Monday, September 26, 2011

John Musker on the Art of Animation, Part 1: Musker's Humble Beginnings (featuring John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Tim Burton!)

A few months ago I attended an Animation Master Class with none other than John Musker, director of The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Aladdin, and Princess and the Frog.

It was quite the experience, since, as you might guess, Musker is a wealth of information and wonderful stories.

But, before I get into any of that, I want to talk a little bit about where I attended the Master Class. The Walt Disney Family Museum, situated in a corner of the quiet little Presidio right off of the Golden Gate Bride in San Francisco, is a dream for anyone who appreciates Disney. The museum begins with a simple room, filled with Walt's various awards, some photographs, and other random memorabilia to give you a taste of what's in store.

But that's just the beginning.

You walk into the first room and are presented with loads of information, interactive video, games, photographs, artifacts, etc. from Walt's childhood. You get narrated anecdotes from Walt himself about when he was growing up, complete with animation and photographs. The museum does an incredibly good job at letting you understand every facet of every stage of Walt's tremendous life. It moves gradually trough each stage, showing off examples of the works Walt created in that time, such as the Alice shorts, Oswald cartoons, etc. Each of the 10 roooms present you with more letters, stories, pictures, merchandise, and other mementos that let you know just what kinda guy Walt was.

Oh, and the Disneyland room is marvelous, with a massive diorama of the park as it was in 1955, complete with a bunch of video and attraction posters and other fascinating things.

The museum concludes with a small TV playing broadcasts from various different sources on the day of Walt's death, accompanied by a large wall of quotations, comics, and other art from that day commemorating Walt Disney. It is a tender send-off, and a perfectly bittersweet way to conclude a journey through that man's life.

As you can tell, the museum is not only comprehensive, but exhaustive on the elaborate life of the man behind it all. You can really appreciate the museum's dedication to not telling the story of the company, but the life of the man. It is apparent that those behind the museum really care about Walt's legacy, which is no surprise since his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, is one of the museum's co-founders.

Needless to say, I loved the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is fun, interesting, and an in-depth, tender look at the life of a legend.
Now, on to Mr. Musker. After walking through the museum (at a pace faster than I preferred since I had to make the class), I went to the small auditorium down below, which I estimate held about 50 of us.

John Musker stood at a podium at the bottom of the small room and simply talked to us about animation and his career so far.

Mr. Musker began with his education; he received a bachelor's degree in English, with the hopes that it would make him read the types of books he'd never get around to reading otherwise. He enjoyed literary studies, but his true passions lied in the worlds of drawing and film. In fact, he drew caricatures and comics for his high school paper, and made super 8 films with his friends growing up (although they never got incredibly focused on their main film--the actor was 14 when they started the movie and 17 when they finished, since they had to end it then or they'd lose their actor when he left for college).

After graduating from college he decided that he ought to pursue his true passions, and settled on applying for a position at Disney's animation division. To get hired he had to submit a portfolio of his work, and Disney was looking specifically for good life drawings of animals. It was in Chicago, the winter following his college graduation when young John Musker went with his sketchbook to the zoo in an attempt to sketch his way to glory. However, it was so cold that he could hardly even feel his hands, let alone draw something that would impress Disney. So, he compromised by going to the local museum and using their dioramas as models for his sketches. (He also got a little distracted and drew some caricatures of the museum's guard, who looked over John's shoulder to correct his drawing by stating, "My hat has eight points on it, young man!")

Disney rejected John Musker. They told him his portfolio didn't meet their standards, calling his life drawings "too stiff." (Ha!) Then, a few months later, he received another letter from Disney recommending that he attend CalArts, since his résumé and portfolio had a lot of potential.
So, he did.

And, wouldn't you know it, he was in the same now-legendary CalArts course with John Lasseter and Brad Bird. After learning that, it came as no surprise when Mr. Musker said he learned as much from his fellow students as he did from the teachers.

Although his pursuits lie in the field of animation, Musker's real gift shines when he indulges in the art of caricature. In fact, he told the majority of his presentation through various caricatures of people he projected on a screen at the front of the room. One of the first ones he showed us was of an enthusiastic, big-haired Brad Bird with thumbs high up in the air, accompanied by a bursting speech bubble which read "We can change the world, maaaan!" I can definitely picture Brad Bird acting like that, especially in college. Very funny stuff.

That led Musker to a short anecdote. Brad Bird loved Spielberg's work, so he, Musker, and some other CalArts students went to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it first came out. Brad, being excitable at the premiere of such a Spielbergian movie, enthusiastically pointed out Richard Dreyfuss sitting at the front of the auditorium. He exploded from his seat, bursting with enthusiasm as he ran to greet Mr. Dreyfuss. Moments later he sheepishly walked up the aisle back to his friends, muttering "That wasn't Richard Dreyfuss." Apparently, Mr. Bird still denies that that ever happened.

So, after attending CalArts with all of those other talented individuals, John breathed more life into those animal drawings and got hired by Disney. Starting out as a straight animator, his first project was The Black Cauldron. He remarked that animators are type-cast just like actors are--some are better at animating comedy, some at drama, etc. For that reason, he was assigned the villain of the film, The Evil Horned King. After struggling for a memorable character design, John bounced around some ideas with his fellow CalArts alum John Lasseter. Lasseter asked Musker, "Have you seen Tim Burton's sketchbooks? He's still at CalArts, but there's a neat style there you might wanna incorporate with the Horned King."

So, Musker went to Tim, and the result was a slew of awesome drawings, which included gnarly horns, unique hands and eyes, and all other types of things that would have made the bad guy thoroughly more interesting. But, unfortunately, the ideas Musker pitched to the older, more traditional fellas leading the production were far too outlandish and weird--these guys were from the era of Bambi and Jungle Book and couldn't handle things as odd as hands for eyeballs or gnarly tree-horns that grew and shrunk according to the King's mood.
Part II coming soon! This will feature more lovely anecdotes, related to the productions of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, as well as what Mr. Musker plans for the future. Check back soon! You won't want to miss it.

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