Amy Smeed, the leader of the animation team for Disney’s 2016 animated musical Moana, talked with Nerdette’s Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda about what it’s like to build a character who is decidedly not a Disney princess.
Tricia Bobeda: When you have a title on a film like head of animation, what does that really mean? What’s your day like?
Amy Smeed: I would say we spend some time in pre-production, which is basically getting all the characters ready for the film. We’re working with the supervising animators — we had five supervising animators — and we’re basically getting Moana ready, getting Maui ready, figuring out what are the challenges for this film going to be. We spent about a year in pre-production
We’re spending a lot of that time figuring out, artistically and also technically, how are we going to get some of these things done? On Moana, the water was a character, which was a pretty big challenge. We have the Lava Monster, who is this huge character covered in lava. We had little mini-Maui, which is the animated tattoo character: How are we gonna do that? We’ve never done something like that before.
And then, once production starts, we start animating. We had about 90 animators on this crew. I had a partner named Hyrum Osmund, and so he and I spent a lot of our time on the floor working with the animators, making sure the vision of directors Ron Clementis and John Musker works with what they want for the characters, what they want for the sequences. I’d say that’s the biggest part of our job — getting animation up on screen.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with animation, there’s 24 frames per second. So if you think of every second, there’s 24 poses — which is a lot. We probably animate about three to four, maybe five seconds a week. Which is why we had 90 animators to get the film done.
We’re very hard on ourselves as animators. We’re very critical of ourselves. I think that maybe that’s something with creative people in general.
Greta Johnsen: It’s so difficult with any art to figure out when a thing is finished. Do you still go back and look at Moana and think, “There’s so much I could have done differently”?
Smeed: Yes! It’s awful. Say you spend a week or two on a scene. You’re going through every frame over and over again, and your eye starts seeing it in a certain way. You get so close to it. And then I see the scene a year later, and I start seeing all the things that are wrong with it — her smile isn’t right, her action is too stiff…
But when a scene is due, you can’t go back to it. It’s very hard, because we can nitpick forever. I could never be done with it because there’s always something that could be better about it.
Bobeda: What’s it like to experience a film you make with people in an audience once it’s done?
Smeed: At work, we see the film over and over again, but it’s with the same group of people. So we stop laughing at the jokes because we’ve heard them so many times. Seeing it with an audience and seeing what people react to, whether it’s a laugh or something emotional, is really, really cool.
Johnsen: What’s your favorite part about animating a strong female lead?
Smeed: I remember sitting at work one day, and we hadn’t seen a whole lot of Moana animation yet, and this animator — his name is Vitor Vilela — came in and showed this incredible scene: she’s coming out of the cave as Maui is about to leave on the boat and leave her on that island. She comes out of that hole and runs and jumps into the ocean.
It was like she had this power about her, and this athleticism that I loved so much. It was really really exciting for me to see, and I think it was an inspiration for the crew as well to see this is what we want Moana to be.
To get to be part of a character where girls are going to look up to and see her bravery… I hope it’s an influence on them and how they grow up.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the entire conversation by clicking play above.