Everything Is By Design in Disney’s Moana

©Disney Pictures 2016

Disney Pictures

There is something to be said about Disney and its love affair with Hawaiian and Polynesian/Pacific culture. With Moana, in theaters today, we are once again introduced to the beautiful Pacific with Disney’s new princess.

However, unlike in Lilo & Stitch, there is a bit of a misconception about this film. It is not a Hawaiian film at all—instead, it centers on the South and North Pacific lore of the demigod Maui by reinventing much of the preexisting stories and intertwining them with newly created stories. And while Maui could have easily been the star of the movie and overshadowed the titular character, he instead exists mostly as a plot device to move the story forward. Moana is, rightfully so, the true star.

This film is the story of an adventurous teenager who sets sail out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) meets the once-mighty Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master way-finder. Together they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds. Along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she always sought: her own identity. Of the two main voice actors, it is Cravalho who steals the show in her breakout performance as the titular character. And second to her, while this may come off a bit odd statement to make, the ocean itself is one of the most emotionally charged characters throughout the film. 

Earlier this month, I sat down with Marlon West, who led the effects department in both creative and technical direction of Moana, to discuss the process of his work on creating one of the movie’s most memorable characters: the Ocean.

Marlon West, Photo by Madeleine Vasaly

Marlon West. Photo by Madeleine Vasaly

So what exactly does an effects animator do, and what role does West take when working on a project, such as, Moana? “As the head of effects . . we’re in charge of bringing all of the physical world to life,” he explained. “The water, the lava, the smoke . . . and with Moana in particular, there were several challenges. The water, the ocean, itself is a character in this film, so that is a cross-department challenge—because character animation would need to be provided a sock-puppet kind of character for them to animate the ocean with. And that very much did not originally look like water, so we would then be tasked with doing a water simulation. And so again, that was another three-department challenge.”

When asked about the types of field research that are involved in producing this film, West said that John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Disney and Pixar, is “a big proponent of research. And so our directors and production designers, heads of layout, heads of look, our head of lightning, our heads of story, our production designers all went to Tahiti. We did some research of our own; I’m not a sailor, but I thought it was really important to try and get the water right, so we did a lot of research with trying to measure how far we can see underwater . . . We did a lot of research. We attempted to go and see some volcanoes close-up, but there were none going off, and no one willing to take us close to any. So we, in some cases, had to do our own research.”

Te Kā. Source Collider from D23

Te Kā. © Collider from D23 2016

During the process of creating, Moana, West noted that there were some differences in the final character designs as compared to the original concepts, particularly with the character Te Kā. He explained the evolution of how a character can change throughout the process of preproduction until even after their first screening at D23:

“You know, our characters go through a lot of iterations, based on the story we’re trying to tell at any given time. So there were versions of the film, where Te Kā’s character in the film was a bit more of an older, craggly character. For various reasons, including “Why another old crone?” . . . it just stopped being such a humanlike character. She was more of a monster now. And it has a personality, and a motive, but does not have a very clear agenda. . . . So that’s more representative of a creature and villainous character, and through the process became more of a character. There are a lot of designs that they show at D23 because they’re really pretty, but they may not be the direction we are going at that time, but it’s probably the nicest painting we’ve had at the time.”

©Disney

Disney Pictures

As most artists often include a signature into their work, I asked West whether he had one that he liked to incorporate into any of his movies.

“I try not to, myself,” he said. “There are things that I enjoy doing as an effects artist. I’m a big fan of doing lightning, so I did a lot of the lightning in Tarzan, during that big fight between Tarzan and Clayton at the end. Even though it’s a completely CG, I did some hand-drawn lightning in Frozen, in the scene where the ship wrecked and their parents are lost. There are so many effects in Moana; we were constantly looking for areas where we could kind of give something to look and lightning. [The rest of this paragraph contains a minor spoiler.] Like, we’re not going to do the effect where Maui’s hook breaks—you guys can make a kinda rough look, make lights. So they agreed because we had a bit of a big plate, but it didn’t quite resonate. We hadn’t bid for it to be an effect . . . so, while we were in lighting, I basically just drew the sparks, hand-drawn sparks, and that that was a lot of fun. And to know that they’re hand-drawn in, like the most low-tech instance ever.”

It was an amazing experience, having been given the opportunity to sit down be able to speak about what is probably my favorite of the princess features since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. While I’m sure this film will have a hard time outperforming the profit-generating juggernaut that is Frozen, I found that this film offers the kind of heart that we’ve come to expect from a Disney film: I’m not crying. You’re crying.

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