Moana (2016), Lisa Keane, Concept art, digital painting. © Disney
Moana (2016), Lisa Keane, Concept art, digital painting. © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Mon 10 May 2021

Animating unconventional characters in Moana

AnimationDisney: The Magic of AnimationFilm
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

Whether it's animating tattoos or the ocean itself, character is always at the heart of Disney's beloved movies.

Toddlers on the Polynesian island of Motunui tremble at the feet of Gramma Tala (Rachel House), the self-proclaimed “village crazy lady”, who’s telling the creation story of Te Fiti, the mother island. The only child not wide-eyed with fear is Moana, the future chieftain and Tala’s granddaughter. She’s enthralled by the story of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who stole Te Fiti’s heart to harness its power of creation, and the volcanic demon Te Kā, who sent Maui and the stone to the depths of the ocean. Without Te Fiti’s heart, darkness (and “inescapable death!”) threatens Moana’s island home, but Gramma Tala also prophesises that a brave adventurer will traverse the ocean to find Maui and save their people.

It’s not a story for children according to Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), who reminds his people that they’ll be safe from storms and rough seas if they just stay on the island. As Tui and Tala argue about the prophecy, Moana toddles towards the ocean and shepherds a baby sea turtle to the water. This small kindness invigorates the bejeweled blue sea, which recedes to create safe passage for Moana to venture further. There, the ocean rears up like an aquarium brimming with colourful fish and rainbow coral – as pictured above – before it magically transforms and twists a flower into Moana’s hair.

From this opening scene it’s apparent that the ocean is more than just water in Moana – it's a character who guides and protects the future chieftain on her quest across the sea. Naturally, the film has more animated water than most other Disney movies, and it proved a technical challenge for its animators. “Water is always hard,” co-head of effects animation Marlon West told The Atlantic. “Usually, in animation, we [only] have a dozen water shots.”

The same article details how Disney not only grappled with how to animate the water, but how to represent it with cultural accuracy – as well as other aspects of the films, like tattoos and haka chants. To do so, Disney established the Oceanic Story Trust, an advisory group of consultants from across Oceania who would help the studio get the cultural aspects right. One of these cultural practitioners was the wayfinder Jiujiua “Angel” Bera, who, according to producer Osnat Shurer, would go out to greet the ocean in the morning like he was greeting a family member.

“This left a very deep impression on us,” Shurer said.

You can see that sentiment in the way that baby Moana and the ocean interact in that opening scene. While the film’s animation is almost entirely computer generated (CG), pencil animation tests were often done to help sketch the scenes before the CG water was created. The last time that directors Ron Clements and John Musker worked so extensively with the ocean was their 1989 hit The Little Mermaid, but technology has changed a lot since then and in Moana animating the ocean was assisted by a software program the studio developed called Splash, which simulated the behaviour of different types of water. If there were a boat on the water’s surface, they would set the ocean conditions in Splash and run a simulation “to animate how that area responds to the boat”. Those simulations created millions of data points that the animators then smoothed out into the final renders in the film. Algorithms also helped craft the realistic movement of objects on the water.

“Running these [software] scripts to generate these animations leaves room for the artists to focus on the artistry of the shot, so they have time to create these sweeping shots, and the ability to have the ocean acting as a character,” Erin Ramos, the film’s lead effects artist, told The Atlantic.

But how do you make water act like a character? How do you infuse its immense physicality with human characteristics? According to West, the way it looms over Moana and Tala was interpreted as "agitated and aggressive" by some of the crew, so they literally took the edge off this magical escort by "keeping a portion of the water unnaturally smooth and rounded”, which you can see in the opening scene when it places a flower in Moana’s hair, or later when it helps her back onto a raft.

It was more than just technology that helped Disney anthropomorphise the ocean, with West’s team working closely with Amy Smeed’s team, which leads character animation. “It was a huge collaboration...” Smeed told website Down Under Disneyana. “When the water was a character, we had a very rough rig... almost like a sock puppet. And we would animate the water, and then we would work with the effects animators, and they would make it actually look like water, with the bubbles and the water effects part of it.”

One of the ways the animators perfected those water effects – especially the bubbles – was to study water inside Ziplock bags. It's a very tactile approach to a CG film that comes out looking flawlessly fluid, but there were other old-school approaches to the animation as well. Though Moana was the first fully 3D CG film from Clements and Musker, Disney’s legacy of beautiful hand-drawn animation was kept alive with Mini-Maui, a tattoo character on Maui’s body that illustrates his heroic deeds and achievements, which reflects how tattoos are used to communicate rank and social status in Polynesian culture.

While it’s typical to use sketches throughout production, like in the development of character sheets, Mini-Maui was hand-animated by industry legend Eric Goldberg (who among many other things animated the Genie in Aladdin and co-directed Pocahontas), who recognised that Mini-Maui was a character, just like the ocean. “He's a personality. He has a function in the story,” Goldberg told Comic Book Resources.

To express this, the animation team divided big Maui’s tattoos into quadrants on his body, then worked with Goldberg on creating reactions and ways for Mini-Maui to move across his body – like jumping from peck to peck or snapping a tattoo to get big Maui’s attention. This involved mapping the 2D animation of Mini-Maui to the 3D animation of big Maui’s body, which changed dynamically as the character moved. To achieve this required a lot of close collaboration between Goldberg and Maui’s animator Justin Webber, much like the partnership between West and Smeed.

Whether computer-generated or hand-drawn, it’s clear that Disney’s approach to animation helps bring heart to their memorable on-screen characters – even when they're huge bodies of helpful water or mischievous body art.

Matt Millikan

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