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Immersed in Movies: John Musker Talks ‘Little Mermaid’ Going Blu and ‘Moana’

Immersed in Movies: John Musker Talks 'Little Mermaid' Going Blu and 'Moana'

With this week’s Blu-ray combo release of The Little Mermaid (including 3-D), I had a chance to catch up with co-director John Musker. He looked back at the masterpiece that launched Disney’s second renaissance in ’89 (the first fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty) and ahead to Moana, his first CG feature with partner Ron Clements: a Polynesian musical, which is part of the third renaissance led by his old CalArts pal, John Lasseter.

The color timing was supervised by Ian Gooding, the art director who worked with Musker & Clements on The Princess and the Frog before hopping onto Wreck-It Ralph. Musker admits that they played around with it at times. “It is to our current taste and Ian’s taste. We saw the approval copies and endorsed the color.

I know there’s always controversy when it doesn’t look the same as when it was released,” Musker explains. “There were certain things we had in mind that came across, but in some cases they didn’t and we had an opportunity to make an idea clearer and stronger using the technology we have today, so we pushed some things.
“There’s a scene in the reprise of ‘Part of Your World’ where the prince is on the beach and Ariel’s singing. The idea was that it’s overcast at the start and the sun comes out and when he sees her, she’s back lit by the sun and we pushed the warmth and brightness when the sun comes out and sharpened the shadows. It was there in the original but muted. Beyond that, there were some small fixes: bubbles that were never inked; a curtain of bubbles where they shot the drawing out of order and it had a funny, little jiggle.”

Upon reflection, Musker says “it was sink or swim” working out of trailers in Glendale. But it was better that way. It was their Termite Terrace or Hyperion, and “sometimes out of adverse circumstances can come wonderful things as you band together in the fox hole of whatever situation you’re in. Certainly we were under fire from Jeffrey [Katzenberg], but we were both supported by Jeffrey and having him breathe down our neck at every instance.”

I asked about the great influence of the late Howard Ashman, and Musker acknowledged that he was a driving force (one of the new Blu-ray bonus features is an Ashman lecture about music in movies). “He was a character and from the world of theater but so smart and so sharp; he had so many good ideas, and was a writer and a storyteller. He even did some key rewrites when we were busy in production.”
As for Glen Keane, Musker agrees that his free-spirited Ariel continues to be a big influence on Disney heroines (including Anna and Elsa in the upcoming Frozen). “Glen did a very powerful performance, as did Mark Henn, who really was his partner on that. You could take a burly, Gene Kelly-esque guy like Glen Keane and he could animate a character that looks and moves nothing like he does but has the same inner fire and he was trying to bring all of his enthusiasm. When I look at her, I see Glen, I see Mark, I see Howard, I see Jodi Benson and Sherri Stoner [the live action reference]. It’s a synthesis.”
For Musker, working in pre-production with Clements on Moana (with guidance from Lasseter) is a continuation of the sincerity and heart that they learned from the Nine Old Men. However, he confirmed that it’s far too early to apply the Paperman hybrid technique to a feature. The Meander digital in-betweening interface still has a host of production issues (including color) that need to be perfected. 
Still, Musker marveled at Paperman’s accomplishment. “In some ways, it may be the tip of the iceberg in how there are ways that hand-drawn sensibilities can merge, and I think there will be other things that come out that find ways of fusing those.”
Meanwhile, Musker looks forward to learning more about CG and making it work for Moana in an illustrative way (Paul Gauguin, anyone?). It’s built around the Disney ethos and music will naturally play a strong role. “We both are fans of music and I think that animation and music go along together.”

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