INTERVIEW: Disney animators Hyrum Osmond and Eric Goldberg discuss Dwayne Johnson’s Maui from “Moana”

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV

As I’ve said quite a few times over the past year, Disney Animation Studios is on a roll. Hot on the heels of this past spring’s enormous critical and financial hit “Zootopia” (not to mention their innumerable other recent victories), the company is releasing its newest effort Moana into theaters just a few short weeks from now, and all indicators point to another smash success.

This summer I was fortunate enough to attend a media preview for the film with a number of presentations by the creative team, and afterward I had the chance to sit down with some of the key players to discuss the process of making the movie. Over the next week or so I’ll be sharing these interviews with the ITM audience, in the hopes of giving a better understanding of how a Disney animated feature comes into being.

Up first is the duo of Head of Animation Hyrum Osmond and Character Animator Eric Goldberg, who joined me face-to-face in a discussion of the character of Maui (portrayed by the voice of Dwayne Johnson) and how the animation department brought the mythical demigod to life.

moanawelcome

ITM:  First of all, tell me a little bit about your histories with Disney Animation.

Hyrum Osmond:  I came on to the studio back on ‘Bolt,’ and I’ve been here ever since. I supervised Olaf on ‘Frozen,’ and then moved onto this project.

Eric Goldberg:  I started here in 1990, my first gig was animating the Genie in ‘Aladdin,’ [I] codirected ‘Pocahontas,’ animated Phil in ‘Hercules,’ directed two sequences in ‘Fantasia 2000,’ animated Louis the alligator in ‘The Princess and the Frog, and [now I’m] doing [Maui’s living tattoo counterpart] Mini-Maui.

ITM:  What can you tell me about the character of Maui, and how the animation team approached his style of movement?

Osmond:  Maui is this larger-than-life character. He commands the respect of the room, he [has] this large presence, and throughout the course of the film, kind of is helped by Moana to recognize what he needs.

WATCH “MOANA MEETS MAUI” CLIP:

Goldberg:  I like to think of him as, ‘Hey guys, I’m the sun. You all are the solar system, okay? Everything revolves around me.’ And he’s got this confident bravado that I think is certainly fun to watch, but without giving too much away, it’s a bit of a cover. And we find out more about Maui’s past as the film unfolds.

I think what [Maui animator Mack Kablan] has done with his style of movement, in terms of him being confident, and giving him a swagger and giving him this kind of easygoing attitude is great, and you see that in the movement. I was describing to somebody yesterday about the process of character animation, and the movement itself is so important. Moana will not walk into a room swaggering, but Maui will. They’re just two separate characters, and you think of ways to show that through their character movement, and how that’s physicalized.

Osmond:  It’s a conscious thing, that we have to be conscious of throughout the film– who this character is dictates how we treat them in their movement. Making sure that is consistent throughout the film is kind of our job.

WATCH “YOU’RE WELCOME” CLIP:

ITM: In the movie, Maui has a Jiminy Cricket-esque conscience in the form of his living tattoo, Mini-Maui, which was created using traditional hand-drawn animation. Can you tell me a little about what led to that decision?

Goldberg:  I think, first of all, it seemed like a natural fit. If you think of actual tattoos, they’re hand-drawn. Okay, they’re hand-drawn on somebody’s body, but they’re hand-drawn. And so it seemed natural to have hand-drawn animation represent that. And with [‘Moana’ directors John Musker and Ron Clements’] background, particularly in traditional animation for all the films that they’ve done before, they wanted to see an element of hand-drawn animation in this film as well. And they weren’t quite sure where that was gonna go. You know, maybe there would be vignettes of Maui’s past, or maybe there would be certain design-y things that they would do, but as they were working on the story, this character [of Mini-Maui] emerged as his own personality, really, and I think that seemed like the perfect fit.

"MINI MAUI" animation test still frame. Artist: Eric Goldberg, Animation Supervisor.
Artist: Eric Goldberg.

ITM:  What’s the technical process of getting the hand-drawn tattoo onto Maui’s CG-animated body?

Goldberg:  [laughs] I can’t even tell you all of the technical stuff, but I can give you kind of the layman’s version. We’re collaborating with the CG artists, and we’re back-and-forthing. I was just back-and-forthing today with [assistant animator Manar Al Tawam] for the fist-bump scene. And we determined the kind of action that’s going to take place, both on main Maui and on Mini-Maui, and how the two will interact, what frame numbers that will take place on, you know? So that is the first part– we both do our blocking, me with hand-drawn, and the CG animators with CG, and we get that in front of the directors, and Hyrum, and everybody gets to see it and comment on it. And then we both go away and address notes, and continue backing-and-forthing until it really looks like the two of them are interacting together.

WATCH “MEET MINI-MAUI” FEATURETTE:

Goldberg: One of the things that is a technical aspect, that sounds simple but isn’t, is eyelines. You always have to make sure that the two of them are looking at one another, and if they’re making contact, their contact point has to be right. So if they are doing a fist-bump, for example, you can’t just have the CG animator animate the fist-bump into the center of the area where Mini-Maui is. We have to draw a pose drawing to show where Mini-Maui’s fist is, import that into the CG animation, and then the CG animator has to match that.

If you map a flat drawing onto a three-dimensional surface, it’s going to distort. So they have to find ways of controlling that distortion in those areas, so that the 2D graphic still reads properly. Then there’s the idea of how much they have to go through in order to make it look like it’s actually ink that has bled under the skin and fades out a little bit. And if somebody actually has a tattoo, it might leave a raised portion of the skin, which then lighting affects, if it’s in the hot sunlight. All this stuff to make it really look like it’s a tattoo on his body, and not just an ink drawing planted there.

MOANA - (L-R) Carlos Cabral (Head of Characters and Technical Animation) and Eric Goldberg (2D Animator) 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.
Animators Carlos Cabral and Eric Goldberg present Mini-Maui artwork. Photo by Alex Kang.

ITM: In broad terms, what was the animation department’s goal when you set out to make ‘Moana?’

Osmond:  What we strive to do on this film, and what our objective is, is always the approach of our characters have to connect with the audience. There’s a lot that’s involved with that. It’s understanding who our characters are [and] the subtext of what is going on in their minds at any given point. And I think the amount of research we do as an animation crew is essential. The amount of time we talk with the crew about who these characters are, that helps dictate the performance. If you go into the theater and that audience is not connecting with your characters, that’s where we failed in our job. I think that is a huge priority for us, just making sure that happens.

Goldberg:  Subtext is a really interesting facet. If you take a character like Maui, at least until he becomes a little more vulnerable, he’s always got a subtext going. He’s always got an agenda, a plan that he wants to do, whether it tramples over somebody else or not. But he doesn’t give that away. He doesn’t actually show that on the surface. He’s Mr. Charming. There’s always subtext going on with him. And I think that’s a really cool aspect that animators get to play with as well.

WATCH “MOANA” TRAILER”

Disney’s “Moana” sails into theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 23rd.

All images Copyright 2016 Disney.