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‘Moana’: How Disney Innovated Water and Hair for a Greater Hand-Drawn Aesthetic

Water and hair get significant tech makeovers at Disney for the Polynesian musical adventure, as 2D and CG grow closer together.




The Polynesian-themed “Moana” required significant tech upgrades for water and hair, especially since the ocean interacts with the teenage heroine and the coiled hairstyling needed to flow more naturally.

So to mark their first CG movie, hand-drawn directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”) insisted on a 2D aesthetic that bridged the gap even closer.

“The greatest thing of hand-drawn is the expressiveness and the animators were happy to push it with tricks to break the CG and make it bend more,” Musker told IndieWire. “We also really loved working in the hand-drawn elements like the moving tattoos and the special Mini-Maui character [a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience for Dwayne Johnson’s demigod Maui].”

“This is really the first time, at least from the point of view of the hand-drawn animators, that we all felt that we were working on the same movie together,” added 2D Animation Supervisor Eric Goldberg (“Aladdin”). “It really felt like the old days and the kinds of movies we used to make.”



READ MORE: ‘Moana’ Review: Dazzling Visuals, Dwayne Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda Sustain This Animated Disney Musical

For water, though, it was a fusion of effects and character animators collaborating more closely together. “Big Hero 6” director Chris Williams even boarded the first test with water shapes that served as the foundation for Maui’s special rapport with the ocean. The water rig was called Gretchen.

“The idea was that the toddler would meet the ocean and they would become friends, but we didn’t know how we were going to do it,” Clements told IndieWire.

So Disney’s tech team came up with a new  water solver called APIC, combining naturalistic effects with performance in which data sets were allocated more efficiently. They dubbed the toolset Splash.

“We ended up with a new solver because there were so many things we were called to do with the shoreline water, with deep water, with lagoons, stormy seas,” Technical Supervisor Hank Driskill told IndieWire. “We were well into shot production hammering out the issues. Layout needed to see and define the behavior of the water within a given sequence in their interactive viewing tools.”

READ MORE: Meet the ‘Moana’ Producer Who Helped Disney Animate Female Empowerment

The new hair program, Quicksilver, combined rigging and grooming controls for more artist-friendly posing. “It has that Disney choreographed hair, to loosen it up and make it more expressive,” Clements said.



The female lava monster, Te Ká, was even more complicated than water. Disney controlled her anger with lava drips, water splashes and lightning.

“The character animator would pose her out and she’d back up, but because of the simulations of smoke, she’d back into herself,” Musker said. “So they had to re-animate it by tricking the computer so the smoke would stay out of her way.”

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