There are a number of cutting-edge advancements in Disney’s Moana that will take your breath away. The 56th feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios is from the legendary directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker (their filmography includes Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, The Little Mermaid, Hercules). It follows a headstrong young navigator, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), who travels across the ocean to restore balance to her island home and return a magical artifact to its rightful resting place. Joining her on this quest is Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a cocky demigod who takes responsibility for most of the good things that have occurred for mankind, and who has his own relationship with the mystical artifact.
Maui is covered in tattoos, part of an ancient tradition, and since he’s a mythical character with supernatural abilities (he can transform into various animals and has superhero-like physicality), his tattoos are also alive. One tattoo in particular, a miniature version of himself that the Moana production team has lovingly dubbed “Mini Maui,” acts as a comic foil to the all-powerful being. Mini Maui can’t talk;he’s a classic example of pantomime animation. The Maui’s relationship is all looks and gestures. It’s a hoot.
And as funny as Mini Maui is, he’s also a huge technical triumph and one of the more dazzling visual aspects of Moana. He was brought to life via traditional 2D animation, led by animators Eric Goldberg and Mark Henn (who, between them, have animated the Genie, Belle, Phil, and Mickey Mouse), working alongside the 3D animators, continuing a trend in recent Disney productions of convincingly marrying hand drawn and computer animation. The effect is astonishing and not just because it’s a technological marvel. Mini Maui is a fully formed character able to pull on your heartstrings, make you laugh and triumphantly cheer.
At the recent long lead press day for Moana (at which participants were handed a Mini Maui temporary tattoo), I got to sit down with Goldberg and head of animation, Hyrum Osmond to discuss everything that went into creating this amazing little man.
It turns out that Mini Maui started off as a much smaller character (playful wordplay very much intended). “He started developing in the story reels,” Goldberg explained, referring to the earliest version of the movie when different aspects of the story are tested and re-tested. “I’ll tell you the piece that I remember when Mini Maui came into the fore: It was in one of the early story reels—this gag is not in the movie anymore–when Maui dives into the water, he looks over at Mini Maui, and it looks like Mini Maui has drowned. He’s like, ‘Little me! Wake up!’ And he starts to give him mouth-to-mouth, and Mini Maui gets up and goes, ‘Blech! Ack!’ It got a huge response internally from the crew. Even though that gag isn’t in the movie anymore, what the takeaway was was that we needed more of that–more of that relationship between these two characters.”
As the story evolved, “more and more Mini Maui” was added. He became a favorite of much of the crew, including directors Clements and Musker and chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios John Lasseter. “They just wanted to see more of that character in the film,” Goldberg said. “It made me happy as a clam, and I love the fact that it is a relationship, it’s not just this thing moving around on him; it’s a character.”
But it’s one thing to create a character that works on an emotional level and an entirely separate thing to have the character come to life as a fully integrated and believable character. And the technical challenge was daunting. “There was a lot of discussion early on how to do it, and it was actually a pretty tough process, trying to figure out how to do it.” Osmond admitted. “Actually, even right now, it’s not an exact science. It’s very much a back and forth between CG and drawing.”
I asked Goldberg what the relationship was between himself and Henn and the 3D animators who brought non-mini Maui to life. “What’s great about being under John and Ron’s leadership is they are very collaborative, and they suffuse the production with that sense of collaboration,” Goldberg explained. “A good idea can come from anywhere in their films, so we’d be in issuing and say, ‘We have a Mini Maui scene coming up’—issuing is just ‘Okay, which animator does which shot?’ and the directors give their take—and so, I’d be in there for the Mini Maui scenes, and the CG animators, who were assigned big Maui, would be in there as well, and we’d start talking about what’s required. And so, one of the CG animators might say, ‘Hey, I think it would be fun if Big Maui did X and Mini Maui reacted to that,’ and I’d say, ‘Great!’ And I’d make a little doodle and say, ‘How about that?’ And John and Ron would go, ‘Yeah, good!’ And we’d go back and confer, and we’d work out the timing together.” There was a playful sense of experimentation and collaboration, and Osmond said, “And I remember shots where it was like, ‘Aww, that didn’t quite work!’ And then we’d just go back and rework it.”
Since Maui is covered in tattoos, and Mini Maui is part of his chest piece, I wondered if the filmmakers had worked up a set of “rules” for the ways that the tattoos behaved and interacted. “You do it on a scene-by-scene basis. A lot of it is worked out in story, but you do it on a scene-by-scene basis,” Goldberg said. Osmond noted that you really have to pay attention to Mini Maui to appreciate all the nuance of the character. “There are a lot of moments where, if you weren’t paying close attention to Mini Maui, you’ll miss it,” Osmond said. “If you go back and track what Mini Maui is doing, there are a lot of little moments of him doing something there while the conversation [between Moana and Maui] is happening.” As if you needed another reason to see Moana again.
In terms of personality, Goldberg described Mini Maui as “Big Maui’s better self.” And you get this impression when watching the footage that we were shown, including a sequence where Maui is thinking about leaving Moana behind, but Mini Maui stops him. “[Mini Maui] is his conscious but he has his own attitude, and he is absolutely able to give him the stick every now and then, which is a hugely fun aspect of the character,” Goldberg said. “But to a certain extent, he’s a part of him—physically, and spiritually, he is part of Big Maui. There are aspects to both of them that are similar, and aspects that are different, and he has to be different enough to be able to act as Big Maui’s conscience, so that you get that. There’s more broadness, more caricature to Mini Maui’s movement because he’s tiny and you have to be able to read these things in a graphic way, and so his movements might be more stylized, might be a little more exaggerated, and a little quicker, in order to get to those crystal poses that really read.”
Of course, a character grappling with weighty moral issues while chatting with a tiny character on his shoulder will definitely make you think of another Disney sidekick. But that character was only part of the inspiration for Mini Maui. “We all quote Jiminy Cricket as one of the best conscience sidekick characters, and I know that’s certainly one of John Musker’s favorites,” Goldberg said. “I don’t think we looked at Jiminy Cricket footage—okay, I’ve memorized most of it because I’m a huge geek, but I never really thought of animating him like Ward Kimball’s animation of Jiminy Cricket. I think he’s his own character. There are certain aspects to animating a character with that kind of graphic design that you have to respect the design aspects of that character, as well as the performance aspects of the character. If, all of the sudden, you have a movement that doesn’t work with the graphic design, it’s going to fall apart.” Goldberg then added that he followed one of Walt Disney’s motto to make the “plausible impossible,” meaning that character needs to be believable, even if there’s no way that the situation could really happen. “This couldn’t really be a tattoo animating, but it really is this character animating as a graphic tattoo.” That’s Mini Maui in a nutshell.
Moana opens in theaters November 23.