. We were just in that world. It was like a time machine. We came back from that trip energized and brought a new story to John.
Ron Clements: There were simple ideas right away. People talk about the ocean as though it’s alive. One of the navigators, Angel, who brought us out on that boat sort of caressed the water and said that you had to be gentle to the ocean. He told of a story of his brother, who he said was not gentle, and how the ocean took him. So one of the first things we knew was that the ocean had to become a character in the movie.
John Musker: There was this idea of knowing your mountain. Until you know your mountain, you don’t know who you are. That’s your lineage. It’s everything that came before you. That’s the mountain that is yours. It applies to navigation as well. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t tell where you’re going. That became a thematic idea in the film. All those things we pitched to John and he goes, “This is great! This has been the most transformative research trip we’ve done. I’ve never seen filmmakers so transformed coming back!”
Ron Clements: We didn’t really expect that. We didn’t really know what to expect on the trip. We had been to Hawaii before on vacation, but this was very different.
John Musker: The big thing was avoid stereotypes and find a way into the culture that isn’t a kitschy version of the culture. We wanted to try and be authentic to what formed all this. So that was our journey and we really felt like we formed these personal connections with the people that we’d meet. We kept them involved as far as vetting certain story ideas and things like that. But it’s still a story. It’s not a documentary. It’s an invention of sorts that grows from and is inspired by their stories. We really tried to embrace the people that we met there.
CS: I like the idea of people rediscovering that they’re supposed to be explorers.
John Musker: Oh yeah. We grew up in the early days of the space program. I collected every newspaper clipping of John Glenn going around the Earth. I was so fascinated by all of it. That journey beyond the known edge.
Ron Clements: And, of course, there’s “Star Trek.” When I was a kid, I loved “Star Trek.” When we went to the moon, I think the attitude when we were kids was, “We went to the moon! In ten years, we’ll go to Mars! In 20 years, we’ll find a way to break light speed! Pretty soon, it’ll be just like ‘Star Trek.'” Now, we’re not as young as we were and we’re like, “I think maybe that’s not quite going to happen. At least for awhile.” But there is still that attitude of exploring excitement.
John Musker: There’s this great essay by Wade Davis, who’s an anthropologist. He came here and we talked to him briefly. He wrote this thing about how ancient cultures matter in the modern world and he talked about the Polynesian voyagers. The big thing about ancient cultures, he explained, is that they are not failed versions of us. They were all trying to accomplish things and they did do these incredible things. What they did in heading out into the ocean was like sending a man to the moon, given the limitations that they had. So we wanted to celebrate that.
CS: You have together directed some true animation classics. Here, you’ve got Dwayne Johnson doing a voice. You’ve got a script by Taika Waititi. You’ve got music by Lin Manuel Miranda. Do you feel like you’re holding a really, really good poker hand?
John Musker: (Laughs) I think we’ve got a pretty good hand! We could always blow it, but I think we’ve got a really, really good one. And I’m not sure what the other hands are. Both Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One open right around our movie.
Ron Clements: There are so many things on this one that just worked out. There’s also Auli’i Cravalho and the story behind finding her is just incredible. She really was the last person to audition for the role. We had a very exact idea of what we wanted Moana to be and we came very, very close to compromising that to some degree just because we couldn’t find the right person. But she is everything we could have ever hoped for. Yet she’s not a trained actress or a trained singer. Just a total natural talent and such a great personality.
John Musker: And both Rock and Lin are great, but they’re also such great people. They work so, so hard.
Ron Clements: We met Lin about two and half years ago in New York.
John Musker: We met with a bunch of Broadway lyricists. We had Opetaia Foa’i, but we wanted to pair him with someone from the narrative world. Opetaia does songs, but he had never been involved with a film piece or a theater piece.
Ron Clements: Lin was so passionate and so smart and had such great ideas. At the time, he briefly mentioned something else that he was working on. This sort of hip-hop rap version of the story of Alexander Hamilton. Honestly, I was like, “Okay, that sounds interesting. Good luck with that!” This was about a year and a few months before it opened to public theater.
John Musker: We saw it at the public theater and actually haven’t had the chance to see the Broadway version because we’ve been working on the movie!
Ron Clements: Dwayne was always kind of thought of as a strong possibility for this demigod character.
John Musker: On the very first trip, we went to Fiji and one of the women that we met there who was our contact arranging things, was like, “The Rock.” She herself was part Samoan. But we never auditioned anyone. We thought he would be perfect, but had no idea if he could sing. We brought him in and showed him storyboards and things like that. We had the “We Know the Way” song storyboarded.
Ron Clements: The truth is, though, it was not a tough sell. This really meant a lot to him. He’s very connected to his Samoan roots.
John Musker: There was a recording session where his mother came. He was singing the “We Know the Way” song and she was in tears. He actually said before, ‘Watch, she’s gonna cry.” And she did!