Learn more about Moana with Amy Smeed, a Moana Animator

Last month I attended a talk by Amy Smeed, head of animation for Disney’s upcoming film Moana. The talk was at University of Michigan for students interested in animation. The talk included insight into the development and animation process for Moana. After the lecture, I was able to interview Amy along with a reporter from the Michigan Daily.

About Amy Smeed

Amy Smeed is originally from Royal Oak, Michigan. She attended Western Michigan University for three years. Amy transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago were she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She started working for Disney right out of college. She started working in scene setup for Dinosaur. Then, she worked for 4 years on Chicken Little starting as an assistant with a mentor and then making it to animator. She has also worked on films like Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen. 

MOANA - (Pictured) Amy Smeed. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
MOANA – (Pictured) Amy Smeed. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Development of Moana

A film at Walt Disney Animation Studios takes 5 years to produce. Because the process of animation is so expensive, there is a lot of upfront work to make sure the story and dialog are firmly in place before the animation is created.

Disney's Moana
MOANA is an adventurous, tenacious and compassionate 16-year-old who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. Along the way, she discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Princess & the Frog”) and featuring newcomer Auli’I Cravalho as the voice of Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

About Animation

There are many different disciplines in animation. Amy Smeed is a character animator. In February, I interviewed Matthias Lechner, a Zootopia animator whose focus was the environment – scenery, props, backgrounds, etc. 

Character animation starts with the rough sketches of the character. They are then transferred into the computer and motion controls are added. Before they even begin animating the story, facial expressions, actions, and more are created in a model for each characters. These models are used to create a portfolio reel with various movement combinations and shot from all angles to ensure the movements look correct.


As a character animator, Amy Smeed has been on the project for about 2 years. At this point, the story and basic character design was nearly completed and the modeling was nearing completion. 

About 90 animators have worked on Moana starting with 7 in pre-production. As animators moved on to Moana when their previous projects finished, there are chalk talks to teach the animators about the characters.

Influences from Oceania

During the talk, one quote stood out to me that reflects the influence of the Pacific Islands on Moana. “We’ve been swallowed by your culture, one time you can be swallowed by our culture.” Pursuant to this goal, Disney created an Oceanic Story Trust including elders, anthropologists, archaeologists, and dancers. The Story Trust consulted on the story line, character development, and cultural representation to ensure that the story and the culture of Oceania were properly captured.

In it’s initial development stages, directors Ron Clements & John Musker (Hercules, The Little Mermaid) traveled throughout Oceania learning the culture and about the people. In their travels, they visited Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, and more. They learned that people on many of the islands share the legend of Maui, although there were slight variations. From these variations, they created the version of the story told in Moana.

Moana - Maui
MOANA – (Pictured) Maui. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Throughout the project, many of the other story writers and animators traveled to Oceania to gain familiarity with the culture. 

Casting Moana

When casting Moana, a high priority was placed on casting voice talent with backgrounds in Oceania. For example, Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) who voices Maui has Samoan ancestry. Auli‘i Cravalho who voices Moana is a native of Hawaii. She was discovered after an extensive search for a new talent through Oceania. She turned 16 on November 22, 2016 – the day before Moana opened in the US.

Auli'i Cravalho plays Moana in the movie
October 12, 2015 – Producer Osnat Shurer, Directors John Musker and Ron Clements and the voice of Moana, Auli’i Cravalho present at the MOANA Press Conference at the Aulani Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii. Photo by Hugh E. Gentry. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Music of Moana

Music is an important part of most Disney Animated Films. Opetaia Foa‘i, a founding member of the contemporary Pacific music band Te Vaka, is one of the composers for Moana. Other composers include Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and Mark Mancina.

Moana Animation Challenges 

Disney is continuously pushing the animation boundary for more realistic animation. Moana builds on the challenge of hair from Rapunzel’s in Tangled with her free floating curls combined with Moana’s youthful exuberance. 

As they animate the film, they also realized that the water was more than just scenery. It became a character in the way that it moved. 

Maui’s moving tattoos were a challenge for the animators. They created a mini Maui 2 dimensional character. This was created by Eric Goldberg who also animated the Genie in Aladdin.

Other Influences

The animators were also influenced by things closer to home. The visual effects supervisor is a sailor and shared his expertise when animating scenes on the ocean.

Before animating the scene with Moana on the beach as a young child, they took the toddler child of an animator to the beach and observed her.

About Moana

From Walt Disney Animation:

moana-one-sheetThree thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped – and no one knows exactly why. From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes “Moana,” a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana (voice of Auli‘i Cravalho) meets the mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Princess & the Frog”), produced by Osnat Shurer (“Lifted,” “One Man Band”), and featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa‘i, “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016. For more information, visit http://disney.com/moana, like us on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/disneymoana; follow us on Twitter, http://www.twitter.com/DisneyAnimation; follow us on Instagram, https://instagram.com/DisneyAnimation.

Don’t miss the trailer:

Additional Questions

Who was your favorite Moana character to animate?

Moana was my favorite character because she’s courageous, fearless, and athletic. We were able to bring in teen qualities as well. I particularly liked the scenes with her grandmother.

Did you get to make a trip to Oceania?

Unfortunately, Amy Smeed was unable to take the trip with other animators. Her husband is also a Disney Animator and was very busy with the final stages of Zootopia at the time of the trip. Since they have a young child, she stayed home.

Are any characteristics of the actors incorporated in their character?

Maui has The Rock’s characteristic eyebrow lift. Like Auli’i, Moana talks with her hands and has a teen exuberance.

What does the Oceanic Story Trust think of Moana?

The Maui god appears differently in the myths on each island. The opinion on the Maui is largely dependent on which island members of the story trust are from. 

Other than Moana, who are your favorite characters that you worked on?

My favorites are Rapunzel and Ariel.

Do you know what your next project will be?

Her next project will probably be the Wreck-It Ralph sequel. It is scheduled for a March 9, 2018 release. She previously worked on both Ralph and Vanelope for Wreck-It Ralph.

What animators inspired you?

Glen Keane was her main inspiration. The Disney characters he created include Ariel, the Beast, and Rapunzel for Tangled. 

Are there many female animators?

No, there are no many female animators. Of the roughly 100 animators in her group, only about 10% are female. Most of the women who worked n the film are production supervisors.

How did you transition from painting to digital animation?

At Western Michigan I was studying art, drawing, and painting. My passion was painting, but I wasn’t sure how to turn that into a career. Once I transferred to Art Institute of Chicago, I began taking animation classes and saw a path forward.

What advice do you have for elementary aged kids who want to be animators?

Draw! Even though most of the work is done on the computer now, drawing is the best practice. The best advice is to observe life around you.

See Moana Now

Don’t miss our review of Moana.

Disclosure: Thank you for supporting Ann Arbor with Kids by shopping through our Affiliate links below).

Moana is now available on Digital HD (iTunesAmazon Video, and Google Play). It comes to BluRay/DVD on Tuesday, March 7.


Scroll to Top