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The Little Mermaid – An Interview with Writers & Directors, John Musker & Ron Clements

Little Mermaid cover

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a Little Mermaid Event in Los Angeles, courtesy of Disney. During the event we got to do all sorts of neat things like visit the animation studios, watch sneak peeks up upcoming films (some still in their rough, uncut form), and meet some of the people involved with a lot of the animated films Disney produces. It was a great experience, and a magical time that I will never forget!

One of the fun things we got to do while visiting many of the Disney events on our itinerary, was to sit down with Ron Clements and John Musker, writers and directors of many of the classic Disney animated films we all know and love.

In preparation for the upcoming release of the Diamond Edition of The Little Mermaid, John and Ron gave us a behind the scenes look at what it was like to work as a Disney animator, director, and writer for Disney.

little mermaid poster

We got to talk to Ron and John for quite some time, but a couple of stories that really stood out for me during the interview were when they talked about how they first got into animation, and then started working for Disney; and a couple of cute stories about the film itself. In listening to both of them talk about their careers and this film, you can really see how much they love what they do and love creating these Disney masterpieces!

John and Ron 1

Ron Clements and John Musker on discovering the art of animation and on working for Disney:

Q:   Did you say you grew up wanting to work on Disney films?  And how did you do that?

RON:  Yeah, and I think John is similar.  I drew a lot as a kid. I was a big animation fan.  I was a big Disney fan.  And when I was nine years old I saw PINOCCHIO.  And something about — I don’t know if I was just the right age, whatever it was, but I just came out of the theater thinking, “That’s what I wanna do.  I wanna be involved in animation in some way.”  Didn’t really know that much about it, so I went to the library to try to find out everything I could about how animated films were made and how it was done.  There wasn’t a lot at that time.

JOHN:  Now there are a number of books but at the time there was one book, The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas.  It was a book that had been worked on for years and adapted it partly as a promotional vehicle for SLEEPING BEAUTY when it came out.  So the book came out like in 1960 or something.  We both found it in the library in our respective libraries —

RON:  And checked it out over and over and over again –

JOHN:  Yeah.  It explained how animation was done a little bit.  And so I grew up with that same deal, thinking I might want to be an animator.  Then I kind of lost interest as I got older, a little bit, and I segued more into comic books.  I wanted to work for, like, Marvel Comics or be an editorial cartoonist on a newspaper.  I did editorial cartoons.  And then I came back around to animation in college.

JOHN: I sent Disney a portfolio actually, cause they were looking for young artists.  I got rejected by them.

JOHN:  So, I went to the zoo in Chicago.  It was winter  time.  It was freezing.  I was freezing drawing animals, so I wound up going to the Natural History Museum in Chicago and I drew from the dioramas there.  And when I sent Disney my portfolio drawings and they rejected my portfolio and they said my drawings of animals were too stiff.  I was like, “They’re stuffed!  I drew them exactly like they were!”  But anyway, they said, “Maybe you want to send your same portfolio to CalArts,” which was just California Institute of the Arts.  It’s up in Valencia, about 40 minutes north of here.

And they were just starting a character animation program with Disney veterans teaching it.  So I sent my same portfolio to them, I got accepted there and I studied for two years.  I was in the same class there as John Lassetter.  John Lassetter and I and Brad Bird were all in the same class.  And so I learned a lot about animation in the two years I was there.  And then I’ve been here since then.  I started the week that STAR WARS came out.

RON:  I actually started a couple of years before John, but the truth is that, for years and years Disney films were done by a lot of the same people.  A lot of the same artists who had worked on SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, worked on films like THE ARISTOCATS.

And then they started actually recruiting and looking and trying to bring young people in to kind of learn, ’cause if they didn’t there really wouldn’t be a way of doing that kind of animation.

JOHN: The guys who worked on SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO were our teachers.  They called them the nine old men.  But they were a group of veteran animators and we learned right from them where literally you do animation, they put it on their drawing board, and put a sheet of paper over it and draw over it and show you how it could be better.

Ron Clements and John Musker on nearly cutting the song Part of That World:

part of that world

Image courtesy of Disney

Q:  Let’s talk about working with Howard Allen on this and when did you first realize you had something so special with the music?

MALE:  Once we started sharing with the public in an unfinished state– a few months before the movie came out.

MALE:  The one little story that is kind of interesting is, before we had our first preview a few months before that we had our first screening of the film in a very, very rough form.  These films they sort of develop over a long period of time, but this was fairly early, but we had some school kids brought in.  A few classes of school kids brought into the studio to screen the movie just to get a sense of what their reaction would be.

Something kind of alarming happened that during the song Part Of Your World I think one of the kids dropped his popcorn and the kids just started making a lot of noise.  They were making a lot of noise through that whole song and Jeffrey was there.  Jeffrey Katzenberg was there and based on that he felt like we’ve gotta’ cut that song.  The kids are too restless and whatever and we were horrified.

JODIE:  Yeah Howard’s actually the one that told me. I pretty much told those guys “If you take the song out then I’m, I’m outta’ here.”

MALE:  We knew the story that Over The Rainbow was almost cut from the Wizard Of Oz. Similar situation.

We got a chance to show it again to another group of kids and that kid was definitely not there, and maybe they didn’t have popcorn this time.  I don’t know, and there was more color in this time.  The early time it was just black and white rough animation.  But for whatever the reason there again nobody squirmed in that and so the song stayed.  And we were very, very happy about that.

Part of That World – Clip – The Little Mermaid on Disney Video

Ron Clements and John Musker on big 80’s hair and Ariel:

MALE:    Another aspect because of all the underwater stuff– hair was a huge deal.

MALE:    I mean Ariel’s hair obviously.  If you were above water when Ariel would move, the hair would move.  But underwater the hair is constantly moving, and we had to study and study hair underwater and study how it moved.  Glen Keane, who was the supervising animator of Ariel, did all kinds of research.  We had big meetings about hair.

MALE:    Big hair meetings.

MALE:    It was the ‘80s, you know.

MALE:    Big hair was a thing

FEMALE:    Right.  Big hair.

MALE:    Yeah.

Ariel singing and hair

Image Courtesy of Disney

So tell us…

What do you think The Little Mermaid would be like without the song, Part Of That World?  Do you have a favorite scene or memory from the Little Mermaid?


Little Mermaid Images courtesy of Disney

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11 Responses to The Little Mermaid – An Interview with Writers & Directors, John Musker & Ron Clements

  1. Megan September 12, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Wow that is such a cool opportunity you got to interview those guys! I’m slightly obsessed with The Little Mermaid (I have red hair and wanted to be her as a little girl). I’m not ashamed to reveal that I can quote most of the movie.
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  2. Shayla September 12, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    I love the Little Mermaid! How awesome that you got these behind the scene looks, and how much fun were these interviews? I literally loled at the big hair at the end. Love it!

  3. sharon September 12, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    Part of this world is probably the most classic Disney song of all times! Love that one! What a neat opportunity you had!
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  4. Isabella Grey September 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    That was too fun to read. I had no idea Part of Your World was nearly cut!
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  5. Dawn September 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    When my daughter was little, Little Mermaid was one of her favorite movies. She even had a Little Mermaid bed set for her toddler bed. Awwww, it was so freaking adorable!

  6. Jennifer Young September 15, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    Wow, that’s really neat to read! I loved The Little Mermaid as a child. I can remember watching it in the theater and I brought this little Ariel figurine in there with me and accidentally left it there. We went back later and we couldn’t find it, lol. My girls love The Little Mermaid as well! They had a Little Mermaid joint birthday party last year!

  7. Jenny September 16, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    I loved the little mermaid when i was a young and now my daughter likes it too

  8. Haley September 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    I watched the Little Mermaid religiously as a little girl. I was a red head and would spend hours in the bathtub, singing and watching my red hair flow in the water (It looked just like Ariel’s, I was sure of it). I’m pregnant with my first baby and it’s a girl! I am so excited to pass on my love for the Little Mermaid and possibly the recessive gene for red hair! And the big hair will never go out of style!

    • Jesica H September 23, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      True, it never will will it. 🙂

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