This November, Walt Disney Animation Studio will be releasing their second theatrical feature of the year and their 56th overall, Moana. Longtime Disney collaborators John Musker and Ron Clements return to direct this film about a teenage Polynesian princess who ventures out on a journey to save her people and to find her identity. The film brings in all sorts of talent that we’ve pretty much come to expect from the studio, from the voice talents of Auli‘i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Alan Tudyk, and Nicole Scherzinger, right down to the music from Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In August, Disney invited us (along with a group of fellow journalists) to watch a couple of scenes and learn about the process of developing a script, creating the film’s setting, polishing the effects, and creating the two lead characters: Moana and Maui. Just like Zootopia, it has become apparent that the studio emphasizes the importance of research for their stories and pushing the envelope in animation. Check out what we learned from the scenes and the presentation below.
The Story Behind Moana
1 – The story of Moana was inspired by John Musker’s fascination with Pacific islands and Polynesian folk tales of navigation and the demigod Maui. So they pitched a couple of ideas to Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, who loved the idea.
2 – Research is the very heart of storytelling. Musker and co-director Ron Clements were “forced” to travel to the South Pacific where they and a team of artists visited Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and many other islands. The visits changed the vision of what the story could be.
3 – The people they met help to form the Oceanic Story Trust, a group that consisted of Polynesians from all walks of life. They are archeologists, anthropologists, elders, linguists, historians, fisherman, weavers, tattoo experts, elders, dancers and more. They constantly check in with them to make sure the story is as respectful to the culture as possible.
4 – During these research trips, the team learned the local phrase “Know Your Mountain.” The phrase means in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you come from, you have to understand where you’ve been.
5 – Disney animated films are also known for their music and songs, and for Moana, it was an “incredible opportunity and a very unique moment where we could take contemporary songs and combine it with deep roots and heart-pounding awesome Pacific Island rhythm that we find the south pacific,” said Osnat Shurer, the film’s producer. The film will feature music by Opetaia Foa’i, the founder of the musical group Te Vaka; Mark Mancina, who will bring a world music influence just as he did on The Lion King; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind Broadway musical hits Hamliton and In The Heights.
6 – We will get into this a little later, they were inspired to make the ocean a character when a guide told them they had to speak gently to the ocean and that it knows how they feel. They were also told that the oceans unite the islands and do not divide them. So even though the area itself is of oceans and islands, it does not divide them. So it was a beautiful idea that they took home with them.
7 – Casting a movie like this, they obviously looked for talented actors, people who can both act and sing, but they were also looking for a cast that could bring a relationship to the Pacific Islands. Clements and Musker did not cast based on how the actors match the look of the character. For them, it is more important how the actor sounds and how they come across. Here’s what Shurer said:
“When you cast a movie like this, what you look for is very talented actors. People who could both act and sing, if possible our movie – we were hoping it would bring a relationship to the Pacific Islands, and we were fortunate to have a cast, all our leads are Pacific Islanders, which is super exciting.”
8 – The Polynesians were considered greatest early nautical explorers because they lacked maps or instruments to chart their course. They had to rely on dead reckoning, knowledge of the stars, and the currents, to find their way across the ocean. This film is meant to celebrate that.
9 – As the film is meant to celebrate the culture and voyaging, Clements and Musker learned that for some unknown reason, oceanic voyaging stopped for a long period of time – some theorize 1,000 years – but then it started back up again. In a way Moana is their theory on how it may have started back up again.
10 – At the heart of this story is the theme of identity. It deals with a people who have lost their identity — a demigod who has lost his identity, and Moana searching for her identity. In fact, it is a bit of a hero’s journey story for Moana as she sets out to discover who she is and not let others define her. As Moana and Maui progress on their journey, they will teach each other things that will help shape their identity.
Meet Moana and Maui
11 – Johnson was deeply committed to the film because of his roots, which served as an inspiration to the creative team.
12 – Casting Moana wasn’t easy because the title character is in the whole movie. They needed to find an actress who could sing and dance as well as embody the strength, a power, and fearlessness combined with compassion and empathy. So after many months they settled on Auli’i Cravalho.
13 – Moana, which means ocean in several of the Pacific languages, is an intelligent high-spirited 16-year-old who is the daughter of a chief. Musker calls her a “bad ass” and says that she’s unlike any other heroine they have done before. But because navigation has gone the way of the past, she feels that her spirit has gone away from their roots, and because of her kindred spirit to those navigators, she feels like she should be navigating the seas like those before her. This puts her at odds with her father whose one rule is no one ever goes beyond the reef.
14 – Maui is a shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, and hero of men and women, to all. He is a bigger than life demigod who has a bit of an ego, and Johnson plays that part up really well. But different islands have different versions the demigod, where on one island he is seen a Superman-esque , other islands have a wildly different description of him. But the one thing they had in common was that Maui possessed a mighty magical fishhook, which Musker says it likens to Thor’s hammer.
15 – Maui’s tattoo’s tell of his magical exploits. Musker says “he is a walking billboard of his great deeds, which is a wonderful storytelling device for us.” One of those tattoos is Mini-Maui, who is described as the Jiminy Cricket to Maui himself and occasionally gets under his skin. Because of Clements and Musker’s background in hand-drawn animation, they thought it would be great for the Maui’s tattoos to come to life and animate on his skin.
16 – The directors were very interested in exploring style. The goal was to make sure the film came from Disney but also feel like they have their own personality. So the group of artists that came on the movie tried anything and everything. So they took these early designs, put them into the computer, and saw how they look on film. After the second research trip, the design team used the photography and stories they brought back as inspiration for the style and look.
17 – Costume design is a big part of filmmaking as it defines who the character is as well as support the story. With Moana, it was a challenge for the design team as the film took place 2,000 years ago, so they had no photographs to use as a reference. But the Oceanic Story Trust gave the feedback and materials they had during that time.
18 – The top that Moana is wearing is made from a mulberry tree bark. That material is pulled back and processed it and created a textile with it. The skirt is made from pandanus and its woven material. Embroidery and shells were also introduced into the design to make it a bit more interesting. Since Moana means ocean, a lot of the elements on her skirt are stylized starfish and sea urchins and still maintain the Pacific Islander influence.
19 – Bodice-making techniques were also added to Moana’s design. While they didn’t have a reference to look back on, the design team pulled together different cultural inspirations and raw materials that were readily available from the islands to make the design more believable.
20 – For the necklace design, Lasseter wanted something very unique and different, and through research, they settled on the abalone shell. What’s interesting about this particular shell is when you carve it out, you reveal a beautiful blue color that looks almost magical, which made it perfect for the team as they added star carvings to make it feel most like a tool early nautical navigators would use. In a way, the shells also tell a story.
21 – They start broad and rough and then work their way down to the details. Basically, they sweat the details, working at every angle making sure that they could put the camera anywhere the characters will still look great.
22 – The animators really tried to make hair a part of her design and performance. Since Moana is a free-spirited adventurer, the team had her hair down during the more athletic scenes, but when she is on a boat she would most likely have her hair up in a bun. So they did a lot of testing to see how her hair would react to her performance.
23 – There were about 90 animators working on the project at the time, and every animator would at least get one pass at working with the title character. So that way these animators are able to stay on the same page and have the same info about her, where they would learn things like how to use her in rig, what’s the best way to move around, and more.
24 – Animators watch actual people walk or even use themselves as a reference to give a character’s mannerisms or walk personality. Simple tests like these will help the audience be able to distinguish characters in the film.
25 – New software had to be written so that Moana’s hair could interact with the surrounding environment in the most realistic way. Before they would have to re-groom the hair and give it back to the look department (the guys that making the hair the way it does).
26 – While the perception of Maui varies, the final look of the character is a compilation of input from the consultation of the Oceanic Story Trust. He did play a part in making this film in the first place. Musker saw the demigod as a superhero-like figure with a trickster element.
27 – At one point, a very early version of Maui was bald. But after consulting with the directors, producers, and Oceanic Story Trust, they learned that those who grew up with the stories of the demigod saw him with a mane of hair. The simple act of adding hair gave complexity to the character.
28 – Hair once again gave challenges and opportunities to the animation team. The culture and the world the film is set in, everyone has long curly hair, both men, and women. The style of animation they were looking for, they needed to have hair that was dynamic and be able to be art directed easily. They were planning for a lot of interaction as these characters will go underwater and out of the water. There is also a lot of wind and sand, so they needed to have a level of control performance that they were never able to achieve before.
29 – With Maui, the animation team was looking at strong, athletic men for the inspiration of his physique. They did a lot of research looking at pro wrestlers, football players, and even world’s strongest men type guys that have a massive amount of muscle and project the look of great power. The research would provide the kind of reference needed to define the character’s look.
30 – In order to convey a look of power while also maintaining charm, the animators looked at video of Johnson recording his audio. They were looking for personality, head phrasing and how he acts with his head movement, mannerisms, and his gestures in general. His hand gestures are not very poignant but he uses them almost sparsely. So that was put into Maui.
31 – Johnson’s great air of confidence is really well-suited for Maui, and the animators wanted to incorporate that into the character. So for the character tests, animators had Maui walk with great confidence given that he has lived for thousands of years and that he is also a demigod. When he sits, he let’s gravity do the work rather than exert muscles which would let him down slowly as any normal human would. But when he is called to action, he “flips the switch” and becomes this explosive mover. He can go from sitting to sprinting within just a few frames, which would prove to be important given the film’s adventurous tone.
32 – The magical fishhook is also a big part of Maui’s identity. He uses it to battle monsters and pulls islands out of the water, but it also gives him the power to shapeshift. During the production, the animators referred to this as the transformations. These transformations would be used to his elemental advantage because there are moments where he needs to swim like a shark, crawl into small spaces as a lizard, or even fly high as a hawk.
33 – The task for each transformation was to make it look like the respective animal while maintaining the essence of Maui. Character tests were also performed on each transformation. So what distinguishes this Hawk from any other hawk are his powerful wing flaps, and just like his human form, when the hawk lands, he let’s gravity do the work as opposed to landing gently. You’ll also see that same air of confidence in his hawk form. And just like his explosive movement in his human form, the hawk will “launch.” The transformation process itself was a lot of fun for the animators who love a good challenge. When Maui transforms it will be initiated by a bit of anticipation and action, pushing from one form to the next.
34 – Maui’s tattoos were a unique opportunity for CG animators and hand drawn animators to work together in a collaborative way. The film was also head of animation’s Hyrum Osmond‘s chance to work with Eric Goldman, a traditional hand-drawn animator who worked on Aladdin, one of the very people who inspired him to become an animator. For them, it was a dream come true.
35 – Maui’s tattoos represent his past accomplishments and daring feats. Within these tattoos, there is a tattoo representation of Maui performing those deeds called Mini Maui. But it’s not just a moving tattoo, the tattoo itself has a personality and function. He is Maui’s biggest cheerleader as well as his alter-ego, but he is also there to pull back Maui from his trickster attitudes.
36 – All the animation done on the tattoos have been done traditionally on paper. The image above explores just some of the pushed expressions that you will see in the film. These pushed expressions will give the audience a hint as to what Mini Maui is thinking or feeling. This is really important as he is a pantomime character. Think Carpet from Aladdin.
37 – Plussing in animation has animators adding to a scene to make it as good as they can make it. You will see a lot of this in the interaction between Maui and Mini Maui. Watch Mini Maui’s reaction as he is poked by Maui. Likewise with Maui when Mini Maui snaps a tattoo to get his attention.
38 – The tattoos are something the animators have never really done before. Tattoo research included people with traditional tattoos coming in to visit, they studied how many layers of skin the tattoos were on, and how these tattoos reacted to light.
39 – Maui’s tattoos also presented a challenge for the CG animators as they now had to consider the anatomy and skin. Not only did they have to preserve the art direction in movement, but minimize the tattoo stretching. So the animators and technology group developed a new technology that would allow to maintain volume preservation, skin sliding, and more.
Creating A Whole New World
40 – Cinematographers, art director for environment and color, and production designer also go on these research trips to help develop the film’s setting, Motonui. The purpose of these research trips is to give the designers a hands-on feel of the environment that will help inspire the look of Motonui.
41 – Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Moorea, New Zealand, Bora Bora, Tetiaroa, are just among some of the Polynesian islands visited throughout the years. There were four research trips that were conducted during the production of the film, and each served a different purpose from story development, music, and visual development. But a huge part of visiting these islands is to meet the locals, many of whom would make up the aforementioned Oceanic Story Trust.
42 – A big challenge for the film was to make this island look different from any other animated island or confuse it with any other tropical island and also make it look like it took place 2,000 years ago. Again, without a frame of reference or historical archives, making a setting look like it took place two millennia ago proved difficult. So they went to a much less traveled island, Tetiaroa.
43 – Because Tetiaora is practically untouched, they were able to map out the environment in the film as though no tourist has visited ever before. This means the coconut trees and even grapefruit trees would look radically different on Tetiaora as opposed to one where you would see grow on a more civilized one. Just to prove how nitty gritty the development was, the team looked at different variations of sand particles, corals, and even took videos of coconut tree’s shadows on the sand to give them an idea of the look and feel. Even the things you don’t think about proves to be of great importance. When the team hiked, one of the guides helped the team understand that the oily nuts were a light source back then. These nuts could burn up to 30 minutes.
44 – The difference between the Caribbean islands and the Polynesian islands, the former have volcanoes that explode like Mount St. Helens. However, the Polynesian geography is totally different, where magma would dribble up or slowly layer lava upwards creating gentle slopes. This also causes coral reefs to grow all the way around the island like Bora Bora. It’s something you don’t see in the Caribbean where smaller patches of reefs grow.
45 – With the photo reference, it’s the job of the art director of environments and color and his team to start building the sets. They went on their own research trip to learn about the village itself. Since Motonui is a fictional island, they took what they learned from that trip to start laying out the setting. One of the things they learned that was incorporated into the film was that the villagers don’t just select a location to reside in. It was important for the village to have a river to be a source of fresh water. Mountainous peaks where a chief would most likely live, and would establish his social position. It’s impossible to say how many pictures were taken during this trip, but not every picture taken will be used because it’s impossible to work them into the film.
46 – Color in animation, you don’t have to go with what is there, you can use color as an emotional element. So the team was inspired by the color in what they saw in photographs, on site, and the color you remember. The variations in color were one of the first sale pitches to Lasseter. There were many factors to consider from the variations of green in the vegetation and blue saturations in the water to changing weather’s effect on the lighting in color.
47 – Research informs every bit of the film’s process from the writing to the lighting. It helps inspire the team to make the film as believable as possible while also encouraging creativity and artistry.
Writing A New Legend
48 – Over the course of the three to five-year development of Moana, the writers are continually ironing out the script. The film is screened at least 12 times during those three to five years. What that means is they will figure out what the story is, add cards to the white board, write out the script page, drawn by the story artists, and storyboarded. Sound effects and music are then added. Writers do their own scratch dialogue, meaning they do the voice of the character. Then it is boarded together, and they look at them. When you look at a movie on pages you can’t get the chemistry or emotion, even seeing it drawn doesn’t help get the emotion. This is why there is the 12 screening process.
49 – During this 12 screening process, everyone involved is encouraged to express their opinion, love it or hate it. But the best idea that improves the quality of the story always wins, no matter who it comes from. Ultimately it is for the greater good, and even some of the scenes that sounded awesome couldn’t work their way into the film. Letting go of good ideas is probably the hardest part of making a movie like this.
50 – Where a writer for a live-action film would go off writing a script for a long period of time, a writer for an animated film goes off writing a script for two to three days. Not an entire script, sometimes it’s two pages, sometimes it’s ten, or half of a second act, whatever is needed or a priority at that moment. Jared Bush would write it as quick as possible to find out what is or isn’t working. There is a lot of trust involved.
51 – As screenwriters, they can only write what they know and understand. Since Moana is a film with Polynesian influences and is set over 2,000 years ago, Bush and David Pimentel got help from the Oceanic Story Trust. They would help vet the story, dialogue, drawings, and more. Basically, they are there to help make sure the movie is culturally appropriate.
52 – Hei Hei, the rooster, is a local figure on the island. In the earlier treatments he was actually smart and an honorary character. However, it didn’t fit, and often times it would clash with Bush and Pimentel to a point where he was almost out of the film. But the directors still wanted him to be in it, so it was up to the story team to find a way to work him in organically. So when they wanted to make him funnier, they took his IQ down, way down. Clements says Hei Hei may be the dumbest character in the history of Disney Animation.
53 – It wasn’t enough to make him dumb, he had to make things complicated for Moana throughout her journey. So not only will Hei Hei add levity, but he will also be a catalyst that puts Moana and Maui in precarious positions where he needs to be saved, and there was a scene that convinced Lasseter that the character could be saved from being written off.
54 – There is a lot of collaboration between all of the departments, all of them trying to flesh everything out for the betterment of the story. Each of these departments will ask questions. But everything is about making sure the audience understands what emotions the characters are going through. That is always key, whether it is writing, or drawing, or even music. It is all to service telling a great story.
55 – Even with Disney now exploring theatrical animated sequels, the writers and story team are just trying to make each movie great. No one holds anything back. But even with all the great ideas, there is a chance that the film cannot hold it or be fit into it. If something doesn’t make it in, it doesn’t mean that they are holding it for a sequel, it just means it cannot fit into this particular movie.
56 – The Kakamora, or the evil coconuts, happened very early on during the writing process. They are loosely based on a Hawaiian legend of mischievous guys. But they weren’t coconut clad or sentiment coconuts. But their role has changed during the course of the production, particularly how aggressive they are. Early on, they were comedic. but then they changed to be a serious threat. As the story moves through the fantastic world, the writers wanted audiences to feel as though she could die. And the Kakamora were the ones to make those stakes real.
57 – Pua is a supporter and comforter to Moana. None of the animal characters are anthropomorphized, meaning they are just animals. They don’t talk or even walk like a human. Originally, Pua was supposed to be on the journey with Moana to service her struggle and help her become the character that she will be in the end.
Developing The Effects For Moana
58 – A large portion of the film takes place on the water, with our lead characters on a boat. But water is also a character, as is a giant lava character. Since water is pervasive in the film and is an important part of the culture itself that binds these islands together, the visual effects team wanted to do something really ambitious that would be really cool but also honor the culture.
59 – The visual effects team would often talk to their sister companies, Pixar and Industrial Light and Magic, to talk about what the boundaries in visual effects are, and can they surpass them. These conversations are held during the early development process. But it was important that they make water as appealing as a setting and a character as possible. So a software program called Splash was born.
60 – Moana has 80% effects shots, and since a lot of the movie spends its time in the water, a lot of those effects are water effects. To put that into context, Disney’s Big Hero 6 had 40% effects. So there were a lot more effects here.
61 – While the effects team could solve the problem for the water, there was the larger issue of figuring out how water would interact with the boat and the characters. So what they did is, slice off a portion of the water around the boat and then add the Splash effects to do more interesting effects. Then it is integrated back into the larger body of water.
62 – Beaches are also an important part of the world of Moana, as they have a lot of interesting parts to them with the ocean water, the interaction of the waves crashing on the beach, the water washing up on the shore as they make the sand wet. There was also deep ocean water, agitated water in the middle of stormy seas, giant cresting waves, and waterfalls. Basically, a lot of water that the effects team had to consider.
63 – The effects team had to make it as streamlined as possible so they had this idea called foundation effects that would help the “foundation” for timing, scope, and scale. So then the effects artists would later go in and add in more interesting effects that would later be seen in the movie. Here the effects artists actually built a huge library of foundation effects that could actually be in the movie. They are fully realized 3D elements. One example would be water spouts where the effects team would build different water spouts which would then be put in a shot by a layout artist.
64 – To make the water interacting with Moana look believable, they would take the animation surface from the animation department and flow water along the surface so that it would break up that edge and silhouette. This would give a watery nature. As the character would move around, the effects team would also add splashes that would accentuate the performance. For the enveloping interior, just imagine if you filled up a clear plastic bag with water, and shake it, there would be some noticeable bubbles swirling around on the inside. They would do the same thing with the water character.
65 – The lava monster that is introduced is a very wrathful creature that has an emotional range of one being calm to ten being very angry. So the effects team wanted to give a lot of elements to what the creature is. Effects as small as dust falling to as large as lava plumes really add to the production value, and you will most likely see that when the character appears. There was a lot of exploration as to what this character could look like and the effects team had to consider how big the flames coming out of her hair should be or how many lava drips there should be to keep with the continuity of the character.