Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Moana, opening in theaters on November 23, is insanely gorgeous. It’s the type of movie that will make your jaw drop and your heart soar all at the same time. The story of Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho)—a young girl who dreams of saving her island and returning a fabled object to its rightful resting place—is one that is inspiring, adventurous, and, thanks to a legion of technicians, and artists, beautifully told. Along the way, she teams up with fallen demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), battles monsters, and learns a lot about herself.
At the long lead press day for the film, I got to talk to Amy Smeed, the head of animation, and Bill Schwab, the art director for characters, as well as Hank Driskill, technical supervisor, and Kyle Odermatt, visual effects supervisor, on how they brought the film’s fantastic water effects to the big screen. Together, these amazingly talented artists will give you an inside look at how Moana came to life.
One of the things that ended up being a huge part of the film, but wasn’t initially, was the fact that Maui (seen here) can transform into various animals (hey, he is a demigod). “We spent a lot of time with design and modeling and everything else on transforming, which is awesome,” Schwab said. “That’s something I did not anticipate.”
One of Maui’s transformations was particularly challenging: the Maui-as-a-hawk character. “A feathered character is an enormous challenge, and on my end, I didn’t know,” Schwab said. “I’d never worked on a feather character.” Smeed added: “For us, it’s so artistic, we don’t always know what the technical challenges are until someone says, ‘You can’t do this thing, or else this other thing is going to blow up.’”
Looking at this amazing artwork, it’s fascinating to see just how many different stylistic paths artists explored before arriving at the final designs that wound up in the movie. “It’s interesting, that’s why we did that sort of style blitz, if you will, because, we were coming out of another film, with a few other designers at the time and I think we had time, and that’s when we really went with a scatter-shot approach. We went really cartoon-y, really graphic, and that’s why we built a handful of models,” Schwab said. “None of it made it into the movie, but it was super informative.”
When discussing what’s important for the characters, Schwab had a singular concern. “I think for me, making believable characters is what it’s all about,” Schwab explained. “Every film sort of wants to have its own style, and I feel really good about where we landed.” Looking at the designs in the movie, it’s very easy to agree.
I quizzed Schwab on what he thought his favorite design in the movie was, considering how many characters are in the movie (and how varied their looks are), and his answer came easily. “I designed Maui and Moana, and I’m very proud of those characters,” Schwab said. As he should be.
The authenticity of the characters and their designs and costumes was in part thanks to the filmmakers’ consultation with a group they call the Oceanic Story Trust. The Oceanic Story Trust was important to the Moana production, as it was made up of musicians, anthropologists, historians, tattoo experts, fishermen, and elders who are from the Pacific. They were able to offer unique cultural, historical, and mythological context. “We met with them on design, costume, character design,” Schwab said. “We would take them Maui and Moana and say, ‘This is where we’re headed.’ It was a huge part of the filmmaking process.”
When the characters (and the movie itself) moved out of the design phase, there were still plenty of challenges ahead, particularly when it came to the water effects of the film, which required a new program to be developed (called Splash, naturally). “Certainly the ocean water is a huge part because we put the bar so high for ourselves,” Hank Driskill, technical supervisor for the film, said. He noted that there have been water sequences in the past few movies–the opening of Frozen, Hiro and Baymax skimming the bay in Big Hero 6–but nothing compared to what was required in Moana, especially because filmmakers wanted it to look really great. “We not only wanted to raise the artistic bar, we wanted water that looked better than any of the water we had done before,” Driskill said. “But also wanted to do hundreds of shots with it, so those two combined into a very big challenge for us.”
In Moana, the ocean is a character in of itself, and has a distinct personality when interacting with the titular character (like in this scene progression). Visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt said that an early test of a baby Moana interacting with the ocean, which was screened last summer at D23 Expo, became a huge part of the film. “We had the water character come up in that test, but we had no idea when we showed John Lasseter, whether he would say, ‘That looks too caricature,’ or ‘That looks too realistic.’ Thankfully, he loved it, we had loved it to that point. When we finished it, he said it was one of his favorite pieces of animation that he had ever seen — and by animation we mean the entirety and visual — the lighting, the environments, the water. I think that’s still true for him, and that’s actually why it’s still in the movie because it wasn’t originally,” Odermatt said. “It was in and out of the movie, it was in in a different way, and then we just all said, since it had only been shown at D23 and a couple of other places, ‘We want everybody to see that.’ And that actually became a big mandate for story. Incorporate that in, as is, and make sure it has a critical piece of the storytelling, and they did a marvelous job of putting that back in. And John said, ‘I want it to be just like it was as a standalone.’” When you see the sequence in the context of the movie, you’ll see that it’s not just like it was at D23–it’s better.
Towards the end of my interview with Schwab and Smeed, I asked how they felt about the way the movie looked, overall. “I really feel good about the design of this film,” Schwab said. “I think that we have something special.” Smeed added: “I love the design so much.”
I do too.
See Moana in 3D on November 23.