Andy Harkness is a Disney animator who has done work on several feature films, and who served as the art director for Prep & Landing and a handful of other Disney shorts.
This week, Andy gave a presentation to students of the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP Program – and then I actually saw the same presentation, almost word-for-word at some points, today at the D23 event Destination D: Amazing Adventures!
I attended a similar presentation last year, given by an artist who worked on Zootopia. Disney animated features are great on their own as pieces of entertainment, but I totally geek out over the research and intentionality put into them. John Lassetter has said that when making movies, “Everything is about the research.” Harkness added that even if you pick a subject you know well, if you write about information you already have it will always feel generic. The more you research, the more you’ll stumble on little – but great – ideas.
I’m pretty that’s what marks the difference between a good movie and an excellent one, and why the team behind Moana spent months researching even the smallest details for their story.
If you’re still here, chances are you have an interest in these things too, so without further ado —
GETTING THE STORY & DETAILS
- The directors, animators, and other creative team members loved to tell their families about all of the research trips they just had to go on for work, as they traveled to islands all over Oceania during the course of their project. Way to take one for the team, guys…
- Moana is inspired by the true history of the ancient pacific voyagers. They spent many centuries traveling on the ocean, discovering new islands – and then for reasons no one knows, their voyages just stopped. It was this mystery that led the writers to begin exploring the story.
- We saw a video that began with the following words on the screen: “For years, we have been swallowed by your culture. Once, can you allow yourself to be swallowed by ours?” Harkness said this was the driving force behind digging into this particular story with everything they had. He said the team of artists responsible for creating the environments in Moana spent hours upon hours sketching the area, of course, but also learning so much more from the people of the lands where they were visitors.
[clickToTweet tweet=”The quote that the #Moana team kept on hand as motivation to dig in for the story they were telling.” quote=”‘For years we have been swallowed by your culture. Once, can you allow yourself to be swallowed by ours?'”]
From many of the villagers: “Know your mountain. You can’t know where you’re going, unless you know from where you’ve come.” From fisherman: “Speak kindly to the ocean.” From just about everyone in that region: “The ocean isn’t something that separates all of us, it’s the thing that connects us.
They dug deep into why a village would be laid out in a particular way – where it would be in proximity to not only the reef but to the river, which gives life through fresh water; why a certain mountain peak would be favored, as the more interesting peaks were believed to be where important people had lived. In seemingly every aspect of Disney movie production, the research is incredibly vast. Harkness likened their process to a college course. “We didn’t just visit to see what the place looked like. We spent months diving into why cottages were aimed toward the water in certain angles, where the chiefs would live in proximity to the villagers, how exactly they would work together for a sustainable way of living.”
- The creative team wanted to find actors who could not only act and do their own singing, but if at all possible, had roots in Oceania. This included Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson, whom we had the pleasure of seeing on stage at the D23 Expo in Anaheim last summer. Johnson spoke passionately about his desire to be part of the Disney family, his even stronger pride for his Samoan roots, and how incredibly grateful he was when the opportunity came for him to combine the two.
- Johnson is a remarkably talented actor and singer, but during production he also tasked himself with inspiring and encouraging the whole cast and crew. If you’ve ever seen him anywhere, you probably aren’t surprised by this. Doesn’t he just seem like that kind of guy?
- Auli’i Cavalho was 14-years-old at the time she was cast for the title role. After seeing hundreds of actresses over several months, she was found in the last hour of the last scheduled day of casting calls. We got to watch a video of her mom bringing her in, some of her audition process, and both mother and daughter beaming as they told about their shared experience. Auli’i’s mother said, holding back tears, “We honor the moment – we just savor it. It’s real, it really happened… and we are just so thankful.”
- After the casting team landed on Auli’i for the role of Moana, they decided to play a little trick on her. They contacted her for a “callback” of sorts, over Skype. In this meeting, they asked her to do several new things. They wanted, they said, to see if she could become more comfortable with adlibbing reactions. They told her to imagine she had just gotten cast for a big role like this one, and to react accordingly. They kept pushing for more emotion until finally they told her they had just been pulling her along on a little prank. She had actually, in fact, already landed the role. At this point, of course, she was able to provide the emotion they had been waiting for. “That was so sneaky!” she exclaimed, before breaking into the most adorable grin. Side note: Every second that Auli’i was on the screen she was very endearing, her genuine ecxcitement and gratitude evident. I can’t wait to see more from her!
- Harkness admits to watching The Little Mermaid over the shoulders of his mother and sister when he was home from school. He pretended he wasn’t interested, of course, but couldn’t stop watching the animation. He shared how thrilled he was that the people responsible for much of that animation – as well as for directing The Great Mouse Detective, Aladdin, The Princess & the Frog, Hercules, and Treasure Planet – would be in charge of this project. Ron Clements and John Musker were so influential in most of the films that shaped our childhood.
- Pua is Moana’s pet pig, that quite frankly is too cute for words. There was a time though, when poor Pua was cut from the film. Apparently there were literally “Save Pua” t-shirts and a campaign to keep him on… and I’m glad it worked out. Seriously, he makes me want to run out and buy a pet pig.
- Hei Hei, a ridiculous rooster that provides most of the film’s comic relief, was originally an aloof and cocky (no pun intended) character. When you see the movie, just think about it for a second. It’s hilarious to think of him as anything but what he turned out to be. (Eventually, I’d love to have a great clip for you of the tests, placed back to back, that show the evolution of Hei Hei from a pompous bully to a bird with a much, much lower IQ.)
- As the team spent time with people of various ancestry, they learned that Maui’s legend varies from culture to culture. Sometimes he’s a trickster, a mischeivous demi-god. Other times he’s like superman, a true hero with unbelievable capabilities. No matter which version of his story they heard though, one thing was always true: Maui was larger than life, in every way possible. The Maui that the Disney creatives came up with was just that.
- “Mini Maui” is a tattoo (on Maui’s own body) that interacts with Maui like a conscious – “his Jiminy Cricket”, if you will. Mini Maui and all of the other animated tattoos are hand-drawn animation mapped onto a 3D character. Legendary animator Eric Goldberg (superivsing animator for the Genie) led the team that combined the two art forms in this particular way for the first time.
- The Kakamora are, in Disney execs’ words, “treasure-hunting, coconut-clad pirates.” We viewed the scene from the movie where Moana first meets the kakamora, and where they transform from something adorable to something… less adorable, before her eyes. Even as the clip was shown with zero setup and absolutely no sound, the students in the auditorium were cracking up. I’m pretty sure that’s a mark of good animation, yes?
- The music of Moana is described as contemporary, popular styles blended with the heart-pounding music of the Pacific islands. (By the way… the soundtrack, which came out on November 18, is phenomenal. This is an excellent description, and I think you might love the sound – and the passion that is so evident throughout – even before you have a chance to see the film!)
- The first person involved in the creation of the soundtrack is Opetaia Foa’i. He and his band Te Vaka are incredibly popular in Samoa and the surround islands. We got to see Te Vaka perform a song from the movie at the D23 Expo, and though we had no idea how it played into the story – or even what the words meant – it was absolutely captivating.
- Next was Mark Mancina. Mark was responsible for many songs in The Lion King, Tarzan, Brother Bear, and many other non-Disney titles.
- And finally, the artist behind the musical that has become a smashing success this year, Hamilton – Lin Manuel Miranda. The producers of Moana talked about how they knew they had something special when they found Miranda. This was before Hamilton made him a household name.
- Most of the environment modeling for Moana was done first in clay, which was then scanned into photoshop for coloring and detail work. We watched (on video) as animators drew on tablets and changed the 3D imagery right before our eyes.
- This was the first time that a Disney movie used clay as the main medium for construction of the environment. (Harkness says his wife isn’t all that impressed, as there is still clay everywhere and their one-year-old son likes to snack on it.)
- In the opening credits, you can actually see illustrations that introduce us to some of the adversaries Moana and Maui will meet on their journey.
- Last year at the Expo, we saw a few minutes long clip of toddler Moana meeting the ocean for the first time. John Lasseter set it up there, and Kyle and I left absolutely mesmerized by the scene. When you see the movie you will know exactly to which scene I am referring. It is so beautiful I genuinely want to cry – and I’m not sure anything like it has ever been done before.In this week’s presentations, Harkness set it up it even more. They had been tasked to make test footage for how the water – thought of as a character in and of itself – would move, reflect light, etc. When they showed it to John Lassetter, he was blown away and said it had to be in the film. This footage is slightly different than the final scene from the movie, but oh, how I’m so thankful it’s there. (Side note: when I spent time by the ocean in Hawaii, there is a distinct time where I thought differently of the ocean directly as a result of having seen this scene, making it even more meaningful for me each time I see it.)
- When a student asked Andy Harkness’ his favorite movie to have worked on, he said, “Honestly? Moana. Before this I loved working on Prep & Landing shows because they were so unique, but Moana was special from start to finish.”
- Many of the animators on the movie think that Maui and Moana have some of the best chemistry yet. Harkness said that when he first got into the industry, he – like most people – hoped to work on projects with subject matter that was the most appealing. After 10-15 years, he now hopes to work with a team that gels well and feels like a family.The team for Moana was touted as one of the best he’s ever seen; he explained that most of the time, parts the creative team will go down a road and spend hours on something, only to have to start over because something didn’t feel right about the direction. This is a story we’ve heard time and again as we’ve learned more about the process of creating a feature-length film. Harkness said that for whatever reason, everyone really knew where the movie was supposed to go from the beginning – and I think it shows. (An excellent contrast? Pixar’s The Good Dinosuar, which was delayed several times because the story wasn’t quite what they wanted. And which ended up, in my opinion, as a flop from Pixar – and the first of their movies that we literally have no interest in owning.
Moana is a story about finding your identity, both in and apart from what it may seem at a glance. In a room full of college students, Andy Harkness screened several clips, ranging in length, including the opening 5 minutes of the film. These young adults were in awe of little Moana, and literally exploding with laughter at what, honestly, were second- and third-tier jokes. I wish I could be there when they saw the full-length feature; I think you’re going to love it, too.
PS – Stay, of course, until the end. The post-credit scene is cute. More importantly though, get there early enough for Inner Workings, the short shown before Moana. It is perhaps he most powerful short I have ever seen.