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Filmmaker John Musker Finds His Creative Freedom as a Director in “I’m Hip”

In the field of animation, the name John Musker is synonymous with greatness.

Alongside Ron Clements, Musker was behind the second golden age of classic animation with titles like The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) under his belt, as well as more recent successes like The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016).

However, after a 40-year career at Disney Studios, from which he has now bid farewell, Musker feels that I’m Hip, his latest work, is like his first film. He hasn’t forgotten his previous 12 films; it’s just that with this four-minute animation short film, Musker feels freer than ever.

It’s a work based on David Frishberg’s song, which Musker funded and animated entirely on his own and completed in four years with a small team of friends and professionals.

We had the opportunity to talk in person with the Golden Globe nominee (for Moana, 2017 best picture – animated, which he directed with Ron) during his visit to the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where his short participated in the official competition.

Why did you choose the theme of I’m Hip for your debut as a short film director?

I have known the song for many years. I thought it would be perfect to make a fun animated jazz short film, a satire about people’s desire to be cool.

I acquired the rights and started the storyboard process, which was very sketchy because my production company is called Scribbly Pictures for a reason.

My sketches are more like doodles. I did it in my own home, self-financed it, just like the animation, which was done by me and some professionals and friends I collaborated with and paid because they understood my drawings. I thought it would take me two years but it ended up being four.

For someone like you with 12 feature films under your belt, why had you never made a short film before?

When I studied at CalArts, in the first animation program class in 1975, alongside John Lasseter, Jerry Rees and Brad Bird, among others, the university had just opened its doors to us. Nowadays, at CalArts and in any animation school, they produce complete shorts, perfectly produced, in color, 2D, 3D or using any technique.

We couldn’t get past the line test! It was very costly. And for many years, when I was at Disney, I thought it would be fun to make a short film, even in my spare time, and have complete creative control.

But between having children and making movies, the project remained on the shelf for the time when I retired. Now I’ve returned as an animator after all this time; it has been a fulfilling experience.

How do you feel about being in Annecy? Like a veteran in a world of newcomers?

When people ask me if I’m a novice director, I’m tempted to say yes because that’s how I feel after making my own short film, independently and with my own resources, outside of a studio.

After many years of working in a studio, Andreas Deja has just released his independent short film, Mushka, and Jim Capobianco has also presented his first independent feature film, The Inventor, at Annecy. Is it a coincidence or a trend among animation professionals?

I’m glad to be part of this new wave and to meet fellow animators once again at festivals. It’s a wonderful experience for someone who has been working in a studio. It was the same for Raúl García. The freedom of not having to answer to a studio.

I intend to make other shorts – five or six – although I’m not sure if I’ll have time because I’m quite old. I enjoyed working with a team at Disney. Working as a team enhances my work. They do things that I can’t do. But it was great to direct without someone breathing down my neck or questioning all my decisions.

I’m Hip was not only a team effort but also a review of the history of animation on screen, with many faces from this industry appearing in the film’s four minutes.

It wasn’t my intention to make history. Ron and I used to include our caricatures in our work when we were at Disney. So, I thought it would be nice to include the caricatures of the people who worked on the film in I’m Hip.

Then I wanted to include my family. And later, when I faced a shot with about 20 people in a movie theater, I thought, why not caricature the people I know who are interested in the industry? That’s how I included my classmates Henry Selick, Brad Bird and Jerry Rees, (critic) Charles Solomon and (historian) Howard Green.

In another sequence, in the (running) of the bulls in Pamplona, I thought of (animator) Glen Keane as the type of guy who would have done something like that when he was young, just like (animator) Mike Cedeno.

And so I kept adding more people. They will probably complain because they can hardly be seen but I’ll give each of them a drawing of the shot they appear in.

Why did you dedicate your short film to Eric Larson?

Because we were the beneficiaries of an entire generation of animators who opened the doors for us at Disney. When I arrived at the studio in the 1970s, Larson was in charge of the training program. He taught me and an entire generation, including Glen, Ron and Andreas. I know Mushka is also dedicated to Larson and I think it’s great because he meant a lot to our careers.

Legendary animators like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Milt Kahl, among others, have all the fame from that era. But Eric and John Lounsbery aren’t written about as much as they should be and they were a big part of Disney’s legacy.

Is this a good time for the world of animation?

That’s what I thought when Sergio Pablos did something like Klaus and announced his second feature film, Ember. But then Netflix canceled his project. And Glen’s too.

But animation is currently very popular. Look at the success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. I’m not its audience but it has done very well. It has been very enjoyable to come to Annecy and see all the young people so in love with animation, doing such different things.

It’s inspiring. I don’t care if it’s in theaters or not but I believe there will continue to be a high demand for animated stories.

What do you think of the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid?

We were invited to the premiere but I couldn’t go because it was on the same day as the premiere of my short film. The funny thing is that I went to the party after my screening ended and they didn’t let me in.

And when I asked Ron how it went, he said that none of the actors attended. He never saw the VIP area! Typical of Ron or me! Later, I watched The Little Mermaid and Halle Bailey did a great job.

Do you now consider that The Princess and the Frog was ahead of its time?

The Princess and the Frog did okay at the box office but not enough to revive classic animation. It is true that we were ahead of our time. Now we talk a lot about diversity, something we didn’t do back then.

When we made Moana, it was a very different world from when we made The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. We didn’t have any cultural consultants back then.

In fact, we made Aladdin during the Gulf War and I remember Roy Disney telling us that we couldn’t travel to Baghdad, where the story took place. I also remember that I changed the name to Agrabah, a fictional city.

In the tradition of Larson having taught you back in the day, what do you think is your legacy to future generations of animators?

I’d like to think that the idea of being your own harshest critic, being open to other people’s ideas and always questioning your own to make sure they support the story and improve it. I’d also like to emphasize that making animation should be fun. Keep your sense of humor.

If you can’t enjoy a project, maybe you shouldn’t be there. And I love the collaborative side of animation. If you don’t like it, maybe this isn’t the field for you because it’s the most collaborative form of art there is. If Disney films are good, it’s because they’re made as a team.

Would you consider the idea of returning to work for a major studio?

We presented a project at Warner Bros. for DC and it fell apart with all the executive changes. One day you’re “hot,” and the next day, they don’t even remember you. I’m not very keen on getting on that carousel of executives, having to defend your ideas in front of people who always want to change everything.

I applaud those who still do it but I don’t have the energy to do it again. Especially after having enjoyed an experience like I’m Hip, where all my energy went into making the short film and not into fighting with anyone.

I won’t say never but I’m older. I’m 69 years old. And I know animators are never old but I now enjoy the experience of being independent.


Translated by Mario Amaya