Wave of Animation: Disney’s Moana Ups the CGI Ante


Imagine water lapping on a beach or crashing over the side of a boat. Now, think about re-creating that water, realistically, using computer graphics. It’s no small feat – as Disney’s Moana animation team can attest.

Among the most difficult elements to animate are hair, water, and anything else comprising near-infinite individual particles or strands, each with its own mass and affecting the way every other piece behaves. The Walt Disney Company has long been a pioneer of realistic animated hair (a consequence of so many of its characters being animals, monsters, or other shaggy beings) and even 3D-printed hair. With Moana, Disney is tackling the other final frontier in animation: water.

Set in the ancient South Pacific, the film follows Moana, a 16-year-old girl, and a demigod, Maui, as they solve the mystery of why the girl’s ancestors abandoned exploring the oceans. As that brief synopsis suggests, the movie involves a lot of water. In fact, the ocean is a literal character with a personality all its own, befriending Moana as a baby and helping her on her adventures throughout the movie.

Creating the ocean as a character made the Moana animation challenge twice as hard – the team had to not only program a CGI ocean to behave like real water does (for a cinema-size screen and in 3D, no less), but also give it a personality the real ocean doesn’t have. The task fell to the special-effects team of Hank Driskill (technical supervisor), Kyle Odermatt (visual effects supervisor), Marlon West (co-head of effects), and Dale Mayeda (co-head of effects).

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