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INTERVIEW: Moana Creators Talk Film’s Secrets, From Music to Mini Maui

by  in Movie News Comment
INTERVIEW: Moana Creators Talk Film’s Secrets, From Music to Mini Maui

Though they crafted a film so instantly beloved and critically acclaimed that they might be tempted to say, “You’re welcome,” the filmmakers behind Disney’s animated musical sensation “Moana” are expressing their own sense of gratitude.

CBR sat down with co-director Ron Clements (a legendary Disney Animation stalwart responsible for “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” among others) and producer Osnat Shurer (a veteran of Pixar’s short films) as the pair celebrated the March 7 Blu-Ray release of the Academy Award-nominated feature film (co-director John Musker, Clements’ longtime collaborator, was under the weather).

During our wide-ranging conversation revealing some of the secrets behind “Moana’s” most effective and original elements, it also became clear that they were overwhelmingly thankful: for the positive, embracing response, for the profound inspiration they took from the Polynesian people and culture, for efforts of the legion of artists and craftspeople who contributed along the way.

CBR: One of the things that really struck me about this movie was how beautifully you captured the beauty of the region. I’m curious how the actual area inspired you and pushed you forward on an artistic level, a creative level, a technical level, just to even accomplish that to begin with.

Ron Clements: First, that was the goal from really early on. Once you go to those places and experience, we wanted to do that, we want to try to capture that. There was a general goal with the movie, I think, to give the audience a little bit of the experience that we had doing the research just going to these places and going into that world, and yet, I think we notice right away that, even if you look at the photographs, they don’t capture it, in a way, as when you’re there.

Osnat Shurer: They don’t capture the experience as much.

Clements: The goal became to capture the feeling rather than the literal reality.

Shurer: So we sent our artists, our production designer was with us on the trip, we sent other artists, our environment designer, our director of photography for layout, and director of photography for lighting, and head of environments, and our head of animation, they all went to the islands on these trips.

Clements: For whatever reason, we never had trouble convincing these people! [Laughs]

Shurer: It was surprising. “You sure you want to go to Tahiti?” And people, they did what they did, which was take sky shots and do all these things for reference. Our head of lighting did some diving with a rig he created with colored balls to see where light falls off. Then when we came back, our art director for environments pitched an approach to the film, because everything was so sculptural, it’s also the artistic tradition on the islands. Sculptural, it’s three dimensional, it’s not flat. And the islands are that way because of the wind and the weather and all of that.

The stylistic look of the film has kind of the motion of the clouds, and of the mountains. The ocean was a huge, huge part of the film. It’s a huge part of what you see and feel in the islands, and was a very big part of what we had to solve. How do you do that? How do you capture the look of it? How do you assign it a character? How do you capture those incredible colors of those lagoons? Because it is stunning. I actually think our team’s mind-bogglingly good, and production designer, Ian Gooding, who also did “Princess and the Frog,” is a master.

Clements: That’s a big part of it, the talent of the people in terms of achieving the goal. There’s the goal, which is a noble goal, and then to see it realized, and it’s like, “Yeah!” They work really hard, but they know what they’re doing. They captured, I think really effectively, that feeling.

Shurer: Yeah, there’s a lot of sort of academic kind of research that goes into it. What were the plants that were there 2,000 years ago? Where, for example, the whole way that the village is set out on the island of Motu Nui is based on the research. Where would the chief be? Where would the group home be? Things like that. In the end, it’s their mastery, I think, to imagine it, and then to make it real.

Ron, coming from the traditional animation background like you do, was it better to tell this story with the technology of today, rather than try to capture it representationally?

Clements: I believe so. I love hand-drawn animation, and I would like to see a future for hand-drawn animation, but for this particular movie, for all these various reasons…and early on, we discussed the possibility of doing it hand-drawn, but even if it were just because of the ocean, if it were only the ocean and no other reason whatsoever, I think that made it to do what we did in the ocean digitally compared to what we could have done, no matter how much hand-drawn, I think made that the right choice.

But it’s not just the ocean. It’s the entire environments, and the lighting, and the feeling of the world. So I think absolutely that that was the way to go on this. But doesn’t mean that every story is the same.

You got to have your cake and eat it too a little bit with the Maui tattoo element of it. That’s such a terrific device to have some fun with the character, and to tell story without dialogue. Tell me about the lightbulb moment of that concept: “Let’s use this great tattoo art of this culture and tell more story with it.”

Clements: I’d say it’s a three-step process. Very early on, I think almost at the beginning, it’s like, “We’re going to have tattoos, we’ve got to have tattoos in the movie, we’re going to have tattoos. The tattoo should come to life.” Sue Nichols, an early development artist, did drawings of that. So I think that was there from pretty early on. But the big lightbulb I think that came was in the middle of the story process, as the Mini Maui character sort of emerged.

Shurer: We started a little bit playing with the Mini Maui character, and in one of our screenings, it came up really strongly. The ocean and this Mini Maui, we called him, the Maui tattoo, are the two most unusual sidekick characters anybody’s ever seen. Let’s really give them a seat.

Then when we figured out the psychology of Mini Maui, he’s the conscience. He’s like the Jiminy Cricket. He’s like, what do you mean you’re not going to help her? He starts being on her side. You’ve just got two people on a boat for a big section of this movie. Suddenly, you have these other characters who have an attitude towards the two main players. Then we bring on Eric Goldberg.

Shurer: We’ve worked with him before, of course.

Clements: We thought, “This is right up Eric’s alley…”

Shurer: We got all the best 2-D animators in the world on this. So then they would come up also with additional ideas of what Mini Maui could do. So by now, it was an important character. What ended up happening is that Eric and the CG animator who was working on that shot, would have to work together. There’s often shots where he’s using a finger, and it’s affecting the tattoo.

So now, not only we have to figure out the mapping under the skin, but also they have to work together. On frame 14, he will bend because I’m going to do this. And that was an incredible joy. We’ve taken the 2-D and 3-D, and brought them together in a way that they’ve never been brought together in the studio before. Our animators were over the moon.

Clements: It’s interesting. There’s a theme of the movie about interconnectedness. That’s part of the islands.

Shurer: That’s true.

Clements: And in this movie, in two ways, the living ocean brought character animators and effects animators together, where they had always been separate before, and they were connected. They had to sort of work back and forth. Same with Mini Maui. It brought 2-D animators and digital animators together in a way they’d never been before.

Shurer: The joy of our animation team to get a chance to work with Eric and Mark Henn, and with Ron and John, which they didn’t know they ever would get a chance to do, it was a very, very big deal. It was awesome.

The music, obviously, is phenomenal. Smart choices with a little bit of luck also worked out for you, in having Lin-Manuel Miranda on your team just as his rising star was about to go supernova. Tell me how that offended what you guys were doing in the storytelling.

Once you realized the quality of the songs you had, how much of the story they could tell themselves, and how much the visuals you had created would add to that. It’s such an interesting dynamic.

Shurer: It’s a really important one. It’s very important.

Clements: We’d done musicals before. We worked with Howard Ashman in the early days.

Shurer: They articulated this really clearly: that one of the keys to a musical is that the songs advance the story. We don’t let the story stop and start a song, which is sort of a rookie mistake. Ron and John are not rookies! So we get Lin-Manuel Miranda – brilliant. Just brilliant, and lovely, a wonderful person to work with. We’ve got Opetaia Foa’i from the islands off in New Zealand and Samoa that we’re working with. Mark Mancina, who helped bring sort of the Elton John / “La Bohéme” songs together.

Clements: That was the idea, as we got into this, this is a little different kind of musical. It’s not Broadway. A little more like “Lion King” with that team.

Shurer: Then they would work, mostly we would all meet a couple of times a week, via wonderful technology, thank goodness for technology.

Clements: Tuesdays and Thursdays!

Shurer: Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, right before [“Hamilton”] curtain call. We would also have the writer on the film, Jared Bush, work with Lin back and forth. We would work in story, and get as clear a brief as we could. We had to be very clear with, actually you have to be clear with every artist, but certainly with Lin with the limited time and with everybody being all over the world. What’s happening here in the story?

Sometimes, as we would get together at a screening or something like that, it would come from the song side. “You know what, we really need a song here that celebrates the culture of this island before we move on,” and that came from the musicians.

On the story side we went, “Oh my God, they’re absolutely right. Right here is where you really want to buy into the culture. Before she has to make this choice, we need to celebrate the culture a little bit.” That came from Opetaia. We’re used to collaboration, so it was fully collaborative. Something would come from the musicians, come from the directors, come from the story team, and then that kind of gestalt would happen.

Clements: That differed then, say, a stage musical, how a stage musical is developed between the book and the songs.: For example, like the Maui song, I think from pretty early on we thought Maui would have a song. We pretty early on thought Dwayne was going to be involved.

Shurer: We listened to songs from his wrestling days.

Clements: Turns out Lin is the biggest Dwayne Johnson fan.

Shurer: Total wrestling fan! Watched it growing up.

Clements: And he’s like, “I’m going to get to write a song for The Rock!” It’s like, you knew he was chomping at the bit to write that song. But it’s like, “We’re not ready for that song yet because the story is still [forming].”

Shurer: There was a time when before she met Maui, Moana was his biggest fan. That would be a very different song than, “What do you mean you don’t love me? Let me tell you who I am.” So sometimes we move forward, we inched a little forward into a song before we were quite sure, but at the time it felt right. Other times we waited until it was more whole.

But I have to say, Lin was holding this idea of “You’re Welcome” from the moment he started thinking of a Maui song. So this was very much Lin.

The European fairy tale has influenced Disney output for decades and decades. You guys have immersed yourself in this rich culture. I’m sure you’re going to want to make a hard right or a hard left and do an entirely new environment for whatever you do next, but do you see more fodder for stories, particularly for Disney animation, in the Polynesian culture? Could it be a well to be tapped for future movies?

Shurer: I think what we came upon was a very, very rich well of storytelling, of mythology, of music. There are others, though. There are others that we haven’t even tapped. There’s so many. There’s parts of Asia. We’ve never told a Bollywood story. What I think this helps to do is break out of just the European place that we’re all so used to being in. But would it another? Maybe. There’s plenty of storytelling there to be told. I think after five years, we’re probably going to…

Clements: I think John Lasseter is particularly excited about [this world]…

Shurer: John fell in love with this.

Clements: John’s approach for the most part, maybe true of Pixar and very much in Disney. is before you get in the story, he wants a world that excites him. That’s sort of the first goal: “Give me a world.”

If somebody, here’s a great story, it’s got great characters, and it works, and all this, and John looks at it, “But I don’t like the world. So I don’t care how great the story is if the world [doesn’t exite me].” I think that’s a little different than our way of thinking. I think John is excited about, there are more worlds. Explore more worlds and find other worlds that we haven’t tapped.

Shurer: But yes, it’s an incredibly rich world. Are we going to continue? Who knows? At this point in time, who knows? I can tell you that we’ve made friendships with people on the islands, that will be there for life. So the relationship will continue.

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