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Disney mixes classic animation, computers to create captivating ‘Moana’

MOANA'S MISSION — Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) may be a demigod—half god, half mortal, all awesome—but he's no match for Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho), who's determined to sail out on a daring mission to save her people. Moana's first challenge is convincing Maui to join her. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, produced by Osnat Shurer, and featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i, "Moana" sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved. (Disney Photo)
LISTEN: Disney mixes classic animation, computers to create captivating 'Moana'

PHOENIX — The newest Disney heroine is no wilting flower.

“Moana” follows the adventure of a Polynesian princess as she tries to save her civilization. Along the way, Moana picks up a larger than life sidekick — the demigod, Maui.

“In Polynesian folklore, Maui is represented by many different versions,” Disney character animator Darrin Butters said. “He’s like a trickster, sometimes he’s like a superman, and we really had fun with that kind of a rascal.”

Butters started with Disney 20 years ago and had his hand in everything from “Bolt” to “Frozen” to “Zootopia.” He said the the animation and effects get better and better with each film.

“Moana” raised the bar in every department.

“Layout had to come with a way of shooting this movie on a rocking boat between two characters,” he said. “Effects had their work cut out for them. Water is probably one of the hardest things make believable in a computer simulation. We had wind, we had hair, we had a lot of skin — we had wet hair, we had wet skin — it was a huge challenge.”

There was also the challenge of having nearly featureless shots of just the ocean. However, in the movie, the ocean itself becomes a character that guides Moana on her journey.

When it came to characters, Butters said Disney adopted the Pixar model of animating every character in a scene, which is different from the traditional practice of assigning one animator to one character.

“It’s exciting and new every single shot you get issued,” he said. “I animated probably more Maui shots than anything. I have an affinity for fun comical characters and they seem to cast me on shots of that ilk.”

Butters said Dwayne Johnson, the voice of Maui, gave he and his team a lot to work with, including Johnson’s trademark lifted eyebrow and beaming smile.

One truly movie-magic innovation in “Moana” was the combining of traditional hand-drawn animation and computer animation and getting the two to interact. This was used for Maui’s tattoos, which move and change and tell the demigod’s story.

“We worked very closely with all of our hand-drawn animating craftsmen that still work at Disney,” Butters said. “Every step of the way, we’re incorporating their knowledge and that legacy. Eric Goldberg, the lead on the genie from ‘Aladdin,’ spearheaded the designing and the animating of the tattoos.

“It was really fun to do the back and forth with them. We would be issued the shot together, we’d plan out what was going to happen. They had a template of Maui’s tattoos and they would animate — pencil on paper — and we would scan that in and it would be mapped on to Maui’s rough animated 3D body.

“We would be able to see if we needed to lessen the 3D animation so that you could read what the tattoo was doing. Or, maybe he was moving so much that there didn’t need to be much movement on the tattoos and that back and forth is something that I’ve never experienced in my work at Disney. It was exciting.”

See Moana and Maui in action this Thanksgiving. The film opens Wednesday.

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