Alumni Merit Award: John Edward Musker (WCAS75)
While noted animation director John Musker has quite a few legendary characters in his portfolio, perhaps the most famous of them is one he rarely gets credit for. As a Northwestern student, he got quite a bit of practice sketching one Richard Milhous Nixon.
“I was the editorial cartoonist at The Daily Northwestern during Watergate,” Musker explains.
The other characters to his credit are decidedly less controversial. They include Ariel, Aladdin, and — most recently — Tiana.
“It’s against my upbringing to toot my own horn,” he quips. “But if forced, I will admit that some of the films I’ve been associated with have been nominated for — and in some cases won — some Academy Awards.”
You may have heard of the films in question. Musker, who has worked at Walt Disney Studios for more than three decades, co produced, wrote, and directed such animated classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and The Princess and the Frog (2009).
Musker grew up in Chicago as part of a large, supportive Irish Catholic family (he’s the second of Bob and Joan Musker’s eight children). After attending Loyola Academy in Wilmette, John entered Northwestern, where his passion for the arts and animation was stoked.
It was there he first delved into art history and film history, and he relished the chance study under Professors Elizabeth Dipple, Irwin Weil, and Alfred Appel. He also drew inspiration from a campus festival called Animation Feast, where he had the chance to hear a keynote speech by legendary Looney Toons animator Chuck Jones.
Immediately after earning an English degree in 1975, however, it was unclear if Musker was destined to live happily ever. He sent his portfolio to Disney that spring — and was promptly rejected. Fortunately, his Northwestern experience helped him weather the disappointment.
“I had some tough critiques from some of my English professors that thickened my skin at least a little,” he says. “That prepared me to be held to high standards.”
After studying at the California Institute of the Arts, Musker was at long last hired by Disney as an assistant animator in 1977. In 1981 he was promoted to supervising animator for the film The Fox and the Hound.
A turning point came in 1985, when Musker first teamed with animator Ron Clements. The two have enjoyed a fruitful, award-winning, collaboration ever since. In addition to the three classics mentioned previously, the duo’s credits include The Great Mouse Detective, Hercules, and Treasure Planet.
“I’ve been at Disney for 33 years, and it’s been a thrill to work alongside so many brilliant, talented, and innovative artists,” he says. “I’m very lucky.”
Musker and his wife of 30 years, Gale, live in La Canada, California.