The Secret to Moana’s Special Animation Sauce? Just Add Water.

00:26:38 minutes

Still from "Moana." Credit: Disney
Still from “Moana.” Credit: Disney

Disney’s newest animated film Moana is the story of a young girl who leaves the comfort of her home island to travel the ocean, and, in doing so, meets a demi-god and saves her people. The film takes place on a fictional group of islands in the South Pacific, and right from the start, Disney animators knew what their number-one technical challenge would be: how to animate all that water.

The animators embarked on nearly two years of intense research, taking field trips to a pool in North Hollywood and studying footage shot during a research trip to Tahiti. “We had a meeting for six months every day where we looked at this piece of shoreline,” said Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. “We called it ‘the shoreline meeting.’”

[From the lab to the silver screen: The birth of CGI.]

The Disney team also drew inspiration from a custom animation program that mimicked the physics of water in different environments—in shallow areas, on the open sea, or during a storm. But West says it wasn’t enough to be able to reproduce the physical properties of water. “The biggest challenge was how to capture that and make you feel like how water exists in your mind or in your heart.” He joins Disney’s head of animation Amy Smeed to discuss the animation science behind Moana.


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Segment Guests

Amy Smeed

Amy Smeed is the head of animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California.

Marlon West

Marlon West is the head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re looking for something to do with the kids over the holidays, you should check out Disney’s newest animated film, Moana.

It’s the story of a young girl who leaves the comfort of her home island to travel the ocean and save her people. And while you’re getting swept along on Moana’s journey, you’ll want to take a minute to enjoy the scenery, which in this case is a lot of water. There’s so much of it in the film– shallow water, stormy water, water that splashes and crests in waves. There’s even a water high five, water that has emotion. And it all looks and moves just like the real stuff. It is amazing, which any animator will tell you is– it’s no easy feat to do.

So how did the Disney team do it? Research, computer algorithms, a healthy grasp of fluid dynamics? How about imagination? That is the Walt Disney way, of course. Joining me to discuss the animation science behind the new film Moana are my guests, Amy Smeed, head of animation, and Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Amy and Marlon, welcome to Science Friday.

AMY SMEED: Thank you for having us.

MARLON WEST: Thrilled to be here. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: I just want to remind our listeners that we won’t be taking your calls today, but you can comment on Twitter @scifri or at sciencefriday.com. What’s the difference between your two jobs, Amy and Marlon? What do you do, and what do you do?

AMY SMEED: So I am a character animator, and we’re responsible for doing all of the characters, whether it’s a human, an animal, or in Moana’s case, the performance part of the water.

MARLON WEST: And the effects are, as you could imagine, all the water. In other movies, snow, rain, fire, and lava in this film. So generally, most of the stuff that moves that’s not the character.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But the water in this film really is a character, isn’t it, Amy?

AMY SMEED: It is. And in this case, it was a huge collaboration between our two departments. When the water was a character, we had a very rough rig, and it was similar to– almost like a sock puppet. And we would animate the water. And then we would work with the effects animators, and they would make it actually look like water, with the bubbles and the water effects part of it.

MARLON WEST: Yeah, we would do a simulation of water over top of the animated character of the water. And also, like you can imagine, like a Ziploc bag full of water. And if you shook it, you would have bubbles inside it. So we would add that as well. And then it was very important to stitch it back into the rest of the ocean so it didn’t look like a water creature that lived in the ocean. It was very important that it felt like the ocean itself.

AMY SMEED: Yeah. Marlon, his partner Dale, and then Hyrum was my partner, we– the four of us met very early on. And we kept talking about we really want to make sure this doesn’t look like a sea creature. We really want it to look like water and not like this other being.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because it really does look like real water. Did you know when you started this movie that it was going to change the way you animated water?

MARLON WEST: Yeah. We knew that– we had two big challenges on the film, that we had to do hundreds of natural water shots of shorelines, like you mentioned in the introduction, in storms at sea and any number of things, boat wakes. A lot of things that just had to be in the background at a scale that we’ve never done it before. But then we have the ocean itself as a character.

That was a very, very close collaboration between our two departments, and to try to make it look like natural water but still hold the character performance and the very important silhouette shapes that our animators, character animators, work towards. And not have it look too agitated. Like the things that we thought would make it look like natural water very often made the character feel maybe too aggressive or too wet. Not too wet, but too agitated. So we very often had to modulate how much we were actually adding natural water qualities to the character.

IRA FLATOW: Did you have to take into account the physics of water, even the salt versus the fresh kind of water?

MARLON WEST: Yeah. We have a lot of water solvers that are either off the shelf– but we created one for this show called Splash. So the physics of water are pretty understood by people a lot smarter than myself. But what we actually always strive for here in the studio, both in character animation and effects, is something that’s not necessarily realistic, but believable. So our water in this film is on a level that looks like water and behaves how people think it behaves. But there is– it’s not photorealistic.

IRA FLATOW: Why don’t– you mentioned this term water solver. How does that work? What is that?

MARLON WEST: So in effects there’s a lot of simulations that we do. And so a solver, millions of– in this case, very often billions of particles being created to simulate water in a natural way. But then our challenge is to get the performance that we’re looking for, if we can make it look exciting, to make it look beautiful. And in the case of our water or the ocean as a character, it’s to make it emotive. So that takes a lot of– it’s fighting against physics very often.

IRA FLATOW: Amy, how much research did your team do just on water and how it moves? Did you actually go out and study a lot of it?

AMY SMEED: I think Marlon’s team did more studying of water than we did. For us, we really wanted to character the water. And for the performance of the water, there’s times when, if you move the water up very slowly, that means something very different than if it rises very quickly. So we were more in the characterizing the water, where I think the physics side of it was more on Marlon’s side.

We do do tons of research for all of our films. So there’s tons of research everywhere within the film, not just the water. But yeah, I think that was more Marlon’s side.

MARLON WEST: Very often, part of just the very beginning of the filmmaking process here, our directors, production designers, story department, they’ll do a deep dive into whatever subject– take trips, research trips. And then we also have folks come in to the studio and lecture us about certain subjects. They’ll bring animals in if it’s necessary on certain films.

But we did do a lot of our own kind of studies. Swimming pools, or we went to Mission Bay down in Long Beach to measure how much light travels under water and under certain conditions, so we could get it right. And a lot of these times, they’re cross-department collaborations. It’s character animation and effects, but it’s also our lighting department, our look department, especially when it comes to the shorelines that we have to get right.

We have water going up and making the sand wet, and then the sand dries as the water pulls back. And all these things that are kind of happening in the background. No one goes like, boy, those shorelines really look amazing. But if they didn’t operate correctly, they’d look cheesy. Even to a lap baby.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I was paying special attention to the characters’ hair. Because I remember we did a show specially about Tangled when Tangled was created and how the physics of all that animation happened. And I saw you, Amy, with– in the movie, that her hair gets wet a lot. Everybody’s hair gets wet, and it looked very realistic. Did you spend a lot of time on that?

AMY SMEED: We did. We had– and one of the other things, we really wanted to have Moana be able to interact with her hair. And that’s something that’s very, very difficult to do in CG. And we had a program that was created called Quicksilver. Brian Whited and Maryann Simmons, they worked a lot on that. And Maryann had also worked a lot on the Tangled hair. So it was kind of pushing beyond what we did on Tangled.

And if Moana was interacting with the hair, then we could pose the hair, and then we could send that to our technical animation department. And the tech anim department– they’re the ones that are responsible for doing the hair and the cloth. So we would pass it down to them, and then they would kind of make it work with a breeze and depending on– or if it’s wet. With Moana’s– the coils in her hair, they developed a ton of technology to figure that, how would they bounce off each other. And there’s so many strands in each of those coils.

IRA FLATOW: Do you create one hair and then reproduce the hairs? Or does each hair have a physics of its own and how it’s going to interact?

AMY SMEED: I don’t know the exact answer to that. I know they spent a lot of time and the look in our simulation departments with all of those coils. And we had the ability in animation to do just a tiny coil, or we could take a broader area of the hair. So I think it was all individually created.

MARLON WEST: It’s generally grouped in regions.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, there also was a unique aspect of the film, was that you had the bodies of many of them were tattooed. And the tattoos themselves were animated, which I thought was an amazing little device that you used, Amy.

AMY SMEED: Yeah. With this being a Ron and John film, too, and they come from traditional, it was something that was so fun for us to figure out. But yes, it’s a hand-drawn tattoo that we mapped on to Maui’s CG body. And the fun thing for us is we had so many animators coming to say, can I please work on a mini Maui scene? Because it was– the mini Maui character was led by Eric Goldberg.

Eric was responsible for the genie in Aladdin, and he’s an idol to all of us animators. So we had so many animators wanting to work and collaborate with Eric on those scenes. And before they would start the scene, the two of them would get together, and they would talk about what’s going to happen in the scene. For instance, there’s a scene where CG Maui pecks mini Maui. So they figured out, Eric drew a little X of where the CG Maui would poke him. And they figured all that out, they collaborated a ton, and then that’s what you ended up seeing on the big screen. So it was really fun for our two groups to collaborate really closely together.

IRA FLATOW: How many people actually, for each one of those scenes– let’s talk about the scene with the hair and the water. How many people actually touch each one, different people? Or touch one of those things?


MARLON WEST: There’s probably– any particular scene, without exaggerating, would say couple dozen. Between the story artists, who storyboards it, or production designers doing costume design, character animators, tech anim, effects, lighting, rigging. Yeah, it is such a collaborative process to do a CG film. And every performance and every challenge takes cross-department collaboration.

IRA FLATOW: You can see because in some of these films the credits take almost as long as the movie.

AMY SMEED: There’s a lot of people that work on these films, yeah.

MARLON WEST: There’s a lot of people that– yeah, to make them happen

IRA FLATOW: How do you animate a scene in which the water is doing so many different things at once, Marlon?

MARLON WEST: Well, very often we’d have scenes where there’s natural water in the background. And then you have the performance, the character animation performance, and you have to stitch that back in. One of the things we did to try to remind the viewer that this is actually the ocean and this is performance, that after the big beat of whatever performance, whether it’s a high five or a head nod, we would stop using the character animation and then just let the physics, the natural physics of water, take over. And then the ocean would just fall back into place.

And that was really kind of an important little thing we did. Because they would animate the performance completely throughout the scene. But we would decide the important part of the performance, the storytelling part, and then let the simulation take over again and let those droplets of water just fall back into the ocean. Because we all kind of agreed that the ocean would not have to duck its head back down or pull its arm back into the ocean. So those are the kind of discussions and arguments grownups have in our building. Like, at what point does the ocean become a simulation again?

IRA FLATOW: Amy, was it more or less difficult to animate Te Ka, the female lava monster there?



AMY SMEED: Yeah. She was an awesome character. I loved– there were some tests done very early on, and that was another example of where we were working really, really closely with effects. With the lava coming down– we’re always trying to get at an emotion and a feeling through our characters– and so we needed to make sure with the lava, it wasn’t going to distract from that.

And she’s huge. She has a very large scale. So we had to try to figure that out as well. If she moves too quick, it doesn’t look like she has weight to her, that it doesn’t look like she has the scale. And if she moves too slowly, then it’s not a real threat to Moana. So we did some tests. And then as animators came on to the film and started animating her, they were doing amazing things. And I loved the way that she turned out.

IRA FLATOW: We detail geeks like the fact that you had a little dark crust on her as she cooled off, on the skin.

MARLON WEST: Oh yeah. We try to have truth in material as much as we can, even though our films are fantasies. So it was great that Te Ka, when she was angry, was dripping lava like a volcano really is. When it’s really active, it’s the most fiery, and that when she cooled, she would cool off when she calmed down. So that was actually a very cool thing to be able to have the real characteristics of lava or a volcano kind of match up with the character performances.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Amy Smeed, head of animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Where do you draw the line for realism? I mean, is it a concern that things become too creepy looking, like uncanny valley sort of thing?


AMY SMEED: Yeah, definitely. That’s something for us– we have a lot of animators. Before we are starting our scenes, there are some animators that will thumbnail out their ideas. Other animators will go– we have a reference room, and they’ll film themselves acting their scene.

Even when that happens, we’re not copying that performance frame by frame because we don’t want the characters to look like us. And we’re always caricaturing those performance. So we’re pushing the timing, we’re pushing the poses, we’re always looking for the silhouettes of the character. There’s certain principles of animation that we’re always looking at. And I agree, I think if it starts looking too realistic, it can start looking a little creepy. So we do spend a lot of time figuring out, just caricaturing those performances.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how much do you count on our brain filling in what you’re trying to animate? Because our brains do that. They fill in stuff that’s not really there sometimes. You count on that or–

MARLON WEST: It’s funny, because you would think you could count on that. But like we talked about earlier, the amount of people who look at all of these shots over and over and over again. So every shot of the film, Amy and myself and generally everybody who worked on it, the directors– I mean they’ve seen each of these shots, without exaggeration, dozens of times.

So people tend to point out every little thing that’s not right. And we fix them as best we can. So there’s very little that we’re like, no one’s looking over there. Or that’s not really important, because you should be looking at the character Moana’s eyes. Because that may work if you watch these shots like three times, but we watch them dozens of times. And eventually someone is going to notice, like, oh, there was a pop over there, or that tree wasn’t there in the last shot or there was not footprints back there or something. So we don’t count on folks filling in gaps as much as you would think we should.

AMY SMEED: Yeah, we’re very detail oriented.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You would have– and it really shows. Beauty is in the details, and it really does show in the movie. And if you want to see some clips of what the water animation looked like at different stages of filming, we have those on our website. They’re really cool. Go to sciencefriday.com/moana.

We’re going to take a break. We’re talking this hour about the animation science of the new Disney film Moana with Amy Smeed, head of animation, and Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Stay with us. We’ll right back. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about animation science and the new Disney film Moana. Amy Smeed, head of animation, and Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios, are joining us.

Are you working on anything for virtual reality? I was sitting there watching the film. It was just gorgeous. And I’m saying, wouldn’t it be something if I’m watching this and I could turn my head around and see all that ocean and all the people around me? Is that something that you guys are thinking about?

AMY SMEED: That would be really cool, but I don’t know– I haven’t been any conversations where we’ve been talking about that. There might be some people in technology that are talking about that.

MARLON WEST: Yeah, there are folks in the studio that are very, very interested in VR. We did do a VR test for Zootopia, and one of the street scenes. We did not do one for Moana. It would have been cool. But I have to say, one of the things about water, it is so difficult and expensive to do. To do it in 360 would be quite daunting indeed.

IRA FLATOW: You need to double your budget. Let’s talk a bit about the cutting edge of animation technology. For example, let me begin by asking you, could you have made this movie the same way, let’s say, five years ago? Was the technology available to you?

AMY SMEED: That’s a good question. I think we would have found a way to make the movie because we’re always presented with challenges on each film, and we find a way to make it happen. Whether it would have been at this level, I’m not quite sure.

MARLON WEST: Yeah. I would agree with that. Because I have to say, Amy and I, we work very close with our software engineers and our technology department. I’m not so sure that our directors and our heads of story are that dialed in or care one iota about what we can actually physically do. They are preoccupied with coming up with the best story ever that they can. And we scramble and make it happen. So I think we would have maybe been developing water instead of snow five years ago, if we wanted to make this movie then.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what do you mean? What was the toughest part that you needed the new technology to do? Was it the water, making it look the way it did?

MARLON WEST: I think the scale of it. I’ve been here since the 2D days. So I started off on Lion King. And water is always tough for animation to do, either the drawing and creating CG, because it’s very complicated. It changes its physics, the splash comes up in a big sheet, it turns into beads and then into droplets, and they go back and make other little events on the surface of the water as it goes back in. And everybody knows that that’s happening. They take it for granted.

So we usually have a couple dozen water scenes in a movie, and we had hundreds of them. So it was a big– it was a big challenge to be able to do the scale of the water, even like I said, water that you’re taking for granted, even just the wakes behind the water. We had to do them on a scale we’ve never done before. So that was a huge challenge, one that we started working on like two and a half years ago.

AMY SMEED: Yeah, once we know what type of film we’re making, and the directors and the story department. Our technology teams start way before, figuring out all the technology, whether it’s water or lava or whatever that is.

MARLON WEST: I worked on Frozen as well. And there wasn’t really truly believable snow solvers for deep snow. There was always little footprints and things in animated films before. But people walking around in waist-deep snow, people hadn’t done. And our early tests showed that they weren’t very convincing. So our films always have some type of creative desire to drive the technical challenge and solution.

IRA FLATOW: So if it takes years in development, there must be films that are in development now that we don’t know about. I’m not– I’m sure you’re not going to tell us either.

AMY SMEED: There are a lot.

MARLON WEST: There are.

IRA FLATOW: So is there new technology you would like to see? Are you going to say to the technologists, hey, we need to be able to do this in the next movie. Get us new technology to do that. Where is that cutting edge? If I gave you a blank check– I’ll give you the blank check question we give on Science Friday– if you needed to develop a new technology to do something in the animated world, what would you like– what would you love to have?

AMY SMEED: Oh gosh. That’s a good question.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, would it be 3D? I’m thinking– would it be a 4D or something? We talked about virtual reality, not sure what that would be–

AMY SMEED: That would be cool.

IRA FLATOW: Is it a question of just money then? Of investing in virtual reality?

MARLON WEST: It’s money and computing power, because there’s no limit to the imagination of people in this building, both the technicians and storytellers. But you can only just push so much– so many pixels being computed, so many particles. And so we do run into the problem of just being able to render the images of our films in a timely fashion at the level that we like to do it. So yeah.

AMY SMEED: Yeah, and I think for us in character animation, there are times when there are just efficiency things where I just want to ram my hands into the computer and move the character around. But I can’t. I have my mouse, where I’m moving that around. Something–

IRA FLATOW: Not yet.

AMY SMEED: –really cool technology-wise.

IRA FLATOW: Not yet.

AMY SMEED: Yeah. That would be really great.

IRA FLATOW: You want Minority Report capabilities is what you want, to move–

MARLON WEST: Yeah. Because we are making very complicated imagery and very emotionally, hopefully effective images. And yeah, we are using a mouse or stylus to draw, or a keyboard. And so they are the tools that man- and sisterkind have been using for tens of thousands of years to create things. People have been getting their fingers wet with things more often.

AMY SMEED: And there’s 24 frames per second. So with every one second, that’s 24 drawings or 24 poses. For us on CG films, they’re really poses that we’re creating in the computer, but there’s 24 just for one second. So it kind of gives you an idea of– that it’s time consuming. It’s really fun, but it is a time-consuming process. We’ll animate a scene for– it’s probably like three or four seconds in a week.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I have one final question, because I know our listeners are going to be interested in this. If they are interested– if they’re in college or school or whatever and they’re interested in working in animation, how do you get into the job? What should they study? How should they get into the business?

AMY SMEED: For me in character animation, I went to an art school in Chicago, and I took tons of life drawing and painting classes. Even though we’re still creating films– sorry– even though we’re creating films today that are computer generated, I still think drawing is very, very important. And for us, we are also studying a lot of acting and performance because we’re breathing life into these characters. So I think you still– even though we’re in our desks, nobody sees us acting– we spend a ton of our time really acting and figuring out what the performance of those characters.

And then also body mechanics and physics– how your body moves across the room, whether you’re bending down to pick something up or opening a door. We have to have a really good understanding of what’s happening when you’re taking footsteps. Your hips are shifting over to one foot so you don’t fall over. Just having an understanding of the physics in your body I think is super important.

And then for us at Disney Animation, what we look for is a reel that has animation tests. And we like to see acting performance test where it’s a character with dialogue, as well as some tests that are showing some sort of physicality.

MARLON WEST: I would agree with everything that Amy said. And for effects, we actually are creating natural phenomenon quite a bit. But when we look at a reel, we’re also looking to see if someone can actually caricature that stuff a little bit more. Because like I said, the computer wants to do a very realistic simulation, and that’s fine in a lot of people. But once they learn these packages, they can do that. But our effects have to be sad, they have to get laughs, they have to look scary. And so if you could caricature fire and smoke and dust in a way that support storytelling and production design, that’s what we’re looking for.

IRA FLATOW: I got what I needed, what I was looking for– a great interview. Thank you both for taking time to be with me today. Amy Smeed, head of animation, and Marlon West, head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios, talking about a really terrific animated film, Moana. Have a great weekend. Have a happy holiday to you.

MARLON WEST: Oh, thank you so much.

AMY SMEED: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

MARLON WEST: Oh, yeah, it was wonderful to be here.

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