How to Build an Island From Scratch – #Moana

Have you ever thought about what a coconut tree might look like on a distant island 2,000 years ago?  Odds are you haven’t…unless you worked on Disney’s upcoming movie Moana.  The creators of Moana have gone to great lengths to make a film that is not only interesting, funny, and emotionally-riveting, but have done hundreds of hours of research to make it feel right.  They have traveled to remote islands, studied different cultures, and built a core group of advisors called the Oceanic Story Trust to help them make sure the details of the film are true to the heritage of the islands.

MOANA - (L-R) Jessica Julius (Senior Creative Executive) and Ian Gooding (Production Designer) present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Animation Studios - Tujunga Campus in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
MOANA – (L-R) Jessica Julius (Senior Creative Executive) and Ian Gooding (Production Designer) present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Animation Studios – Tujunga Campus in North Hollywood, CA. Ian is pointing out some details about the foliage and how those details were incorporated into the film.  Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

One of the challenges was to identify how they were going to make the feel of the islands different than what you might encounter today.  What would the islands have looked like 2,000 years ago when the movie takes place?  Production Designer Ian Gooding talked about some of the thought process in crafting the environment.  “We started to look at things like the sand on the beach because we didn’t want it to look like a resort where people rake the sand clean every night while you’re sleeping.  So you get these lines of debris that the waves wash up and create these beautiful patterns on the shore.  And the different size of the sand particles and how much coral is included on different sides of the island.  On the windward side is more rustic with bigger pieces and so forth to really get into the nitty gritty of what makes this place look like it does.” But it wasn’t just the sand.  It was everything.  From the coconut trees to the beach hibiscus, there were numerous details that the team discovered in their research which appears seamlessly in the movie.

Visual development for the island of Motunui, and the layout of the village. Artist: Andy Harkness, MOANA Art Director, Environments and Color.
Visual development for the island of Motunui, and the layout of the village. Artist: Andy Harkness, MOANA Art Director, Environments and Color.

Even the layout of the island was meticulously planned!  Andy Harkness, the Art Director of Environment and Color on the movie talked to us about the importance of the four “P”‘s – pass, point, place, and peak.  “Motonui is not a real island. We built this thing being inspired by all the things we learned there (on their research trips) from these people.  It’s based on a village 2,000 years ago so we knew nothing about that.”  One of the things they wanted to find out was how a location for the village was selected and Andy said it was based on these four “P”‘s and its proximity to a river. “[P]ass – a break in the reef that’s formed by fresh water and the coral. Point – which basically announces you are at the village.  Place – which is the village itself.  River – which is the source of life, it’s freshwater.  And peak – which is almost like an architectural element to the village….it announces that someone very, very important lives here.”  All of these elements usually line up and so they mirrored that when they constructed Moana’s island of Motonui.

MOANA - (L-R) Jessica Julius (Senior Creative Executive), Ian Gooding (Production Designer), Andy Harkness (Art Director, Environment & Color) and Adolph Lusinsky (Director of Cinematography, Lighting) present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Animation Studios - Tujunga Campus in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
MOANA – (L-R) Jessica Julius (Senior Creative Executive), Ian Gooding (Production Designer), Andy Harkness (Art Director, Environment & Color) and Adolph Lusinsky (Director of Cinematography, Lighting) present at the Moana Long Lead Press Day on July 27, 2016 at Walt Disney Animation Studios – Tujunga Campus in North Hollywood, CA. Photo by Alex Kang. © 2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

But why go through all of this trouble?  Why not just build an island any way you want?  Jessica told us, “John Lassiter’s fundamental belief in research comes out of creating a sense of believability.  Our movies aren’t realistic necessarily, we’re not making documentaries and theoretically in animation you can do anything. There’s not physics unless you build it into the computer.  In order to give these worlds that are fantastical in some ways a sense of groundedness and authenticity he wants to root it in that sense of believability.  So that there’s a sense of logic behind what we’re doing and that then allows the story to take over and let the emotions to be fully felt in those moments…”  Ian added, “This is all done to support the story.  You’re not really supposed to engage with it. It’s like the best musical scores in movies are the ones you don’t notice.”

  • Learn more about Moana character visual development and the details behind it.
  • Don’t forget to go and see Moana in theaters on November 23rd!

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