Walt Disney Animation Studios has well earned their proud position as a foremost leader in American animation. For the last 80 years, Disney’s animation department has thrilled generations of audiences with fantastical (and fantastic) stories of heroes and heroines in far off lands and their great tales of adventure. And for a near 70 of those years, the studio worked almost exclusively in the format of hand-drawn 2D animation. Enter the computer age, and all the incredible technological and artistic advancements that came with it, and in a very short period, CG animation has become the norm.
Disney’s latest animated effort, the epic sea-faring adventure Moana, finds those art forms at a fascinating cross-section. In a unique turn, while the film is largely rendered through stunning CG animation — a laborious, detailed, and wildly collaborative process that brings the Pacific Islands to the screen in a rich, vivid palette — it’s also integrating the classic hand-drawn technique in a wonderfully creative manner.
From the mind of directors Ron Clements and John Musker — the very same behind Disney’s most recent 2D feature, the exceptional The Princess and The Frog (not to mention their classic works Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Hercules) — Moana follows it’s titular heroine (newcomer Auliʻi Cravalho), a young island chieftess in training who rekindles the prodigious explorer’s spirit of her ancestry on the path of her coming-of-age journey. Along the way, she also forms an unlikely alliance with the legendary demigod Maui, who guides her on her journey. And it’s in Maui, the great shapeshifting trickster, that Disney’s team discovered a unique opportunity for their CG animators to collaborate alongside their traditional hand-drawn artists.
The filmmakers behind Moana put extensive effort into researching the culture and character of their Polynesian epic, taking three separate research trips through numerous Pacific Islands, and along the way, the figure of Maui emerged as a major focus and inspiration for the film. While perceptions of the demigod vary from island to island, the creative team synthesized those varied mythologies into a single character — the stout, muscled figure brought to life through the voice of Dwayne Johnson. And while his flowing, curly locks and robust (largely unclothed) musculature posed significant challenges for the animation department, it’s the canvas of tattoos etched across that anatomy that offered the one-of-a-kind opportunity for hand-drawn and CG animators to play in the same sandbox.
See, while Maui is a key player in Moana’s narrative, his pesky, morally righteous, and very alive little tattoo dubbed “Mini Maui” is a key player in his own story. Embedded within the etched latticework of Maui’s intricate tattoos lives Mini Maui, a silent but very outspoken Jiminy Cricket-eque voice of conscious that keeps Maui in line, and is rendered in graphic 2D animation across Maui’s 3D frame.
And Mini Maui isn’t just a fascinating feat of inter-department animation. He’s a full-on character. Animator Eric Goldberg, who worked as lead animator on Genie in Aladdin and co-created 1995’s Pocahontas, explained, “He actually has a personality and a relationship with big Maui. He is, first of all, Maui’s biggest cheerleader and supporter. He is Maui’s alter ego; he can be swaggy and confident too, but more than anything else he’s his conscience.”
That dynamic plays out in the animated antics that take place in the confines Maui’s chest. Mini Maui can take a stand, yanking Maui about by the lines of his own tattoos, and in return Maui can give the little guy a jostle, bumping him around by flexing his pecs. But most importantly, they can both give each other what for. “One thing John Lasseter wanted us to put into the character was that he should be able to kind of give it back to big Maui once in a while so that he’s not just mandy-pandy,” said Goldberg, “but he can do it with his tongue in his cheek.”
While Mini Maui provides a number of delightful narrative and animated bits, he also posed a unique set of challenges for the team tasked with bringing him to life. For one thing, he had to be entirely hand-drawn in a reverse color scheme — his teeth and the whites of his eyes penned in black — in order to transfer over to the proper tones on Maui’s body. Basically, clean up artist Rachel Bibb had to think in reverse while drawing him. At the same time, because Maui expresses himself entirely through pantomime, Goldberg had to push his expressions to make sure he was emotionally readable to an audience.
Meanwhile, the CG animators faced their own challenges with the extensive tattoo work. Any cheats and clever techniques they may have learned over the years to make anatomy work easier instantly went out the window. “The tattoos also added another layer of complexity to our anatomy,” said Carlos Cabral, head of characters and technical animation on Moana. “We really had to develop a new way of doing our skin and muscle and have it all be artist controlled, so we have a system that allowed us to do all of the muscle preservation, volume preservation, as well as skin sliding to get rid of any distortion.”
And in keeping with their cultural approach to the entire film, the filmmakers worked closely with their “Oceanic Trust” comprised of Polynesian culture experts from anthropologists, to historians, linguest, dancers, and elders…and most perhaps most importantly in this case, tattoo artists, who advised the team on what the tattoos mean and where they should be placed. You’ll even find those tattoos transferred over when Maui transforms into one of his many shapeshifting figures (you can check out concept art for his avian form below).
The result of all this was a one of a kind opportunity for Disney’s hand-drawn and GCI animators to collaborate, all the while incorporating storytelling, history and culture, and character work in the well-inked frame of their heroic demigod trickster. A creative decision that is not only a fascinating blend of old and new tech, but a fitting move for a film that’s all about connecting with your history and heritage while finding a voice all your own.