I first wrote a Moana post months ago, before the film had been released so I thought I’d feature another piece of Moana concept art in today’s Masterpiece Monday post. This concept art was created by Walt Disney Animation Character Designer Jin Kim. Jin Kim is a fantastic artist who has worked on all of the studio’s recent hit films. For Moana he created character design drawings for all of the major characters in the film, but focused especially on Moana herself. This particular set of drawings is part of an even larger set Jin Kim created to display Moana in different poses and with facial expressions. The purpose of these explorations was not to focus on small details like her clothing, but rather to help her personality come to life on the page, and later on the screen.
Drawings like these are incredibly helpful for the animators in pinning down a character’s distinct personality. Animators are often called “actors with pencils” or in the case of Moana computers. This is because they have to figure out exactly how the unique character they are drawing would express each emotion, what expressions and gestures they would make, and what poses they would hold while they do so. That’s how these particular kinds of character design drawings come into play. The character designer will draw hundreds of little drawings of each character like these ones, and then sit down with the directors to decide exactly which poses and expressions best represent their idea of who the character is as a person. Those particular drawings then become a guide for the animators who create the characters various expressions, movements, and poses in each scene. In the case of Moana, both the Jin Kim and directors Ron Howard and John Musker found it very important that she expressed herself like an authentic teenage girl. They even studied footage of Auli’i Cravalho’s face as she recorded Moana’s lines, since she is an actual teenage girl herself.
You’ll notice that hair plays a particularly important role in these drawings of Moana. In these and many of Jin Kim’s other drawings, she is shown playing with her hair. Giving Moana realistic looking hair was a major goal of the filmmakers. They observed how Auli’i Cravlho and other teenager girls in their lives would constantly play with their hair and use it to express themselves, and they wanted Moana to be able to do the same. Many of the animators also missed having the ability to move hair around for effect as they had with hand-drawn animated heroines like Ariel and Pocahontas. Unfortunately, hair is a big challenge in computer animation. Despite the progress made for characters like Rapunzel and Merida it was still extremely difficult for animators to manipulate character’s hair, and especially hard for them to have characters touch their hair. So the animators had to convince the studio and the directors that having Moana play with her hair was an important part of her personality and that it was worth putting the time and money into developing new software to do so. Jin Kim’s expression drawings played a huge part in proving this importance, as did Randy Haycock’s hand-drawn pencil tests (which you can watch here). Eventually, work began on researching and creating new technology for Moana’s hair. The simulation department studied pictures and videos of Auli’i Cravalho’s hair as well as of the hair of a Samoan woman named Fiona Collins. They watched their hair as the ran, jumped, and even tied it up into a top-knot. The result was a new simulation program called Quicksilver, which allowed the animators to manipulate character’s hair in a manner similar to hand-drawn animation while still having it appear incredibly realistic on screen.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the artistry and technology involved in making Moana look like and have the attitude of an authentic teenage girl. I’m still working on the research for a new full-length article, but my life is pretty busy right now, so stay tuned for that.