An interview with "Moana" animator Darrin Butters by Kaely Monahan

Behind the Scenes on ‘Moana’

Q&A with Moana animator Darrin Butters


By Kaely Monahan


Disney’s latest princess is one tough adventurer. Moana stars Auli’I Cravalho as the Polynesian princess, Moana, Dwayne Johnson as the trickster Maui. As the daughter of the chief of her island, Motunui she is tasked with the care of her people, but Moana feels an irresistible pull towards the ocean.


This pull eventually leads her to save the entire world from an encroaching darkness. Disney character animator Darrin Butters visited Phoenix and shared a behind the scenes look of what it took to make the newest Disney princess movie.


Which characters did you animate?

Traditionally you would work on one character in a movie. But now that we’ve kind of adopted a Pixar model of how to animate, you animate every character in the scene that you’re animating. One benefit of doing one character was that you really got to know that character, but the benefit of doing it this way is you get to animate a variety of characters. It’s exciting and new every single shot you get issued.

I animated probably more Maui shots than anything. I have an affinity for fun comical characters and they seem to cast me on shots of that ilk.


When you’re animating a character, you’re essentially embodying that character. What kinds of references did you use to make Maui, for example, come to life?

The animator is the actor basically, and computer animation is more like puppeteering than drawing. You’re really using all these tools to convey emotion to the audience. For Maui, I have to say Dwayne Johnson—The Rock—who does his voice gave us so much to work with.

In Polynesian folklore Maui is represented by many different versions of Maui. He’s like a trickster, sometimes he’s like a superman, and we really had fun with that kind of a rascal (character). And with Dwayne Johnson’s voice, he is cocky and played Maui with such an ego that he really gave us a lot to work with.


You guys looked like you were also using Johnson’s facial expressions too!

Oh yes! That eyebrow, that lifted eye brow and the smile, this beaming handsome smile, we really were able to leverage all of that.


With every Disney or Pixar film that comes out the animation bar gets raised. You’ve seen a lot of change yourself, being with the company for 20 years.

It’s been a great ride. And I definitely have to say that the Disney that it is now is the Disney I wanted to work for when I got there. We’ve definitely had to learn a lot and make some progress to get to where we are, but you can definitely see a trajectory. I would say from when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came aboard and kind of re-engineered our management and our process, from Bolt to Tangled to Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, we just keep raising the bar for ourselves. And we seem to make it challenging for ourselves and hopefully we’re meeting that challenge.


Moana had to be challenging in so many ways. The sets for example, a lot of it is just open ocean—not a lot going on color-wise or visual-wise.

It was a huge challenge for every department. Layout had to come with a way of shooting this movie on a rocking boat between two characters. Effects had their work cut out for them. Water is probably one of the hardest things make believable in a computer simulation. We had wind; we had hair; we had a lot of skin—we had wet hair; we had wet skin—it was a huge challenge.

And animating, I’d say the challenge is always harder when you’re animating humans. Humans—other humans can detect what’s wrong with animated human. A fox or a rabbit? We can get away with talking and you don’t know what a talking fox is supposed to look like. But I’ll tell you what, a human—as soon as you make a misstep with the animation and go off that believability track, people spot it right away. So we had to up our game.


You also had the marriage of hand drawn 2D animation with CGI with Maui and his tattoos. How did you guys accomplish that?

It was such a great concept. And that’s the magic of animation—What if his tattoos moved and told the story of Maui’s background, or what if he could interact with his tattoos? We did a lot of research and come up with a system. We worked very closely with all of our hand drawn animating craftsmen that still work at Disney. Every step of the way we’re incorporating their knowledge and that legacy. Eric Goldberg, the lead on the genie from Aladdin, spearheaded the designing and the animating of the tattoos. It was really fun to do the back and forth with them. We would be issued the shot together, we’d plan out what was going to happen. They had a template of Maui’s tattoos and they would animate, pencil on paper, and we would scan that in and it would be mapped on to Maui’s rough animated 3D body. And we would be able to see if we needed to lessen the 3D animation so that you could read what the tattoo was doing. Or, maybe he was moving so much that there didn’t need to be much movement on the tattoos—and that back and forth is something that I’ve never experienced in my work at Disney. It was exciting.


Seems like Disney is moving further and further away from hand drawn animation. Does it still have a place in today’s animations?

We’re constantly looking at ways to make hybrids of hand drawn and 3D animation. I think Paperman was a really good example of melding those two mediums. Every step of the way from character design to getting notes on our shots we’re utilizing that legacy.


In the film, it’s hard to pinpoint just one Polynesian culture. It seemed very much a blend of many nations. Was that intentional?


When you’re telling a story, you want to tell—we wanted to tell this one character’s story. And it’s about her (Moana) finding her identity and her adventure. We were trying to be inspired by that region. We talked to archeologists, fisherman, and dancers and elders, and anthropologists from that entire area (Polynesia) to get an inspiration from all, and to check with them and see if we were respecting their culture.

It was a fun an enlightening journey because I when they did go to all these islands they came back changed not only in what kind of film we’re going to make, but you could tell that the impact was personal.


Also, Moana is not a wimpy princess. She’s built for adventure, which is exciting to see that body type represented.


Sure. Moana is the 16-year-old daughter of the chief and she is set to be the next chief of her island, Motunui Island. She’s a born leader but she has another pull and that’s to the ocean. And it seems like from childhood she’s had this affinity with the ocean. She’s athletic, she can kick some butt and she’s very strong willed and you can see that in her performance. 



 See Moana and Maui in theaters November 23rd.


  • Kaely Monahan is a journalist, graduate of City University London and the creator of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews. Follow her @PopcornFans and @KaelyMonahan.