Oscars: How Animators Brought an Optimistic Bunny and a Muscular Demigod to Life

12:13 PM 2/15/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

The filmmakers behind all the nominees — from 'Zootopia' to 'Moana' — reveal what they most enjoy about their job and the secrets behind their star characters.

'Moana', 'Kubo and the Two Strings'
'Moana', 'Kubo and the Two Strings'
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Focus Features/Photofest
  • 'My Life as a Zucchini'

    Claude Barras and Max Karli

    Courtesy of gkids

    Based on Gilles Paris' Autobiography of a Courgette, the film is the debut feature from Swiss director Claude Barras, who describes it as an "homage to neglected and mistreated children who do the best they can to survive and live with their wounds." A favorite character is Simon, a boy who resides in the orphanage where the protagonist Zucchini comes to live.

    "Simon is perhaps the real hero of the film, the one who travels the most during the story. He saves Camille [a girl in the orphanage] and sacrifices himself to enable Zucchini to grow up," says Barras, whose film also was Switzerland's entry in the foreign-language category. Adds the director, "We chose a dominant color and a complementary color for each character. Simon is red, as is his anger — he is a redhead with eyes that are green, like hope. He's a punk with a big heart, a rebel who hides his tenderness; he's a bit like the adolescent I was, Doc Martens included."

  • 'The Red Turtle'

    Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki

    Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    In the hand-drawn feature The Red Turtle, a man is shipwrecked on an island and, after some time, is joined by a woman. "She was by far the hardest to design," says director Michael Dudok de Wit, a 2001 Oscar winner for the animated short Father and Daughter. "She is beautiful, natural and mysterious — no typical symbols of civilization. She wears simple clothing. She's human but belonging to nature. And she doesn't talk; nobody talks in the film. It's all about what she does and what she does not do."

    The director adds, "She represents nature and the man represents civilization. It's also very important to the film that she is not inferior or superior to the male protagonist. She is her own authority."

  • 'Moana'

    John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer

    Courtesy of Disney

    Maui is a big, muscular demigod of Polynesian mythology, so how to turn him into an animated character, voiced by Dwayne Johnson? "We read many of the myths to see how he is portrayed through the South Pacific," explains director Ron Clements. "We liked the idea that he was bigger than life — a superhero — and shape-shifting was part of it. In some of the myths, he is portrayed as a straighter character, and in others he's more of a trickster — that's the aspect that we emphasized more. We wanted him to be very flawed, but very likable."

    There is an added dimension to Maui, since he is covered in tattoos including "Mini Maui," a 2D hand-drawn tattoo (overseen by animation supervisor Eric Goldberg, who famously created Genie in Aladdin) that comes to life on Maui's 3D computer-animated body, almost as a "Jiminy Cricket alter ego," adds director John Musker. "Maui's full of himself, and here is someone who could poke fun at him."

  • 'Kubo and the Two Strings'

    Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner

    Courtesy of Laika Studios/Focus Features

    In creating Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), who accompanies the movie's titular hero on his quest, director Travis Knight says, "We wanted her to be indigenous to Japan; she's a snow monkey. The embodiment of tough maternal love, she's trying to prepare Kubo for his journey. She's a drill sergeant, a classic action-movie hero — Ripley from Alien. But she loves this boy and that comes across in her vulnerability and sense of humor."

    The Monkey puppets started with an underlying armature skeleton with elements such as small beanbags for the body, and then the fake fur was applied. Face parts for the stop-motion expressions are created with a 3D printer, making more than 30 million facial expressions possible.

  • 'Zootopia'

    Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer


    In Disney Animation's CG hit, Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is an optimistic (but not overly naive) bunny who wants to fulfill her dream of becoming a police officer. "But what makes her unique is that, like any good protagonist, she has a flaw. For all her belief that Zootopia is a great place where everyone gets along — that racism and discrimination belong to her parents' generation — she realizes that she owns a piece of that, too," says director Byron Howard. In the end, he adds, "She doesn't cure racism, but the conclusion is that the cure starts with the individual. We liked the idea of this Capra-esque cop with high ideals who is tested."

    To find the right look for their intrepid heroine, director Rich Moore says that the filmmakers "did the cute bunny — the Disney style of anthropomorphic animal — and updated it." R&D was necessary to be able to create millions of hair follicles, with a special focus on how they would reflect the light. Adds Howard: "The fur was in service to believability."