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Disney Director John Musker Talks Making ‘Moana’ and Skyping with Lin-Manuel Miranda During Northwestern Event



By Nick Roman
Moana, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Aladdin, and The Fox and the Hound: what do all of these have in common? 

Sure, they are favorites among Disney fans of all ages. However, they also demonstrate the creative genius of John Musker, who recently spoke at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. School of Communication students got to listen to the man behind the animation of these films, and witnessed a behind-the-scenes look at some of Disney’s finest classics, getting a new, personal and artistic perspective through Musker’s presentation.

John Musker, a 1974 Northwestern alumnus, began flexing his cartooning muscles by drawing for a campus publication. Animation sparked Musker’s interest after he attended a film festival where he heard celebrated cartoonist Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) discuss careers in the field. After facing multiple rejections from post-grad studies, Musker was accepted into California Institute of the Arts’ (CalArts) character animation program in 1975, and was classmates with notable cartoonists John Lasseter and Tim Burton. Musker described the sequential process of producing animated films, from initial pitches, to drawing characters with specific qualities and voice actors in mind. 

“As the animator, you’re the actor- you’re bringing the characters to life,” he said.

In relishing the creation of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Musker explained the intentionality to make her a villain, stating that “she needed to have a deep voice to contrast with Ariel.”  Initial drafts of the “Part of Your World” scene were played for the audience, demonstrating the synthesis between meticulous animation and heartfelt characterization.

The talk’s highlight was the epic journey in creating Disney’s latest CG hit, Moana. Six years ago, Musker pitched the idea to set a movie in the Pacific islands, which initiated a research trip to the Polynesia, where Musker and his team became immersed in its culture. We saw how the producers characterized the ocean through a clip featuring the culture’s oneness on nature. Musker also shared Lin-Manuel Miranda’s participation as composer the film: he chuckled through anecdotes, including Skype meetings with Miranda in his Hamilton costume, waiting to go on stage for that night’s show. Musker closed by highlighting that Moana is the first movie to be translated into Tahitian.

The emotional closing clip featured island natives at the Tahitian translation premiere, commenting on how it promotes and revitalizes their vibrant culture, cohesively summing up Musker’s dynamic creativity in his films.