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Head Of Animation Hyrum Osmond And Story Artist David Derrick Jr on Disney's latest: Moana

Moana is the story of a young Polynesian heir ineffably drawn to the one thing that her community opposes: venturing out into the ocean, like the little mermaid was so drawn to land, like a monster to Boo, and like an ambitious rat was to the culinary arts. 

Moana Head of Animation Hyrum Osmand (Zootopia, Frozen, Wreck It Ralph, Tangled) and Story Artist David Derrick Jr. (How To Train Your Dragon, Flushed Away, Bee Movie) talked with the press in a roundtable before speaking to the visual arts students at the University of Denver. Tucked away in a corner of the university, David tapped into what made Moana so personal to him, allowing him to segue easily into the film’s themes of Polynesian ancestry and culture while Hyrum explored the unique challenges this particular film offered Disney’s elite animators. 

disneys moana animated movie

Q.Michael J. Casey [Boulder Weekly]: On the Oceanic Story Trust... Who was part of it and what did they bring back from it? 

A. David [Story Artist]:

So initially like Ron and John, the directors, they had a certain idea for the film they wanted to make, and John Lasseter, a good friend of theirs - they went to Cal Arts together and are really close - is a stickler for research... and he said if you’re going to tell a story set in the Pacific, you need to go there. So they went to the South Pacific, or they went to the Pacific in General... And when they got their and they experienced the culture and the people, it completely changed the story they wanted to tell. A lot of people don’t realize that the Polynesian culture is a rich and vibrant culture that’s still alive today, and it’s often misunderstood.  

And so, through that first trip, they established an oceanic story trust that build up over time. Some of the members, even, in our all star music group [like] Opetai Foa’i of Te Vaka (Music Group) he’s from Samoa and he’s Tokelauan, and he was also like a cultural consultant as well as a composer for the movie. Each one had different roles, there was a man named Papa Mape, who passed away before the film came out sadly, but he had a quote that, to us, really imbued the purpose of the film, he said “You guys have swallowed our culture, for once let us swallow you” So for us it was a very beautiful journey, but it was very important that the cultural aspects were watched and that we did it right. 

Q.Alicia Cohn [5280 Magazine]: This is the first Polynesian Princess movie, what does that mean to you/did it affect the process?  

A. David:

Well, thank you, you just opened a huge door for me [laughs]. Because my eldest daughter’s name is Sumaya, named after my ancestor Sumaya Foa’i, part of my ancestry comes from Samoa, and working on this film for me was a gift and a privilege. It was very important to me. I went back to my hometown in Utah and went out to a place called Iosepa... When the first Polynesians came to Utah they were segregated out to this place called Skull Valley, that they named Iosepa, and she died there. And I made a rubbing of her grave, and I put it up above my desk every single day, reminding me why I was making this movie. It was both a thank you and an apology at the same time, thanking her for this rich heritage that most people don’t fully understand and an apology for the way she was treated, and Polynesia in general. So for me, the fact that we were setting out to make this the right way was super important to me. And also that it was going to be about Moana. This is a heroine who is strong, she’s the daughter of a chief. [They’ll] probably put labels on her outside of Disney animation, like that she’s a princess, but for us she is a strong daughter of a chief who is not defined by who she marries or who she’s related to, and she fights for her culture.  

Q.Aaron Hunt [Cinelinx] Was Moana (the character) always there from the original conception?  

A. David:

No it started with Maui. John Musker really loved the stories of Maui. His stories are ubiquitous throughout all of Polynesia. And in my Samoan genealogy the very first man is Maui. And so it’s not just a myth, it’s genealogy and it’s important to all the different islands. So when they got there they thought it was fascinating to discover this deeper aspect to it. At first it was lighter and funner but after they learned the importance of Maui it changed everything. So they built kinda a true grit model early on: there was a young girl who set out to do something that seemed beyond her, and she needed to find someone with the tools - and that person would be Maui.  

Q.Michael... And connecting all the Islands is the sea, which in this movie is literally a character, can you talk about animating believable water vs character water? 

A. Hyrum [Head of Animation]: 

So that was one of the bigger challenges on the film. But it really came down to a very collaborative back and forth between effects and animation. That amazing crew handled  the look of the water and the believability of that water. For us, we had to create a character that could emote, that you could connect with without facial [features] or a body -- you know what I mean? It was a very difficult challenge, but the crew did an amazing job. And I think what worked well was we would animate that water in dailies with the directors and that would get approved, and then it’d go to effects to get the ripples across the water... And there was a lotta back and forth making sure it was just right. That it wouldn’t take you away from the performance... But it worked! 

A. Davis:

And story wise it was always very tricky, because it was like saying ‘We’re gonna make a Road Movie, and the Road is going to be a character.’ So we had to make sure that the ocean never helped too much, that it never brought them exactly where they needed to go, that there was still adversity in this goal. And they call it out several times in the movie, you know, they say ‘The Ocean is cooki dooks’ And then you ultimately understand that it wants healing. The ocean in the western point of view is seen as something that divides, but to the Polynesians it’s something that unites. So that was a huge thing that we wanted to land. 

Q.Michael: Another thing is that there’s a lot of weight to it. Like when Moana gets knocked under the water, you really feel the force when the waves are coming down on her. What’s the key to animating that, making those 1’s and 0’s believable and have actual weight to them? 

A.Hyrum:

Observation. That’s my general answer. It’s just a lot of back and forth. All of those shots looked horrible until they didn’t. And it really is just a back and forth until it finally feels right. 

A.David:

But even then you have that great quote... We’re not going for reality. What’s that Mark Henn quote?  

A. Hyrum:

Okay so Mark Henn, you know Mark Henn? 

Q.Michael: The animator. 

A.Hyrum:

Yes, legend. He was given a presentation from the Moana crew way back in pre-production on Frozen. And he made this quote where he said “we’re not trying to create realistic characters, we’re trying to create believable characters that audiences can connect with” So realism is actually not what we’re after. You’re going to see some very beautiful things in this film, but the performance, that genuine performance -- connecting with the characters, that’s the goal.  

Q: Michael: I think the close up of Maui’s face with Moana in the background while they’re sitting on the raft, I think it’s night or something, but there’s a real emotion in his face... but it doesn’t -- Do you guys run up against like, okay we’re going to hit the uncanny valley if give a little too much texture to his face? Where you’ll have to pull it back... Where do you draw that line? 

A.Hyrum:

Yes, we were very conscious of that. Fortunately we had an amazing look department. Bill Schwab in visual development designed the characters, he was also very conscious of making sure that we didn’t get into that uncanny valley... 

We didn’t want this realistic feel to the characters. You notice with Tala, because she’s old, we didn’t want to go super realistic with a lot of wrinkles because it almost pulls you out of the performance when it gets a little too close to that. So again, there was a lot of back and forth, and when it finally felt right, Okay this is it, this is where we need to stay.  

A.David:

Another thing, that you (Hyrum) said yesterday: There’s no motion capture. It’s all just keyframed.

Q.Michael: Do you ever have actors come in and perform, like they used to in the 40’s to act as models? Or is it all in the computer?

A.Hyrum:

No, it’s all in the computer. The way our process works -- All together our animation crew is about 93 animators. Everyone has a different work process. A lot of people use video reference, but we’re always encouraging them to, use their reference, but to go beyond that reference. Don’t be tied one to one to that reference. But what we did do was, whenever the voice talent would come in and record, we would record them. In fact our supervising animator Mack Kablan actually sat in the recording booth with them. He sat with the Rock for like hours just watching him. And I don’t think Dwayne even knew why he was really there, but he was, and again he wasn’t watching so he could animate 1:1, he was looking for those little nuanced things that Dwayne would do, to put those into his animations, to get that performance.  

It’s fun [laughs]. 

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Q. Alicia: There’s some scenes in this film that have two different styles of animation, could you talk about that a little bit? What were the challenges of doing that?  

A.Hyrum:

Yeah are you referring to Mini Maui? Dave would you like to talk a little about the evolution of that?  

A.Dave:

Yeah, so in storyboarding we’re kind of like the marines. We’re the first to come in and the last to come out. We built the film like 8 different times, we tear it down, and we try to get the story in a good place so that Hyrum only has to animate it once. Because we’re the cutting room floor, animation should not be. So as Maui was developing we always had tattoos. And tattoos are not fun to draw. First of all you have to draw all of him, and then draw all of his tattoos, so sometimes as story artists we started to just play around. We thought maybe he could like grab a tattoo and spin it or do something with them. And people really responded like “Oh this is neat! We’re getting somewhere!”  

And then we’re in the meeting, and the idea came up. What if we actually made it a character? And that character is kind of an extension of him, and he’s been on this island forever... At one point we had him talking to himself, but if they were his tattoos that’d be great! And so we invented Mini Maui off of that, and every screening there was just more Mini Maui and it was really fun. 

A. Hyrum:

... And so he became a character in the film and we ask Eric Goldberg, who animated the Genie from Aladdin to supervise that character. He had a crew of hand-drawn animators, and that’s one of the neat things about this film... It was all hand drawn, Mini Maui, on paper [laughs]. And then they scanned it in, and we imported it onto Maui’s geometry using Maya (Animation/Modeling software). That process was really cool for a lot of the people on the crew because Eric Goldberg, one of the guys who inspired us to become animators, we actually got the chance to animate a shot with him. And it was CG, hand drawn, back and forth until it was just right. So it was kinda a special thing. 

Q. Aaron: I was curious about Maui’s shapeshifting, I imagine there were different variations before you got to where it is in the film.  

A.David:

Yeah story-wise we played around with a lot of things. It’s funny how the story process works. We had ideas very early on that Maui would transform into like half of a whale or part of a shark. And then we lost those ideas for like two years! And kind of at the very end we were like “Oh yeah! That was a fun idea! Let’s try that again!” But we always knew Maui was going to transform, and it was always a big part of it that as soon as he got his hook that that would activate his powers and he would get that back.

A.Hyrum:

There was a long discussion, with the directors, early on in preproduction about how is is this transformation going to happen, how is it going to look good? And ultimately it was like lets kick it to the animators and see what they do, see what they come up with. So animation went and tried these things, and I love where we landed where it’s always him sort of pushing through into his next form. And then the forms themselves, which again Bill Schwab -- 

A. David:

Oh yeah! So originally he just turned into like a bad-ass version of a shark or hawk, whatever it was, and it didn’t look like Maui. But then Lasseter said “I don’t know... Sword and the Stone guys that’s what we wanna do.” You know when Merlin is changing into all of his animals it still looks like Merlin and you know its him. So we did a whole second pass where the tattoos would come and stay, and there’d be a hint of his hair and eyebrows.  

A.Hyrum:

If you look at the hawk in the film, you kinda have to look close at it, but the hawk has tattoos in the patterns on his wings... So that was fun.  

Q. Michael: There’s a lot of talk about you guys working with Eric Goldberg, and Disney Legacy, whether it’s the nine old men, or if it’s Mark Henn and Glenn King and stuff... Who are the animators that are working now in 3D computer graphics that future disney animators are going to really latch on to and be like “okay that’s who I wanna work with, those are mentors!” 

A.David: 

Oh, Hyrum Osmand! [Laughs]  

A.Hyrum: 

I will say Mack Kablan, who supervised Maui... Well I’m just gonna throw out some names here because I respect them so much: Jenn Haeger who supervised Tamatoa, Malcon Pierce, who supervised Moana, Justin Sklar, who just animated on the show... but their work’s phenomenal. And what blows me away -- sorry Adam Green too, he’s also awesome -- What blows me away is that each film, this crew, we’ve crewed up a bit  and we’re a pretty large crew, but each film they’re just taking it to another level... And I’m just seeing the crew’s ability go up and up, and it’s at such a sweet spot right now: the genuine performance we’re getting out of these animators.... 

So there’s so many, I could give you a whole list...  

Q.Michael:And you’ve been with Disney Animation since Bolt right? 

A.Hyrum:

Yeah.

Q. Michael: I assume Moana had to be in production at the same time as Zootopia, do you guys trade things back and forth, like here’s a gag we couldn’t use so you guys can use it? 

A.Dave: 

In my experience the story will overlap, but when it gets to production -- like you [Hyrum] were with Moana, but your whole crew was probably on Zootopia. So he’s kinda preparing away, getting ready for them, [while] we’re moving on Moana. We have to make sure that jokes aren’t overlapping and different things, but the interesting thing is, like Hyrum was saying, that the culture is that everyone’s all in and everyone’s invested in all the films. So all of the animators end up touching it. With story it’s a little bit different, because I was supposed to be on Zootopia initially. But because of my ancestors I was like there’s no way I’m leaving Moana, I’m staying on for the whole time. 

A.Hyrum:

And usually, at some point during production it’s all hands on deck. We were actually pretty fortunate on Moana. Typically not all of the crew works on the show, but we reached this point where there was this time for every single animator in the studio to work on Moana, which also made it pretty special. But yeah, at crunch time, everyone gets involved. 

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Q. Aaron: What’s a typical set day look like? How does a consistent vision funnel through a big crew and all these departments? 

A.David: 

Moana was tricky because we had four directors if you look at the list. So we had Ron and John, they’re phenomenal, they’re legacy... But at a certain point, in all the movies I’ve ever worked on, you kinda get lost in the weeds a little bit and you need to get course corrected. So Chris Williams and Don Hall came in fresh off of Big Hero Six, and Chris Williams actually storyboarded early early on a scene that established the tone for the whole movie. They asked him to do an experiment. In storyboarding it’s fun because we’ll come in very early, sometimes before there’s a screenwriter, and so they said we’re gonna do something in the Pacific Ocean, there’s a girl and the ocean’s going going to be a character, it’s going to be something that connects. So Chris William’s went ahead and boarded that crazy scene, that you’ve probably seen in trailers, where there’s a little toddler and the ocean opens out. And that was just him visually exploring and it was like “Oh! We have something!” So he ended up coming back later onto the film. Chris and Don they kinda separated. They would focus on just story structure and making sure that was moving and then Ron and John were over everything day to day, and they’d be in all your dailies and everything.  

Q. Alicia: Do each of you have a favorite character?

A.Hyrum: 

Yes, I love them all, they’re like children, right? But Tala, I just love Tala, in every possible way. I think from design, to the voice talent - Rachel House was so great! She makes the film for me.

A.Dave: 

For me it was Moana. People did silly caricatures of me like dressed up as Moana. Because I really identified with her. As you guys know in the movie she feels this draw to the sea, and it’s kind of pulling her from her home and her family, but she still wants to be loyal to it and she can’t figure out why. And then she realizes it’s because of this ancestry she has, that her ancestors were great wayfinders. And then she goes into that cavern of the wayfinders. And for me that’s how I felt this whole movie on a personal level. That there was a richness to this culture that I had an understanding of, but it went so much deeper. The Polynesian culture created the largest cultural footprint of any culture prior to European expansion. Nobody teaches you that in history. They were able to navigate from Tonga, Samoa, to Hawaii to Rapa Nui Easter Island, to New Zealand, to Tahiti, and many different islands without any technology. Just with the art and the culture of wavefinding, and for me I’m so glad we celebrated that. So I love all the characters, but Moana specifically is real personal to me. 

A.Hyrum: 

But Tala’s still the best. [Laughs] 

A.Dave: 

Well Tala puts her on that path! 

disney moana posters preview

 Go see Hyrum and Dave put their passion to work on Disney's Moana, in theaters now. 

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