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‘Moana’: Interview with Disney Animator, Darrin Butters

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Disney’s Moana is coming!

Chelsea Robson was part of a round table interview with Disney animator, Darrin Butters! There is a marker for minor spoilers at the end of the interview.

DARRIN BUTTERS (Character Animator) is behind the performances of the characters, including his favorite, Maui. He is celebrating 20 years with Disney that all started in 1996 when he was an assistant on Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 39th animated feature and first CG feature, ‘Dinosaur.’ He has since worked as an animator on ‘Bolt,’ ‘Tangled,’ ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ Oscar®-winners ‘Frozen’ and ‘Big Hero 6,’ as well as 2016’s hit ‘Zootopia.’

Rotoscopers: Compared to Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, how much of a tech leap was there for Moana?

Darrin: I think, when you watch this movie, you will see that it is a visual effects smorgasbord. Our effects guys really had their work cut out for them. Between the Ocean  – which, I couldn’t imagine anything harder to animate other than water, let alone water that is a character –  we had wind, a rocking boat in a simulated ocean. We had blowing hair that was wet or dry. We had skin that was sometimes wet with tattoos moving on them and the beautiful sunsets and the sky. You can definitely see the payoff of the new render system that we added a few movies ago.

Rotoscopers: I really like how when you had the moments with the tattoos talking and the skin you can really see the detail that makes it look like real skin!

Darrin: Yes, the detail crushes me every time I watch the high res images. We can see the shots as they come through and everybody is looking to see how their shot looked and we are emailing each other saying “Have you seen this shot?!”

Rotoscopers: You worked on Maui, right?

Darrin: I did a lot of Maui shots. I think most of my animation shots were with Maui. Yeah, that was a blast. He’s just such a character. Just a rascal. I got to do a sequence, kind of a physical bit, where he says “You know what? I’m outta here.” he jumps off the boat and the ocean pulls him back and throws him back on the boat and then spits in his face. That was so much fun to do. It was so funny because I worked on a shot in Tangled where Flinn goes “Oh, Come on!” and in this sequence he gets thrown on the boat and says “Come on!” So, I think I’m going to get every “Oh, come on!” shot.

Rotoscopers: Not a bad shot to get! Did you work with Eric Goldberg? They said he did a lot of the work with the moving tattoo.

Darrin: Yeah, and we really work with those hand drawn animation craftsmen every step of the way. From character design to animation tests that we do, to ‘draw overs’ where they tell us to “push this and that” or “No, it should be more this way.”  – the feedback from that legacy is invaluable. And [Eric] is just such a character and a wealth of animation knowledge. If you get him talking about animation stories. You just sit there like this: [puts his hand under his chin with mouth gaped open in awe.]

Q: So, Moana is almost entirely CG animated with the exception of Maui’s tattoo. Was it easy blending two different animation styles so seamlessly?

Darrin: We did a lot of tests. We did a lot of tests to make sure that that seamlessness happened. The tattoos are very cartoony and so that kind of helped our characters to be a little bit more stylized in their performances and design. We don’t want to make anything realistic. We want to make it believable.  There’s a lot of tests that happen from “Do the tattoos look good on Maui with Maui in the environment that he’s in?”  That kind of research and testing really pays off in the end so that you’re not sitting there thinking “Ewwwhh, that character doesn’t fit in that environment” or “Why does he have cartoony tattoos on a realistic body.” So, we do tons of testing and there are a lot of eyes on it every step of the way and we get great collaboration from all sorts of artists.

Q: How much of it starts with free hand before it goes to CG? What type of research was done and what kind of revisions were there before you settled on the design?

Darrin: The hand drawn stuff is the very first step. We definitely get designs from graphic artists. We want these to be characters and not manikins. We want them to have an appealing, I don’t want to say cartoony, but character look to them and get all the expression and stuff that we used to get in the hand drawn, traditional animation days. We have artists push all those expressions and then when we model a character and rig it for facial expressions and body motions, we try to achieve all those dynamic, graphic, elements from the drawings. There’s very much a back-and-forward. We’ll do tests and one will say “nope the shoulder doesn’t do that. In my drawing, it would do this, in order to get that graphic look.” We are very collaborative with our artists. I’m not saying I’m not an artist, but you know what I mean. And, I would say that when Ron and John were talking about doing this movie, Lassetter, who is really big on “get to know what you’re talking about” research made them go to the Pacific.

Rotoscopers: Such a sacrifice.

Darrin: Yeah, exactly! “Do we have to?!” They just were so inspired with that trip that there were like, “the movie that we were going to make, I don’t think we need to make that movie.” It inspired them to make a whole different story, I think. Listening and talking to the people there, with their input and perspective of the ocean and the land, and just that culture, fundamentally changed them as filmmakers, I think. They developed such a relationship with what we call the Oceanic Story Trust. They were anthropologists, fisherman, Elders, and dancers in that area. Whenever we would come up with a different version of the story or designs, they would get feedback and blessings from this trust and it definitely shaped the way we told this story.

Rotoscopers: Congratulations on 20 years with the company!

Darrin: Thank you!

Rotoscopers: You have been able to work with so many different directors over the years. What was your major take-away with working with Ron and John?

Darrin: Oh, let’s see… We had so much fun in Dailies. Their interaction with each other, it’s like they are like an old married couple. They will talk over each other and then agree at the end. Or they will fight and then come away with some kind of consensus. It was an incredible process to watch. They are so good at making sure that this is about the story and how this fits in with the arch of the story. I don’t know how they do it, but the way they keep track of the story and thrown in bits that make it so entertaining, they are a powerhouse. It’s no wonder they’re responsible with these classics. I hope to do it again because just being around them is so fun. We had so many laughs in dailies. It makes it a good time.

Rotoscopers: Was there a take-away that you got from the whole crew in general?

Darrin: I don’t know, at this point – it’s ok at this point to say that. It was a challenge and we all pulled together. I don’t know… that’s a hard question to answer.

Q: How did Dwayne Johnson influence Maui’s design?

Darrin: Oh, the man’s eyebrows, of course! And that smile. He’s just so full of charm. At D23, when Ron and John were like, “We needed someone who was really…”  and then he’s in the background and says “Handsome” and the crowd just went nuts! He is so full of charm and, you know, he know’s he’s a handsome man and, I don’t know if you follow him at all, but he is so humble too. He is one of the most grateful, humble men who appears to be full of himself and so impressed with his body. He brought so much to this character with the cocky attitude, the bigger than life personality. I can’t think of anyone better to voice this character. When he started seeing the animation that we were doing with his voice, I think that prodded him to make it even bigger. He was like “Oh! Now I know who Maui is.” With that cyclical give-and-take, it was a treat to animate with his voice.

Q: Since music is such a big part of the film, at what point in the animation process do you get access to the songs?

Darrin: The songs are normally the tent polls to the story. We know that this song with go here and that song will go there. They record the lyrics before we start animating. The song is probably and usually more in a demo form when we get it. The full orchestration isn’t there but we have the beat and some of the musical accents and the lyrics. and those lyrics are solid. We animate to that and then we see it in final in it’s this incredible instrumentation. Every year we get a live feed as they are scoring the film to the studio and it’s just so much fun to watch how this group of people kind of speak in this short hand. I mean, they’ve been doing it for years and they’re like “Ok, French Horns, I need more of the Bah-di-Bah-bah-BAH-Bah, you know what I’m talking about, right?” And they are like, “Yeah, when do we do lunch?” And it’s just so interesting to see that part of the process because it’s just so foreign to animators.


Darrin: So, how did you like the movie? I want to ask you questions!

Rotoscopers: Oh, it was fantastic.

Darrin: Would you see it again?

All: Yes, and buy the soundtrack as well.

Rotoscopers: The soundtrack is really good. For me the [theme for Moana] was hard to remember because the song, ‘You’re Welcome’ is just out-of-this-world catchy, but over the last couple of days I’ve woken up singing that song. It just roots itself into you.

Darrin: Yes, and you can just hear [Auli’i Cravalho] singing it from her heart.

Rotoscopers: She does a great job.

Darrin: I tweeted when they were playing it over and over again. It’s so inspiring.

Q: Now when you say you “tweeted it” do you mean that you actually tweeted it on twitter or with a bird?

Darrin: Oh that bird really came to life when we dumbed it down.

Q: Now is it true that the design of that chicken was inspired by John Musker?

Darrin: Ha! I don’t think so. Actually, I’m going to say that I don’t see that at all!

Thanks once again to Disney Animation & Fingerpaint for helping to set up this interview!

Disney’s Moana is in theaters, nationwide, November 23, 2016! What are you most excited about?

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About Chelsea Robson

Chelsea Robson, Co-host of the Animation Addicts Podcast, studied studio engineering and is a singer/songwriter and is know as "The World Traveler of the Podcast." She speaks fluent Portuguese, loves being outdoors, hiking small mountains, riding horses, and talking about human nature.