Director Ron Clements and Producer Osnat Shurer on The Life-Changing Experience of Making ‘Moana’

     March 8, 2017

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The hugely successful Walt Disney Animation Studios film Moana is now out on Blu-ray/DVD and On-Demand with a bunch of cool extras. While there are the typical things you’d find, including deleted scenes, an exploration of the film’s Easter eggs and a look at the technical achievements behind some of the ground-breaking effects, there are also some really special stand-out features, including an in-depth documentary, called Voice of the Islands, about how Pacific Island people and cultures inspired the filmmakers while they were creating the story, a look at the collaboration between Opetaia Foa’I, Marc Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as they wrote the music, and the Maui and Moana short “Gone Fishing.”

To celebrate the home entertainment release of Moana, Ron Clements (who co-directed the film with John Musker) and producer Osnat Shurer (who joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2012 as VP of Development) spoke to Collider about which of the Blu-ray’s special features they’re most excited about, why it was so important to them to so thoroughly document the development of the story, how the Maui/Moana short came about, some of the most memorable things they got to do, as a result of the film’s success, and just how life-changing the entire experience has been. They also talked about how animation has evolved, the ways in which it’s stayed the same, and their favorite under-appreciated animated films.

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Image via Disney

Collider:  What are the special features and extras that you’re most excited about fans getting to see with this Blu-ray?

RON CLEMENTS:  I like the 30-minute documentary (Voice of the Islands). I get very emotional at the end, and I feel like it does a really good job with capturing what that was.

OSNAT SHURER:  It was the first request from the home entertainment team. They were like, “Let’s make a bunch of cool things, but the one to focus on is to really get into the research. Save your budget for that.” And, of course, there’s the short (“Gone Fishing”). It’s always fun to get animation you’ve never seen. But the documentary makes me emotional, as well, because it touches on a little bit of what we felt. We came back from the islands changed.  

CLEMENTS:  Most of the people are from the Oceanic story trust. They’re people that we met and that became family.

Did you always know you’d be documenting that aspect of the film’s development?

CLEMENTS:  That very first trip that we made, five years ago, we didn’t have a video person, so the stuff is really from later trips.

SHURER:  We have a little bit from the first trip, just from phones and things. I have a documentary background and I felt like what was happening on the movie was so interesting that we took a documentary filmmaker that I knew from New Zealand, with us on every trip. It felt important.  

CLEMENTS:  On the second trip, there was someone there all the time and we just forgot about that. The first trip that we took, we have a lot of pictures and some video, but that was in the really early stages of the story.

SHURER:  It felt important to document the process because our intention was to be really inclusive and have a group of people that would work with us, throughout. It felt like something we wanted to be able to document and see, and I always had this dream that we’d do a decent length documentary on the DVD. 

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Image via Disney

When did the short come about?  

SHURER:  In the old days, we used to do shorts for the DVDs, but times have changed. It’s mostly a different style of content now. When I started at Pixar, years ago, we had just done “Mike’s New Car,” and after that, we did “Jack-Jack Attack” for The Incredibles. We haven’t been able to do them very much lately because they’re very expensive to do and our artists are working until the last minute. But we had started working on a piece that was originally intended to be a trailer, and then we changed course on the trailer. It was fun, really funny and cool. So, we were like, “Well, we’ve already done some of this. Could we get permission, blessings and funding to extend it a little bit and tell a little story, and make it into a short?” The powers that be agree, and so we got to make a little short for the DVD, which is really cool to do. We were lucky. It was serendipitous, in this case.  

As a result of the success of Moana, what’s been the most exciting or coolest thing that’s happened for you guys, as a result?

CLEMENTS:  For me, I was most emotional being in Samoa and seeing it with the people there. The kids came out and sang and danced for us.

SHURER:  We had a special screening for 500 kids.  

CLEMENTS:  And then, because it connected back to the beginning, there was just something really, really cool about it. Auli’i [Cravalho] was there, and was just so embraced. We’ve done other princesses and female heroines, but never had the experience of this feeling that somehow the character in the movie has become three-dimensional in this world, and that she’s real. They feel like they’re connecting with the character they saw in the movie, and she is just like the character in the movie. That was really cool! But, there’s been many cool things.

SHURER:  For me, that trip to Samoa was amazing! Also, I got to go to Tahiti. The movie was almost complete, and with our consultant there, we announced that the movie was going to be translated into Tahitian. It’s the first time ever because they all speak French. Because it’s part of French Polynesia, no movies are translated into Tahitian. Tahitian is a dying language. It’s no longer spoken. The kids don’t speak it very much. And the fact that Disney agreed to fund a translation into Tahitian, so that it can go into schools under the Minister of Education, this is bringing them back to their language. That was one of the most amazing moments, to stand there with Tahitian press and announce the Tahitian translation. We were balling and hugging, and it was an incredible experience. The President of Tahiti invited us to speak and to show him the film. It was an embracing in the Islands. It felt, to all of us, like a full circle moment. We wanted so much to honor the people who inspired the movie, and to have them embrace the film in that way was awesome.  

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Image via Disney

When you started out on the journey for this film, could you ever have imagined that it would not only be so life-changing for the world, but for you guys, personally?  

SHURER:  It started with the first trip. The first trip was life-changing.  

CLEMENTS:  It was much more than we expected. John Lasseter is a fanatic about research. Every movie has some form of a pretty intense research trip. But when we got back from the trip, before we got into story, in any sense, we did almost an hour presentation with boards and pictures and quotes from things that we had brought back from the trip and that affected us. John said that he hasn’t seen people as transformed, in terms of that. Both John [Musker] and I had been to Hawaii, a few times, on vacation, but it’s not the same thing. Going someplace on vacation, as a tourist, is completely different than what we experienced, in terms of the research trip. I kept a journal throughout that trip, and one of the big things from the journal is just the sense that this was going to be a much harder movie than we thought it was going to be, but if we could pull it off, it would be a bigger deal than we expected. It was more challenging, but it was exciting because we felt that there was something there.

SHURER:  It’s incredible how much this movie resonates for young women – and men, as well – all over the world. You don’t have to be Polynesian for it to resonate. The power of this character and how she finds her answers within herself was so impactful. The answer lies within you. There’s a voice inside of you. She loves her family, but she’s drawn out to the ocean because there’s something in her blood. She follows it, in order to save her people. It’s a completely selfless act that has to do with saving her world, and particularly uplifting nature, which may be a little bit relevant today, as well. That’s such an inspiration. A friend of mine told me that her 8-year-old daughter turned to her, when they came out of the movie and said, “Mommy, now I know I can do anything.” And she said, “What tells you that?” And she said, “Well, Moana didn’t know how to sail, but she had to go. She went and she learned how to sail on the wind. So, I can do anything.” To me, that makes the whole movie worthwhile.  

Ron, you and John have been in animation for a long time now, and it’s changed so much since then. What have been the biggest changes for you, and are the things that drew you to animation the things that you still love about it?

CLEMENTS:  The heart of it is still the same. I started 43 years ago, and I worked with Frank Thomas, who was one of the nine old men. I was an animator before I moved into story, and then writing and direction. It was all about characters, relationships and stories. When Walt Disney did the first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, people thought he was crazy. They thought that cartoons were designed to be seven minutes long, and nobody would want to sit through an hour and a half of animation. But what Walt figured out, and where he was a genius, was that it’s not just about making an hour and a half cartoon. You have to hook the audience into a world and characters, so that they forget where they are and become transported into this other thing. If you can do that and you can sustain it, then there’s something really magical and powerful about the whole experience, and that’s hard for a live-action film to capture that sometimes. That’s the same. The goal is always to do that.

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Image via Disney

The whole process on this movie was very, very different than what we’d experienced, but story isn’t that different. Recording voices is also still essentially the same, but bringing it to the screen with the lighting, the tech animation, the effects, the textures and the hair is different.

SHURER:  The heart is still the same. For me, there’s this moment where the character you’ve been talking about, drawing and testing comes on the screen and suddenly that character is sentient. They’re thinking and feeling, and you believe it. It’s animated, literally. To me, that’s a magical moment that holds, no matter when and where.  

CLEMENTS:  It’s all illusion. It’s all a magic trick. But when it works, it becomes real to you. That’s the weird thing. There’s this magical moment when you believe it. For everybody working on the movie, it becomes so much easier to do. There can be a lot of work left to do, but you know the character and you know that character is supposed to do. At the beginning, everybody has a different movie in their head, and all of those different movies become one movie.

In your opinion, what is the most under-appreciated animated movie?

CLEMENTS:  For me, it’s one of ours. Treasure Planet was a movie that we put a lot of work and care into, and it was very, very under-appreciated, for a lot of reasons.

SHURER:  For me, probably Spirited Away, the [Hayao] Miyazaki film. 

Moana is available on Blu-ray/DVD and On-Demand on March 7th.

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