Behind-The-Scenes for Disney’s MOANA – Researching Pacific Island Lore

On November 23, 2016 Walt Disney Studios will introduce audiences to their newest animated feature film, MOANA.  Inspired by the tales passed down for generations by the people of the Pacific Islands, the movie’s creative team is hard at work putting the finishing touches onto the newest addition to their animated library.  The story centers around a teenage girl named Moana who uses her navigational talents to set sail for a fabled island.  Along with the legendary demigod Maui, they travel across the open ocean on an action-packed adventure for film lovers of all ages to enjoy.

MOANA

MOANA’S MISSION — Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) may be a demigod—half god, half mortal, all awesome—but he’s no match for Moana (voice of Auli‘i Cravalho), who’s determined to sail out on a daring mission to save her people. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

As the release date for the film approaches, the creative team at Disney decided it was time to get the word out to the potential moviegoing audience.  They invited members of the press to a junket to talk about this very special project.  Included in the many panels throughout the day were producer Osnat Shurer, co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as select members of the writing, animation, design and effects teams.  They opened up about the behind the scenes making of the film, placing an emphasis on the far off places that they visited and the people they talked to while on their own journey to getting every detail of the story right.

MOANA - Osnat Shurer (Producer) presents at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

MOANA – Osnat Shurer (Producer) presents at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

 

From the start of the junket, the one thing that was made incredibly clear by everyone involved was the importance of the research process that was utilized while making the film.  Shurer started the day by explaining how the story was conceived and then reshaped after the filmmakers decided to go on a trip to the Pacific Islands.  She said, “A few years ago, after THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, Ron (Clements) and John (Musker), the directors behind some of the greatest classics in Disney animation history, THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, they were talking about what their next feature should be and John had long been fascinated by the stories of the Pacific Islands… this incredibly beautiful area in the world that many of the residences called Oceania.  He read a lot of Polynesian folk tales and looked at the varied and really fascinating stories of the demigod Maui… Ron loved the idea (of working with these stories) and they went together to our key creative officer John Lasseter and pitched some ideas.  John loved it and as many of you know, he is a huge believer in research… the research being the very heart of our storytelling.”  Shurer then joked, “…and they (Musker and Clements) were forced, forced they will tell you, to go to the South Pacific.”  Continuing with the importance of the research she said, “They took a team of artist and went on the first of a number of research trips.  They went to Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Mo‘orea, and many other islands.  The visit there changed the vision of what this movie could be, of what the story could be.  That trip was followed by many other trips that I was fortunate enough to join.  You know, you see the beautiful images of the South Pacific, the gorgeous islands, the ocean and the blue-green lagoons.  We all know how beautiful it is, but one thing that we couldn’t imagine before we went was the beauty of the people.  When we listened, rather than talked, just really listened to the people, that was when we really touched the beauty of the Pacific Islands, the beauty of the people.”

MOANA - (L-R) Directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

MOANA – (L-R) Directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

 

These research trips not only informed the creative team about things that could allow their film to stay true to the culture, but the filmmakers really stressed how these expeditions helped to shape the actual ideas within the story itself.  Musker explained, “On our research trips we learned first hand the importance of navigation to this culture.  We really developed the whole story around the true fact of the Pacific Islanders being the greatest navigators the world has ever seen.  Three thousand years ago they found their way across the Pacific starting in Taiwan, going through New Guinea and working their way from west to east in one of the greatest feats of nautical exploration… they had no instruments whatsoever and based on the knowledge of the stars and the currents they found their way across the ocean.  We wanted to celebrate that.”  Clements added, “According to the experts we spoke with, about three thousand years ago everything stopped.  All voyaging stopped.  For a thousand years everyone just stayed put and they didn’t migrate.  Then about two thousand years ago it started up again and then they proceeded to populate the Eastern Pacific, including Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand.  Because it was an oral culture, nothing was written down.  To this day no one actually knows why the voyaging stopped or how it started again.  It’s a mystery.  There are a lot of theories… and we came up with a theory which is the basis of our movie.  What if there happened to be one young girl that was responsible for things starting up again?”

MOANA filmmakers consult with members of the MOANA Oceanic Story Trust.

MOANA filmmakers consult with members of the MOANA Oceanic Story Trust.

 

The filmmakers then proceeded to come up with their own story of how these voyages restarted using Moana as the main character.  But, even though the story is their own creation, they still tried to stay true to the roots of everything.  Continuing to research the culture they relied on a group of people they called the Oceanic Story Trust to help keep their story as true to the spirit of the many tales told by the South Pacific Islanders as possible.  Shurer explained, “from the early trips we met archeologists, anthropologists, fisherman, sailors, tattoo masters, choreographers, weavers and many of these people remain in contact with us.  We created what we call an Oceanic Story Trust and we check in with them constantly.  We checked in on story, checked in on design choices and this film wouldn’t be what it’s shaping up to be without their guidance and their support and input.”  Jessica Julius, the senior creative executive for development stated, “Research is a really important key part to our process as we’re developing our film…  The main reason that we do these research trips is because there’s nothing like actually being in a place to really understand the sites, the sounds and the smells of that place.  When you really go there, you make all kinds of discoveries that you would have never gotten just from reading books…”

MOANA

OSNAT SHURER, RON CLEMENTS, and JOHN MUSKER at the D23 EXPO 2015 (ABC/Image Group LA)

 

Mack Kablan, the animation supervisor gave an example of how this research was also important to the process of creating the actual characters.  Talking about the character of Maui, he stated, “Who is Maui?  Maui is not just an island in Hawaii.  It’s also the name of a great demigod from Polynesian mythology.  The perception of Maui varies across all of the Pacific Islands and with the consultation of the Oceanic Story Trust this character in our film is sort of an animated amalgamation of all those inspirations.”

The MOANA filmmakers embarked upon research trips to the Pacific Islands to learn about the cultures that inspired the film. They were given the opportunity to assemble the "Oceanic Story Trust," a group of anthropologists, archeologists, fishermen, liguists, tatto masters, dancers and elders who help keep the film's story grounded in respect for the cultures that inspired it.

The MOANA filmmakers embarked upon research trips to the Pacific Islands to learn about the cultures that inspired the film. They were given the opportunity to assemble the “Oceanic Story Trust,” a group of anthropologists, archeologists, fishermen, liguists, tatto masters, dancers and elders who help keep the film’s story grounded in respect for the cultures that inspired it.

 

Adding more to the impact of the research trip, Shurer said, “Those trips were really important.  Not only did they change the story that we wanted to tell, they changed us…  An elder on Mo’orea said something that we kept with us.  It was this phrase ‘Know Your Mountain,’ which indicates that in order to know where you’re going you have to know where you come from.”  This elder’s comment became a main theme in the movie and Clements commented on it by saying, “Thematically the movie actually deals a lot with issues of identity.  It is (about) a people that have lost their identity…”  Musker continued this thought with, “The culture itself is a little lost in this movie, they (the Islanders) are kind of separated from who they were.”  This idea of identity then blends into the main themes of Moana’s personal story.  David Derrick, a story artist on the film said, “part of her (Moana’s) drive is defined not by just who she is, but also by who came before her.”

"MINI MAUI" animation test still frame. Artist: Eric Goldberg, Animation Supervisor.

“MINI MAUI” animation test still frame. Artist: Eric Goldberg, Animation Supervisor.

 

Taking the idea of looking to our past to define who we are became a theme in the animation process as well.  The directors and animators also looked to their own past in order to inform the way the story was animated.  In a time when most films are done with the artistry of computer animation, MOANA has a major character that is created using the traditional techniques of the past.  A key character they call Mini Maui was actually created with the art of hand-drawn animation.  Musker’s described the character by saying, “Maui’s covered in tattoos which tell of his great exploits.  It’s sort of like he’s got this walking billboard of all his great deeds, which is a wonderful storytelling device for us.  In fact, there’s one of these tattoos that we feature prominently in the movie.  We call him Mini-Maui.  It’s this little version of Maui.  Sort of his Jiminy Cricket, his conscious and because of our background in hand-drawn animation we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have these tattoos come to life and actually animate on his skin.’  So the great Eric Goldberg is supervising a crew of animators that are doing hand-drawn animation of this sort of alter ego of Mauii that we map on his skin… it’s been great fun to see this wedding of 2-D and CG in a way that we’ve never done before.”  The idea of to use hand-drawn animation came from Musker and Clements and according to Eric Goldberg, a 2D animator who led the crew that created Mini Maui, “If you know John and Ron then you know most of their films have been traditional hand-drawn animation and they wanted hand-drawn animation in this movie in some form and the tattoos seemed a natural.”  Eric’s expertise in this kind of animation didn’t make the process easy though. Since Mini Maui had to look as if it had been tattooed onto Maui’s body, Goldberg had to collaborate closely with the computer animators to make the melding of the two types of animation look seamless.

MAUI visual development. Artist: Bill Schwab, MOANA Art Director, Characters.

MAUI visual development. Artist: Bill Schwab, MOANA Art Director, Characters.

 

The filmmakers also had to be careful with the design of the tattoos and this became another area where the Oceanic Story Trust came into play.  Regarding the process of designing the tattoos that cover Maui’s body, Carlos Cabral, head of characters and Tech Animation explained, “It’s all inspired by real tattoos from that region of the world.  We did a lot of research…   There’s very traditional patterning.  Some have meaning.  Some don’t.  A lot of it is decorative.  How it’s put on the body is really important.  We had a lot of consultations with our Oceanic Trust.  We had people from the islands come in.  There was a lot of research going into that.”  Goldberg added, “I mean, it may just look like squiggle patterns, but if you draw the wrong squiggle you’ll be insulting one of the cultures.”

Disney’s MOANA, which stars Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Auli‘i Cravalhow, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House Temuera Morrison, Alan Tudyk and Nicole Scherzinger will be released in theatres across the country on November 23, 2016. For more family movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Mark Oguschewitz

Mark Oguschewitz moved to Los Angeles, California after graduating with a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. Pursuing a career in the industry, Mark became an award winning freelance editor. He is also known for being the creative consultant for the podcast "Skywalking through Neverland" and co-host of the Podcast "Talking Apes TV." Mark's short film "Gourmet" took the Best Micro-Short honor at the International Horror and Sci-Fi film festival in 2007. His spare time is all about movies. It's not just entertainment, but has become more of a real passion, as he tries to see everything he can. Art house or Blockbuster – It doesn't matter, he loves them all.