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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