'Moana': 10 things to know about Disney's most effects-filled movie ever

CNET's Brian Tong gets an early peek at the upcoming animated feature.

Brian Tong Editor / Video
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Brian Tong
2 min read

Walt Disney Animation Studios heads out to sea with its next computer-generated feature film, called "Moana."

It's a coming-of-age story about a girl named Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli'I Cravalho, who sets sail on a mission to save her people. Along the way she meets the mighty demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

I got to attend the film's press day in July and sat down with visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt and technical supervisor Hank Driskill. Both say that "Moana," which will hit US theaters in November, is Disney's most effects-filled film ever.

Here are 10 things we learned that you can use to impress your friends.

Water is wet

  • 80 percent of the shots in "Moana" have effects in them and about 65 percent of them are water effects.
  • The water effects engine Disney Animation Studios uses is called Splash internally.
  • Water is a huge part of the movie. The initial goals were to have naturalistic water effects and also "performance water" -- water that acts like a character.
  • The team used distributed computing, a network of computers that share resources, to run massive water simulations. The result of this high-tech system: more water particles for finer fidelity and beautiful-looking water.

This "toddler test" was one of the first things the effects team worked on.


Moana effects progression shows animation (top), simulation (middle) and render (bottom) images.


Disney's effects are special

  • Hyperion is Disney Animation's in-house rendering engine, built during the making of "Big Hero 6." Since then, it's evolved to have a larger scope and scale. Because of Hyperion, scenes with characters walking along the beach use water simulations that extend a quarter mile into the distance.
  • Matterhorn is the studio's physics-based graphics simulator that was responsible for the snow in "Frozen." It's been upgraded for "Moana" to handle mud, foam and sand. Its capabilities were expanded to handle viscous materials like lava for the living volcano Te Ká.
  • Quicksilver is the engine dedicated to hair simulation. In the past, the animation department would provide a drawing of what it wanted the hair to do. With Quicksilver, it can now put the hair in a starting pose for scenes and let the engine handle how it moves around.

Look at Moana's flowing, luscious locks of hair.


The future of Disney

  • "Moana" will be Disney's second animated movie to support images with high dynamic range. You'll have to go to specific theaters like a Dolby Cinema at AMC to see the film in its highest fidelity.
  • "Zootopia" was the first, but it hasn't been released in HDR on Blu-ray for consumers. The studio is waiting out the Dolby Vision vs. HDR 10 format war and hasn't yet take a side.
  • Both Odermatt and Driskill said there's tons of passion for virtual reality at Disney Animation Studios but making something out of it would come down to a director with a vision for VR as the best way to tell the story.

"Moana" arrives in movie theaters in the US on November 23, in the UK on December 2 and in Australia on December 26.