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The Princess and the Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker

A Roundtable Discussion with The Princess and the Frog Directors Ron Clements and John Musker

by Jack Giroux

If you enjoy the good old days of classical hand drawn animation then you'll most likely fall in love with the visual beauty of The Princess and the Frog. If I didn't know anything about The Princess and the Frog I could've guessed it was made in the forties or fifties, it has a timeless look. It also looks stunning on blu-ray and the three disc set is packed with plenty of insightful special features. If you're a fan of the film, which I am, you'll be more than happy with the blu-ray release. Anyway, I got to participate in a virtual roundtable with the directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Do these names ring a bell? They may not, but these two definitely have a hand in your childhood movie experiences with their great collaborations on Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and even a nostalgic childhood favorite of mine, Hercules. They've delivered another film that plenty of kids will fall in love with.

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Here's a few interesting excerpts from the roundtable:

This is a return to 2-D animation for Disney. Is there anything new with the technology this time around?

John Musker: Our "ink and paint" system was different. We used "Harmony" instead of CAPS, our old system that had been mothballed. With this new system we were able to evaluate scenes in full color and do paint adjustments to the characters without having to repaint the entire scenes. We also were able to evaluate all elements "in continuity" which was something new. Our character animation was done on paper just as Snow White was. Our effects animation, i.e., the water ripples, magic, shadows, etc. for the first time was done without paper. Those elements were drawn on a pressure sensitive tablet with a stylus.

Originally I believe The Princess and the Frog was going to be set in Chicago and be CG, how did the change of setting it in New Orleans and making it hand drawn come about?

Ron Clements: A few years ago, Pixar had explored a version of "The Frog Prince" set in gangland Chicago. John Lasseter wanted to switch the locale to New Orleans, a city he loves, but the project was eventually shelved. Meanwhile Disney had explored various versions of "The Frog Prince" going all the way back to the time of Beauty and the Beast In 2006, Disney bought the rights to a book called "The Frog Princess" which was the fairy tale with a twist. When the Princess kissed the frog she turned into a frog as well. When John Lasseter was put in charge of Disney animation, in February 2006, he asked John and me to take a look at all the previous versions and come up with our own. We combined the New Orleans setting with the twist, added some new characters and pitched a take that became the basis for the movie.

There's obviously been films that have covered the same ground before, how do you make sure not to fall into some of those conventions set by those previous films to the point where it feels predictable or formulaic?

Ron Clements: John and I really hadn't done a fairy tale since The Little Mermaid twenty years ago. It was interesting for us to reexamine this stuff from a different perspective. From the beginning, we thought of Tiana as someone who would never have been a big fan of Disney fairy tales. Our attempt was to take a lot of the archetypal elements of these films, (the Prince's loyal manservant, the fairy Godmother, the wishing star, death and resurrection, etc.) and add some kind of twist to them. But we were always thinking of this as a kind of retro film, trying to recapture a bit of what Disney magic means to us.

The magical elements of this film are decidedly underplayed compared to past Disney fairy tales -- Mama Odie did not give our heroes a powerful talisman nor step in to save the day, while Dr. Facilier and his superiors were much less dark and foreboding than their villainous predecessors. How did you set about breaking these story elements?

Ron Clements: Mama Odie was based on Ava Kay Jones, an ordained Voodoo Priestess who we met with in New Orleans. She told us that even though magic is part of the Voodoo religion, when people come to someone like her for help, she advises them to never use magic to solve their problems. That almost always backfires. Rather they should look inside themselves for the answers. Dr. Facilier was based on the New Orleans "Bokur". People who've broken away from the religion, made pacts with dark Voodoo spirits, and sell their magic for money. In terms of scariness, I think Facilier was handled similarly to our other villains like Ursula, Jafar, and Hades. We like scary stuff but don't want to go too far. Some people thought Facilier was too scary. You think he's not scary enough? Maybe that means we got it about right.

John Musker: In earlier versions of our story Mama Odie gave our heroine some gris gris, herbal charms that got "energized" in the climax. We wound up rewriting that as our gris gris felt like a bit of a deus ex machina. We do think of Facilier and his shadows as scary and were not trying to soft pedal that. Some of his scariness we thought of as "funhouse" scary and not slasher film scary.

Can you talk about the difficulty of making a fairy tale happy ending feel earned and not contrived?

John Musker: We wanted our ending to be both surprising and satisfying. We hoped that people would believe that Tiana and Naveen, happy to have found and fallen for each other, were willing to accept their "frog" status as long as they had one another. We thought the twist of them turning back into frogs with their kiss, which we first saw in an early treatment by Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, before we ever got on the project, was clever and worked it into our script as well.

Randy Newman's score lends itself beautifully to both the location and time period. Was he the first composer you had in mind for the film, and at what point in the production did he begin developing the music?

Ron Clements: We pitched the idea for this movie to John Lasseter in March of 2006. We pitched it as a hand drawn film with an African American heroine, and as a musical with Randy Newman doing the music. John said yes to all those things. We thought of Randy almost immediately because his music is iconic, classic Americana, and we knew he spent his boyhood summers growing up in New Orleans. We met with Randy the following May, took him through the story, and talked about the placement of songs and styles of music. Randy took to the project immediately. He hadn't written many musicals before but he was a great collaborator and we were thrilled with his brilliant work.

John Musker: Randy was our first and only suggestion to John Lasseter to do the music. His feel for Americana, and in particular the music of New Orleans, a place he spent boyhood summers, made him an ideal choice. We "pitched" the movie to Randy. We had an idea where the songs might come in, in order to tell story points and convey emotions on our characters. We did "idea" storyboards full of visual ideas for Randy to react to. We wrote the script without songs but knowing where they might fall. Randy then wrote songs that in some cases absorbed some of our dialogue. Randy's writing of Facilier's song, in which he gave him several sardonic asides, influenced us to try and put that quality and tone into his other non musical scenes as well. He wrote the songs over the course of a year and a half as we animated the movie, although we would always animate the song after he had written and recorded it (in animation voices are recorded before animation, not dubbed in later.) Likewise with the music we animate after the recordings and try and exploit things we hear in the music track.

Can you talk about the difficulty of making a fairy tale happy ending feel earned and not contrived?

John Musker: We wanted our ending to be both surprising and satisfying. We hoped that people would believe that Tiana and Naveen, happy to have found and fallen for each other, were willing to accept their "frog" status as long as they had one another. We thought the twist of them turning back into frogs with their kiss, which we first saw in an early treatment by Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, before we ever got on the project, was clever and worked it into our script as well.

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