‘Moana’ Character Animator Darrin Butters on Breaking New Ground

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This weekend, families will be able to join Disney’s newest heroine for an exciting adventure across the South Pacific Sea when Moana hits theaters just in time for the holiday. The critically acclaimed animated adventure is another feather in the cap for Disney, whose recent string of hits includes Frozen, Big Hero 6 and this year’s Zootopia.

One of the most interesting elements about Moana is the character of Maui, a demi-god from Polynesian folklore whose body is covered with intricate tattoos – some of which are animated. The animation team combined modern-day CG with traditional hand-drawn techniques to achieve this effect, and we recently spoke with character animator Darrin Butters about the challenges his team faced win bringing Maui and Moana to life.


One of the things I really loved about this film is that it feels like a very classic Disney film, but it still has these modern sensibilities. As someone who helped bring it to life, does it resonate with you in the same way?

Darrin Butters: It’s definitely a hero’s journey. We have somebody who’s not in a position they want to be in, and they’re pulled outside their environment. There’s something missing in their life, and I think those elements are there in a lot of our classic hero tales.

I have a seven-year-old daughter, and to have a female protagonist who kicks butt and is making things happen, instead of things happening to her… I love being a part of anything like that.

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My wife and I were at the D23 Expo last year when the first footage of Moana was unveiled, and even then the water looked fantastic. But now in the finished film, it’s just astounding.

Darrin Butters: Thank you! Our effects team really had their work cut out for them on this movie. Yes, it looks beautiful, and we wanted it to be believable – not necessarily realistic – and I think water might be the hardest thing to animate. But they also had a boat that was sailing and constantly splashing, and they had wind that affected sails and hair, and hair that was sometimes wet and sometimes dry. It was an effects smorgasbord for this movie, and I want to say I think that team knocked it out of the park.

You guys are working with a great voice cast here, but for me, the standout was Dwayne Johnson as Maui. I noticed that Maui had some of his trademark mannerisms, like the eyebrow. Do the animators study footage of the voice cast to look for these little things to add to their characters?

Darrin Butters: It really depends. When you’re recording your voice, you’re doing a different performance than acting on camera. Sometimes the talent will put all of their performance into their voice, and you don’t see any of it in their body. Other actors will give us so much in the booth that recording it really informs the character.

I love watching Alan Tudyk, because not only will he give a great performance with his face, but his alternate lines will go on for days. It’s just so great. And Dwayne Johnson, he’s just so charming – and he knows it – but he’s so humble and so endearing. He gave us so much in his performance that it couldn’t help but ooze in [to the character]. We watched a lot of Dwayne Johnson movies and looked for mannerisms that fit Maui, because if you take too many mannerisms from the actor that don’t fir the character, it’s not going to ring true. But the eyebrow was definitely something that fit Maui’s character.

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As a character animator, did you have an opportunity to work on Maui’s tattoos?

Darrin Butters: At Disney, we animate every character in every shot that we’re issued – we’re not going off the traditional model, where you animate one character throughout the entire film – so I got to animate most of the characters. The shots that I was issued were mostly Maui shots, and I got to animate some shots of him interacting with his tattoo, and that was such an interesting process, and so great to be working with this hand-drawn craftsman at Disney.

Those guys have such a legacy, and such a wealth of animation knowledge, and it just oozes out of them. They’re such giving animators, it’s such a great part of the process, and being able to have a character that had 2D elements was a new process. They would have a template for Maui’s tattoos, and they would do pencil-to-paper animation, and then we would scan those in and it would appear as a texture map in the correct place. Then we could show the directors, and they could give us notes, and it was just such a great back-and-forth to work alongside those guys.


Moana opens in theaters on November 23.

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