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'You've Got To Work Hard': Disney Animator, Sioux City Native Reflects On His Career

Katie Peikes
Ron Clements chats with a student from Buena Vista University about Disney, animation and his career.

Growing up, Sioux City native Ron Clements often attended screenings of Disney films that showed for two weeks at the city's Orpheum Theatre, but it was a reissued screening of Pinocchio he saw when he was nine years old, that turned the lightbulb on — he knew he wanted to be an animator for Disney.

"I became obsessed by that movie," Clements told a crowd Friday during his talk at the 14th annual Sioux City International Film Festival. "I drew the characters and drew the characters and went back to see it until it left."

"I really felt sad when it was gone."

Clements worked his way up in the industry, from working as an animator at a Sioux City TV station, to gaining an apprenticeship with Disney animator Frank Thomas. Decades later, after bringing many Disney characters to life on the screen, Clements, 65, says Pinocchio's sidekick Jiminy Cricket is still his favorite character. 

"The key to the good stories is characters, strong characters." -Ron Clements

Through the number of screenplays he has worked on, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Moana, Clements has watched the industry grow and evolve alongside changing technology. But, he said, there is one thing that has always stayed the same: The heart of animation.

"The idea of bringing characters to life in such a way that you believe they're real and you know what they're thinking, and it communicates what they're thinking regardless of even what they're saying, that's really the heart of it, and it still is," he said. "The heart of it is still certainly good stories and the key to the good stories is characters, strong characters."

That's one thing Briar Cliff University digital communications professor Kristen Perez, who worked at the same TV station as Clements, though years later, has hoped to teach her students. Perez attended the film festival Friday to hear Clements' presentations and she got some of her daughter's Disney paraphernalia autographed.

"The technology – you teach that – but what we're teaching right now is probably going to change, maybe by the time the students are getting their jobs," Perez said. "So if you can really focus on the storytelling, that's the heart of it."   

Clements talked about his career and showed some behind-the-scenes clips of working at Disney. He reminisced on what it was like working with legendary actor and comedian Robin Williams, who Clements and fellow writer John Musker envisioned as the only one who could play the genie in the 1992 Disney film, Aladdin.

"Robin actually gave us hours of material," Clements said. "He would take the scene and do it over and over again, and we would say 'we've got so much great stuff and that's great!' and he would say 'I've got some more ideas!'" 

Clements on pursuing careers in film and animation: "You've got to work hard and it's good to be focused, but there are opportunities."

During his return to Sioux City, his first time back in over a decade, Clements visited his alma mater, Bishop Heelan High School, to talk about his time at Disney. He drew some sketches of Moana characters for a preschool class in the building.

"Coming back to Sioux City, it's changed a lot," Clements said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. "But the people seem basically the same."

Clements said though Hollywood and New York may feel far away from Iowa, anyone who wants to be a part of the film industry shouldn't rule out pursuing it.

"Sometimes I think, and maybe this is biased, you may have a little edge, because you just have to possibly work a little harder and maybe be a little more ambitious, have a little more drive to sort of get to that place," Clements said.

He continued, "it's certainly possible, it's not easy. You've got to work hard and it's good to be focused, but there are opportunities."

Clements visited the Orpheum Theatre, the very place that inspired his career, Saturday for a showing of Moana.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.