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John Musker: The Hercules of Animation

Prof. Tony Bancroft moderating a Q&A with John Musker (right)

This week, we're featuring [sophomore Animation & Visual Effects major] Rachel Yost's reflections on our recent First Mondays event with veteran Disney animator John Musker.

The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. Disney’s Hercules. If you’re like me, watching these films probably catapults you back to your childhood living room. These were some of the first films to captivate my attention as a kid, and this week I got to meet someone without whom none of these movies would be possible.

On September 9th, Disney director John Musker visited APU’s campus for the Cinematic Arts First Mondays event. He directed several classic movies from Disney’s Renaissance, along with a few more recent ones. His legendary director credits include Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Moana, The Princess and The Frog, Treasure Planet, Hercules, and The Great Mouse Detective. He was also a screenwriter for many of these films and was heavily involved in developing the stories in each one.

As an Animation & VFX major here at APU, I was ecstatic to meet one of my cinema heroes. I fondly remember trying to draw Ariel in seventh grade and rewatching Hercules almost yearly in high school. So, it’s safe to say these films have been a big part of my life! Additionally, John Musker grew up Irish Catholic, so he shares some of the same beliefs I do. Seeing people of faith thriving and creating redemptive stories in entertainment is extremely motivating for me as a storyteller and follower of Christ.

One of my favorite moments during the event was when John Musker shared stories from his South Pacific research trips for Disney’s Moana. He spoke about how the people he met felt that American culture had overtaken their own in popular media, and how they wanted their history to be represented in the film. He went above and beyond to make sure that their culture was portrayed accurately, drawing from native Polynesians to inspire characters like Maui and Grandma Tala. Musker made sure Polynesian voices were represented in the film’s cast by hiring voice actors with Pacific roots like Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho. To me, that sets a great example for us as Christian filmmakers, in that Musker used his influence to give a voice to a culture that has been vastly underrepresented in our media. That act of service and humility reflects the Christlike qualities that I want to emulate in my own journey through the entertainment industry.

Other highlights included Musker's stories about his career path and advice for us as students. It was really educational to discover how animators solved design problems, such as making the chicken in Moana more appealing by changing his personality or using a live-action reference to create Meg’s song in Hercules. Learning about the creative problem-solving he had to use in his films motivates me to emulate it in my own work.

I also had the privilege to attend a Q&A session before the start of the event. Musker answered questions about getting into the industry and discussed the fear of your portfolio getting rejected during job applications, as Musker himself experienced being rejected by Disney before improving on his work and getting in.

This event was just one experience of many that I have had while studying animation here at APU. I’m only in my sophomore year, but already our class has had the opportunity to meet several animation professionals and help run a booth at a major arts convention. We experienced this all while learning the craft of animation from a Disney director who is on our campus every week, Tony Bancroft, the head of APU’s Animation and VFX Major. Professor Bancroft is himself an animation celebrity; his most notable film credits include directing Disney’s Mulan, supervising animation on The Lion King’s Pumbaa and The Emperor's New Groove’s Kronk, and animating scenes of Iago from Aladdin and Cogsworth from Beauty and The Beast. Tony’s industry connections and expertise have allowed him to bring John Musker and other guest speakers to APU, and I have personally experienced a huge leap of artistic growth in my past two semesters under his instruction.

Meeting John Musker has already become one of the highlights of my sophomore year. I’m sure everyone in our major will remember Musker’s words of wisdom as we pursue our careers in the industry.


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