It's that moment in "Moana" where most audience members go
from passively viewing this motion picture to being swept up in the magic &
the wonder of this Walt Disney Animation Studios production.
Which sequence am I talking about? It's right after the
toddler version of this film's title character saves a baby sea turtle from
some scavenging sea birds. Whereupon the ocean (who's a living, sentient being
in this Ron Clements / John Musker movie) decides to reward Baby Moana for her
What follows is almost a perfect piece of animated
pantomime. A nearly wordless interaction between child & wave that then makes
even the most hard-hearted of adults start to well up.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And you know what's really remarkable about this moment in
Disney's "Moana" ? It was never supposed to have been in this movie at all.
Strange but true, folks. This magical little scene that made
millions around the globe tear up was originally meant to be an in-house test.
Something that only WDAS staffers were supposed to have seen as they struggled
to get a handle on how to properly portray the Ocean in this motion picture.
Transform this huge amorphous body of water into some sort of living character
that Moana could then interact with.
"That was one of the more intriguing things we learned as we
were researching the culture of the Oceanic people. They talk about the Ocean
as it were alive," said John Musker. "This is why the Oceanic people don't
think of their islands as being separated by all this open water. But - rather
- they see the Sea as this living thing that then connects them all."
John Musker (L) and Ron Clements during their promotional tour for "Moana."Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
So having seen some story potential in this core belief of
the Oceanic people, Musker & Clements then wondered: Would it be possible
for the Ocean itself to become a character in "Moana" ? Become someone /
something that their film's title character could perhaps talk to / interact
with / rely upon as she made her long, lonely epic voyage across hundreds of
miles of open water.
Mind you, filmmakers have previously explored this H2O-as-performer
idea (Witness that computer-generated column of water which James Cameron -
with the help of the FX wizards at ILM - conjured up for 20th
Century Fox's Summer 1989 release, "The Abyss"). But what Ron & John were
looking to do here wasn't just some CG effect that would only be on screen for
30 seconds or so. What they were shooting for was a living version of the Ocean
that could be - at turns - playful, thoughtful, even soulful. What's more, this
entirely-made-out-of-water character would then make multiple appearances of
their motion picture and have a significant impact on "Moana" 's story along
"Before we actually committed to this story idea, having the
Ocean actually be a character in 'Moana,' we wanted to make sure that it was
even possible. That the technology we had available at the Studio could
actually deliver the sort of performance from water that we were looking for
here. Which is why we commissioned a test," Musker continued. "This would have
been five or six years ago. And this test was the very first footage to be
animated for this film."
Chris Williams behind his desk at Walt Disney Animation Studios.Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
And who did Ron & John tap to do this test? Chris
Williams, a story-artist-turned-director (Williams had helmed - along with Byron Howard - WDAS' 2008 release,
"Bolt") who - to hear Chris tell this story - wound up working at the Mouse
House because of an earlier Musker & Clements movie, "The Little Mermaid."
"It was that film and 'Aladdin,' another one that Ron &
John made, that really started the renaissance of Disney Feature Animation back
in the 1980s & 1990s. And when I saw those movies while I was studying
animation at Sheridan College up in Ontario, that's when I knew that I wanted
to work at Disney. That I wanted to be part of a team that could make an
animated feature that was as good as that," Williams recalled.
So when Ron & John asked Chris if he'd like to help them
out with this "Moana" living ocean test, he immediately jumped at the chance.
Not just because this then gave Williams the chance to work directly with two
heroes of his. But also because Chris had recently had a life experience that
he felt could serve as suitable artistic inspiration for this test footage.
Chris Williams and his daughter Harper frolic in the waves down by the Pacific Ocean.
"Just a few months before I was handed this assignment, my
wife and I had taken our then-two year-old daughter Harper down to San Diego
where we then spent some time on the beach. And I remember just being
spellbound as I watched Harper interact with those lapping waves," Chris said.
"Which gave me an idea. Seeing as I had Harper's day at the
beach and how she had interacted with those waves still fresh in my mind,
that's what I decided to use as my inspiration for this test. I just keyed all
of my poses & animation choices off of what my daughter had done that day.
And as a direct result, it all just kind of poured out of me," Chris continued.
"This has to have been one of the cooler assignments that I've ever gotten at
Disney Animation because it was just so personal & effortless."
So Williams boarded this test scene and - with the
assistance of "Moana" art director / production designer Bill Schwab, who came
up with a super-appealing toddler version of this film's title character - put
together just what Musker & Clements had been looking for.
"Of course, Chris & Bill weren't the only ones who
worked on this in-house test. In order to make sure that the Ocean - while it
was interacting with Baby Moana -- looked correct, our effects department first
had to do hundreds of water simulations," John said. "They had to factor in all
sorts of things: refractions, reflections, bubbles, the amplitude of these
waves, the in & out of the surf, the foam that you see at the bottom-most
edge of these waves. And each of these specific aspects of this CG water were
generated by their own engines, and all of these engines then had to work
together and combine these individual effects in ways that had never been done
"Chris, Bill & our FX team did a really great job with
this test footage," Ron enthused. "Long before the rest of 'Moana' was done, we
had this little set piece that we could then show people as an example of what this
movie was going to look like."
What follows is the original version of the Baby Moana water
interaction test (And you'd like to compare & contrast how this footage is
different from what ended up being used in the finished film ... Well, Disney's "Moana"
is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere):
That's charming, don't you think? There was one problem,
though. After this "Baby Moana" test footage was screened (and after all of the
audience members then finished dabbing their eyes), this question would
invariably come up: "That scene is great. Where does it fit in the movie?" And
then Musker or Clements would then have to explain that this was just a piece
of test footage. That it had been produced very early on during "Moana" 's
pre-production. More importantly, that this scene didn't actually fit in with
the film's current storyline.
"For a long time while we were working on this movie, Moana
didn't actually 'meet' the Ocean, realize that it was a living thing until she
was a 16 year-old. But the only problem with that Moana-meets-the-Ocean scene
was that it wasn't nearly as charming or powerful as that test footage that
Chris had put together," Musker stated. "We tried multiple versions of this introductory
scene with Moana as a 16 year-old. But none of them were as good or as strong as
what Chris had done."
"At this point, that Baby-Moana-meets-the-Ocean test footage
had kind of taken on a life of its own," remembered Hank Driskill, technical
supervisor on "Moana." "It wound up being shown at the D23 EXPO. And even though it
wasn't even part of this film's storyline at that time, it was so adorable and
so many people had fallen in love with it that the story team eventually
decided that they had to find a way to integrate this test footage into the
Screenwriter Jared Bush on the blue carpet at theHollywood premiere of Disney's "Moana." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.All rights reserved
"The trick then was to find a way to make this
Baby-Moana-meets-the-Ocean footage fit organically into the film's pre-existing
story. Which was honestly one of the hardest thing to do," said "Moana"
screenwriter Jared Bush. "Because sometimes there are these scenes or bits of
business that you love which don't actually fit in your film, that take away
from the overall story. Which is - for the good of the movie, even though it
can really break your heart - you have to then cut this stuff out."
"Luckily that wasn't the case with the Baby Moana sequence.
I can honestly tell you that - on the day we figured out how to organically fit
this scene in the movie - there was this audible sigh of relief in the
building. People here were saying things like 'She's in!,' "It worked!' It was
such a good day," David Pimental, "Moana" 's Head of Story recalled.
And what of Chris Williams, the guy who initially came up
with the idea of having a toddler version of Moana interact with the Ocean?
Given that he went on to co-direct the Academy Award-winning "Big Hero 6" for
Walt Disney Animation Studios, Chris spent much of the past 5 years wrestling
with his own set of story problems.
Harper & Chris enjoy some Daddy-Daughter time down by the water.
And what does his daughter Harper (who's now nearly 8) think
of being the inspiration for the Baby-Moana-meets-the-Ocean scene? Williams
revealed that - though he gave his daughter a Baby Moana doll to commemorate
her contribution to this motion picture - she actually prefers another
character from this motion picture.
"Harper loves Hei Hei, the really stupid rooster character
from 'Moana,' " Chris laughed. "I mean, she likes the Baby Moana doll - which
looks just like the character from the movie. But she has a number of Hei Heis
now. Harper just can't get enough of that stupid rooster character."
This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Monday, April 17, 2017