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‘How Far I’ll Go’: The Incredible Journey Behind Disney’s ‘Moana’

‘Moana’ producer Osnat Shurer details the meticulous process of bringing Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Oscar-nominated Polynesian adventure to the big screen.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ sweeping CG-animated adventure Moana takes viewers into uncharted waters with its focus on Polynesian music, culture and folklore. Released in November, the film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and co-directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams.

Grossing more than $533 million in worldwide box office revenue to date, Moana has been nominated for two Oscars – best animated feature and best original song – as well as two Golden Globes, two BAFTA awards and six Annie Awards.

Inspired by stories from Polynesian folklore, the film tells the story of Moana Waialiki, the only daughter of a Polynesian chief on the small island of Motunui. When her island’s fishermen can’t catch any fish and the crops fail, she learns that the demigod Maui caused the blight by stealing the heart of the goddess Te Whiti. The only way to heal the island is to persuade Maui to return Te Whiti’s heart, so Moana sets off on an epic journey across the Pacific to save her people.

Osnat Shurer

Producer Osnat Shurer, formerly head of Pixar’s animated shorts division, explained that bringing the film to the screen has been a long, iterative process, “This movie has had so many different forms, but underlying all of it, there has been the core story at the heart of it that Ron and John pitched years ago,” she says.

Directors Clements and Musker have collaborated on such animated hits as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). “After 35 years of working together, Ron and John can finish each other’s sentences,” Shurer says. “They don’t always agree and they don’t care if there’s a room full of people if they need to sort through things to find the best solution. They’ll argue on something until they either reach a consensus, or one feels more strongly and the other is happy to just go with it. I think it helps us poke holes in decisions, and in animation, there are 5,000 decisions a day. It’s all about decisions.”

Shurer joined the directors and a group of Disney artists on a trip to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti more than five years ago to research the culture and the folklore. Their mission was to experience the islands not as tourists, but as observers, researchers and students.

“We came away from these trips not only with ideas, images and inspirations for our story, but with an even stronger resolve that we wanted to make something that the people we met would embrace,” said Musker. “We aren’t making a documentary, of course; it’s an animated feature and a work of fiction. But our experiences infused our imaginations in a way we hadn’t anticipated.”

According to Clements, the trip “was the basis of the movie in terms of the people’s connection to navigation, connection to their ancestry and respect for nature. A lot of those ideas came from that first research trip and the movie was heavily inspired by that.”

Along the way the team assembled an ad hoc group of advisors the filmmakers dubbed the Oceanic Story Trust (OST). The group included anthropologists, educators, linguists, expert tattooists, choreographers, haka specialists, navigators and cultural advisors who collaborated with Disney’s creative team. “The Trust has deeply influenced the look and feel of this film. The film would not be what it is today without their guidance... And they have stayed involved with the movie throughout its production process to try to capture as much as we could of all the wondrous things we learned, and the wonderful people that we met,” Shurer says.

“We really wanted to honor and respect the cultures that inspired the movie and so we kept working together,” she adds. “Every tattoo was checked with our master tattoo artist. The dances were all choreographed by one of our consultants.”

For the directors, this was their first CG feature film, and Clements remarked that the technology is evolving rapidly, but the process is actually now even slower. “One of the differences in the process compared to a hand-drawn film, is that things develop much slower. Everything has to be built, along with the story, which goes through a lot of changes. The characters have to be designed; they have to be modeled; they have to be rigged. Every element of the environment has to be built. There are so many tests and so much research going on that you don’t see a lot of it at first. You have to be patient. You have to wait a long time,” he says.

“And then at the end, there’s a very compressed schedule,” Clements continues. "Some of this movie was made before last January, but the bulk of this film was actually made within the last year and at a fairly rapid rate. So, when we saw it actually start to come together, we were kind of blown away by a lot of the stuff that we were seeing. It took a long time, but it’s very fun to see it all come together.”

Co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams joined the crew a little more than a year before the release. bringing a fresh perspective to the project, as Shurer explains. “All of the pieces were there and they were the pieces that Ron and John always wanted to tell. But the story still had some rough patches,” she says. “You just have to let the conversation evolve, not just to allow the creative room to breath, but also inevitably, if you let it, it’ll lead to a better idea. That idea may not work, but we need to exhaust it before we get to the next one. So it’s a balance of allowing the room to go where it needs to go and allowing it to breathe.”

Music was a key element in the film, and the filmmakers enlisted the aid of musicians Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Miranda’s original song, “How Far I’ll Go,” is up for an Oscar for best achievement in an original song written for motion pictures.

“We brought Mark Mancina on quite early to work with us musically. He has this love for world music, and the ability to use various types of instrumentation, especially early on, when we were just doing temp music to help move things along,” Shurer recounts. “Then we wanted a triumphant finish, a little like The Lion King, so we needed a strong storytelling songwriter. We went to New York and met with a lot of songwriters, and fell in love with Lin-Manuel.”

Shurer explained that Miranda was able to encapsulate parts of the story in beautiful lyrics: “It’s kind of a rookie mistake to tell it in the scene and then sing it in the song, and then tell you again in the scene what you just heard. Ron and John aren’t rookies, and neither was anybody else.”

While the directorial team was busy perfecting the story, the animators at Disney were preparing for the challenges they would face, sometimes months in advance. “There are a lot of things in this movie that were really breakthroughs in technology,” Musker says of the production process. One key challenge was achieving the range of Moana's facial expressions, and the rigging team created more than 180 controls for Moana’s face alone.

Animation supervisor Malcon Pierce worked with the character design and rigging teams to ensure animators would be able to achieve the expressions they wanted for Moana. “We really wanted her to be able to move around with no limitations,” he says. “We wanted her to look like Moana from all angles, which is difficult to do, but really helps give animators a wide range of acting options in building the right performance.”

Visual development artist Neysa Bové was called on to design Moana’s costumes. Moana dons seven outfits, including the red tapa bottoms she wears when she meets the ocean for the first time as a toddler. The palette for all the characters’ outfits utilizes colors and dyes that would have existed in the area 2,000 years ago, including yellows, reds, oranges, blacks and browns.

Another critical piece of Moana’s look was her long, curly hair. Hair is notoriously difficult in CG, and simulation supervisor Marc Thyng spent more than six months developing a system called Tonic that artists could use to create authentic-looking hair for several key characters. The system needed to be fast enough to allow for artistic iteration. Then they needed to figure out how to deal with wet hair, since Moana spends some time underwater. “We brought in some volunteers who had similar hairstyles and dunked them in water,” Thyng relates. “We were surprised at how much of the curl remains, even when the hair is soaking wet.”

According to Thyng, Tonic allowed artists to create a wet look for Moana that was much closer to real life: “It allows wet hair to break apart and come back together again in a slightly jostled look – not always going back to original style.”

Moana’s chicken/companion, along with Maui’s shape-shifted hawk character, triggered the development of a feather pipeline. “Feathers in general are hard because in computer graphics there’s no real physicality,” says technical supervisor Hank Driskill. “Objects happily pass right through each other. But feathers need to rest on top of each other. They slide across each other and interact with each other. There is a complicated mechanism to all of that.”

The Pacific Island setting meant filmmakers would be challenged with creating a lot of water, another key challenge for animators. To achieve the overall look of the sea, the team had to conquer different types of water for the film, ranging from the wide-open sea to shorelines. A water task force was assembled while the story was still in development, with the team deciding early on to render fully volumetric water to ensure proper refraction.

A proprietary software called Splash was developed to create a softer, believable look for the water. “We put a lot of energy into making the simpler water shots as easy as possible,” Driskill says. “When you see a large body of water, there are mathematical equations that describe how it moves. A boat in the water messes up those equations. So we had to slice a section out of the overall ocean movements to simulate the movement of the boat and the way it’s interacting with the water – wakes, splashes up onto the boat – and then integrate that back into the overall body of water.”

The effort allowed the layout team to place waves in a shot – setting the height, speed and direction of the waves – and composing it all for the camera.

Critical to the overall look of the water in Moana was the lighting. “We really pushed the color of the water—and the color of the water in that part of the world is already amazing,” says director of cinematography-lighting Adolph Lusinsky. “We want it feel believable. There’s a sweet spot where you saturate certain parts of the water and leave other parts less saturated.”

Water, naturally, creates a lot of reflection and current technology allows for the reflections to happen accurately. “They’re all ray-traced – they’re all there,” Lusinsky discloses. “But when we were in the Pacific Islands, I took two sets of photos: one of the water as it was, and the other with a filter called a polarizer, which knocks out a lot of reflection. A lot of photography uses this kind of filter because reflection can wash out the color of the water. So we actually incorporated the idea into the movie, removing about 50 percent of the reflection. Basically, we stylized the look in order to appreciate the true color of the water.”

According to Lusinsky, the research trips were essential. The filmmakers studied everything from the color and clarity of the water to the way light bounces off of the white sand. Disney then relied on its proprietary Hyperion renderer developed during production on Feast and Big Hero 6 in order to render big water shots efficiently.

Keen to understand the clarity of the water, the team conducted some extraordinary tests. “We created a physical rig that was 50 feet long with a series of balls that were painted gray, black and red,” says Lusinsky. “The balls were hung from a rope every five feet and photographed underwater in three different environments or types of water. We took it to a pool in Van Nuys, Mission Bay in San Diego and all the way to Bora Bora.”

Overall, Shurer has high praise for the animation team that managed to pull it off: “Everyone who is part of an animation studio will tell you that it’s organized chaos and often disorganized chaos for years, and then suddenly it all suddenly kind of coalesces together.”

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.