Over the past thirty years, Ron Clements and John Musker have spearheaded some of Disney’s biggest and most beloved films. In 1986, the two directors helped bring Disney’s spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to life in “The Great Mouse Detective”. In 1989, Clements and Musker’s “The Little Mermaid “took cinemas by storm, ushering in a second golden age of Disney animation. They followed up with a string of hits that includes classics like “Aladdin” and “Hercules.”
That’s one heck of a resume, and yet, despite over thirty years of experience with Disney, “Moana” represents a brave new frontier for the accomplished directors; the film, which releases on November 23, 2016, will be Clements and Musker’s first-ever 3D-animated film.
While Disney hasn’t produced a 2D-animated feature since 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” — which Clements and Musker directed, naturally — hand-drawn animation is alive and well at the studio. Not only did “Moana’s “team make extensive use of traditional animation techniques during pre-production and production, one of the film’s most endearing characters, a living tattoo known as Mini-Maui, was animated entirely by hand.
Disney’s classic animated movies influenced a huge number of animators, many of whom ended up working on “Moana.” “Many years ago, a film came out called ‘Aladdin.’ I saw that film at least eight times in the theater,” says Hyrum Osmond, “Moana’s” head of animation. “Fast-forward to today, where I am working with Eric [Goldberg], Ron, and John…. It’s a total dream come true. You can talk to anyone on this crew and they’re going to have a similar feeling.”
“One thing that’s great about this studio is the history of drawing,” agrees Malcon Pierce, one of “Moana’s” animation supervisors. “[Drawing is] how we communicate between departments.” For example, instead of giving written notes to modelers and animators, the team in charge of bringing Moana to life physically drew on top of 3D-rendered footage. Expression sheets, or guides that animators use to make sure that characters’ facial expressions are both on-model and consistent, were created by hand.
But ultimately, Moana is still made by a computer, not human hands. By contrast, Mini-Maui actually fuses 2D- and 3D-animation together. In the film, “Moana” teams up with Maui, a charming, boisterous, and slightly conceited demigod voiced by People Magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In Polynesian culture, body art is used to denote rank and social status. As such, Maui is covered in tattoos, each of which depicts one of Maui’s many heroic deeds.
According to veteran animator Eric Goldberg, the hero in these drawings, Mini-Maui, “isn’t just a moving tattoo. He’s a personality. He has a function in the story.” Throughout the film, Mini-Maui travels across Maui’s body, acting as both comedic relief and Maui’s conscience. Mini-Maui also represents a massive technical achievement, as one of the first fully 2D-animated characters who interacts seamlessly with the 3D world around him.
Goldberg and his assistants animated all of Mini-Maui’s motions the old-fashioned way: on paper. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Because regular Maui interacts and responds to his tattoo counterpart — say, flinching when Mini-Maui pokes him in the belly, or sending Mini-Maui stumbling when the demigod flexes his muscles — Goldberg had to coordinate his animations with big Maui’s movements.
“This was the first chance I had to work with 3D animators,” says Goldberg, a 39-year animation industry veteran and co-director of Disney’s “Pocahontas.” Using a process animators call “plussing,” Goldberg and the members of Maui’s animation team went back and forth to create sequences that explored both Mini-Maui and regular Maui’s characters. For example, in one sequence, Mini-Maui gets Maui’s attention by pulling on one of Maui’s tattoos, then snapping it like a rubber band. First, Goldberg and the other animator decided on which frame each action would take place. Next, Goldberg made a quick pass at the initial 2D animation. From there, Maui’s animator, Justin Webber, altered Maui’s body so that it trembled in response. Clements and Musker added their opinions, adjustments were made, and finally, at Goldberg’s suggestion, editors added a soft, pained “Ow!” from Big Maui himself.
But that wasn’t the end of the process. After the clean-up artists put the finishing touches on Goldberg’s drawings, the technical team needed to map the animations onto the 3D model. However, unlike paper, the human body isn’t a stationary flat surface. Muscles flex and curve, and skin moves along with the characters. In order to keep Goldberg’s drawings from stretching or warping, Disney’s technical animation crew whipped up a whole batch of new technologies that would preserve the integrity of both the modern and old-fashioned animation.
Not all of the compromises between 2D and 3D animation techniques went quite as smoothly. Sometimes, Clements and Musker asked for changes that pushed the animation team to its limits. “As the story evolved, the directors kept thinking of new, interesting, fun things to do in the movie,” says technical supervisor Hank Driskill, “and repeatedly, those of us left actually executing the movie were going, ‘Um, we don’t know how to do that.'” After all, while 2D animators can simply produce new drawings, computer animators need to build digital objects, set them up or “rig” them for animation, and figure out how to produce new effects before they get down to animating.
Blending traditional and modern animation ideas and techniques wasn’t easy, but the “Moana” team thinks that the effort was worth it. So far, critics and early audiences seem to agree. “Moana” might be one of the most technologically advanced animated films ever produced, but at its heart, it still has the same charm, warmth, and humor that’s made Disney a household name for almost 100 years.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and starring Auli’i Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson, “Moana” also features the voice talents of Alan Tudyk, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and Temuera Morrison and original music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It arrives in theaters on November 23.
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