Disney Releases Interview with Ron Clements & John Musker on "Princess & the Frog"
In conjunction with the release of The Princess and the Frog on DVD and Blu-ray disc, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has released the following press release interview with Ron Clements and John Musker, directors of The Princess and the Frog as well as many of Disney’s recent animated classics such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
The Princess and the Frog is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc. For more details on the home video release, check out our earlier coverage here.
The full interview follows:
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a Princess coming to town. She’s causing quite a stir, and creating a lot of excitement with her pending arrival. Her name is Tiana, and she’s a waitress from New Orleans.
Yes, that’s right. Tiana is the latest addition to that elite group known as the Disney Princesses—and she’s not only the first American, she’s also the first African-American, and the first to openly sing about her heart’s unique wish…not meeting a handsome prince or being somewhere she’s not, but rather owning and operating her own restaurant.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming animated musical, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, marks the return of the musical fairy tale, the genre most closely associated with Walt Disney and the Studio he founded, beginning in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The two writer/directors of the film, Ron Clements and John Musker, have more than a passing familiarity with Disney Princesses—they wrote and directed The Little Mermaid (which many credit with resuscitating the art form in the late 1980s) and Aladdin, successively. Prior to the release of THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, they sat down to talk to us about their latest film.
Q: I understand from John Lasseter that you guys were let go from the Studio.
JOHN MUSKER: We were banished, actually. [LAUGHTER] It was very fairy tale, yeah.
RON CLEMENTS: We had reached the end of our contracts—
JM: No, we were fired.
RC: Well, yeah, but it was the end of our contract. But we actually ended up being gone for only about six months, although at the time that we left, we didn’t really picture coming back.
JM: Disney had changed around us, somewhat, and the Disney we were leaving wasn’t the Disney we had been raised up by. It was heading in this direction we weren’t so crazy about.
RC: A lot of artists left. And it was very sad, although they never mentioned that they didn’t actually get rid of all the animation desks after all. They were supposed to get rid of them, but there was actually a person in charge of that job, and he stashed enough desks to do a movie in a warehouse, because they—
JM: They expected a fairy tale ending—
RC: They just felt that it wasn’t right, somehow. So we actually had the desks.
Q: How did you feel when you got the telephone call to come back?
JM: It was hearing the news that we never anticipated. Pixar was estranged from Disney and we thought, ‘Well, they’ll probably make up somehow. It makes too much sense.’
RC: It just felt wrong.
JM: I hadn’t anticipated that they would put John Lasseter in charge here. And that was a whole new wrinkle, and suddenly, there was a possibility we could come back. And then when John called us and asked, ‘Hey, would you guys like to make another movie here?’—
RC: We were close to actually signing a deal to do a movie at another studio.
JM: John just said, ‘There’s all this stuff going on. I can’t talk to you in any great length, but just trust me. Don’t sign with somebody else.’ So we said to our lawyer, ‘We can’t do this. Don’t sign this piece of paper.’
RC: And a few weeks after that, the announcement was made, and we were very happy about that.
JM: We had known John for a long time. I went to school with John. I was part of the same class in character animation, so he knew our work, and we knew him. He had talked to us in the past about coming to Pixar and doing a movie up there if we wanted to, but we never really thought we wanted to relocate up to San Francisco. So it was really exciting. It’s been great working with John—he’s the best executive producer. He’s very much a cheerleader; he’s a filmmaker, he’s got great story ideas. He is very passionate about what he’s doing and he’s fun…he’s a big kid.
RC: He’s very courageous like that, and fearless…which is a good thing for someone in that position. So many people tend to operate out of fear a little bit, and I don’t think the best results come from that. But he has the courage of his convictions and is not hesitant at all voicing his opinions of what we should do. He was always very positive.
JM: Yeah, even years ago, I was working on The Black Cauldron, very briefly. John had said that there was an artist named Tim Burton—he was an advocate for him, who was totally unknown at the time, but John loved his drawings and said I should hire him. So I think John’s always had an eye for what I like and, I think, other people will like, and that was a typical case in point. He touted Tim, who had done all of these drawings of the lines of people waiting for the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He had sketchbooks full of the stuff, and it was great. But, unfortunately, that stuff never made it into the film.
RC: I didn’t go to Cal Arts, but it was an interesting group. I was at Disney before the Cal Arts people came. I was very young when I started at Disney, but the group of John Musker, John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, were all these kids, all really, really interested in animation, and they came in at that time. It was an interesting atmosphere and interesting to see what was happening.
RC: The intention was to really go back to basics, and we did that. I would say there are differences, but not hugely dramatic differences, even going back to Snow White. We re-examined everything to decide what was the best process.
JM: There were some production things that John Lasseter brought to this studio, the animatic phase—we did something like it on The Little Mermaid. After the movie was storyboarded and before it was animated, we did workbook drawings that decided things like camera angles. And he really felt, based on their process, that we should actually—
RC: At Pixar.
JM: At Pixar, that we should film those drawings and really work out the staging and the camera moves on the whole reel before we animated it. We hadn’t ever done that before. So our layout head took and built a version of a sequence without the animation, but with the cuts, camera moves—
RC: And lighting—
JM: Yeah, lighting, composition, you could see it all in real time and it became a really invaluable production tool on this movie—you ended up with a rough draft of the movie—how long a scene was, how close you were, what the composition was.
RC: And you could see all those things before animation was done. In the past, we only saw that after the animation was completed, and then if something didn’t work, that would be tricky. So that was a new innovation that came from Pixar. Also, just a very simple thing—and it may seem obvious, although it was done at Pixar but never Disney—John wanted to have animation dailies. Two or three times a week we would get all the animators together in the morning, and look at all of the animation in very rough form, so everyone could see it together. And then we would discuss it, what was working, what wasn’t working, and if something was really, really good, everyone would get excited. Sometimes, it could be brutal if people didn’t like something—there would be big discussions and it could be painful for an animator. And we’d try to referee all that and make positive choices. But they’ve always done that at Pixar. I think John actually got that from Industrial Light and Magic, ILM, when he worked there. That’s what they did. I think it was a great thing for us.
JM: In the old days, we would work one-on-one with the animator, and so, it wasn’t like a collective as much. But the group interaction elevated the quality of the animation.
RC: And there were aspects of the color that were new on this. We had a great art director, Ian Gooding, and he was one of the group that traveled to New Orleans. And he certainly had the biggest impact on the color, just his own ability. But there were ways that we were able to see all the color in motion with the animation and still be able to make changes.
JM: In general, there was more interactivity between us and the animation process on this because of advances in the system. So we could drop scenes into continuity—that was something we didn’t used to be able to do. We could reiterate color with the push of a button. We couldn’t do that before.
JM: Yes, we did travel there, a few times. That was John’s mandate when we first pitched the movie to him, he said, ‘You’ve got to go down to New Orleans and really see it for yourselves.’ Neither one of us had been to New Orleans. So we went down for a week and we saw as much as we could—we toured the cemeteries with a Voodoo priestess, we went to the Bayou with a Cajun tour guide named Reggie, who fed the alligators marshmallows. He was a character study. He said, ‘This is how you can tell the good tour guides from the bad—by how many fingers they got! I got all mine.’ And we based Ray, the firefly, on Reggie. We went to the Garden District. We went to Jazz Fest, which is a yearly festival of music and culture. If you go there, it’s at a fairgrounds, and you hear every kind of music—there’s a Zydeco stage, there’s a Gospel tent, there’s Dixieland swing and there’s African music, all happening all around you. You’re hearing all these waves of music, and we heard the lingo and the dialects, also. And we were trying to get all of that in the movie when we came back.
RC: We also went to the Ninth Ward. This was about eight months after Katrina, and the city was still trying to recover. The progress was very slow—
RC: Just very just devastating. I mean, I’ve never quite seen anything like what we saw down there.
JM: Certainly, we saw firsthand where the obsession with New Orleans came from, with both music and food. I mean, those are the two things that drive the city. It was John’s idea that Tiana would want to open her own restaurant. I think he saw that as an interesting goal, a new goal, for a Princess—to not be chasing down a prince, but to actually have a career goal. It was interesting—
RC: And a modern thing.
JM: We pitched the idea that she’d be a waitress before we quite realized how obsessed with food people are down there. And they really are. They talk about food all the time.
Q: The colors in the film are incredibly vivid. In terms of color palettes, it really does run the gamut. Does that come from your experiences in New Orleans? Where does that come from?
RC: It does come from that, and it also comes from Ian Gooding, our art director, who went down there with us. The second trip, we went there during Mardi Gras, and we actually rode a Mardi Gras float, as our characters do. And Ian rode a different float than we did, and we all got to see Mardi Gras from the inside out. But I think he was really drawing his palette from things that he had seen down there at Mardi Gras. You see a lot of purple, gold and green—the colors of Mardi Gras—in the movie. But that saturated palette—it probably is just his taste, but he wanted something that vivid, and it does seem to really fit that city. If you go through the French Quarter, you see the signage, the buildings themselves, are all different colors, it isn’t a monochromatic city. It’s a very colorful city, and I think Ian really wanted to capture all of that in the film. So he gave it this really rich palette—
JM: Which it’s harder to do a rich palette and make everything still read and communicate—it’s much harder than a softer palette.
RC: It requires good taste—
JM: Yeah, and Ian has a brilliant sense of color, it’s unique, and it comes naturally to him—
RC: I know some people thought we were using a different technical process, to get those super saturated colors, and I was saying, ‘No, the name of the process is Ian Gooding.’ He’s really a talented artist.
Q: Could you talk a bit about you came up with characters and their look?
JM: In our basic approach to the character design, we wanted them to be round and volumetric. It’s the way the Disney style began, but then, they became more stylized and flat. From Sleeping Beauty on, things got more graphic and flat. We were wanting to go back to an older style, where you really drew in a round shape, and there was a softness to the character.
RC: The touchstones really were Lady and the Tramp, and also Bambi, somewhat. Lady and the Tramp for New Orleans, and Bambi for the Bayou. They utilize a very sophisticated style of animation, but it’s not overly stylized. It’s very dimensional, very appealing, and very easy to animate. Well, I wouldn’t say it’s easy to animate, but easier than some other styles, because of that little bit of a softer element to it.
JM: And in terms of the character design—I drew the first sketch of the Prince way back when, and I did my drawings based on Cary Grant. But then, as Randy Haycock took it over and we really invented this country of Maldonia, we got pictures of handsome men from many cultures around the world, and we brought women in to look at these pictures. And we asked them to flag the ones they found most handsome. And we even did that with the English-language voice of the Prince, Bruno Campos. We had a taste test. We had three finalists for the Prince’s voice, and we didn’t say who they were, just A, B and C. And we brought some women in and asked them, ‘Which voice engaged you most?’ We wanted him to be both funny and a leading man, and dare I say it, sexy? Attractive. And the women chose Bruno. They all responded to him so much.
RC: And with Tiana, there were boards with pictures of African-American women, and we used them to evolve her design.
JM: We had a character design retreat. We actually went to Ojai, which is a city not far from here, very pretty city, with all the supervising animators, Mark Henn and Bruce Smith and all. We all got together and we put all the drawings of the characters together and different animators would take a drawing. Bruce might take a drawing of Tiana that Mark had done, and he would do some refinement. So there was a lot of cross-pollination, to try and fit the animator with the character, to find the artist that produced the appeal, the dimensionality that we were going for. It was not an instant process.
RC: John actually did the original designs of all the characters, which I still remember. For our original pitch of the movie to John Lasseter in March of 2006, we had drawings of all the characters that John had done, along with photographs of settings from New Orleans.
JM: Certainly, the actors affect the design. Anika Noni Rose, the English-language Tiana, she has these dimples that Mark Henn included. Keith David has this split in his teeth that Bruce Smith gave to Dr. Facilier, our villain. And I think Naveen was pretty much designed before we got Bruno, so that design didn’t change too much with Bruno, they’re both really handsome.
RC: The trick on this from the animation point-of-view, particularly for Mark Henn and for Randy Haycock, was to take the design of Tiana and Naveen as humans, and then express that character through a frog, who looks very different—
JM: Randy Haycock did an early exercise, and he animated Prince Naveen saying a line from Johnny Depp in Don Juan de Marco—“I give women pleasure,” or something like that. And he did it very saucy, coming from this dreamboat, handsome guy. And then he did the same animation with Naveen as a frog, and tried to keep the same come-hither look on his face and the same attitude. So it was a great animation exercise for Randy. And Mike Surrey was the lead animator on Ray. Reggie, our tour guide we talked about before, he was a little different, and he was missing a few teeth. I mean, he joked about it a little bit. I’ll try and tell his joke as Reggie: ‘People stare at us Cajuns, and think we’re toothless and illiterate and we chase our sisters and we’re crooked cops. That’s not all true. I don’t have a sister.’ (LAUGHTER) And that was his joke. He is a great guy, salt of the earth. But, he had no teeth, so when we did Ray, we said, ‘Why don’t we give him missing teeth?’ Also Randy Cartwright, one of our storyboarders, came up with the idea of making his rear end like a light bulb, even though real fireflies are shaped differently. But we like the idea, and that became a source of comedy.
RC: Part of the idea of Ray is that his appearance belies what’s underneath—there’s really a beautiful soul there. And that comes through—from our screenings, he’s been one of the most popular characters in the movie. We think of him as the heart of the movie, and he embodies a lot of the themes of the film. And he’s more than what he seems on first appearance.
JM: The first drawing I did of Ray, I drew him like [the musician] Dr. John. I gave him a little beret and a mustache and all these things. And that went away.
RC: He’s a character that was not meant to be traditionally handsome, and I think even though he’s not really handsome, there is an appeal to him. That’s what we always wanted to get in him, a lot of appeal.
JM: Bill Schwab, a visual development artist who was a character designer, he took the drawings of Ray that had been done and he really refined them, so the design that you see is really a combination of Bill Schwab and Mike Surrey, who ultimately designed the character.
Q: How did Tiana and many of the characters come to be African-American?
RC: Well, the story of the frog prince has been explored both at Disney and at Pixar. Pixar had explored doing a version—not so much a fairy tale, more of a Pixar film—a while back. Their version originally took place in Chicago, but then John Lasseter wanted it to be set in New Orleans, because that’s his favorite city in the world. And when we came onto this movie, John brought up the frog prince—it seemed that Disney had been exploring it as well—and he asked us to take a look at all the different versions. But he really liked the idea of it being set in New Orleans. So, in March of 2006, we pitched our version, which was an American fairy tale set in the 1920s in New Orleans, as a musical. And the setting was actually what inspired us—it just made sense—that the heroine should be African-American. We were very excited about that, because there hadn’t been an African-American Disney Princess, but I don’t think we realized when we first pitched it, and neither did John, the cultural significance of it—how important this was to a part of the population that had been waiting for this for a long, long time. And certainly, that brought up a lot of responsibility. But the decision came from the story and the setting.
JM: She’s the first Disney Princess, I think, who has a career goal. (LAUGHTER) And she’s an entrepreneur. She has a dream of this fabulous restaurant, and the ability to make it happen. And that’s what she’s obsessed with. I think that, alone, is what sets her apart, especially at the beginning of the movie. She’s not looking for romance. In fact, she’s just set that aside, because this dream of hers is so important. So, I think that makes her a little bit more of a modern Princess—
RC: But, I think, she’s very driven, and she’s a bit flawed, because she’s had to fight so hard to accomplish her dream—she has shut off these other things. It was interesting to try and write a flawed character and to keep her appealing, and to make her somebody that seemed like she needed to get fun into her life—but, at the same time, not to make her someone that you wanted to get away from. So that was a real challenge for Mark Henn, and for Anika, and the storyboard artists. And I think they really rose to the challenge. Josie Trinidad was one of our storyboard artists, and she started with some of the key sequences with Tiana. I think she brought a woman’s point-of-view to it, along with a sense of entertainment, and I think she helped bring alive the storyboards that, in turn, helped to inspire the animation.
Q: What character do you like most?
RC: Well, actually, Ray is my favorite character. I think there’s something just very endearing about that character.
JM: And I think with Tiana, I like the fact that we have created this new heroine, she’s tough, but she’s vulnerable underneath. I think that’s an interesting combination. And I do like the fact that we have a Prince that actually has a sense of humor. I think this may be the first Prince that actually is funny, and I think that’s a good thing—that we bring him into the modern era and make him more than a prop.
Q: You’ve worked at Disney for many years. How has the atmosphere in the building changed with John in charge? I mean, you talked quite technically about how it works now, but what about more intangible things?
JM: I think people feel that the future is more open-ended now. And that it’s a return to Disney—even Disney itself was a bad word, a few years ago. It’s almost like, if you were doing something that smacked of being Disney, that was wrong, don’t do that. John basically said, ‘I love Disney, I love Disneyland, I grew up with them—why would we not be doing that?’ But he’s a creative guy who is in charge, and arguably, you could say that that hasn’t happened since Walt Disney.
RC: I think so. And he really cares so much about the movies, I think, and that just comes through. He wants everything to be as strong as it possibly can. He pushes, because he has so much enthusiasm, and it’s very inspiring for the artists. I think people want to do their best work and want to work in an opportunity where they feel like they can.
JM: John’s very much a collaborator, he’s not a dictator.
RC: We’ve worked, obviously, thirty-some years, and we’ve worked for some very good people, and some people that we didn’t like that much. But I would have to say with John, that you couldn’t work for anyone better. He’s the best possible person I could picture in a position like that.
Q: How do you work together?
JM: We co-write the first draft of script initially, so that helps us. And usually, we have agreed on the outline of the story and the characters’ names, and what they do, and all that. But then I start and I improvise on paper. I write multiple versions of the scenes. I just spit out all sorts of ideas and hand them to Ron, and he’s really good at structure and editing, and he will take and pick and choose from that. But even though I may have written the scene four different ways, none of them may hit him as the right version. So he might write a completely new version. And he continues assembling the script, and I don’t see anything he’s doing. He sees everything I do, I don’t see anything he does, until about six or eight weeks later, when the script is done. He hands me the completed, hundred-page script.
RC: It’s a hundred-page script, but I get a lot more from him—
JM: I give him a four-hundred page script and he gives me a hundred-page script and then—
RC: And he doesn’t really remember what he’s written. So for him, it’s like reading a brand new script.
JM: A lot of times, when I read it, I ask, ‘Why didn’t you use my part for this?’ And he’ll say, ‘That is your part.’ (LAUGHTER) And I have to go back, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote that. Okay.’ But basically, then, we rewrite and we go back and forth until it gets to where we want it. And then in the directing of the movie, some things we do together, some things we do separately. We look at all the storyboards together, and we work with the voice actors together, but we divide the movie into sequences, so when we work with the animators, we each work on different sequences. So, for instance, he directed Mama Odie’s song, and I directed Dr. Facilier’s song.
RC: Which indicates the differences in our personalities! (LAUGHTER)
JM: Basically, I’m far more sinister than he is. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, right!
Q: Do you know what’s next?
JM: No, we had a few ideas that we pitched to John a while ago that we’re going to look back at, but we haven’t zeroed in on one yet.
JM: That’s a good question.
RC: Yeah, that’s the big question. We’re realizing that there are a lot of children who have never seen a movie like this in a theater. They’ve seen videos and DVDs, but—
RC: But kids have really embraced it. It seems like in our previews, from the cards that both the kids and the parents filled out, they just thought about the story and the characters.
JM: When I was a kid, I was fascinated by flip books, where you take the little drawings and you flip the pages. And there’s something about when you flip the drawings and they come to life, it’s like a magic trick that is just primal.