Why Moana is Disney’s most complicated CG animation yet

Moana and Maui - Credit: Disney
Moana and Maui – Credit: Disney

It’s been three years since Disney Animation Studios released ‘Frozen’, the most successful animated movie of all time, during which time the studio has also released ‘Big Hero 6’ and ‘Zootropolis’ (both big hits in their own rights), all while simultaneously developing its most technically complex movie to date.

‘Moana’ doesn’t just mark the return to the world of musicals for the animation giant, it also marks the return of two of Disney’s most successful co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, with the filmmakers responsible for ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Aladdin’, and ‘The Princess and the Frog’, making their first ever CG-animated movie.

It’s a mammoth task for the pioneers of hand-drawn animation who’ve not just had to learn a whole new discipline, they’ve also got to deal with water – famously one of the most difficult things to animate – and lots of it. Oceans of it to be precise.

“The majority of the movie is set at sea”, explains producer Osnat Shurer.

“There’s water, there’s lava, and none of the sets are static, they’re on a boat and always travelling.”

Producer Osnat Shurer, the voice of Moana Auli'I Cravalho, directors John Musker and Ron Clements - Credit: Disney/Hugh E. Gentry
Producer Osnat Shurer, the voice of Moana Auli’I Cravalho, directors John Musker and Ron Clements – Credit: Disney/Hugh E. Gentry

The animation veteran is the woman tasked with guiding these two directors through those choppy CG waters, but as she puts it “animation is animation, and they’re animation greats.”

Here’s what we learned from Osnat about the challenges of ‘Moana’ (in UK cinemas 2 December), the innovations required to bring the Pacific Island-set adventure to the big screen, and the puzzle of how to top ‘Let It Go’…

Yahoo Movies: What challenges have Ron Clements and John Musker faced in directing their first 3D animated film?

Osnat Shurer: It’s a very interesting transition. It’s a transition Brad Bird had to do with ‘The Incredibles’ too.

Animation is animation, and they’re animation greats. So it’s all about the story and it’s all about acting. And all of that – they definitely have down. What they needed to learn, and what gets confusing in computer animation, is what you’re looking at, and when.

It works in a completely different process. In traditional animation, you finish a sequence, you’ve finished that sequence. It’s done.

In CG animation, there’s layers and layers that they’re able to review, and go, ‘OK, that rock doesn’t look right’, but it’s like ‘don’t look at that’. ‘Well the sky doesn’t look right’ – ‘don’t look at that’. You have to teach them ‘just look at this’.

And so learning that and getting used to what to look at, and when; what you’re committing to, and when; what’s hard and what’s easy is very different in traditional animation versus CG animation.

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In CG we have to create and rig the models, so let’s say ‘how many transformations can Maui have?’ That’s the kind of thing that in computer animation it has to be limited and very specific, because we have to model them. In traditional animation, you just draw it, and you can have a hundred.

So some things were harder to do in CG that they had to learn, and some things were easier and so much more promising like the ocean.

Maui is covered in moving tattoos, including a miniature version of himself dubbed
Maui is covered in moving tattoos, including a miniature version of himself dubbed “Mini Maui” – Credit: Disney

Or creating a character with all those tattoos for example, like Maui [the demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson], in traditional animation that would be incredible – what we call – pencil mileage. You would just have to draw that over and over and over again. In CG, you create it and now it moves.

So what’s easy and what’s hard, what comes when, those are things you have to learn, but the bottom line is telling a good story, and understanding animation. Knowing what you can bring to life, and they’re geniuses at that. They idea of the ocean being alive, with the tattoos that move on his body, all those things are very classic animation ideas that come from people like that.

What new innovations were needed to bring this film to life?

There were a lot of innovations on this film, because it’s such an FX heavy film.

Our movie was 85% FX, which in CG animation is quite a lot. There’s water, there’s lava, and none of the sets are static, they’re on a boat and always travelling. There were quite a few things that were invented for the film. There were a lot of smart people writing incredible programs. They wrote three different programs for the sea, one for distant water, one for midway water, and one for water very close up, and then a fourth program to stitch all those together.

Then, with the idea of water actually being a character in the film, we suddenly needed a huge collaboration between FX and character animation.

So aside from the programs written specifically to figure out water, they also had this incredible breakthrough where they created these buoyancy tests, to figure out the physics of when a boat is moving on the water and it leaves a wake.

Moana riding the waves - Credit: Disney
Moana riding the waves – Credit: Disney

And if we had to hand draw every single one of those wakes, we’d still be doing that right now, and so they figured out a way to automate that based on what is the wake that’s on the boat, and what is the level of agitation in the ocean.

Another thing that was huge for our movie is we wanted that gorgeous thick long hair, and to have the ability to work with what shapes it creates, which in traditional animation, you’re always figuring out shapes.

So we wanted to have that ability, so that Ron and John could really direct that, so a whole new program called Tonic was written for that, for how the hair moves, how it collides with itself, what it does, how it behaves when it’s wet.

We have characters where you have quite a bit of the skin exposed, so in order to really work with an animation, with how muscles really work under the skin, again, incredible programs were written by a lot of very, very smart people, the details of which are a little over my head, but definitely the application of which saved us on this movie.

So hair movement has come along way since ‘Tangled’?

We’ve come a very, very long way. In our world of CG animation ‘Tangled’ [2010] was a LONG time ago, and they did incredible work which was a breakthrough at the time.

But these were… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what our guys achieved on the ocean animation, it’s magnificent what our FX team is able to do. I was blown away by it.

Was the story always Moana’s story, was she foundation of the original idea?

Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, won't have a romance in this film - Credit: Disney
Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, won’t have a romance in this film – Credit: Disney

From after our first trip, the idea of a young woman destined to be a female navigator was the leading light for us for the movie. It’s very much her film, she’s in it from beginning to end, and while it’s her transformation story, she’s also an agent of change.

Everyone around her is dealing with identity questions. Her father and her cultures, reconnecting to the past. Maui, who’s lost touch with who he is and he regains that, and later on in the movie you’ll see more characters that that happens with.

So she helps bring a renewed identity and connection with who each one is into the film.

So yeah, from the moment we decided it’s her story we worked very hard to keep it her story. It’s not easy in a film where one of the characters is magical, to keep it the story of your main character, because the magical character always wants to steal the movie, but it’s a fascinating challenge, and that’s a lot of fun to make it work.

If you can make it work, because we can all identify with Moana. We don’t shape shift. We all have dreams and we all get told by others who we’re supposed to be, and we need to get in touch with our inner sense of who we’re meant to be, so I think she’s a character we can all identify with.

What can you tell us about Taika Waititi’s first drafts and whether any of that survives in the film?

He always jokes that he’s made two films [‘What We Do In The Shadows’ and ‘The Hunt For The Wilderpeople’] and had two kids since he started working on this movie*, which is true, our movies take a long time.

Taika has this incredible sense of humour, it’s a combination of his background, and it’s cheeky and it’s lovely, and he brought a beautiful authentic tone to it, but also a mischief into the characters that, yes, is still there today.

Though the story has transformed a hundred times since then, since he worked on the film. We did stay in touch with Taika and he gave us notes, and usually it just elevates most of the humour. We’re big fans of his movies.

*Read what Taika Waititi had to say about first draft script on ‘Moana’ here.

So the story has evolved since then?

It has evolved from that. But everyone who’s touched the film has affected the film, and certainly Taika as the first scriptwriter on the movie, bringing his own Maori background into this has helped inform the film, definitely.

There’s the a very thin line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, so what will be the moment that you learn whether you’ve got it right with this?

The design of Maui faced some criticisms from Pacific Islanders - Credit: Disney
The design of Maui faced some criticisms from Pacific Islanders – Credit: Disney

There’ll be a lot of moments like that I think, and at every stage of the game we’ve tried to find that line. Animation is incredibly collaborative anyway, and so we’re all very used to collaborating and used to everyone on the film brings so much to it, so for us to expand that circle and include our Oceanic Story Trust*, to include people from within the culture, both as advisors – within the trust – and inside of the film.

If it’s Taika, if it’s Opetaia Foa our songwriter, if it’s our cast who all have Pacific Island backgrounds, so we’ve looked to co-create the film. Clearly it’s a work of the imagination, and the imagination of Ron Clements and John Musker is pretty rich.

It’s a rich, big wonderful imagination that’s brought us so many incredible films, so it’s a balance, a collaboration. Our big dream and hope is that people are happy with it, but you never know. You do your best, keep your heart in the right place, and your intentions in the right place, and just hope for the best.

*The Oceanic Story Trust is a team of Pacific Island academics, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and historians employed by Disney to advise on the film.

Tell us about Maui’s design, because there’s a risk when you make him larger than life – physically – that could be offensive to Pacific Islanders.

We thought a lot about the design of every one of the characters, and we worked with our Oceanic Story Trust members and our fabulous character designers that we have at Disney, to create each and every one of the characters.

With Maui he’s an amalgam of a lot of ideas of who Maui is. We’re not talking about one culture, we’re talking about many, many Pacific Island cultures. The movie is set very early on, before Tahiti was settled, before Hawaii was settled, before New Zealand was settled, but we spoke to people from every one of these cultures as we were putting it together.

It was very important that he be larger than life, that he be big, and strong, and capable – he’s a demigod, you don’t want him to look like the guy next door.

And it’s animation. If we’d wanted to work in live action, we’d have worked in live action. In animation you can do things like make the ocean alive, you can make a tattoo character come alive, and you want the character to, in a sense, embody the characteristics.

We collaborated on the design and came out hoping for the best.

Everyone’s very excited to hear the soundtrack – what’s this film’s ‘Let It Go’ moment?

It’s really hard to tell. On ‘Frozen’, we didn’t entirely know that that the ‘Let It Go’ moment would go on to be the ‘Let It Go’ moment, because there were so many fabulous songs. My office was right next door to them and I knew when I first heard it, that song is really good.

We have some incredible songs in this movie that are collaborations between those three, it’s an amazing thing to watch, and I hope one of these becomes a Let It Go moment but I have two or three to vote for, so we’ll have to wait and see what the audience thinks.

How did Lin-Manuel Miranda cope with writing this while he was dealing with the work on ‘Hamilton’?

We knew his performance schedule, 8 shows a week, and we had regular meetings at least twice a week. They would be in a specific time for him, between the time he arrived at the theatre and before the show, but some of the demos in our movie, the demos for the songs were done in his dressing room with other cast members from ‘Hamilton’.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on stage for his hit Broadway musical 'Hamilton' - Credit: Getty Images/CBS Photo Archive
Lin-Manuel Miranda on stage for his hit Broadway musical ‘Hamilton’ – Credit: Getty Images/CBS Photo Archive

I’m not complaining, we had some pretty good sound on this movie right from the top.

He’s very fast in how he works but he also is a deep thinker, so we would always figure out the amount of time he needs for some thinking, so that we could collaborate back and forth.

We also had different people in different time zones all over the world, so some of the scheduling was challenging, and he was busy, but he was always available to us. This is first love When we first interviewed him he came into the room and said to John, ‘I’m in this industry because of ‘The Little Mermaid’’.

So his love for this and his joy at getting a chance to do this, and his facility for working with multiple cultures and bringing them together, which is what he’s done in some of his earlier shows he’s written, it really came through in the film.

So the combination of Mark, Opetaia, and Lin, while all over the world was really powerful. Yeah, we might be on a phone call and he’ll have to take a call and be like, ‘oh I just won a Pullitzer prize, what were you saying?’

So a lot was happening in his life, and he had his first baby during the making of our film, so a lot changed in his life, and yet he’s one of the most humble, down to earth together people you ever want to meet, so it never became weird.

‘Moana’ is coming to UK cinemas on 2 December, 2016.

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