A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Disney's 'Moana' Building A Legend

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From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes Moana, a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. “Moana is the 16-year-old daughter of the chief of Motunui,” says director Ron Clements. “She’s athletic, nimble, compassionate and incredibly smart. She has a never-say-die attitude and a profound connection to the ocean.”

“So it’s troubling to her, to say the least, that her people don’t go beyond the reef surrounding their island,” adds director John Musker. “They stay within the confines of that reef, and Moana doesn’t really understand why.”

The story is inspired in part by the oral histories of the people and cultures of Oceania. Three thousand years ago, Polynesian voyagers, the greatest navigators in the world, voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering thousands of islands. But then, according to scholars, for approximately a millennium, their voyages stopped – and no one knows exactly why. “Navigation is such a big part of Pacific culture,” says Musker. “The ancient Polynesians found their way across the seas without the use of modern instruments, using their knowledge of nature, the stars, the waves and the currents.”

MOANA story boards inspired by research trip to Samoa. Features Story Artist David Derrick’s family tapa print. Artist: David Derrick, Story Artist.

When first thinking of setting an animated feature in the beautiful Pacific Islands, directors Ron Clements and John Musker recalled from their youth beloved novels and paintings about the Pacific. But once they began exporing the incredible tales within Polynesian mythology a few years ago, the filmmakers realized they needed to dive much, much deeper. They knew they needed to go to the islands of the Pacific to see the places and meet the people in person. So Clements and Musker, along with a group of Disney Animation artists, traveled to the southern region of Oceania over the course of two fully loaded trips.

MOANA – (L-R) Jared Bush (Screenwriter), Dave Pimentel (Head of Story), David Derrick (Story Artist) and Sunmee Joh (Story Artist)

During a recent visit to the Walt Disney Animation Studios, we had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers to hear how they brought this movie to life. The group included, Jared Bush (Screenwriter), Dave Pimentel (Head of Story), David Derrick (Story Artist) and Sunmee Joh (Story Artist).

The team started to discuss how the story came to be, which took about 3-5 years to create. The writers wanted to get a sense of how emotional the story is. The job of the Screenwriter is to come up with the concept and then it gets passed on to the head of Story and Story Artists, then it’s discussed and it goes back and forth between the group as well as the Directors to see how to develop the characters, dialog and scenes. As artists they can only write or draw what they know and understand.

MOANA story boards inspired by research trip to Samoa. Artist: David Derrick, Story Artist.

The team was invited to explore Fiji’s Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park with local archeologists, and visited the Fiji Musuem, where experts showed them incredible artifacts, including boats and tools. They met with master tattooists, expert fisherman, and shared the local cuisine with the generous people they met.

In Samoa, they saw black lava fields and met with local chiefs. On Savai‘i they were doused by the famous Alofaaga blowholes, and on Manono island they were invited to participate in a traditional kava ceremony. They canoed along the famous surf break of Teahupo‘o in Tahiti, and swam and hiked in areas that would later influence the look of the film. Filmmakers witnessed how tapa cloth is made and experienced performances of traditional dances.

To create our fictional story set 2,000 years ago, we knew we needed to invite the experts we met during the trips to be a part of the creation of the film. We wanted their voices to influence the film—from the story, to the look of the environments, to the characters. Everything—from how Moana’s canoe looks and functions, to plants on the islands, to the material used in their clothing—was all deeply influenced by our advisors.

MOANA filmmakers and members of the MOANA Oceanic Story Trust.

Filmmakers ultimately assembled the Oceanic Story Trust that includes a team of experts—anthropologists, academics, educators, linguists, master navigators and cultural advisors—who collaborated with Disney’s creative team.

Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Princess & the Frog”) and produced by Osnat Shurer (“Lifted,” “One Man Band”), “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.