Disney’s new fantastical, Polynesian adventure, Moana, is premiering just in time for the holidays. Moana has reunited directors John Musker and Ron Clements who worked on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess & the Frog. Voice talents include Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as the demigod, Maui, and Auli’i Cravalho who is debuting as Moana.
Moana is a tale about a chief’s daughter, Moana, who teams up with a shape-shifting demigod, Maui, in order to save her people by ending a millennium of unrest at sea. Maui teaches Moana how to become a wayfinder — a voyager of the sea who only relies on signs of nature to guide them on their journeys. Wayfinders are deeply rooted in Moana’s past, and Polynesian culture as a whole.
The entire cast and crew of Moana hope to submerge its audiences’ into Polynesian culture and inspire them to take on voyages of their own.
Story artists are usually the first part of the crew to go into the film, and the last part of the crew to come out. David Derrick is one of those story artists — he worked on Moana for two and a half years, while the head of story was on it for three years.
Story artists have to visualize the entire story from start to finish, and are given the most freedom when trying to turn words into pictures.
“We have a lot of freedom to kind of be the first cinematographer, the first director of a scene, the first actor,” Derrick said.
Story artists build sequences of the story and put them all together, so the entire crew is able to watch it like they’re watching the actual movie.
The work done to create Moana was nothing but collaborative — the cast and crew had to work hand-in-hand with one another to get the finished product even if it meant they had to scrap months of hard work.
“We all give each other notes and decide what’s working and what’s not working,” Derrick said. “We’ll end up doing that eight times throughout the production of Moana, and each time we re-drew the entire film.”
Derrick described story artists as “the cutting room floor.” Him and the other story artists of Moana created over a hundred-thousand drawings, but most ended up being thrown out.
The story artists were always striving to find the right characters and the right moment. As soon as all the scenes start flowing together naturally, the story artists begin putting in the real dialogue and music.
As soon as the story is put together it heads toward animation — where they bring drawings to life with their rich and vibrant detail.
Hyrum Osmond, the Co-Head of Animation, oversees all animation from beginning to end. Osmond was saddened because, as head of animation, he doesn’t get to animate as much as he would like, but he found himself working on the animation of Moana the most.
Scenes and characters are assigned to different animators, and once an animator is done with their scene they meet with Osmond and the other heads of animation, as well as the directors, to begin the reviewing process.
In this process, they all work together with the animator to give feedback and critique on the animation of the scene.
It was not all smooth sailing for the crew when creating Moana — they experienced many hardships, even though they went into it very optimistically.
Directors Clements and Musker understood the mana of the film; mana is a Polynesian word meaning spirit and strength. The crew may have been working together effortlessly, but the characters and cultures were not.
“At a certain point we had too many characters and they weren’t quite working and connecting,” Derrick said. “The story and the culture were just not working together.”
Chris Williams and Don Hall, directors of Big Hero 6, came onto the crew of Moana as co-directors to help figure out and drive the story.
This period of transition was very tough for the entire crew because they had to get rid of numerous characters, Derrick said. One of the characters that was almost cut was the rooster, Hei Hei, who can be seen with Moana when she first encounters Maui.
The animation team experienced challenges they have never faced in previous films.
“All of our films before had clothing,” Osmond jokingly said. “This is the first film where all that anatomy and musculature is exposed, so that was a little daunting.”
The hair of the characters was also a challenge for the animators because it was long and wavy, and in other films it’s either short or straight.
One of the major characters in Moana is the ocean — Moana has had a very special bond with the ocean since she was a child and she always finds herself coming back to it.
The ocean needed to be able to emote and connect, but the regular tools animators typically use did not enable them to do that. They had to create new tools to add the detail they wanted.
“My whole career as a story artist I was told to keep the [characters’] hair short, make it straight and if there’s water don’t touch it because that’s just really expensive and hard to do,” Derrick said. “And in this film they were always going to have wavy hair and they were always going to interact with the water.”
There were some characters in Moana that were quick to animate, but there were also some characters that required more time and attention to detail, such as Moana and Maui.
Maui was the most challenging out of all the characters to animate because he had so much muscle they had to make look right. His body was also covered in tattoos that animate, Osmond and Derrick said.
Osnat Shurer is the producer of Moana and she made it her goal to have a cast that came from Polynesian heritage, which was another challenge the crew went through.
They had open casting calls throughout the Pacific and would find people who can either sing or act, but not both. Everyone was afraid they would have to find two people to play Moana, until they met Auli’i Cravalho.
“We really lucked out with Auli’i — she’s just an incredible, incredible gift.” Derrick said. “There’s like an authenticity to her performance that really only a fifteen-year-old could do and it really comes out.”
People are saying Moana is the Polynesian princess—she’s Disney’s next princess, but she breaks the stereotype of being a princess by going off on her own adventure to save her people and discover her own identity.
“To me she’s not a princess — she’s not defined by her relationship with another man,” Derrick said. “She is defined by her culture and her people, and I find her to be an incredible role model.”
Going to the Pacific Islands completely changed Musker’s and Clements’ perspective about the story. They brought back with them a Polynesian saying that really resonated with them and the entire crew — know your mountain.
The saying means you have to know your ancestry in order to know where you’re going, and you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from — you have to know your mount, Derrick said.
This is very big message to Derrick himself because his ancestors were Samoan, and he also thinks this message is what makes Moana who she is.
“Her ancestors become a compass and a guiding force in her life,” Derrick said. “I think whoever you [are], wherever you come from, you stand at the end of a long line of genealogy and history, and you can use that to inspire you.”
Osmond also loves the messages of ancestry and identity Moana portrays because it’s good to know who you are and to have the courage to be what you can become. Osmond is also the father of four children and he loves the messages Moana is able to teach them.
Moana was a great experience for the entire cast and crew, including Derrick and Osmond.
“Working on the film was a gift,” Derrick said. “I don’t know if I’ll have such a personal, intimate relationship with a film as I did on this one, and I’m just grateful for it.”
Moana is out in theaters now.
Contact CU Independent Arts Writer Kalley Velarde at firstname.lastname@example.org.