Last week, we were given the privilege of attending a first-look preview screening of Disney animations latest feature film – Moana. The movie tells the story of a young Mauri woman who goes on a voyage of adventure and discovery with her new found friend Maui (played by Dwayne Johnson).
Producer Osnat Shurer (who has previously worked on short-film ‘Lifted’ for Pixar and Arthur Christmas for Aardman) took us on a fascinating journey explaining how the concept of the story first arose, the visits they took the South Pacific, the people they met and finally who Moana is and the reasons for her voyage.
Following the presentation, we got to sit down with Shurer to discuss the movie in more detail as well as surprise her by letting her know that we’ve found the first easter egg in the movie in some of the footage that we saw!
How did you get involved in the film, and how did you start working with Jon Musker and Ron Clements?
I had been at Pixar before and joined Disney Animation and I jumped at the chance to work with Jon Lasseter again, and Moana was one of the many beautiful films in development. To my great honour Jon asked if I would produce his film. And a lot of what attracted my to working on Moana was the strong female protagonist, which is always something that’s been close to my heart, but also the fusion of cultures both musically and in terms of telling the story.
Can you elaborate on that – why is Moana such a strong female character?
There was a chance to me to focus on a story around a young woman who is on a hero’s journey and is learning to listen to the voice inside her and not be what others tell you you’re meant to be. Which is very compelling at any age, for a man or a woman. Early on, the directors and I agreed we wanted it to be a hero’s journey, not a gender based story. Between that and the beautiful, amazing settings as well as the chance to work with Jon and Ron as they transitioned into computer animation with its beautiful scope, it was irresistible.
Disney method of all critiquing the others’ work – is that why it works so well?
There are all sorts of levels of collaboration in among a crew of over 300, but in the storytelling process the ability of all the directors to lay down tools and focus for a day. And it’s beyond critiquing. It’s about taking what you see, figure out what’s right and what needs improvement and then we spend the next day, maybe two, figuring out who to build it back up, and how to solve those problems. I do believe that’s the secret to letting a great story come out.
Jon Lasseter is such a legendary creative force, what is it about him that is so special?
He’s our creative lead, and he has a deep, inherent storytelling talent. He can tell it like a radar, how the story can be better. He likes to say that we never actually finish our stories, they just take them away and release them. So, between that and his deep commitment to research – to create believable stories you have to find what it is, extract it and bring it into the world of animation. He also has this uncanny ability to help the filmmakers find the solution to their problems. While he’s helping you find the issues with the stories he’s helping you find the solution in your own voice. So for our film there’s a shorthand between John and Ron which absolutely helped make our story stronger and stronger.
Can you tell us a bit about the trips to the South Pacific and specifically how they helped the story?
We worked people from New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii – some were experts in their field in New Zealand, some were anthropologists and tattoo artists and weavers and dancers. Some were traditional people – sailors, fisherman, elders – they all helped us not miss the mark, they also enriched the story by offering ideas and things from their culture and knowledge that lifted the story.
John & Ron are two of the greatest animation directors of all-time, can you give us an insight into working with them?
It’s fantastic. They know their craft so very well, they have the funniest relationship between them – they’ve been working together forever.
They also know animation very very deeply. One of the great joys on this film was watching the chance that our animators had to work with them. All the animators who grew up in computer animation ever thought they’d have the chance to work with them. Many of them are in this industry because of Ron and Jon. For them to be on a film that they are directing is really really uplifting – it was awesome – they’re just as silly as I am!
Am i right in thinking I saw Baymax as one of the coconuts in the footage that we saw?
Wow, you’re good at catching those easter eggs! You’re the first person who’s seen that!
I’m guessing there’s loads more to spot?
Yes there are – but you’ll see them!
The sea is very much a character in this movie, how did you go about giving it the emotion it needed?
It was a beautiful, and a big challenge. The film takes place almost all at sea, so it’s a location as well as a character and everything’s in constant motion. There were a few specific programmes written for us to be able to create the water. Our effects lead worked hand in hand with our heads of character animation to bring the ocean alive as a character. To figure out the physics of it, the visuals of it so that we get what we wanted. How do you get emotion out of water? It doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t talk and it took us a while.
Moana is not a tradition skinny princess – Was that a conscious decision?
The decision was that we’re telling a story that’s a heroes journey. She’s a badass! It was a conscious choice to design a character that can be very active, someone who could journey across the ocean to save her world. We feel like she’s absolutely gorgeous, we’re very proud of her.
Could she be the next Disney princess?
I’d prefer to call her a heroine. Who knows where her future lies, to us she’s the hero of her own journey.
Dwayne Johnson – Did he say yes straight away and is there anything he can’t do?
He works very hard, the combination of doing a Disney animated film and celebrating the culture that he comes from and that he loves so much was irresistible. He came on board early on and helped with the development of the character.
Casting Moana – What is it about Auli’i Cravalho was so special?
We heard some wonderful woman for the role, but the thing about Auli’i was her joy for life, she has this inherent love of life. But the combination of warmth and empathy to her, and combined with a fearlessness and a determination and courage that we saw the first time we met her – that’s Moana. Add to that her acting talent, raw and untrained and a gorgeous singing voice – literally her only training before this was Glee club – she’s irresistible, we had to cast her.
One of the tattoos on Maui is hand-drawn animation – Where did that decision come from?
The tattoo are completely hand drawn – they want to be flexible – that stretching and squashing that hand drawn animation has and we the wonderful resource of Eric Goldberg in the studio. We started testing it, and figuring out how to map that onto the character under the skin, so you get that feeling of it moving under the skin and we loved what it did. There’s also other hand drawn animation in the movie too.
You’ve got some incredible musicians working on this movie, can you tell us about working with the likes of them.
We had the incredible Opetaia Foa’i, he grew up in Samoa and New Zealand and deeply immersed in the culture. His band Te Vaka have been doing the Pacific Island beats, Pacific Island Roots music with something more contemporary – it’s who he is. It’s apparent when you meet him. Add to that Mark Manchina (Tarzan, Brother Bear) Mark has a great love for World Music and a great capacity for finding instruments that make you feel you’re in that part of the world. On The Lion King that’s what he did, he helped weave together the African sounds with the more contemporary sounds. We went to Fiji and Opetaia Foa’i brought in a choir, and they have a very specific Pacific richness to their harmony. And then there’ Lin Manuel-Miranda – he’s a humble, down to Earth person…
What is it about the writing department at Disney that is so brilliant? You’ve brought Taiki Watitia on board, what does he bring?
Taika just has the vilest sense of humour, and he brings his love for Maori culture but with a twinkle in his eye, a mischief. There are obviously the directors, artists and Jarrad Bush??? who was the final writer on the film, combined with some of the best story artists there are bringing you ideas as they’re staging it – all that with our process, constantly screening the film, re-thinking it, breaking it apart, bringing it back together again with our story trust and John Lassester – that’s the secret to it.
Moana is released in UK cinemas December 2nd (and we cannot wait!!).