- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

Ron Clements and John Musker share adjoining offices at the Walt Disney Animation studio in Burbank, Calif. They also share co-directing, co-producing and co-writing credits on "Treasure Planet," the studio's newest animated feature, which opens on Wednesday. The movie revamps Robert Louis Stevenson's classic about pirates and hidden loot, "Treasure Island," transforming it into an outer-space adventure that showcases the studio's latest refinements in blending traditional hand-drawn animation with computer-generated imagery.

During a recent phone interview, the collaborators talked about the long gestation period of "Treasure Planet" while tucked away in their separate offices but linked by speakerphone.

Both men are Midwesterners who were attracted to illustration and animation in boyhood and migrated to the West Coast in their early 20s with Disney careers in mind. They entered the studio within a year of each other, Mr. Clements in 1976 and Mr. Musker in 1977. The customary apprenticeships advanced them from interns to assistant animators and eventually co-directors on "The Great Mouse Detective." That project began production in 1983, when the animation unit was in the doldrums, and it helped restore morale upon its release in 1986.

A persuasive case could be made that the Musker-Clements partnership has been indispensable to the revival of Disney animation encouraged under the management of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who arrived in Burbank in 1985. The partnership was renewed for "The Little Mermaid" in 1989, and its decisive popularity started the upward box-office trend that peaked with "The Lion King" five years later. Mr. Musker and Mr. Clements kept the momentum rolling cheerfully with "Aladdin" in 1992; they were together again for "Hercules" in 1997.

As a schoolboy in Sioux City, Iowa, Mr. Clements made amateur Super-8 mm animated films. He professionalized his credentials to some extent by animating commercials for a supermarket chain. One of his Disney audition submissions was a 15-minute whimsy called "Shades of Sherlock Holmes" that evidently anticipated certain aspects of "The Great Mouse Detective." While still working on the feature, Mr. Clements attended a highly productive story conference at Disney.

"I first proposed the idea for 'Treasure Planet' in a memo at that meeting, 17 years ago," Mr. Clements recalls. "At the time, the project was called 'Treasure Island in Space.' I also proposed 'The Little Mermaid' in the same memo. Although ['Mermaid] was greenlighted and made much sooner, there was actually more enthusiasm for the 'Treasure Island' idea at the meeting itself."

Mr. Musker, a Chicago native who graduated with a degree in English from Northwestern University, where he also contributed cartoons to the school paper, explains that the enthusiasm never vanished, despite the 17-year gap between the proposal and the finished film.

"Disney had remade 'Treasure Island' successfully in 1950 as a live-action feature," he comments. "There was even an entertaining spoof of 1996 in collaboration with Jim Henson's company, 'Muppet Treasure Island.' All along, Ron and I wished that we could shoot the outer-space version as if it were a live-action adventure film.

"The technology that makes it possible to do that with animation has been developed in the last few years. A lot of the delay can be explained by a testing process that brought us closer and closer to a satisfactory way of transposing the story."

The production drew on techniques that had been developed for "Tarzan," giving the title character a spectacular dynamic element while swinging and vaulting through jungle terrain. Nicknamed "Deep Canvas," the system allowed animators to manipulate two-dimensional characters within three-dimensional sets created in a computer.

"The system was expanded and refined for our movie," Mr. Musker says. "It magnifies what you can do with virtual sets. We can also combine character elements with a new freedom. The best example is probably our John Silver, a true hybrid of drawn and computerized animation. The organic side of him was sketched by Glen Keane. His cyborg side, dominated by a mechanical arm, was done in a computer by Eric Daniels. They worked really closely together, and the result is this seamless combination of organic and mechanical features."

Long John Silver's parrot has become an infinitely flexible and reactive blob of protoplasm called Morph, a tireless shape-shifter. "He was also mentioned in the 1985 memo," Mr. Clements observes, "along with a cyborg Silver and a robot version of Ben Gunn, which we now call B.E.N., an abbreviation for bio-electronic navigator.

"We didn't anticipate that Martin Short would be around to give B.E.N. such a wonderful speaking voice. During the recording sessions, he ad-libbed as freely and brilliantly as Robin Williams when he did our Genie in 'Aladdin.'"

The scenic design for "Treasure Planet" ultimately was governed by what Mr. Musker calls "the 70-30 rule." It began as 60-40 but eventually tilted in favor of illustrative touches that recalled the 18th-century setting of the novel.

"We are really, really fond of the book and its characters," he says. "We liked to imagine that Stevenson had written a science-fiction adventure fable. We went retro with a lot of things.

"For example, the Benbow Inn is compatible with the book in most respects, but there's an atomic-powered stove in the kitchen. The same thing with the space galleons. They look majestically old-fashioned, and we invented an atmosphere called the Etherium in our outer-space region so that the ships could fly with sails billowing and the winds blowing. There's no vacuum where our ships go, but they're pretty superpowered. There's a fusion, but as a rule, the past dominates the future."

The final version of the movie was approved some time ago, but the partners were still in the editing room to supervise finishing touches on an Imax version. "Treasure Planet" is the first animated feature that will be released simultaneously in 35 mm prints and selected Imax blowups.

"There was a bit of loose painting in some of the shots," Mr. Musker remarks, "so that needed to be corrected. It's bound to happen when you magnify certain shots for the larger image system. We're also working on the DVD for 'Treasure Planet.' It's the first one we've done."

So they haven't backtracked in preparation for an anniversary DVD edition of "Aladdin"? "Not yet," Mr. Musker replies, "but it might be fun to revisit that, even if we have to plow through a lot of old notes. There will be an Imax version of 'Aladdin' a year from this January. It has some new genie footage. I guess we've missed the tenth anniversary by a year or two, but 'Treasure Planet' did keep us busy."

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