This weekend, Disney will be adding a new character to its long legacy of female leads. “Moana” is the story of a Polynesian girl who sets out from an island paradise to save the people she loves. Along the way, she fights killer coconuts, gets a little help from a demigod and learns about the beauty of her heritage.
Behind the scenes, two veteran animators with Utah connections are excited to showcase the results of their hard work. Hyrum Osmond is the film's co-head of animation and has spent nine years at Disney working on familiar titles like “Tangled” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” David Derrick is a story artist doing his first work for Disney after almost a decade at DreamWorks, and he has some very personal reasons for being excited for the new film.
Derrick was born and raised in Farmington, Utah, but his ancestry connects back to some of the early Polynesian converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who settled in the Skull Valley area near Tooele.
“I made this movie for Simea-fua,” Derrick said, referring to the ancestor whose picture hung above his desk throughout his work on the project. “My goal was to celebrate the Polynesian culture in a way that we haven’t seen yet.”
Osmond may not share Derrick’s ancestral ties, but working on “Moana” has been part of a lifelong dream that was planted back when he watched “Aladdin” as a child growing up in Provo.
“It’s a special time to be at Disney,” Osmond said. “I am working with the very people who inspired me to be an animator.”
As Derrick and Osmond described their roles, they painted a picture of the arduous production process behind the film. After an extensive research phase that included visits to the Pacific Islands, story artists such as Derrick began the long collaboration with screenwriters to visualize the story they would eventually bring to the big screen.
This trial-and-error phase includes up to eight screenings of what amounts to an early draft of the film, where, according to Derrick, “each time we throw away the majority of our work.”
Eventually, the process leads to Osmond, who “breathes life” into the project, according to Derrick, along with his co-head of animation, Amy Lawson Smeed.
“We oversee all animation production on the film, from beginning to end,” explained Osmond, who is also responsible for building the characters in the computer. “It’s sort of very detailed puppetry.”
Once the work is divided up and turned over to other crews, keeping things consistent is “very hard,” Osmond acknowledged. “The supervisors are tasked with understanding completely who their character is,” he said, and it’s important for the animators to match the styles and behaviors of those characters.
In “Moana,” this process results in characters such as the Kakamora, an army of rabid pirate coconuts that were inspired by a combination of island myths and co-head of story John Ripa’s recent viewing of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It also produced what Derrick described as a “really, really dumb” rooster who was only allowed to stay in the film after the story artists were given 48 hours to justify the character’s presence.
“Every character has to earn their way into the movie,” Derrick said.
When asked if there is any additional pressure coming on the heels of “Frozen,” Disney Animation Studios’ last animated musical, Derrick offered an emphatic "no."
“There’s a word called 'mana,'" Derrick said. “It’s a Polynesian word that means strength and spirit. And as we were working on the film, we were all really united in our mana to make this movie the best it could be, independent of ‘Frozen’ or any other movie.”
Inspired by his ancestry, Derrick said he wants “Moana” “to be a source of pride for Polynesians. I want them to see how great their culture is.”Comment on this story
Derrick is especially happy with the way the film’s young lead is in tune with that culture, and he hopes she will be “an inspiration to young women everywhere.”
Yet, that message isn’t limited to those with Polynesian ancestry.
“Whoever you are,” Derrick said, “wherever you come from, you stand at the end of a long line of heritage and genealogy that can inspire you in your journey through life.”
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.