Moana’s special effects goes with the flow

Moana’s special effects goes with the flow

Moana celebrates an ancient culture with some very modern technology


Moana takes on demi-god Maui as she learns to love the ocean, and embarks on a voyage of discovery on which she learns about herself, her family, her history, and the importance of heritage.
Photo: Walt Disney

Disney’s latest animated movie, Moana, is a tale of journeys – ones of self-discovery, but also more literally. Inspired by ancient Polynesian lore, it tells of a people famous for navigating the oceans. Director Ron Clements said: “Voyaging is a real source of pride for Pacific Islanders, a part of their identity. They were, and continue to be, some of the greatest explorers of all time.” That connection to the ocean was a starting point for the film – the title, which is also the lead character’s name, means “ocean” in many Polynesian languages.

It was also a journey of discovery for the filmmakers in terms of technique. The ocean plays a pivotal role in the movie, and it was therefore paramount that they got the water just right.

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Clements and his co-directors John Musker are old hands when it comes to hand-drawn animation, having helmed such classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog. But they realised they’d need something different for Moana. “The lighting and textures and dimension we can achieve in CG create an incredible, really immersive experience,” says Clements.

The Pacific Islands setting, and the role of the ocean obviously called for a lot of water. While 40 to 50 per cent of an average animated Disney film these days might feature special effects, the presence of water in Moana takes its effects up to more than 80 per cent. A water “task force” had to be set before the story was even finished, as the visual side would be dealing with different types of water, from wide open sea to shorelines to the ocean “character” that helps Moana on her quest.

“We wanted to find that sweet spot of the ocean looking like a believable water character that is part of the sea,” says head of effects Marlon West.

As well as the ocean, there are the expected cute animal characters.
Photo: Walt Disney

“It’s not a water creature who sticks its head up out of the ocean. It is the ocean.”

It was up to the animation team to sell the character, which is likened to a sock puppet. “It wasn’t easy animating the ocean as a character,” says head of animation Hyrum Osmond. “There’s no eyes or mouth, but the ocean still has to emote. You have to get inside the head of the character, which just sounds strange in this case.”

“The character is the embodiment of the ocean,” adds West. “It emerges, engages and then has to seamlessly meld back into the water.”

Another important consideration was the lighting. “We really pushed the colour of the water – and the colour of the water in that part of the world is already amazing,” says director of cinematography-lighting Adolph Lusinsky. “Basically, we stylised the look appreciate the true colour of the water.”

Moana tells a great story, and features wonderful characters; but when you see it, spare a moment to appreciate the effort that’s been put into something as seemingly simple as water.

Moana opens January 26

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
CG goes with the flow


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