Disney's "Vaiana" (Moana): Interview with John Musker & Ron Clements


Disney's latest animated feature, "Vaiana" (Moana), is released in Danish theatres today, 2 February 2017.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the directors and co-writers of "Vaiana", John Musker and Ron Clements, during their recent visit to Copenhagen in January 2017.

Together, Musker and Clements have created the following animated Disney classics: "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986), "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Aladdin" (1992), "Hercules" (1997), "Treasure Planet" (2002) and "The Princess and the Frog" (2009).

The following partial transcript only covers "Vaiana". The rest of my Musker & Clements interview will be published later in 2017.

John Musker & Ron Clements
by Brian Iskov, Copenhagen 2017

It's kind of incredible that ”Vaiana” is your first CG animated feature. You've been working at Disney for almost ...
John Musker: We have been working in hand-drawn, yes, for 40 years.
Ron Clements: We've flirted with CG in almost all of our movies, even going back to ”The Great Mouse Detective” which was the first movie we were directors on. That had actually the first use of digital computer animation within the clock sequence in Big Ben, and ”The Little Mermaid” had some digital fish, and Aladdin certainly had what we did with the magic carpet. But this is sort of the other film. "Vaiana" is the other side of things in that this is primarily a digital film, mostly digital animation, but it does have some hand-drawn elements within it as well, with Maui's tattoos.

JM: We actually had to have tutorials on CG features before we ever started production because the production pipeline is different than a hand-drawn film. Steve Goldberg, the VFX supervisor for ”Frozen”, literally had classes with charts, "OK, these jobs exist in the CG pipeline, these that you had in hand-drawn don't anymore". We had to learn how one scene goes from one thing to another, how job titles were differentiated and what they meant, certain terminology and that sort of thing.
RC: Just to tell you how long it takes to make these things: We started this film 5 years ago, so when Steve Goldberg was taking us through these classes, it was before ”Frozen” had come out. It was still being made while he was teaching us how it was done.
JM: But we enjoyed this process. This movie felt like it was a good movie to use CG because we had things like this living ocean. We really wanted all the richness. When we went to the islands on our research trips we saw these amazing translucent beige, you know, all the reflections and refractions, and we heard about how they thought of the ocean as a living character that had feelings and emotions, sovery early on we thought we gotta make the ocean a character in the movie. We were able to realie so much more in CG than we would have been able to in hand-drawn, likewise even the heair and the cloth in this movie. There's a department at Disney called the Technical Animation Department so the character animator does the performance of Vaiana and Maui, but then the technical animators come after that and do all the hair and cloth overlap to simulate those things. They build simulations, this is the way real physics work, and take that and build on that, "but how do we wanna stylize that movement to work dramatically for this scene?". So even the hair, because of the way the wind is blowing, should really be in her face, but we don't want that, so they would manufacture it so it looked lyrical and beautiful but would not be covering her face, or would do some really cool overlap where we did want it to wrap around and hit her in the face, they could engineer all that. Those things don't quite exist in hand-drawn. There are assistant animators, but not quite the same thing.
RC: Certainly with movement of the camera, you can do anything in a digital film, you can move the camera anywhere you want. And lighting, wed never really worked with the kind of lighting you can do on a movie like this. It was really in some ways a revelation but its much more analogous to a live action film in those respects. But it was fun to learn new things at an old age.

Alan Tudyk is credited as the voice of Hei-Hei the rooster. But why would you cast a brilliant voice actor like him in a part that has no real dialogue?
RC: There's a good reason.
JM: In this particular movie, because it was set in Polynesia we really wanted most of the American voice cast to be of the world of Polynesia in some fashion or other. Certainly, The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, is Samoan in his heritage, Auli'i Cravalho who is the voice of Moana is Hawaiian, Rachel House who does her grandmother is from New Zealand, she's Maori.
RC: At the same time, Alan Tudyk is kind of Disney's good luck charm, going all the way back to Wreck-It Ralph, King Candy was the first voice that he did. He's been in every movie since then, from Frozen to Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. So we wanted to find a role for him in this movie.
JM: Alan Tudyk jokes that he went to Juillard, this very distinguished dramatic school in New York, "I went to Juillard, and I'm doing [loud clucking noises]", you know. But he did some vocalizations that bordered on human, but he was just having fun with the part. It was a way to get Alan into the movie. He deserves better and bigger roles. He did also do a voice for a few villagers in this movie.
RC: One in particular. Even most of the villagers are Polynesian, but Alan actually does the voice of the old man who wants to eat Hei-Hei. He's saying, "Couldn't we perhaps eat him?" No, "cook him". So that's kind of an interesting little irony that he plays the part of the character who wants to eat the other part that he plays.

Taika Waititi wrote an early draft of the story. What would his "Vaiana" have been like?
JM: It was a fun script. We talked to Taika early on, we knew his work and he'd been recommended to us by one of our advisors when we said that we wanted to get a voice from Polynesia involved in the script writing. Taika came up, we pitched him the story we had roughly outlined, and he wrote the first draft of the script. Some of the imagery, even the names of the characters like Hei-Hei, that name came from Taika's script.
RC: And elements.
JM: He had the image of the big double spiral that is on the sail, that appeared in his early script, or actually the chief had carved that into a rock. There was a whole visual metaphor in his script that we used. He did funny takes on Maui as well, this kind of curmudgeonly Maui, and it was really fun.
RC: But the way these films work, they go through a very prolonged intense story process. After Taika wrote that first script wanted to go to New Zealand to direct "What We Do in the Shadows". He only stayed with the movie long enough to do that first draft, and then he's done two or three other movies since.
JM: He did ”Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, also a wonderful movie, and very cool.
RC: Now he's doing the next Thor [for Marvel, ed.].
JM: So he's just, being a writer-director, we knew we couldnt keep him for the five years it would take to make this movie. But we were happy that he did at least that first draft and launched the voyage for us, and we're grateful for that.

How do you feel about the name and title change for the main character and the film?
JM: We wanted a name that still reflected ... The word moana means ocean in a bunch of Pacific languages. But there was a trademark issue in Europe where we couldn't use the name, so we wanted her to have a name where we wouldnt have to resync the dialogue and would still mean something oceanic. So the word vaiana, vai is the word for water in many Pacific languages including Tahitian, so its still a water-driven name. I think it actually means water in a cave, literally. We have this poster behind us where ”Zootopia” was the [original title], there's a certain pun with Utopia and a zoo which you get in the English version. Now in other countries its called ”Zootropolis”, and you don't quite get the pun but its still ... ”Zootopia” was trademarked in certain countries so they couldnt use it, so similar things. I think its less than ideal, but we like the name ”Vaiana”, we feel its still in the spirit of the movie.

Vaiana. Original title: Moana. USA 2016. Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements. Voices (original version): Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk m.fl. Distribution: The Walt Disney Company. Danish theatrical release: 2 February 2017.

Thanks to Kasper Berg Jørgensen from The Walt Disney Company.

John Musker (top), Ron Clements - © Disney

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