It has been a busy couple of months for Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and producer Osant Shurer. Together, the three have been on a worldwide tour to help promote the film. They even got word of their Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature while on their press tour. Now with the film hitting Blu-ray and DVD soon, the filmmakers took some time to talk about the creative process of the film and the difficult decisions to leave songs out of the final cut.
Clements says there were some difficult moments during the creative process and at one point they got worried. However, with the help of their fellow directors from Walt Disney Animation Studios, they were able to overcome those narrative issues. “We have our story trust of all the other directors,” said Shruer. The producer said the relationship between Moana and Maui was important because “it carries the whole second act, and we couldn’t find the right tone for it.” However, once they started to cast the film, it got easier because as the actors started recording they did improv and the creative team could write to the actors’ voices. “If you know the process that we go through, we start with the script like all movies do,” said Clements. “Once that script seems like it is in pretty good shape we then go to story reels where we actually screen the movie with out story trust and the staff. You always hope that each screening is a step up. Sometimes you reach one that is a difficult screening that didn’t quite go that well, the next screening is a worse. That’s the worse feeling.” These screenings proved to be very helpful for the filmmakers.
A lot of the times writers and directors within Disney Animation would set aside whatever they were doing for the day (or two) and go to an offsite to figure out how to fix some of those narrative issues. “ Another hurdle they had to overcome was the fact the movie is set in over 80% water. The water is not only full of effects, but is also a character, a setting, and an obstacle in the movie, so animators had their work cut out for considering water is hard to animate in CGI. Shurer said “When we first pitched the movie to our incredible technology team, we asked them ‘do you know how to do this?’” While it was a challenge for the team, Shurer says they delivered. Clements added that another issue there were unaware of at the time was how they would integrate everything together. Shurer said they created a software for various distances of ocean, whether that was as far as the horizon or as close as the shore. When it came to finding the music for Moana the filmmakers all went to see various musicals in New York to find lyricists that could write songs for Moana. One of their trips led them to Lin Manuel-Miranda. And this was way before he became known for the Tony Award-winning Hamilton.
“We really loved him from ‘In The Heights’ and those songs he had written for the opening of the Tonys and his ability to write in between languages,” said Shurer. “When we asked him what he was up to he said he was working on a musical for public theater, a kind of a hip-hop version of the founding fathers. “ Of course there was some skepticism that he could actually pull it off, but as we have seen, ‘Hamilton’ has become a huge success. “The original plan was that Hamilton, after a short run in public theater, would go away for a while and in a year or so. It would then go to Broadway,” said Clements. “But instead, we were doing all our meetings with Lin Manuel-Miranda. We would meet twice a week with him, and he would already be dressed as Hamilton,” said Shurer. “He’s amazingly prolific and it was amazing to be a part of that phenomena. What we got out of that, though, is that all our demo songs, usually it’s a person singing into a mic like a set recorder in the old days, is our demo songs were by the Hamilton cast. So the Hamilton cast did a great job.” Clements chimed in saying that some of those songs were on the DVD. Just to hear Chris Jackson and Philipa Soo sing was great.
Shurer praised the technology and art teams working on Moana. “You think you are asking them to do something difficult, and they deliver you something you’ve never seen before. It’s gorgeous.” As for why all the demo songs didn’t make the cut, well both said it came down to story. “It was never ‘this is a good song, we need a better song,’” said Clements. “Story changes, pacing issues, the basic characters, this young girl meets a demi-god and saves the world, that sort held very specific things along the way.” Shurer said they had less deleted songs than some of the other Disney animated musicals, but cutting songs is something you have to expect.
But the story was a huge priority and was one of the reasons why cuts and changes were constantly being made. “The big advantage, in a way, I think that animated films have over live-action is that we get to watch our movie many times before we actually make it,” said Clements “We watch a movie from beginning to end and then five months later we run it again. The goal is to get it as solid as we can get it when we go into production because that’s when things get expensive and we have to make major changes at that point. So it’s a number of drafts that we go through. “ Tamatoa and his musical number was made up from scratch. “That was the last song written for the movie,” said Clements. “In fact, the duet between Moana and Maui, was sorta in place of that. In a way it would have been difficult to have both songs. The Moana and Maui song comes just before they meet the giant crab. Originally the giant crab didn’t sing.” Shurer said they really wanted to have a fun set piece in the film that would create more stakes and real tension for the protagonists to overcome. “We were hoping to find something for Jemaine [Clement], because we love Jemaine,” said Shurer. “This song we gave ourselves the freedom to play and go play. It was Lin doing what he does.” The lyricist listened to a lot of Flight of the Conchords and what Jemaine had to bring. There was also the working relationship he had with Taika Waititi, who had written a draft for the film. The entire sequence was boarded about five times and was an incredibly long and complicated sequence. But Clements said it was one of the last and quickest sequences to be animated.
MOANA is now out on digital HD & available on Blu–ray March 7