It's no secret that Walt Disney Feature Animation's next film, Moana, looks different from anything they've ever done before. But what you may not realize is just how steeped in Disney tradition the film really is. On a recent visit to Disney's animation studio, I was surprised by how much the Moana team draws on Disney's rich past while also being innovative and original.
I suppose I shouldn't have been to taken aback, given that Moana is directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, or as everyone else refers to them, "Ron and John." The duo have been co-directing Disney animated films since the mid 80's and their films include The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and The Princess and the Frog. Both directors have spent more than forty years at Disney and began their careers when some of Walt's Nine Old Men were still there. Ron, for example, worked with Frank Thomas when he was a new hire at Disney.
When Ron and John talk about Moana, you can't help but share their enthusiasm for this film. Based on histories and oral traditions of the South Pacific islands, Moana looks like something truly special, unlike anything we've ever seen before. Both directors were Disney fans before working for the mouse and identified the amazing worlds created in Disney's animated films as the main reason they do what they do. "These movies are treehouses for people," explained John. "They allow you to see the world from a different place."
While the film is named after its heroine, the demigod Maui is the character that will excite most Disney animation fans the most. While Moana is a computer animated film, hand drawn 2D animation comes back to life through this character in the form of his tattoos. Maui's body is covered in tribal tattoos that tell stories of his bravery and heroism, but the tattoos come to life as a conscious of sorts to help guide him.
This is Ron and John's first foray into computer animation, but they've brought a few of their traditional animation friends to the project with them. Eric Goldberg, most famous for animating Genie in Aladdin and co-directing Pocahontas, is the supervising animator of Mini Maui. Animators often say "Animating is re-animating," a play on the phrase "Acting is reacting," but in the case of Maui and Mini-Maui, this couldn't be more true. Working in close partnership with Maui's animation supervisor Mack Kablan, the CG and 2D units have to work together to make sure their animation contributions are perfectly timed. However, this only serves to help both teams feel like one cohesive unit. "I think with this film more than any other that we’ve done recently, it feels like we are one crew," explains Goldberg. "We are the animation crew and we’re working together to achieve the same things in this film. And that’s great, I love that!"
Eric Goldberg isn't the only animation legend back at the studio for Moana. Joining his Mini Maui team is Mark Henn, famous for being the supervising animator on such classic characters as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Belle in Beauty and the Beast and the title characters in Pocahontas and Mulan. But as I learned from every animator that I talked to, everyone begged to work on a Mini Maui scene if they had any free time.
Since Maui's tattoos are all solid black ink, computers were used to create an inverse of Mini maui. The animators pencil lines become invisible in the film, the blank space of the character's skin, while the white space of their paper becomes solid black. As a result, Ink & Paint as it existed in the CAPS era is not utilized in this film. But the biggest technical challenge is keeping the tattoos in place on Maui's body when they come to life, especially when Maui and Mini Maui both move at the same time.
Moana is still about two months away from its Thanksgiving release date, but I am already counting the days until the film is released. When I visited the studio at the end of July, there was still a lot of work to do. I learned so much about Moana and the animation process during the tour and will be revealing more about the film in future articles, so be sure to check back soon for more.