Almost 80 years ago, in 1937, Walt Disney’s first animated feature length film premiered. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the definition of classic. Tasked with the challenge of evolving and one-upping themselves with each film, Disney Studios must not only remain relevant but innovative and spirited. In the past few years they have brought us modern hits like Big Hero 6 (2014), Frozen (2013), and Zootopia (2016)), in addition to sequels to previous greats. Almost every single Disney princess has looked the same and awarded with a prized prince in the end, not this time. Hoping to branch out and tap in to Polynesian mythology, Walt Disney Studios presents us Moana.
Moana will be the first ever Polynesian princess and the first ever Disney princess without a love interest (technically Elsa was a queen, but still awesome!). While Moana mentions throughout the film that she is not a princess (in response to teasing), she is next in line to lead the people of her island, so for the sake of this article, we’ll maintain that she’s a princess. Moana is the kind of character that young girls and boys should have to look up to as she is determined, strong, and independent. We’ve come a long way since the traditional stories of Snow White and Cinderella (1950).
In another first, Walt Disney Animated Studios has their first ever female head of of animation which is kind of a big deal. Amy Smeed came to Eastern Michigan University and spoke with budding young artists hoping to be exactly where she is. There’s no better person to come and speak to the students, as Amy Smeed (originally from Michigan) is the epitome of a hard-worker. She started at Disney 18 years ago and worked her way up, adding to her reel and soaking up as much from the professionals as she could. She explained to the students that she would “stay late, come in early and come in on weekends.” She has had the privilege of working on films such as Meet the Robinsons (2007), Chicken Little (2005), Frozen (2013), and actually won an award for her work on Rapunzel in Tangled (2010). After inspiring and giving the audience a peak in to her world, she spoke to Film Obsession and gave some great insight as to the process of working on an animated picture in 2016.
If you, like myself, know little to nothing about the world of animation, but are curious, I give you my take-aways from her presentation:
- There are many types of animators including but not limited to story board artists, layout artists, effect animators, look development artists, character designers, lighters.
- There were around 90 animators on this project alone.
- She strongly recommends the novel The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in order to learn all of the principles of animation.
- She stressed the importance of truly understanding weight and physicality as well as the importance of being able to act, “acting is so important in animation because you want the audience to believe your characters are thinking all the time.”
Do you ever revisit some of your old characters? Can you sit back and enjoy them or are you critiquing them?
Years and years and years later I think I can sit back and enjoy them but when I see my own scenes I get really frustrated sometimes because there’s always something that can be better. We keep working on it, working on it, working on it, the director approves it, and then we still want to keep working on it but you reach a point where (especially if the director has already approved it) you have to turn it in but it’s so hard to do that. You’re learning as you’re growing.
When asked what is the biggest challenge faced in creating this film, Smeed replied:
“We had a lot of challenges on the film early on. I would say getting the anatomy correct, especially with Maui. With most of our characters, there’s always a shirt covering up everything so when we were at the beginning of pre-production we were like ‘oh my gosh, we have to make sure we have muscles and all of that figured out because there’s nothing that will be hiding any of that’. So that was a huge challenge of how to make that happen. There’s lots of different technical ways you can make that happen. So we did a lot of art directed shapes and I loved the way it turned out.”
If you haven’t heard, there has been quite a bit of backlash regarding the not yet released film. Some Polynesian people are angry with way in which Maui, the Polynesian god, was portrayed. Smeed was asked how she felt about that and replied:
On different islands they portray him very differently, so on some islands he’s known as a trickster while on other islands he’s known as this big Superman type character. We wanted him to feel very powerful because he is…the legend pulling up the islands. That was our reason for him being very muscular, so we tried to portray that. There have been comments about his size and the way we looked at his size was that he was very powerful and larger than life.
The animation in Moana is truly exquisite artwork. The water is incredibly rich in turquoise and blues and the movements are the characters are natural and fluid. I was curious if this process differed from previous films Smeed has worked on.
How did both yourself and your team differ in your approach to bring Moana to life?
It’s been similar for the last few years. When John Lester… John and Ed came in, they came in the middle of Meet the Robinsons. They’re very collaborative and they strongly believe in collaboration, so something that changed when they came in was the collab nature of animators working with the character designers, the models, the riggers and we’re all one team. That team aspect has gotten stronger with every picture because we’ve started working with the same people. Our character developer Bill Schwab was just amazing…I loved working with him and he’s very collaborative as well, so if we wanted something on Moana or Maui we could talk to him about that and a lot of times he would say “yeah that’s a great idea” and there would be other times he would say “I’m not sure that’s going to work with the design.”
There were a lot of people from Frozen on the Moana team so we do start to develop that trust.
Animation is male dominated What’s it like to be a woman and the lead supervisor of animation?
I’m really lucky because I’ve been very supported by people in my department who have been in leadership positions and can see how at different work places, if you don’t have leaders who are supportive of you that can change very easily. For me, I felt very supported. Our department…there are probably ten of us (women) and there are more than 90 of us in the department because some of us are already on the next project.
It’s very small, I don’t know why that is. I’m trying to figure that out. I love going to stuff like this because hopefully there are women out there who see that it can be done, hopefully it’s inspirational to people. We don’t even get many reels from female animators.
It’s not that we’re not hiring them because they’re female.
When asked where she sees herself going within Disney from here, she replied:
I love animating a lot and I am looking forwarding to animating again after this. My job has ended on Moana so I’m taking a tiny bit of time off so when I go back to work I’ll be animating on Wreck it Ralph 2. Whether or not I’ll do this again, I don’t know. A few people at work have asked me the same question. I learned a lot from supervising and there are a lot of things I loved about it, it’s also very difficult and you don’t get to animate. They’re both great, they’re just different. You’re a bigger part of the film when you are supervising, where when you’re animating you adding your little scenes and contributing that way. With supervising you’re barely animating but you’re contributing on a different level, a bigger level. So, it’s hard. I wouldn’t go beyond head animation. Me, personally, I don’t have aspirations to direct. Lots of heads of animation do have that so they’ll try to go there after. For me, I just…I would rather stay an animator.
How closely did you see and work with Auli‘i Cravalho (Moana)
and the other actors?
Dwayne Johnson (Maui) I got to meet once at the very very beginning. He came in to the studio and he didn’t come in to the studio often because he is so busy. It’s very very difficult his time so the filmmakers almost always traveled to him wherever he was at.
Auli‘i had a little bit more time so she would come on spring break. She’s very smart and she’s a good student. When she would come down to L.A. she would have….I was on a bus with her once, do you know what Comic-Con is?
Okay, I was on a panel for Moana with the directors and the writer, and producer and she was there as well. We were on the bus and it was super early in the morning and I was hearing math talk and I was like “what’s going on back there?” it was her, and she was learning math on the way to Comic-Con.
That is so cute.
She was studying for her PSAT’s She’s a really good person and I’ve met her mom a several times.
You can tell just in the video, she’s so sweet! I cried watching that little clip.
I used to cry, I’ve seen it a lot of times.
I’ve seen it before too, and I still cried!