Disney filmmaker John Musker visits Sheridan College

john_musker

By Anne Whitehead

I quickly found myself to be the third wheel between old friends as I followed Nancy Beiman and John Musker around the Sheridan Animation department, looking at displays and meeting students. I later learned that Nancy and John have known each other for 38 years, after having studied animation together in the pioneering class of Character Animation at Cal Arts. Nancy was the only female classmate back then, and she remembers instructors being very tough. The program had been launched in order to stock Disney with animators following the surprise success of Aristocats, and was run by Disney at the time. The program is now an integral part of the Cal Arts curriculum.

Now an animation teacher, Nancy showed John around Sheridan studios, stopping to watch student films. John encouraged every student he spoke to, enjoying their films even when he found them “a little left field” (read: bizarre in a good way).

Before meeting John, I asked Sheridan students on Facebook what questions they may have for the Disney legend, and was furnished with a long list, including everything from what he does in his spare time to which Pokemon character is his favourite.  I did not have the time to ask either of these questions, but I was able to steal a few moments with John to learn about his history, and his hopes for the future of Animation.

How did John transition from animation into directing?

John was working as an animator for Disney at a time when most directors were old and he was young. Disney decided that they needed more young people bringing fresh ideas into directing, so they drafted him to work on The Black Cauldron. John admits that many of the other directors didn’t like him very much at first, so he had to prove himself and his ideas by presenting one storyboard after another until he convinced them. He learned directing on the job.

How did John Musker meet Ron Clements?

Ron Clements had already been working at Disney for three years when John joined the company. Ron had actually produced a film as a teenager, and was hired by Disney coming right out of high school. They worked together on The Fox and The Hound (Ron was supervising animator and John an animator), and Basil, The Great Mouse Detective (both wrote and directed), and then Ron recruited John to help him write and direct The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

Why does Disney frequently use multiple directors?

John and Ron Clements worked together on films by dividing the film up into segments. This required some serious negotiation, so each could get some of their favourite parts, but resulted in great cooperation. Pinocchio had four directors, in comparison. When Paramount executives saw how Disney was splitting up the directing work, they just couldn’t understand it from their perspective producing live action films. However, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Disney producer who is now the CEO of Dreamworks, saw the wisdom in it.

Animated films, unlike live action ones, are assembled from individual segments and elements created by huge teams of artists; the directorial team approach ensured that the crew members could meet with one director while the other might be working in another department.

Why is Disney not planning more classical, pen and paper animation?

First of all, Disney is not abandoning classical animation. The decision of what types of animation to employ is based on evaluating each film’s needs. Hand-drawn animation does have a less certain future now because Computer Graphic (CG) animation has come so far and is performing in ways it could not before. For example, there was a time when animators used to say that human characters are better hand drawn, but that is no longer the case.

John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Office at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, still believes (according to John) that drawing skills are essential to any type of animation. Skills that John Musker identified as transferrable from classical animation to modern CG animation are: visual development, storyboarding and character design.

John also pointed out that there continue to be more hand drawn animated films produced in Europe than there are now in America. He also said that when he was training in animation there were hardly any feature animated films, and yet he graduated to have a long and successful career in animation. This year, 50% of the top box office hits were animated, so there is definitely a bigger market for animators now, though there is also more competition.

What are John’s thoughts on Computer Graphics animation?

If John was studying animation now, he would definitely study CG animation. He admitted that he is currently trying to learn After Effects, because he wants to make his own shot films using the technology. (John Musker had much more to say about this subject, just not to me personally. I am working on a follow up to this story, which will provide more detail).

What are his hopes for what the next generation of animators will bring to the industry?

Besides skills, John insists that the new generation of animators must not try to copy what Disney has done in the past, but rather use their own voice, and respond to issues in their own lives. That being said, some skills are essential, such as being able to powerfully communicate a story in a way that is engaging and compelling. It is also important to be able to “play well with others.”

Looking into the future of animation, John also expects that the internet will play a major role. Firstly, technology like flipbook and the use of websites give more people the opportunity to learn animation, and produce and distribute their own films. The challenge he expects will be the development of a new distribution model that fits this DIY trend while providing a way for animators to make a living from their work. The animation industry is evolving, as he sees it, with more self-made films and more people around the world with animation skills.

What have you found to be a common weakness among junior animators?

Since everyone is so different, it is difficult to generalize. However, the issue of understanding how time works in a film is common. Young animators often struggle with understanding how long it takes for the viewer to register an idea. Without a good sense of pace and tempo, animated films can be too busy, needing clarification.

John Musker met with third and fourth year students extensively on his visit, and provided feedback on their animated films. He was tirelessly supportive and encouraging to students, and may have even found Disney’s next greatest animators – only time will tell.

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