Disney's Moana is proving she is more than a princess; she is an action hero, worthy of taking the top box-office spot three weeks in a row. While parents, children, Disney fans and animation geeks may be quick to crown Moana a Disney princess, the Mouse House is out to set the record straight about their latest animation superstar.
“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you're a princess,” demigod Maui tells Moana. But despite numerous references to Moana as a princess, the 16-year-old insists she is only the daughter of the chief of her island in the South Pacific on a mission to save her island but more importantly her people.
“She is definitely an action hero in the film and takes on what really no one else in her village has been willing to take on for hundreds of years,” explains Bill Schwab, Art Director of Characters for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. “It is pretty incredible to watch her on this journey,” Schwab adds. That journey takes her to where she has been warned by her father not to venture, out beyond the reef. That parental order doesn't stop her however and that rebellious defiance against her father is similar to another Disney heroine, Ariel, in The Little Mermaid. It is no surprise that theme is prominent in Moana given that the movie's creators are equally responsible for Mermaid which ushered in Disney's animation renaissance in 1989.
It took Ron Clements and John Musker five years to bring the story of Moana from sketchpad to the big screen. The directing duo embarked on their first research trip to the Pacific Islands in 2011 and according to Schwab the visits really impacted them. “One thing that they learned is the voyaging and the Pacific Islanders were master voyagers and they traveled all over, all over the islands. Then about 3,000 years ago this voyaging stopped and no one knows why,” Schwab observes. That is where Moana comes in to help lead her people.
On their journey to figure out why the tradition of voyaging mysteriously ended, Clements and Musker also discovered the legend of Maui. Schwab describes Maui as a “super-man type character,” adding that the legend of Maui varied from island to island in the South Pacific. Schwab says the dynamic duo of animation came back from their many fact-finding missions with a number of different ideas about the character, voiced by Dwayne Johnson.
Speaking of traditions, Musker and Clements wanted to present an accurate portrayal of Polynesian life and culture including tattoos. Maui has dozens of tattoos all over his body including mini-Maui who takes on a life of his own. While Schwab says Musker and Clements likened mini-Maui to Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, the tattoo has a striking resemblance to the Genie from Aladdin. It is no wonder since mini-Maui and the Genie were animated by Eric Goldberg. The result is Disney's first animated character with head to toe tattoos.
Equally paramount for the production team was ensuring that all of Maui's changes were effectively executed and credible for the character. Schwab counts ten different transformations for Maui from himself, mini-Maui, hawk and reptile just to name a few. He adds they used Walt Disney's 1963 Sword in the Stone as a reference in character transformation as Merlin and Wart were changed into all sorts of animals, fish and creatures.
For Schwab, as art director, he gets personally involved in production early in the process. What starts out as a blank sheet of paper eventually evolves into the characters we see on the screen. When questioned about how many sketches went into the creation of Moana, Schwab guesses “thousands and not even just pencil to paper. We've explored a lot in 3D. We would get to a certain point in design and actually take it into 3D and kinda see what we had.” Schwab says when it comes to the main characters, the sky was the limit. “We really do try to overturn every rock and make sure we are finding the right character for the film,” notes Schwab, “and the right style for the film.”
Not just every rock but also every drop of water, every feather on island animals and every strand of hair on Moana's head. When it came to Moana and her hair, she is perhaps the first Disney character or any other animated character to finally interact with her hair. Schwab reveals that there was proprietary software that was written to allow the teenager to run her hands through her hair, whip her full head of hair around and brush it out of her face, something that up until now Disney animators have been reluctant to get involved with. “If you watch the film you will see that is part of her acting and if you watch other CG films, Disney as well as others, characters don't touch their hair all that much and there is a reason for that.” Schwab explains “it is very, very difficult to do in computer animation. It's pretty groundbreaking” and likely something that will be used more and more in animated films.
At the end of the day and by the end of the production, Schwab says it is a collaborative process. “We are bringing these characters into animation as a team with really team ownership,” he outlines. “It is not a hands-off process. We are really holding hands and trying to bring these characters to life and make them the best they can be.”
For Schwab the release of Moana is the latest milestone in his career with the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Having previously worked as character design supervisor for Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, character designer for Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, Schwab says he has been drawing since the age of two. “My parents said I couldn't put a pencil down,” quick to note that his mother saved everything that he drew. “Once in a while, I'll get a box in the mail with a handful of drawings that I did,” laughs Schwab.
He is quick to add that what really shaped his interest and passion for animation was a book he received for his birthday while in high school, The Illusion of Life by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. “That book really opened my mind,” Schwab fondly recalls.
What is next for him on the sketchpad, Schwab is reluctant to say but adds that Wreck-It Ralph 2 is up next for the studios but what if any role on he will have in that project has yet to be determined. For now he like everyone else will enjoy the holidays with family and friends and maybe catch another screening of Moana.