How Break-Through 2D Animation Brought Moana's 'Mini Maui' To Life

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest film, Moana, sails into a cinema near you this month, and with it comes the story of a fierce young woman on a journey of self-discovery, a mighty demigod looking to regain his hero status, and some truly epic adventure! Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the film introduces some major CG animation advancements—including new techniques to animate hair (check out both Moana and Maui’s luscious locks, created with a fast new computer system called Tonic) and to bring life to the ocean water itself.

But there’s one aspect of the film that harkens back to the days of Walt Disney and his legendary original animators: Maui’s tattoos. Early on in the process, filmmakers decided to bring the demigod’s tattoos—representative of longstanding tradition in Samoa—to life in a time-honored, two-dimensional way. Says director John Musker, “As Maui’s personality began to take shape, we thought, ‘What if a particular tattoo was like his alter ego?’… Eric Goldberg, who’s one of the world’s greatest hand-drawn animators, served as animation supervisor—helping to create these vignettes that play out like billboards on Maui’s chest… It’s a wonderful marriage of hand-drawn and CG animation.”

Recently, D23 was lucky enough to speak with Goldberg about the unique challenges of bringing a hand-drawn, 2-D character to a 3-D, CG-animation world.

On the idea behind making Mini-Maui a full-fledged Moana character…
Eric Goldberg: “Big Maui’s body is covered in tattoos, and most of these tattoos represent his past accomplishments—his deeds of daring-do. Within these visualizations, there’s a small figure representing Maui himself—and over the course of creating the story, we started to refer to him as Mini-Maui, because he became a character of his own right. He actually has personality and a relationship with big Maui. First of all, he’s Maui’s biggest cheerleader and supporter. He’s Maui’s alter ego; he can be ‘swagger-y’ and confident, too, but more than anything else he’s his conscience. One thing John Lasseter [chief creative officer, Pixar and Disney]  wanted us to put into the character was that he should be able to kind of ‘give it back’ to big Maui once in a while, so that he’s not just namby-pamby, but you know he can do it with his tongue in his cheek… ”

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

On the ever-evolving process of combining hand-drawn and CG-animation…
“The way this worked—which was very uniquely collaborative—is, both the CG animators and the hand-drawn animators were issued the scene together. For one particular scene, I was working with an animator named Justin Webber… he says, ‘We thought it’d be really funny to have Maui poke Mini-Maui in the belly,’ and I said, great. I made him this drawing where ‘X’ marked the spot, [saying] that’s where the finger has to go when you animate big Maui. We decided to go ahead and map it onto CG Maui’s body. It didn’t work the first time because of the distortion that you get on his musculature—and so Carlos [Cabral, head of characters and technical animation] and his team of wizards figured out how to get him in the right proportions… [then] I thought well, since he’s getting poked in the belly, he should react to being poked in the belly. Justin and I actually had to agree on the frame number where the poke was going to occur so that we could both animate accurately and have it look like they’re reacting to each other.”

On the interesting challenges Mini-Maui presented…
“This stuff is done traditionally, which also means it’s cleaned up traditionally. So our cleanup lead, Rachel Bibb, did some drawings—and if you look closely, you can see that the white of his eye is actually black and his pupil is actually white. The reason is, they have to draw it this way—even the teeth are blacked in—because it eventually all needs to reversed out to look [correct]. Our cleanup artists have to think in negative… We wanted the tattoos to appear like [real] tattoos, which is dark out of light. If somebody draws in ink on a person’s body it’ll be dark—so since Mini-Maui and the other tattoos were all going to be dark, we have to draw it with a line around it first. But instead we don’t have to fill it all in beforehand. We can reverse it out and get the effect. It’s much easier… ”

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

On what makes Mini-Maui so special…
“All the animation of the tattoos is done traditionally; it’s all drawn on paper. I went ahead and made model sheets where I’m pushing some his expressions in order to make them readable and get more of an emotional range on him. One reason that’s important is because he is a pantomime character; he has to express everything with his facial expressions and his body… A lot came out from [the story room] and a lot came out just from us batting it back and forth as animators and with John and Ron—and saying ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if Mini-Maui did this?… We were constantly trying to think of ways that would make things work and be funny.”

Meet Maui—and Mini-Maui—when Moana premieres around the country on November 23!

Source: D23

Banner Photo Credit: Disney