Animating the Ocean

By Wai Chee DimockFebruary 3, 2017

Animating the Ocean
DISNEY’S MOANA IS A FIRST on at least three fronts. Chronicling the adventures of a young girl as she enlists the help of the demigod Maui to save her endangered island, it is the first commercial release by Walt Disney Animation Studios to focus on Oceania; the first CG (computer-generated) production by John Musker and Ron Clements, the hand-drawn directing duo behind Aladdin and The Little Mermaid; and the first to cast as its co-stars two Hawaiian actors: Auli’i Cravalho, a 16-year-old from Oahu, and Dwayne Johnson, of Samoan descent and formerly a student at William McKinley High School in Honolulu.

The animating toolkit developed by Musker and Clements has everything to do with the film’s South Pacific setting. Moana means “ocean” in Hawaiian, and the film is as much about the behavior of a nonhuman entity as it is the coming-of-age tale of a human child. “The ocean is alive,” Moana’s grandmother says; the job of the animation team is to prove her right. This film wants the aquatic environment to be a player, an intelligent force on its own, interacting with the human world and richly expressive on its own terms, showing tenderness, playfulness, and doggedness through its watery undulations.

The tech crew began by consulting its company peers — Pixar, among others — about CG oceans in other Disney hits, such as Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016). But eventually, the Moana team decided that the challenges of this particular film were somewhat different. For even though large, undisturbed planes of water can be easily automatized through digital algorithms, the water’s variable composition and interaction with foreign objects (such as human bodies) can pose serious problems for computer-based systems.

While the animators of Nemo and Dory aimed to produce a hyper-realistic, computer-simulated underwater environment indistinguishable from underwater photography, Moana’s team aspired to effects almost exactly the opposite. It wanted the ocean to be unrealistically sentient, unrealistically capable of a repertoire of gestures expressing intimacy, admonition, and determination. To produce these effects, Musker and Clements insisted on a return to the hand-drawn aesthetics of their previous films. “The greatest thing about hand-draw[ing] is the expressiveness, and the animators were happy to push it with tricks to break the CG and make it bend more,” Musker said. “We also really loved working in the hand-drawn elements like the moving tattoos and the special Mini-Maui character,” a tattoo replica of the demigod remonstrating with him from the left of his own chest. To add this expressive dimension to the CG algorithms, the Moana team decided to combine the latter’s 3-D software with the 2-D manual operations of hand painting, a double helix of computer streamlining and an analog pushback on that streamlining. They called this hybrid system Splash.

Under its dispensation, the ocean would be animated in two ways: once the basic automation was done, the effects team would take over, adding spouts, splashes, and bubbles by hand to give the ocean personality, then reintegrating it with the larger CG simulation. Because of the ubiquity of the water, tech supervisor Hank Driskill claimed that almost 80 percent of the shots in Moana had such hand-drawn effects. “This is really the first time, at least from the point of view of the hand-drawn animators, that we all felt that we were working on the same movie together,” 2-D Animation Supervisor Eric Goldberg said. “It really felt like the old days and the kinds of movies we used to make.”

Other than the ocean, Maui was the only character created through this digital/analog system, alternating between machine and manual animation. Musker and Clements had initially planned to base the film solely on him, the human/nonhuman hybrid, but decided eventually to add a human child to the story. Their early plans, however, remain more than residually present in the finished film. Even though Moana has far more screen time, Maui steals the show with his sentient tattoos, his spectacular transformations into a gigantic bird or a flying fish, and the expressiveness of his psychology. Unlike Moana’s somewhat predictable urge to go to sea, Maui is motivated by an eternal love deficit, interesting as a defining attribute and generative of the plot as a whole: it is at once a catalyst for crime, an excuse for holding back, and, at the very last minute, a spur to heroism.

Abandoned by his human parents as a baby and taken in by the gods, Maui is starved for human affection; to win the love of those under his care, he steals the heart of the goddess Te Fiti to empower humans. This backfires. Maui is badly beaten by the suddenly appearing lava monster, Te Ka; his magical fishhook is lost to another monster, the giant crab Tamatoa; meanwhile, an ecological disaster sets in, depleting the fish stocks and infecting the coconuts on island after island.

All ends well, of course. With the help of Moana, Te Fiti’s heart is restored, turning the lava monster back into the goddess, and the endangered island gets a new start. But, as befits a film still attached to the hand-drawn and wary of the computer-generated, a new start can only be a mixed blessing, just as the present can only be an uneasy oscillation between an increasingly anachronistic attachment to the past and an increasingly retrograde ambivalence about the future. Specters of irresolution remain as the credits roll on a black-and-white screen to “How Far I’ll Go,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song, heard for a second time and thrusting us back to a much earlier point in the film, still ruled by the magnitude of the unknown (“It calls me / And no one knows, how far it goes”). And the specters multiply as the film comes back with a final, after-credits scene, showing the giant crab Tamatoa still flipped on his back and unable to move after his fight with Moana and Maui. “If my name was Sebastian and I had a cool Jamaican accent, you’d totally help me!” he yells, a nod to the lovable crab from The Little Mermaid, and a reminder that lying supine is a fate for many.

That fate suggests that it might be helpful to think about Moana beyond the company of Nemo and Dory, or even CG animations more obviously centered on ecological disasters, such as WALL-E. In fact, in the spirit of the film’s backward-looking aesthetics, it is worth going back briefly to an earlier, low-tech corpus, written by Jack London and set in Hawaii, animating the ocean in its own way, finding amid its undulations a still cherished, if untenable, past and a possibly utopian and possibly catastrophic future. Perhaps not coincidentally, what results is the same nested procedure — the same hybrid rhythm of alternation and imbrication, systemization and its residues.


Known almost exclusively by his novels and stories set in the Klondike — The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire” — Jack London (1876–1916) spent the last 10 years of his life circumnavigating the globe, spending significant time in Hawaii. He visited twice, staying a total of almost 14 months, while also stopping at the Marquesas Islands, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tahiti, as well as Sydney, Australia. His prodigious output, kept up till the very end, bore witness to those voyages. “The Water Baby,” his last story, finished on October 2, 1916, was set in Hawaii.

In one sense, London’s South Pacific could not be more different from Musker and Clements’s. His ocean has no expressive repertoire in and of itself — it has no sentience, no personality. And yet in another sense it is as “alive” as the ocean in Moana, kept in a state of agitation by the activities of those it hosts: sharks, hurricanes, not to mention pearl fishers and tourists on pleasure cruises. London wrote about trees with their “human loads” after a hurricane. He wrote about the wind becoming “no longer air in motion” but as “substantial as water or quicksilver,” so much so that one “could reach into it and tear it out in chunks as one might do with the meat in the carcass of a steer.” He wrote about an old woman breathing a “prayer to her shark god” and immediately seeing “right before her eyes, not twenty feet away, a large fin cut the water.” The “sandpaper hide” of that fin “took off her skin from elbow to shoulder.”

London’s great inspiration was to turn the ocean’s induced animation into a fable of human and nonhuman expressivity, a fable of large, impersonal force fields colliding with small volitional acts. His South Pacific is a tribute to the looming standardization of modernity and a dissent from it. Not expressive on its own, the ocean is expressed instead by sharks, hurricanes, the inexorable march of a regimented future, and the romance of an unsustainable but still magically idiosyncratic past.

“The Water Baby” is a case in point. Featuring a dialogue between a wily old fisherman named Kohokumu (Hawaiian for “tree of knowledge”) and a narrator by the name of John Lakana (London’s own name in Hawaiian), it tells the story of Keikiwai, the water baby, “half fish himself and talking the language of fishes,” who tricks 40 sharks into devouring one another, getting all the lobsters he needs while they are kept busy, and finally being left with just one shark, whose belly bursts open due to the consumption of his 39 mates.

It’s a fairy-tale ending flanked by two sets of non-fairy-tale circumstances. The lobsters are not for Keikiwai himself or his family, or even the village market, but for the king who loves the delicacy and demands it every time he shows up with his retinue of women, priests, and entertainers, so much so that “the path of his journey was marked afterward by leanness and famine” for his subjects. But even this political frame is part of a made-up story, in turn embedded in the harder, colder reality of a Hawaiian-speaking fisherman and a narrator who, surprisingly, also speaks Hawaiian in a world in which that language is fast becoming a relic.

London’s ocean is alive with these crosscurrents, expressing hopes, fears, fantasies, and attachments in spite of itself. Knowing nothing about computer and manual animation, nothing about 3-D and 2-D environments, London has nonetheless experimented with forms of storytelling that would have made sense to the likes of Musker and Clements, would have come to them with a shock of recognition. Animating the ocean, making it a live theater of the human and nonhuman, known and unknown, has been our collective story in the 20th century. It will be our collective story in the 21st.


Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the editor of PMLA.

LARB Contributor

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York TimesHer team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.


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