Interview: Darrin Butters, Character Animator on Disney’s “Moana”
Disney’s latest animated tentpole, “Moana“, is opening this Thanksgiving weekend. The story follows a young Polynesian girl and her journey across the ocean to enlist the help of demi-god MAUI (played by Dwayne ‘THE ROCK’ Johnson) I had the opportunity to sit down with another reporter and interview Darrin Butters, one of the character animators who worked on this and a number of previous Disney animated films. Darrin’s passion for this film is infectious and we had a blast discussing some of the more technical aspects of the film, such as the 2D hand-animated tattoos on Maui’s body, and who animated the iconic pectoral twerking.
Highlights from the interview are below, or listen to the full discussion on our podcast channel:
Q: This feels like a very classic Disney animation story from the Golden Age but italso has a modern tone to it. As someone who helpped bring that alive does the film resonate with you in the same way?
Darrin: It’s definitely a hero’s journey, we have somebody who is not in the position that they want to be in. They are pulled outside their environment. They want that outside nourishment, or there’s something missing in their life and I would say those elements are definitely in a lot of our classic hero tales.
I really like that the relationship between Moana and the water and how it’s constantly beckoning her for some reason and that propels her into her journey. 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.
You joined Disney about in 1996, pretty much when computer animation was first becoming more mainstream. “Toy Story” had come out just the year before, and a lot of people thought it was going to fail. At that point was your background in traditional hand animation or did you start out on the ground level with computer animation?
I entered the workplace at a time when desktop publishing was booming. Adobe started coming out with Illustrator, Photoshop, and all this Word Processing stuff and I became literate with computers, and how to do art and illustration in the computer. I’ve always had an art background and a performance background and was computer literate. Animation seems to be the perfect blend of all those things.
I got hired on “Dinosaur“, and that was our first fully CG character and it was a time of learning for sure. It was the beginning of our digital studio and at that point, we were doing “Treasure Planet” which had a character that was a hybrid. Traditionally animated body with a CG arm and leg and eye and we were already trying to wrangle this technology into a performance. I think that’s one of our strengths that we are constantly focussed on performance rather than the tools. We are trying to harness the tools and make them do art.
When you are building these characters and working on these animations do you reference any footage of the voice talent? There was the eyebrow in one scene that is a very iconic Dwayne Johnson thing. How much of that stuff did you guys go back and look at when creating these characters?
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 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 it really informs the character. I would say on Judy Hopps(Ginnifer Goodwin) we really leveraged a lot of reference for her character. I also love watching Alan Tudyk. Not only will he give a great performance through his face, his alternate lines go on for days and I’m just sitting there crying, listening to this and watching this session and people are like “What are you watching?” Dwayne Johnson, he’s so charming and so humble and just so endearing. He gave us so much in his performance that we couldn’t help but ooze into our animation. We watched a lot of Dwayne Johnson movies and looked for mannerisms that fit Maui. If you take too many mannerisms from the actor that don’t transfer to the character it’s not going to ring true. The eyebrow is definitely something that fit’s Maui’s character and we had so much fun, he was great.
As a character animator, you worked specifically on Maui. Did you animate his Pec Twerking?
At Disney, we get to animate every character in every shot that we are issued. We’re not going with the tradition model where you worked on one character throughout the entire film. So I got to animate most of the characters. The shots that I was issued, was mostly Maui, but no I was not part of the pec twerking part of it.
But I did get to animate some shots of him interacting with his tattoo and that was such an interesting process. And so great to be working with the hand drawn craftsmen that we have at Disney. Those guys have such a legacy and such a wealth of animation knowledge and it just oozes out of them. It’s such a great part of the process. Being able to have a character that has 2d elements was new to me, a new process. We had a template for Maui’s tattoos that they would do pencil-to-paper animation on. Then we would scan those in and it would appear as a texture map in the correct place. We could show the directors that, and they would give us notes on it. “Well he’s moving around so much we don’t need so much animation on the tattoo” or “we really wane see what’s happening here and cool it with the movement on Maui.” It’s such a great back and forth just to work alongside these guys.
You have really come full circle. Before you were trying to bring CG into the hand draw and now you’re doing the exact opposite.
Yes, that’s a great point! I hope that we get to do more of that and we are looking for opportunities for every step of the way for that integration.
Disney’s “Moana” opens in theatres on Wednesday, November 22, 2016!
(Don’t miss our full REVIEW)