The Man Behind the Magic

by Sean Hargadon

During nearly four decades at Walt Disney Animation Studios, John Musker had never had an assignment quite like this one: spend two weeks in the Pacific searching for a story for the studio’s next animated blockbuster. When he met Tahitian fisherman Papa Mape, Musker knew he had found it.

After a day of sailing the turquoise seas that surround the island of Tahiti, Musker ’75 and his creative partner Ron Clements stood not far from the ocean, at the Tahitian Cultural Center in Moorea, beneath a star-filled Southern sky. Mape, a respected village elder, presented them with a clean piece of tapa, a traditional cloth made from the inner bark of a mulberry tree.

“We are like this tapa, you’ll discover,” Mape said of the Pacific Islanders. “We’re rough on the outside but smooth on the inside.

“This tapa is blank, but together, with you, we will fill this with our story.”

“It was a very moving experience,” Musker recalls, “and we really felt like, ‘We’re in. We’ve got to make good with these people. We’ve got to do a story that they will embrace and not wince at.’ That was five years ago, but that moment resonated.”

Musker, a former Northwestern English major turned top moviemaker, and Clements hope their new film, Moana, fulfills that promise. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a “badass” teenage girl in ancient Polynesia who partners with the shape-shifting demigod Maui on an adventurous voyage to prove her skills as a master navigator and save her people.

The story was inspired and informed in large part by the “oceanic story trust,” a group of individuals that Musker and Clements met along the way while conducting research in the Pacific Islands. The trust includes village elders, archaeologists, linguists, tattoo artists and navigators from the Pacific Islands who exposed Musker and Clements to the history, music and culture of the region.

An early visual development for the island of Motunui by Moana production designer Ian Gooding, inspired by his trips to the Pacific Islands. © Disney

In 2011 the duo took their first research trip to Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa, among other islands. They came away with several thematic ideas, including the concept that the Pacific Ocean unites, rather than separates, the islands. The filmmakers learned that the ancient Pacific Islanders were the world’s greatest navigators, and they remain today a people who consider the ocean a living entity with feelings and emotions that must be respected.

Those themes made their way into the film, Musker’s seventh as a Disney director. After that initial visit, the story trust provided big-picture feedback throughout the making of Moana. When Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, appeared bald in early storyboards, the trust objected. “They really thought that part of Maui’s mana — his chi, his spirit — came out of his long hair,” Musker says. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s go with that.’ ”

During Musker and Clements’ time in Tahiti, Papa Mape said to them, “For years we’ve been swallowed by your culture. For once could you be swallowed by our culture?”

“We took that to heart,” says Musker. “Now we’re trying to open up this world we learned so much about there. Even though this film is an enterprise from the West and Hollywood, we’re trying to celebrate the things that make [the Pacific Islanders] distinct and special.”

Late last summer, producer Osnat Shurer went to Fiji and showed an unfinished version of the film in Korovou, a village that Musker and Clements had visited five years before. “She was originally only going to show some scenes from the movie, but she wound up showing the whole film,” Musker says. “She had it on a laptop, and they projected it onto a piece of tapa. It had come full circle.

“They enjoyed the film,” he adds. “They engaged with Moana’s story.”

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It’s mid-September when we sit down with Musker, exactly 12 weeks before Moana will hit theaters (it opens nationwide Nov. 23), but the directors still need to refine and approve the lighting for 400 of the film’s 1,600 shots before the movie heads into postproduction. Nevertheless, Musker, dressed in jeans and a bright plaid short-sleeved button down, is relaxed and charming despite the looming deadline. After all, the end is in sight on this five-year odyssey, with the grueling summer schedule of 12-hour days, six days a week, behind him.

“I see my wife more than I did a month ago,” jokes Musker, who sits in his office — surrounded by hundreds of sketches and drawings from artists who inspire him — at Disney Animation’s Tujunga campus, a temporary studio in a North Hollywood warehouse, five miles from the recently renovated headquarters in Burbank, Calif.

Musker and Clements, known affectionately in the industry as “Ron and John,” have wed their creative capabilities for more than a quarter century, collaborating as writers, directors and producers on such classics as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Now they’re making their first foray into computer-generated animation (see “Life in CG").

“The great thing about CG is you can do all these amazing things with textures,” Musker says. For example, Moana’s skirt is made from tapa, so the CG animators had to create that fabric and make sure that it moves realistically, wet or dry, and reflects its origins — tree bark. The biggest animation challenge was the ocean, a living character that is at times funny, sad, playful or stern.

Moana sketch
A great deal of thought went into the designs of Moana’s costumes in the film — from the colors and patterns to the types of material that would might have existed in the Pacific Islands 2,000 years ago. Visual development artists Neysa Bové wanted to maintain the spirit of the islands while also creating functional designs for Moana’s action-packed adventure. © Disney

“I think this movie is going to be one of the most stunning visual movies we’ve ever been involved with,” Musker says. “It’s like going to the candy store when we get the finished shots.”

If Moana looks like the Pacific Islands, Musker and Clements want to be sure it sounds like Polynesia too. Famous for creating funny, boisterous, Broadway-style musicals, the pair assembled a musical team for Moana that brings together composer Mark Mancina, who worked on The Lion King; Opetaia Foa’i, who heads the New Zealand–based Polynesian roots band Te Vaka; and stage star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The directors, for their part, did not foresee how busy — or popular — Miranda would become. Clements loved In the Heights, Miranda’s Tony Award–winning musical. And when Musker heard the cast recording, he liked that Miranda wrote songs transitioning between Spanish and English. He thought Moana would feature songs that mingled English and Pacific Island languages.

In 2014 “we interviewed different lyricists whom we wanted to pair up with Opetaia,” Musker says, “and Lin was just so full of enthusiasm and ideas. Of all the people we met, we just said, ‘He’s the guy.’

“After a time or two meeting with him, he mentioned, ‘Oh, I’ve got this thing, Hamilton, that we’re going to open at the Public Theater, so I am going into rehearsals for that in the fall.’

“We’re like, ‘What is it again?’

“He said, ‘Well, it’s this hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton.’

“We’re like, ‘OK, that’ll be gone in a few weeks.’ ”

Miranda, who named his son Sebastian after the crab in The Little Mermaid, told Rolling Stone that the Moana opportunity is a dream come true.

The first time the musical team met, at the Pasifika Festival in Auckland, New Zealand, they went into the studio and started improvising. That led to “We Know the Way,” a song that celebrates the thrill of voyaging and the pride that comes with being the world’s first great navigators: “We are explorers reading every sign/ We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.”

“We wanted something that would capture that exhilaration,” Musker says, “what it’s like to be out on the open sea and to use the stars as your guide and to find an island when you’re looking at a vast landscape by various telltale signs you see — the flight of birds and the reflection from the underside of a cloud. That was the song they first worked on, and it’s sort of the heart of the movie.”


Musker, the second of eight children in an Irish Catholic family from Norridge on Chicago’s Northwest Side, grew up watching animated Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio and delved into comic books. At a young age he became a talented caricaturist, says childhood friend Rick Garofalo ’75, with whom Musker made feature-length live-action films during their days at Loyola Academy and Northwestern.

Musker majored in English in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, convinced that he’d be too lazy to read the great books of the world if his coursework didn’t require it. He wanted a broad-based humanities education, studying Dostoyevsky with Irwin Weil and Shakespeare with Elizabeth Dipple. Musker learned Greek and Chinese, took history with Lacey Baldwin Smith and enjoyed Traugott Lawler’s early-morning English literature class, even if Musker occasionally nodded off. “Of course, I still have that problem to this day,” he says. “It had nothing to do with his teaching.”

Mark Freund ’74, a Loyola schoolmate who was the business manager at the Daily Northwestern, recruited Musker to draw a once-a-week political cartoon for the paper, where Musker made light of President Richard Nixon’s political and legal troubles.

Musker commuted to Northwestern with Garofalo and several other friends from his Northwest Side neighborhood. “I didn’t participate in campus life as much as I might have liked,” Musker says wistfully. “I liked going to the football games — though the biggest highlight of the game was Sophie Schwab [Hayden ’76], the baton twirler — and I watched some of the drama productions, the Waa-Mu Shows or the Mee-Ow Shows. But I wish I had gotten into the fabric of the school more.”

In 1974 Northwestern hosted an “Animation Feast,” a three-day gathering that included cartoon screenings and workshops and seminars on the history and process of animation. Musker distinctly remembers the presentation by Chuck Jones, the famed Warner Bros. animator responsible for Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes pals. Jones’ animated shorts “worked so well for me as a college-age kid,” Musker says. “They were smart. They were funny. They didn’t condescend to anybody.” That talk — and Christopher Finch’s book The Art of Walt Disney (1973) — piqued Musker’s interest in a career in animation. When he finished his degree, Musker fired his portfolio off to Disney, including a few figure drawings he’d done for a Northwestern art class.

Disney, of course, also wanted drawings of animals. “I had no animals around the house because we all have allergies,” Musker says. “I tried to draw the monkeys outside at the Lincoln Park Zoo, but it was freezing cold. I couldn’t take it. So I went to the Field Museum and drew the animals there in the dioramas. Of course, when I sent my portfolio in, they rejected it and said my animal drawings were too stiff.

“I was like, ‘They were stuffed. They couldn’t be more stiff. I drew them as I saw them.’ ”

Disney suggested that Musker send his portfolio to the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, Calif., where the studio had recently founded the Program in Character Animation to help train a new generation of artists. Walt Disney had not created a succession plan for his original team of all-star animators, the “Nine Old Men,” who had done Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and other classics. After the box office success of Jungle Book in 1967, studio executives realized that animation could still be a moneymaker, but their most talented artists were approaching retirement. Disney developed an in-house talent development program (where Ron Clements got his start) and launched the partnership with CalArts.

Musker earned a partial scholarship to CalArts and headed to California. The program became a hotbed of animation talent. According to a Los Angeles Times story in 2012, Musker and his directorial contemporaries who attended CalArts in that era — including Tim Burton (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands), Brad Bird (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and John Lasseter (Toy Story and Cars) — had generated more than $26 billion at the box office since 1985.


Musker and Clements worked on Moana with more than 90 animators, many of whom are in their late 20s or early 30s and saw The Little Mermaid and Aladdin when they were kids. “They’re like, ‘You guys made that movie, and you’re still alive?’ ” Musker says with mock incredulity. 

“Those movies got them interested in animation,” he adds. “It’s fun for us because, when we started in the ’70s, we got a chance to work with the ‘Nine Old Men,’ and they sort of handed the torch to us in a way. Now we’re trying to communicate what we learned from the older animators in terms of entertainment and caricature, about clarity and storytelling and sincerity and relationships and how to get the emotion on the screen.”

The current generation of animators can thank Musker and Clements for keeping Disney animation afloat through management changes, takeover bids and animation industry upheaval. Fellow Chicagoan and animator Bill Kroyer ’72, who directed the animated film FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and preceded Musker as the cartoonist at the Daily Northwestern, says his longtime friend is a survivor.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Musker and Clements worked as story artists on The Black Cauldron (1985), a dark fantasy. When they pitched ideas to improve the film during production, they were fortuitously pulled from the project and assigned to The Great Mouse Detective (1986), an unexpected box office success. Cauldron, meanwhile, turned out to be a flop.

Musker and Clements then wrote and directed The Little Mermaid (1989), a surprise smash and one of most successful animated films of all time. That film ushered in Disney’s second golden age of animation. “The Little Mermaid created that era and saved that division,” at Disney, says Kroyer, who is director of the Digital Arts Program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Fueled by Robin Williams’ madcap antics as the genie, Aladdin became the most popular movie of 1992. Musker and Clements wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which, at the time, was the highest-grossing animated film ever made. Five years later Musker and Clements directed and wrote the animation screenplay for Hercules (with Charlton Heston ’45 as a cameo narrator).

In 2002 Treasure Planet, an outer space take on Treasure Island that Musker and Clements wrote and directed, received good reviews but struggled at the box office. Three years later, with hand-drawn animation falling out of favor among some Disney executives, Musker and Clements walked away when their contracts expired. So many people showed up to their farewell at the studio that it had to be moved to a larger venue.

“It was a terrible time,” says Kroyer. “John and Ron were the most talented, greatest guys you could possibly have, and they let them go. That was really a dark moment for the studio.”

But six months later, in February 2006, Disney bought Pixar, and John Lasseter, Musker’s suitemate at CalArts, took over Disney feature animation and immediately invited Musker and Clements back. After rebuilding the hand-drawn animation studio — Disney had gotten rid of the tools and equipment, including the lighted animation desks — they quickly went to work on The Princess and the Frog (2009), a traditionally animated film that garnered three Oscar nominations. (Bruno Campos ’95 voiced the leading man, Prince Naveen.)

“John is one of the few at Disney who stuck it out through all those years,” says Kroyer. “He has an innate passion for animation, and when you have that, you can’t really think about doing anything else in the business.

“In his mind, Disney feature animation — that’s the pinnacle, the very best place with the very best chance to do the best work, and I think he just had a loyalty to that tradition. That ideal made him withstand all of the bad times and misdirection.

“He will become a Disney legend,” Kroyer adds. “Ron and John will go down with Frank and Ollie [legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston] as being the two best-known Disney teams of all time.”

Clements says the future is bright at Disney and John Lasseter is a big reason for the latest boom. Lasseter, now chief creative officer at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Disneytoon Studios, has transformed WDAS into a research-based, filmmaker-driven studio, creating an iterative screening process where story-focused directors and writers — rather than executives — review the film repeatedly in various stages of production.

“It’s a slightly harrowing process,” Musker says. “Moana was iterated [shown] in full maybe eight different times. So story people and directors from multiple movies come and give notes. They rip it to shreds and offer suggestions of how it can be made better. It’s sort of like trying a play out of town. You get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and you tear things apart and rebuild it.

“The success of these Disney films over the last few years, it’s intimately tied in with John Lasseter. To have him as our boss and partner, it really has elevated the films.”


Musker is famous for his caricatures, and when his moviemaking schedule allows, he still draws.

Kroyer uses Musker’s caricatures to teach the history of Disney in his classes at Chapman University. In the 1980s, John and his wife, Gale, then an image librarian at Disney, started a caricature show that featured all the Disney characters — and not necessarily from the big screen, but from throughout the studio, especially the senior executives. “Talk about rapier wit,” Kroyer says.

“He is one of the smartest guys you will ever meet,” Kroyer adds. “And he has a mind like a steel trap. He is also a great student of art. He is in his soul an old-fashioned animator, the rare kind who could animate with a pencil and make a character on paper appear to be solid and dimensional and do a performance.”

Kroyer also says that Musker, despite all of his success, remains a humble, down-to-earth, normal guy, a great husband, friend and father (he and Gale have twin sons, Patrick and Jackson, and a daughter, Julia).

“He has never stopped being a Chicago guy,” says Kroyer. “He shows up to things in his blue jeans and his hooded sweatshirt and looks like the guy who just walked in from Costco, and it’s not an image. He really is that guy. Living in Hollywood and seeing what fame and money has done to people, I frankly look at that as one of his most awesome achievements, that he has had all of this success and yet he has stayed absolutely genuine. I think that’s pretty phenomenal.”

Listen to a Northwestern Now podcast with John Musker.

Sean Hargadon is senior editor of Northwestern magazine.

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