How animator Eric Goldberg brought a cartoon tattoo to life in Disney’s “Moana”

By Christina Campodonico

Disney’s “Moana” integrates 2D hand-drawn animation into a 3D, computer generated world Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Disney’s “Moana” integrates 2D hand-drawn animation into a 3D, computer generated world
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

On the surface, Disney’s “Moana,” about a Polynesian princess who ventures across the sea to save her people, looks like an animated film of the highest technological order.

In the CG-animated feature opening this week on both regular and 3D screens, the waves of the Pacific twist and turn into luminous curves and mounds, underwater worlds glow with neon, and islands morph into beautiful landmasses on the sea.

But old-school, two-dimensional drawing by hand plays a critical role in computer-generated character Maui, a brawny fishhook-wielding Polynesian demigod who can shapeshift into all kinds of creatures and is covered in tattoos representing his life’s milestones. Among Maui’s many symbols of selfhood is Mini Maui — a small-scale, 2D tattoo version of himself who scurries around Maui’s skin expressing the demigod’s true feelings.

Esteemed hand-drawn animator and frequent Disney collaborator Eric Goldberg  (“Aladdin,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Hercules”) served as animation super-visor on Mini Maui and likes to “think of him as Jiminy Cricket with ’tude” — attitude, that is.

“Mini Maui, he’s Maui’s better self, alter ego, consciousness,” said Goldberg last Monday during an animation demonstration and Q&A session about “Moana” at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television.

After some coaxing by this little conscience and convincing by the film’s fierce protagonist Moana, Maui, a fallen hero, reluctantly assents to joining her on a nautical journey to restore the heart of Earth goddess Te Fiti to its rightful place. Along the way, they face villains large
and small — pint-sized coconut pirates known as the Kakamora, the evil lava monster Te Ka, and the bling-hoarding hermit crab Tamatoa.

Like that voyage, the animation process on “Moana” wasn’t always smooth
sailing, especially with the characters of Maui and Mini Maui. Some of the first renderings of the two characters together — the hand-drawn 2D Mini Maui on the 3D, CG-animated big Maui’s bicep — looked like a smashed up pencil cartoon on a swollen orange.

The Argonaut caught up with Goldberg after the LMU event to discuss the challenges and innovations that came out of integrating 2D hand-drawn animation and 3D computer generated animation on Disney’s latest film.

What was it about Mini Maui that made you decide to put him in the film?

During one of the early story reel screenings, [the filmmakers] had incorporated him into a sequence where Big Maui dives into the underworld. And when he gets down there he looks over and it looks like Mini Maui has drowned. He goes, ‘Little Me, Little Me, wake up’ and starts giving him mouth to mouth. [Laughs] And Mini Maui wakes up and goes, “Plah!” And it got such a rise out of the audience that even though that gag does not exist in the final film, the takeaway from it was let’s see more of that. Let’s see more of that interaction between these two characters, because that really works. And so he started to really become a character in his own right.

Big Maui v. Little Maui: What are the two characters like in your mind?

Big Maui is a great character who needs redeeming. He’s become embittered over the years over his fate, and so he starts out kind of a little full of himself. How shall I put it? Cynical. Mini Maui is like his alter ego — his better half, his other self. He’s the guy who, in his heart of hearts, Big Maui really is.

What was the visual journey of Big Maui and Mini Maui?

Actually, in earlier versions of Maui he was bald. And he was actually short, like a fireplug. And as [the filmmakers] found out more about the Maui that the islanders knew, he became much more of a kind of a superhero figure, much more of a kind of big muscular guy. They looked at pro-wrestlers. They looked at World’s Strongest Men for Maui’s build. And he’s built rather solidly. And they looked at other source material, too. They would actually video record Dwayne Johnson [formerly known as “The Rock”] when he’s in the [recording] booth, and look at some of his mannerisms and incorporate some of that into the animation.

As far as Mini Maui was concerned, well, he’s a graphic character and has to express himself completely in pantomime, so I had more latitude in the kind of animation that I could do with him than [the CG animators] had in Big Maui. Big Maui moves beautifully, you know, but Mini Maui can move like a cartoon character. [Laughs]

During the Q&A, you told students about the difficulties of transferring the small 2D Mini Maui to the big 3D Maui. What were the challenges of bringing 2D and 3D animation together?

Basically, you can break it into two parts: the creative challenges and the technical challenges. The creative challenges are how do we make it look like the two characters actually have a relationship. Actually know one another. And that involves timing. It involves a certain amount of invention, and as animators we would both be in dailies or in issuing, where the directors would talk to both the hand-drawn and the CG animators at the same time. We would start bouncing ideas back and forth. That resulted in this kind of great collaboration, and we would work on our scenes simultaneously.

Also the CG animators have to allow for the space that Mini Maui would take up if they’re interacting. So if Big Maui is fist bumping Mini Maui and Mini Maui is on his bicep here, he can’t do this because he’ll cover Mini Maui. I would have to make a rough drawing of where the fist contact would be. And they would import that into the scene and animate to that, so that they would allow enough room for Mini Maui’s entire body and Big Maui’s fist, and we would make the contact point in the right space.

And the other technical challenges — and again this is just on Maui himself as a character, not just the Mini Maui 2D animation — he’s covered in tattoos. To get that to look believable in animation is very, very hard because CG can have a tendency to distort designs that are textured onto the character. So they had to figure out ways of un-distorting it, so it followed the curves of his body and worked whenever he flexed his muscles or raised his arm.

But those first tests really didn’t work. [Laughs.]

What did those first tests look like?

They looked like that squashed pancake version I showed.

When you you’re taking inspiration from a culture, like Polynesian culture to create an animated film, how do you capture the essence of that culture but respect its traditions and lore?

I’ll be honest with you, it’s difficult. It’s difficult because on the one hand you absolutely want to respect the culture and use all the things that are inspirational to you. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so reverential that it becomes a documentary. You have to loosen it up and to a certain extent, and the character of Maui helps in that. First of all, you’ve got Dwayne Johnson doing his voice. And you’ve got a conception for the character that’s larger than life and cocky and fun to watch, but not at odds with the various versions of Maui that they discovered from island to island. It’s kind of like an amalgam of the Maui versions: Maui being able to pull islands with his fishhook, Maui stopping the sun. That stuff came from the original folklore. Absolutely those things were inspirational for us.