Beyond the sea: The tech behind ‘MOANA’

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Young Moana interacting with the Ocean. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Young Moana interacting with the Ocean. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

“If we’ve done this right, you’re focused on Moana, her arc and her challenges. If it isn’t, then we aren’t building a believable world.”

Disney’s MOANA brings to life the story of one young woman’s pioneering spirit, so it’s only fitting that the manner in which the tale is delivered is equally as innovative. With that, ground-breaking technology and think-tanking had to occur. Enter in the effects department: Technical Supervisor Hank Driskill, Visual Effects Supervisor Kyle Odermatt, Co-Head of Effects Marlon West and Co-Head of Effects Dale Mayeda. This dream team was able to solve the most difficult of challenges that Moana could ever encounter.

From the few clips we were able to glimpse at the film’s recent footage unveiling, it’s crystal clear this film would not be made possible if it weren’t for the effects department.

There’s so much that’s integral with many of the major characters that have a huge component – and that’s effects. Odermatt said during the team’s presentation,

When these stories begin development, there’s a number of artistic challenges outlined in the basic story. On this one, there were many. For us, those become technical challenges. We knew the film was going to be all about water – the ocean was going to be a huge component of this. We needed to have an ocean you believe existed – our characters spend a tremendous time there.

Driskill, who worked on many of the water effects, confirmed,

We knew we wanted to reach some lofty artistic goals with it.

The team wound up having a roundtable discussion with sister companies Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic on how to solve their water connundrum. Driskill explained,

We’d then play creative one-upmanship and ask, ‘Can we do better?’ We wanted the bar to be really high. It’s a pervasive part of the movie. 80% of the shots in this movie have effects in them. We knew it was an important part of the culture and an important part of the mythology so we really wanted to do it right.

They built a whole new way to solve how water moves that they called, “Splash.” Driskill continued,

We wanted to put as much thought into how we can make the simpiler water shots as easy as possible because we knew a lot of the shots in the movie, water isn’t doing big ambitious things. It’s a part of the scene. It’s the ground plain.

Shots this included were when Moana is on her boat that spotlights the boat floating in the water properly – the movement of the boat, the way it interacts with the water. This is also where you’d see the wakes the boat is sailing through, the water splashing onto the boat, and the white water that’s kicked off the boat through the water. Driskill stated,

If we’ve done this right, you’re focused on Moana, her arc and her challenges. The water just looks right. If it isn’t, then we aren’t building a believable world and we’ve failed at our jobs and you’re not engaged.

Shoreline water also proved to be a challenge. Driskill elaborated,

Capturing the feel of these locations and the culture was really, really important to us. We wanted to get the shoreline water just right.

This required the team to juggle many aspects of water within each scene. They had to constantly deal with things like the water’s behavior on the horizon versus the shallow water, water cresting against the beach, water washing onto the beach interacting with the sand. Driskill said,

We knew Splash could help us solve tens of millions of particles, but we knew we needed tens of billions of particles to get the look that we were after. We invested research to distributing computing so our water solver could run across multiple machines that would, in turn, act like it was one big machine so we could do bigger ambitious things – like big cresting waves.

MOANA effects progression image, featuring Animation (top), Simulation (middle), and Render (bottom) passes. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

MOANA effects progression image, featuring Animation (top), Simulation (middle), and Render (bottom) passes. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Another obstacle facing the team was figuring out how to make water its own character. Odermatt stated,

That had to be incredibly believable – and you had to understand what that character was thinking throughout the film.

Mayeda elaborated on the process.

We knew we needed to make the water feel as interesting as the other characters. We knew it was going to have to interact with Moana and Maui, perform and convey ideas.

One of the first things they did was the toddler test. Mayeda continued,

We ended up creating this ocean rig that basically is a very simple shape and we created a rig in a sense that it’s almost like a puppet armature where you can deform a character. In this case, it’s a very ambiguous shape. The character animators would use this and be able to animate and set up the timing and composition and interaction. If you were to straight render this into the movie, it wouldn’t look believable so that’s where we come in and start adding different layers of things that are more physical in nature. We would take the surface that would come from animation and we’d run fluid simulations that would break up the edge and silhouette just a little bit to make it feel like water. When a character would move to the left or right, we’d accentuate the splashes. We also wanted the internal structure feel watery as well. We would run a fluid simulation on the interior of the surface, so you’d get the churning bubbles in there. When you take all these pieces and out them together, they’d give you a believable water character.

If that’s not enough to deal with, Odermatt pointed out there’s one more character they dealt with – lava guardian Te-ka.

Te-ka [was] a massive collaboration between all of the departments.

West said,

It was a huge opportunity in collaboration with character animation, but across several of our departments. It was very important that Te-ka be very actorly for our character animators. He lives in that emotional range of being mellow or angry- an 8.5 to an 11. These are the tools we wanted to provide – lava, flames, smoke, fire – to build with the acting.

Since storytelling in animation is a very fluid act, with pieces evolving on a daily basis, the effects team proved they were always up to the task. Driskill said,

As this movie was evolving and the story trust kept coming up with new and interesting things, we kept being challenged by new and exciting things in scope, scale and spectacle.

MOANA’s animators valued pushing the limits of animation, however the effects team seem to push the limits of believability with their work.West said,

We’re limited to what everybody expects water and smoke to do, but clearly we’re making it act. We deal in believability – not necessarily reality. We have to really work to try to get as much storytelling and design in the effects that we do – we push in the same way character animation does.

Mayeda followed up,

There’s a line; if you take it too stylized, you start to get it to not behave like water and start to think it’s other materials. So we work that fine line between design and stylization we can do. We always do try to compose though for the entertainment value and increase the storytelling.

MOANA opens on November 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.