A Voyage of the Heart
Visits to the people and places of the South Pacific inspired the crew of Disney’s Moana to dig deeper and use every tool at its disposal make a movie that lives up to the reality. By Tom McLean.
A New Kind of Hero Voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, Moana herself is a different character — though her father is her island’s chief, she’s not a princess in the traditional Disney fashion. Conceived as a vibrant, tenacious and compassionate 16-year-old, getting the right look for her was essential, says character art director Bill Schwab, who sought balance between a distinctive look for the film and the Disney tradition. “We want them to feel like they came from Disney, but we also want them to have their own style,” he says.
Designs went through a rigorous process of testing to ensure every detail was correct. “We really do sweat the details,” says Schwab. “We’re looking at Moana from every angle so that we can put the camera anywhere and she always looks great. We spend a lot of time on all these things — anatomy in general was a big thing on this film — and make sure it looks great.”
The version of Maui that ends up in the film is an amalgamation of the various incarnations of the deity that exist across the different cultures of the South Pacific. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui has a long mane of curly black hair and is covered in tattoos that chronicle his many feats of heroism. He carries a magical fish hook, and has the ability when wielding it to transform into animals or birds.
“When Maui transforms, it is initiated by a big anticipation and then an action, pushing from one form into the next,” says head of animation Hyrum Osmond. “We’re doing it in a way where you almost don’t need the lighting and the effects, it just feels right, the consistent movement from one form to the next.”
Making Maui even more unique is one of his tattoos is a character in his own right. Dubbed Mini Maui, the tattoo is animated in 2D and follows in the tradition of Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket.
“More than anything, he is Maui’s conscience,” says animator Eric Goldberg, who worked on Mini Maui. “Since Maui is a bit of a trickster, Mini Maui is there to pull him back from some of his more trickstery attitudes.”
An Ocean in Motion Setting is essential to the story of Moana, which means that the ocean is as much a character in the film as Moana or Maui.
“Water is pervasive in this movie,” says Hank Driskill, technical supervisor. “We knew that Moana and Maui would spend a lot of time on the water. It’s also an important part of the culture and the mythology as well, so we wanted to be really ambitious with our water.”
The crew developed a new way to solve water in the computer that was dubbed Splash and was used to generate open water shots of the ocean. For shots where Moana’s canoe is seen in the water, the area around the canoe was cut out of the Splash-generated water so effects like the wake, splashes and foam could be applied; it was then reintegrated into the shot with the Splash-generated water.
Splash operated using distributed computing, which allowed the solver to run on multiple computers that could communicate with each other and operate like a single processor.
This is just one example of the heavy effects work on Moana. About 80 percent of the shots in the movie feature effects, compared to about 45 percent for Big Hero 6, says Hank Driskill, technical supervisor.
Additionally, the ocean is also a character in the movie and the effects crew had to figure out how it was going to interact with Moana and Maui.
Head of effects Dale Mayeda says an ocean water rig was set up to allow animators to create a performance with the ocean. A fluid simulation was done to flow water along the surface, while splashes were added to accentuate the performance and another fluid simulation
was done inside the shape of the animated section of ocean to make it match the rest of the water effects.
Keeping It Real On the other end of the effects spectrum was Te Ka, a giant creature made of lava who stands in the way of Moana and Maui’s quest. A lot of variations were done on Te Ka, who Schwab says turned out to be an epic undertaking.
“Every department had to be involved, even from a design standpoint: How does lava work? What kind of lava is it going to be?” says Schwab. “Something like that could easily go too real and finding that balance was tough.”
Marrying the characters to the environment was another key goal that required a lot of prep work on behalf of the animation team to achieve.
“We spent about a year just figuring out the characters, how they act, so once the animation team rolled off Zootopia and we started animating on this film, we had a pretty good grasp of who Moana was and who Maui was and that way we could give all that information to the team,” says head of animation Amy Smeed. “We really want Moana to feel 16, and we really want Maui to feel powerful. … We try to do as many animation tests as we can to learn through that process: how they should move and how they should act; what makes them unique from each other and from past films we’ve been on.”
“We always say you can’t animate a charac-