IN CONVERSATION: MARLON WEST, Heads of Effects Animation on Disney’s Moana
When you think of animated movies, it’s safe to assume Disney is the first thing that comes to mind. Many of us grew up watching Disney movies and that love has carried on into adulthood. For me, movies like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or even something older like Pinocchio never get old. Walt Disney Animations Studios was in a bit of a slump in the early ‘00s but over the last few years, films like Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Wreck-It Ralph have garnered acclaim from audiences putting them right back into the forefront of animation. 2016 has brought forth two new films from them with Zootopia and Moana, which hits theaters November 23rd. I had the great fortune of sitting in a roundtable interview with Marlon West who is head of effects animation on Moana. Joining me were Jared Huizenga from the website Scene & Heard and the newspaper The Sun Current and Marybeth Hamilton from www.babysavers.com. Moana’s a film about culture, strength, determination, and family. I got the impression that West is very proud of this film. He has spent many years at Disney dating back to The Lion King. While his work often goes unnoticed, it’s a treat to learn a little more about what goes into making a Disney classic.
Paul McGuire Grimes (PMG): As an animator, is working for Disney the ultimate dream come true?
Marlon West (MW): Early in my career it was not a huge desire of mine. Once I worked on a couple of non-Disney animated films; both of those films didn’t do particularly well and didn’t go anyplace. I liked doing animated movies and didn’t want to shutter after each one, so I came knocking on Disney’s door. It was one of the better decisions I ever made, as they haven’t stopped making movies. It’s a real delight to work on films that resonate with people. It’s not like it’s any easier to make a bad film. All films are hard to make; everybody works really hard. The Lion King was the first one I worked on, and it was really something to watch it resonate with people. I remember being in the theater when that “Circle of Life” teaser went out and people just applauded at that.
PMG: It still ranks as my favorite Disney movie.
MW: I worked on Frozen as well and knowing how much that resonated with people. Moana does the same.
Marybeth Hamilton (MH): Can you walk us through when you became involved in the project [Moana]?
MW: Usually the effects department is thought of as the back end department where you come in and add effects to animation that’s already done, but with this film and Frozen, effects play such an important part that I was involved in pre-production. I was trying to help figure out who these characters would be and what kind of role these effects would play. We also had a lot of technical work to create the ability to do hundreds of water shots. Water shots can take weeks whether they are hand drawn or CG. Some of the shots are of Moana and Maui out on the boat where we just needed a wake behind them. We created a pipeline and rig that would run that based on the animation of the boat and ocean. Some of them needed tweaking by an artist, and laying the groundwork on that took a while as well as laying the ground work creatively as to what our water character looked like and what Te Ka (the lava monster) looked like took years.
MH: Do you talk to others in the industry on how to pull these off? Do you get tips?
MW: We do if we have a big problem like deep snow or a lot of water; we talk to Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic as they’re part of the family now. We talk in broad scope about tools and we’ll work on each other’s shows and problem-solve each other’s shots.
Jared Huizenga (JH): My personal favorite of Disney’s is the short Feast.
MW: Oh yeah, I worked on that.
JH: It’s the only movie I’ve given five stars in fifteen years. Now something like that compared to something like a feature, what is the time frame on that?
MW: That was a matter of months that we had to do Feast. Patrick Osborne, the director of that, I believe he worked on that more like a year as far as getting the story together and the production design. It was a few months of real production of that.
PMG: When it comes to all of the effects with the water and the lava, it’s so realistic looking, so much more than some live action movies these days that use a lot of CGI. What is the line between making it realistic without making it too scary for the kids that go in to see it?
MW: I’m glad you feel it’s very realistic. We go for believability as opposed to realism. That is a real place where people live, people vacation there, so we knew we needed to nail it as far as what the shorelines look like there. We couldn’t just replicate what the shorelines look like at Santa Monica Pier. They have barrier reefs there, waves break hundred yards from shore out there, so you have more of a lapping shoreline there. It’s an animated film, so our effects have to fit into this art directive world. I’m glad they look realistic but they are stylized. We did push the turquoise aspect of the water beyond what it really is if you go there. There are things that we knew we had to nail. Even the kid that’s sitting on their parents lap seeing this movie for the first time knows what water looks like. They could call it out as fake, so it’s a combination of nailing the physics and keeping the resolution. Water has these scale cues too. If you have these big, giant droplets it starts looking more like a bathtub instead of an ocean so people get these scale cues. If we wanted to stylize it and make it fit into this animated world, we needed to have this level of particle count, not to get too detailed, but we needed to have this particle count at any given time of being in the millions as opposed to thousands to make it look like the scale that it’s supposed to. Every once in a while someone would say “That looks like a miniature. That looks like a doll in a wading pool as opposed to a full size adult in the ocean.” Often times that was a resolution issue.
MH: Do you draw inspiration from any other movies or artwork?
MW: My philosophy with effects, even when I was drawing them by hand, I know very often character animators look at other character animation to solve a problem, but since we’re trying to do something that looks like the real world, me looking at other animated films or even live action films, is stepping one step away from the real world. I try to limit what I look at to reference the things I’ve seen myself. I don’t often look at other movies as then I’m imitating something that they’re imitating. It’s another step away from reality. I discourage it. Sometimes we look at things as what not to do. There’s a very famous water creature in The Abyss, so we looked at that and decided not to do that. It’s really amazing looking, but it’s been done 18 years now. It’s been around. We didn’t have images of that movie pinned up anywhere. There’s a hesitancy to go very broad. I remember working on Bolt and the muzzle flashes were looking very pedestrian. They were like “Look at Terminator 2, come on now!” Stuff like that we’ll look at to settle a difference.
JH: The genre as a whole seems to be a great time for animated films, not just for Disney and Pixar. Everything from Sausage Party to Kubo.
MW: There’s a lot of viable animation out there.
JH: As you see and hear things through the grapevine, what kind of drive does that give you to step it up?
MW: I saw The Good Dinosaur and was very impressed. Finding Dory was out this year. There’s a friendly competition for sure. We love other studios being successful as it means there’s more animation out there and makes the genre viable and popular for people.
PMG: When I was watching Moana, it felt very reminiscent of the ‘90s Disney movies I grew up on like The Lion King and Hercules. Was that the intention going in as opposed to the more contemporary [look of] Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6?
MW: I’m a believer if it’s there for you to see, it’s there, whether it was intended or not. I do know there was no one standing around making it a nostalgia piece, but then again, it’s directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. They’re in many ways the architects of the modern Disney film with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. They have a very distinct visual style and language that you’re probably seeing even though this is a CG film and very modern in its storytelling. It’s a decidedly scrappy adolescent female lead that they’re familiar doing. It’s an adventure film that they’re familiar with, there’s a lot of humor, sidekicks, and so it has a lot of things that they brought to the table that they always bring. Heihei, for example, was a decidedly typical Disney sidekick bird in early versions of the film where he was mean. Moana’s dad told him to keep an eye on her and follow her around like [The Lion King’s] Zazu. There was a decision made that when Moana got on her boat that no one got on her boat that wasn’t somehow in opposition to her as a piece of storytelling, so she was in opposition to Maui. That was one reason why Pua stayed on the island because he’s a good cool character. When they drained the IQ from Heihei, he became, not a jaunty scrappy little rooster, but this completely goofball guy and not very helpful to Moana as a sidekick. He’s very appealing and very funny but he’s not an aid. That’s how Heihei stayed in the boat, because when he was a “Disney sidekick” he had to go. It’s only the ocean, only Maui and Moana out there because we’re trying to build this world where she’s going up against everyone who is pushing against her.
PMG: Have you as animator had things that you’ve created, where you’ve spent months doing something only to have it all scrapped from the final project?
MW: Oh yeah. There are things that we’ve worked really hard on, full sequences that end up not in the final film. We didn’t have that so much in this movie. All they did was add stuff to this movie. It’s happened on other films. I know that with Pua not being on the boat, there were a lot of cool tests with him as he would have been adorable, but there wasn’t a ton of stuff that was already through that got cut.
MH: What’s next for you?
MW: I’m not sure. Right now, I’m sitting with my feet up. It’s what we do. We do what we call “studio time” in between shows where we work on our pipeline, our tools, we develop things for problems that we know we’ll have to solve further out. I know there’s a sequel to Frozen. I wouldn’t mind getting my old job back on that.
PMG: Do you know what the pipeline is for that? Are you in those early conversations or do you come in later on?
MW: That’s so far out yet. They don’t even have a script yet. I’m probably even a year away from being on that.
JH: Has Frozen raised you up a level among your group of friends and family? I know the dads that dress as Elsa get celebrated to hero status.
MW: It’s funny because doing effects, as I have for a long time, most of what I do is production value. You mentioned Feast, I did kibble and pieces of celery. No one goes “Boy, that kibble is amazing. Wow, that dust cloud that Mufasa made when he hits the ground. That brought a tear to my eye.”
We all chuckle
PMG: Sometimes it’s the little things that you notice; that attention to detail that’s there.
MW: Frozen has stuff. When you have a character that shoots snow and ice out of her hands, people notice that so it was a lot of fun. Moana has big effects. I’ve been lucky with the last two films I’ve worked on, that have a lot of effects, that people notice. As very often, it’s campfires and things in the background that you want to look very good because it looks richer, but no one really notices it.
PMG: I don’t know if it comes with your specific line of work in effects, but when it comes to the actors voicing the characters, do they [the animators] reflect and look at their mannerisms in how they’re performing the character in the studio to go back and tweak their work?
MW: Sometimes. When Anika Noni Rose was cast as Tiana [in The Princess in the Frog], she’s left-handed, so Tiana became left-handed. Idina [Menzel] was kind enough to come in and talk about her process of singing with the character animators. John C. Reilly was so into Wreck-It Ralph that he came in and would act out and some of that behavior is in the movie. It’s in the interest of the artist or their availability. I know Dwayne Johnson is super proud of this film, but he didn’t have the time to come in and display his tattoos. There are a lot of ladies and some dudes that were very disappointed that he couldn’t come into the studio to give an in person demo of how he raises his eyebrows.
PMG: That character is so much like him. Was that intentional?
MW: There was looking at some other performances of his. We will do that sometimes. We don’t do motion capture or copy performances from other movies, per say. He only raises his left eyebrow, so we’re not going to have him raise the right. There are certain things he can do that Maui does. There were earlier versions of Maui that weren’t nearly as cool as Dwayne Johnson so you’re like “We want Dwayne Johnson’s voice coming out of this dude.” There were earlier versions of Maui where he was looking like Phil from Hercules and it didn’t work. Does it stick to what Dwayne Johnson is? But you ask people from Oceania what Maui looks like in their minds eye and it’s long hair and a big dude. So you’re not going to offer up a version of this larger than life demigod that they all grew up with and deviate from that.
PMG: Is “whitewashing” taken into consideration with this type of story?
MW: We had a story trust from Oceania that we ran every name by and any major part of the story by. Ron and John went there and immersed themselves in that culture, and people really want to be heard and have their story told. We wanted to do right by them.
I could have spent hours talking to Marlon about the inner workings that come with being a Disney animator. There’s something so magical that comes with every Disney movie, and it was fascinating to get a little peak into that world that Walt Disney created.