Take a look behind the scenes of Disney’s Moana movie!
Near the beginning of 2016, Walt Disney Animation Studios captured hearts and minds with the studio’s 55th animated feature, Zootopia. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the clever animal allegory pulled in more than a billion dollars worldwide. Now, for the first time since 2002 brought us both Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet, we’re about to get our second animated Disney film of the year with Ron Clements and John Musker’s Moana movie. Clements and Musker, whose legendary directing work together at the studio includes The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog, are telling a grand fantasy adventure rooted in Oceanic mythology. What’s more, they’ve assembled quite an interesting mix of talent to properly tell it. Moana boasts original music by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, a script by Thor: Ragnarok‘s Taika Waititi, and voice cast led by newly-discovered actress Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui, a shapeshifting demigod. Throw in a pig, a chicken, a volcano god and living tattoos and you’ve got a small taste of what the Moana movie has in store.
ComingSoon.net was recently invited to Disney’s Tujunga Campus in Burbank, California for an inside look at what goes into bringing a story as ambitious as Moana to life. As is the case with most animated features from Disney, the early research stages involved visiting islands across the South Pacific to make sure that everything in Moana — fact and myth alike — are completely true to the islands where they were born.
“We eventually assembled what we call our Oceanic Story Trust, which is a bunch of people that we talk with on these trips,” says Moana‘s Senior Creative Executive Jessica Julius. “They’re from many walks of life. They’re academics, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians. But also tattoo masters and navigators and fishermen and elders, artists. As many people as we could we met and we were really lucky to learn from. They shared their knowledge with us and their stories with us. It was really an honor to meet and learn from them. And it really fundamentally changed our filmmakers. To me, that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen – the filmmakers came back changed and moved by what they saw and deeply inspired.”
“Every draft of the script, every change would be sent to the Oceanic Story Trust to get their opinions,” explains screenwriter Jared Bush. “And it helped us sometimes that they’d say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’Or they’d say, ‘I can see you guys trying to be safe. You don’t have to be that safe with this.’So it was definitely this great conversation.”
At the same time that the Moana movie team was exploring the island history and mythology, artists looked at the environment itself down to the smallest detail.
“If you’ve been to Hawaii or anywhere in the South Pacific, or really anywhere, you come back with a memory of that place,” says Art Director Andy Harkness. “That’s what we wanted to do in this film with color. So it’s heightened. Everything’s more saturated, pushed. We did find though that sometimes the color was so saturated we just could not believe it. In the water in particular. It’s the deepest blue. We took a trip from Morea to Teti’aroa and there’s an area in the boat where you go underneath and you can see through a window into the water. It was just florescent. I could not believe how blue the water was.”
“We started delving into the details of what makes this place what it is,” Production Designer Ian Gooding adds. “Everything from sand composition — which it turns out is completely different close to the water, further away from the water, on the windward side of the island or the leeward side of the island, depending on the wave activity. There’s a lot of organic debris that gets washed up with each wave and it creates a nice design on the beach with these sort of interweaving lines. Normally that’s the sort of thing people leave out, and a resort will rake the beach every night to make it all nice and clean. We found beauty in that, and we wanted to keep that in the movie.”
Central to the story of Moana — and to the island culture that it pays tribute to — is the Pacific Ocean itself.
It’s an important part of their mythology,” explains Technical Supervisor Hank Driskill. “It’s a binding force between their islands. It was really, really important for us to capture the essence of what we saw. What we brought back from the imagery and the videos from what we saw on the early research trips. To that end, we started out early on. We have these great sister companies with Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar, so we started out conversations with them, as we do at the beginning of most of our films. Just to kind of establish what’s state of the art. Between the three of us, we work on a lot of different things. As is part of the fun of this industry, we then went, “How can we do better?”
“Water was the most difficult thing to do in effects on Pinnochio,” adds Dale Mayeda, Head of Effects. “It’s always been something that has been a challenge. Everyone knows what it looks like. If you bring a three-year old to this film, he or she has a pretty good idea how water behaves. You have to make it look real. It has to be believable and immersive. So yeah, this was a pretty big challenge for us. Usually you can count on your fingers and toes how many water shots there are in an animated film in general because of that complexity. We knew, going into this movie, that there were going to hundreds of shots with fully-realized water. You needed a real running start for that.”
“We also have water as a character,” says Driskill. “So not just water everywhere, but water that has to perform.”
The Oceanic Story Trust was also heavily involved in the development of Maui. Traditionally a trickster demigod, Maui appears throughout Ocean lore.
“[Maui] is the name of a great demigod in Polynesian mythology,” says Mack Kablan, Animator Supervisor on Maui. “The perception of Maui varies across all of the Pacific Islands, but with the consultation of the Oceanic Story Trust, Maui, in this film, is sort of an animated amalgamation of all those inspirations. He actually played a big part in inspiring this film to be made in the first place. Early on, before the incarnation of the story, John Lasseter became fascinated with the setting and the stories of Oceania, and he saw Maui as this superhero-like figure with an element of being a trickster. So he along with Ron Clements thought that he would play really well into an epic comedic adventure film, along with our heroine Moana.”
“Maui presented some unique challenges,” adds Carlos Cabral, Head of Character and Tech Animation, “…Most of our characters aren’t fully clothed, and so we have to deal with anatomy much more than we ever have before, and preserving that anatomy. For Maui in particular, working with [Art Director] Bill Schwab, we wanted to really create somebody with a very athletic male figure. Somebody who conveyed and had a lot of power. So we were looking at pro-wrestlers, football players, and world’s strongest men who carry gigantic boulders and logs; and really arriving at a very muscular, massive body type that encompasses those requirements.”
“The magical fish hook is also a big part of his identity,” Kablan continues, “which he uses on those adventures. He doesn’t only use it to battle monsters and fish up islands, but it’s magical because it gives him the ability to shapeshift into various creatures, and we referred to those as his transformations during production… He uses these to his advantage, whether he needs to swim stealthily through the water as a shark or get into a small space as a lizard, or fly a great distance as a hawk, which is his most prominent transformation. The goal with these characters was to sort of embody the animal form that it takes, but also maintain the essence of Maui. So this is the Maui hawk, and the way to distinguish him from any other hawk is just observing, well not only size, but also his very powerful wing flaps and also the fact that, similar to the other tests, he just sort of lets himself drop when he lands because he’s so athletic he knows how to land without injuring himself, as opposed to a normal hawk that would probably keep flapping until they let themselves down very slowly.”
Maui’s body is covered in tattoos and, being a powerful demigod, they’re a bit more animated than your traditional body art. There’s even a tattoo of Maui himself who becomes an actual character in and of himself.
“Most of these tattoos represent his past accomplishments,” says Kablan. “His deeds of derring-do. And within these visualizations there’s a small figure representing Maui himself, and over the course of creating the story we started to refer to him as ‘Mini Maui’ because he became a character in his own right. He actually has a personality and a relationship with big Maui. He is, first of all, Maui’s biggest cheerleader and supporter. He is Maui’s alter ego, he can be swaggy and confident too, but more than anything else, he’s his conscience.”
There’s a whole lot more still to be revealed from Moana, be sure to check back with ComingSoon.net in the months to come for even more Moana coverage, including an exclusive interview with Clements and Musker. You can also explore some of the newly-released, behind-the-scenes images from Moana in the gallery viewer below. There’s even a first glimpse at Inner Workings, the new short film that will play before Moana when it hits theaters November 23.
Moana also features the voices of Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger and Alan Tudyk. Osnat Shurer is producing.