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‘Moana’ Production Design Team Aimed for Island Authenticity

As stories that are often set in imaginary worlds, most animated movies don’t have to worry much about period accuracy or location authenticity. But those concerns were priorities for the creators of Disney’s upcoming “Moana,” the tale of a teenage girl in the South Pacific who sets sail on an action-packed mission to save her people.

The film’s design team — production designer Ian Gooding, art director of characters Bill Schwab, and art director of color and environments Andy Harkness — felt it was critical to get the locations and their native characters just right.

“It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people,” says Schwab. “We said, ‘Let’s try to make it feel very believable and specific to that place.’”

Moana” is set about 2,000 years ago. “This is a real place, a real period in time based on real stories, legends, and facts,” Schwab says. “The specificity of it feeling like that place was very important.”

So important, in fact, that directors John Musker and Ron Clements, as well as several crew members, took multiple trips to the South Pacific to research the islands, the culture, and the people. The design crew drew on those experiences to create the world of the teenage Moana and the film that bears her name.

“We wanted to make sure it felt like the South Pacific and the world we saw when we visited,” Harkness says. “We wanted it to feel real.”

Gooding notes that the islands in the film don’t represent real places, “but they’re based on real areas at real times. [To replicate] costumes, boats, houses, and tattoos, we had most of the information from Samoa, so that ended up being Motunui, the fictional island where Moana is from.”

Map-Making
Filmmakers charted out relative distances in the world they created.
Andy Harkness, MOANA Art Director

Te Fiti, another island in the film, was based on Tahiti, and the tattoos on Dwayne Johnson’s character, Maui, are modeled on Marquesan tattoos. “Such specificity helped to keep things organized,” Gooding says.

The research trips helped the crew define and then redefine the film’s look. “After the second trip, the team came back with an enormous amount of reference material and pictures,” says Schwab. “We felt like, ‘This is our style.’”

Harkness says the artists talked at length about the film’s palette. “There’s color you see when you’re there, there’s color in photographs, and there’s color you remember. It’s about the impressions, and what you feel when you visit the place.”

The tattoos alone required great deal of study. “If you look up Samoan tattoos online, you’ll get Samoan tattoos — but you also get ones that have ‘The Lion King’ theatrical logo on them or other crazy things,” Gooding says. “You have to learn about things specifically, so that you can look at one tattoo and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Tahitian tattoo, and that one’s from Tonga. At that point, you can start designing.”

But, in fact, research began long before any of the team’s trips to the South Pacific. In production design, “you come on really early, and they give you an outline of what they’re thinking,” says Gooding, who was pulled off production on 2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph” to work on “Moana.”

At that time, there was little to go on. “When I started, we really didn’t know anything,” Gooding says. “It was about a girl in a boat at sea. So you start thinking, ‘What’s a really spectacular way of looking at that?’ Then there’s going to be a volcano goddess. What can we do with that?”

As time went on, more people joined the production, and the story became more refined. “It gets down to what the characters’ fingernails look like,” Gooding says.

Schwab explains that the artists knew the basics of who the characters were. “Then we try to come up with something that’s believable and fresh,” he says.

The team did multiple designs of the characters from many points of view. “It’s really cool to see the different takes on the same character,” Gooding notes.

Their work gets a big thumbs-up from co-director Musker. Ian and his team, says the filmmaker, “have made this like a living painting.”

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