Know your mountain

Disney Animator Andy Harkness and the animation behind Disney’s “Moana”

Courtney Capra, Staff Reporter

Andy Harkness has an impressive resume as a Disney animator, a children’s book illustrator, an Emmy and Annie award winner and a father. Given these accomplishments, it might be surprising to picture him as he once was: a disheartened college student who had resorted to eating ketchup on crackers for dinner. Harkness willingly admits that his journey to becoming an art director at Disney was difficult, acknowledging with a slight laugh that “Everyone has their road, and mine is as bumpy as they come.”

Originally Harkness had a scholarship for the Columbus College of Art and Design, and was inspired to pursue animation after seeing Disney’s preliminary work on “The Lion King.” Unfortunately, when the scholarship money ran out, those dreams had to be put on hold. Harkness went back home to Mississippi and took on night shifts stocking the local grocery store. The only way to escape this professional limbo was through hard work, dedication, talent and a little bit of luck. In 1994 Disney was seeking out new recruits for their internships, which encouraged Harkness to perfect his portfolio through a strenuous process of constant creation and revision. This perfectionism eventually paid off, earning him the offer of a Disney internship in Orlando, Florida on his 21st birthday.

He began his career as a clean-up animator on 2-D Disney Renaissance classics like “Pocahontas” and “Mulan.” While working on “Mulan,” Harkness found himself in the office of his colleague Ric Sluiter. While observing the color charts and sketches, he had an epiphany about his career: He wanted to become an art director. Harkness quickly formulated a 10-year-plan in order to achieve this goal, and he has been successful ever since. He’s worked on projects like “Lilo and Stitch,” “Brother Bear,” “Tangled,” “Big Hero 6,” “Zootopia,” “Frozen,” “Wreck-it-Ralph” and Disney’s latest release, “Moana”. In addition to working with Disney, Harkness has won both an Annie Award and an Emmy Award, and has even published his own children’s book, “Bug Zoo,” through Disney Hyperion.

“Moana” draws its inspiration from the rich breadth of customs, myths and traditions of Polynesian culture. The filmmakers were fascinated by the ancient voyagers of Oceania, who used their intuitive understanding of the ocean’s currents and the positions of the stars to explore countless islands with navigational ease. At one point in this ancient and complex history, however, all voyages stopped for 1,000 years for an unknown reason. In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, the filmmakers came up with the premise for “Moana”.

Harkness describes the titular protagonist to be “as badass as they come.” Moana is the daughter of the village chief and the newest addition to Disney’s lineup of princesses. She is fiercely devoted to protecting her people and possesses a strong desire to explore the ocean beyond the shores of her island, Motunui. When her island is faced with threats of destruction, Moana must voyage across the waves to stop dark forces from consuming all of life itself. The movie focuses on a journey across the sea, but also simultaneously depicts Moana’s personal journey to discover her own identity and purpose. She is aided by her Gramma Tala—the self-proclaimed “village crazy lady”—her adorable pet pig Pua, a stowaway named Heihei—a rooster with a abysmally low IQ—the Ocean itself—an entity which selects her personally for the quest—and the demigod Maui—a slightly self-absorbed shapeshifter seeking redemption.   

Andy Harkness’ job on “Moana” was to design the look of the film, particularly the scenery. Truly encompassing the natural landscapes of the Pacific Islands can’t be achieved by imagination alone; rather, it requires extensive research. In order to get the perfect perspective, Harkness and other filmmakers travelled to several islands to explore and to consult with historians, locals and botanists. This exclusive tour helped Harkness understand the “shape language” of Polynesian islands. The rocks in the movie are not simply shapes on a screen: They are intended to resemble actual structures that have been weathered by the wind and sea. The peaks and valleys of the animated island of Motunui are “almost architectural,” and play an integral part to the daily function of the villagers. Even the flowers on the island are designed to mimic the native vegetation that would have existed 3,000 years ago.  

“Moana”’s native island of Motunui is an entirely fictional place, which has its perks and drawbacks for animators. By making Motunui fictional, many aspects of various Oceanic cultures are able to be represented. Filmmakers wanted to avoid favoritism towards a certain culture by choosing a specific place like Samoa or Tonga. Creating a wholly original island allows for the diversity of the traditions of Oceania to be explored and celebrated. Yet formulating a unique island that still remains congruous with the appearance of actual locations is a challenge. In order to create a detailed model with depth and dimension, Harkness sculpted his vision for Motunui out of clay, a technique typically reserved for rendering characters. Later, he transferred this image into Photoshop and added color, shading and character to the piece. Harkness’ vision was then rendered into CGI and is now the Motunui audiences see in the film.

While “Moana” is primarily animated with CGI 3-D animation, some 2-D techniques from older eras of Disney animation are still incorporated into the film. The character Maui has elaborate tattoos, which also happen to be sentient and interactive. Throughout the film, audiences can look forward to appearances of the tattoo of “Mini Maui,” who serves as the demigod’s conscience. These 2-D sequences are designed by Eric Goldberg, who was famously responsible for the animations of Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin.” Artists in the animation community tend to take sides regarding these techniques. Some opt only for 2-D animation like Goldberg, while others insist that the future lies in 3-D. Harkness started his career in 2-D ventures, yet now works in a CGI-dominated industry. He sees validity and beauty in both art forms, explaining, “I really do love them both. I’ve got one foot firmly in 2-D world and one foot firmly in 3-D world.”

When referring to his work on “Moana,” Harkness notes that when applying color and lighting, he employs the same general techniques he learned while working on “Mulan.” “It’s all there. All the simple staging, the controlled color palette … that’s all 2-D.”

One of the biggest challenges and triumphs for animators on “Moana” was the design for the ocean. The water needed to look realistic, yet not photo realistic, because it would become its own personified character in the movie. Animators spent their time conducting water studies, later dissecting these videos and attempting to recreate the refractions and reflections of light in the water. This proved to be exceedingly difficult, and was ultimately a feat that probably couldn’t have been achieved just a few years ago. Harkness notes that the effects department for “Moana” had to be increased threefold in order to achieve this task, stating that Disney had “never attempted 3-D effects like this, ever.” While other animators might dread such complex designs, Harkness insists that he “love[s] forcing the computer to be uncomfortable.”

“Moana” was heavily influenced by the mantra “Know your mountain,” which implies that one must understand where they came from in order to continue successfully into the future. This is a lesson that Moana learns on her journey to save her island. It could also be argued that Harkness knows his mountain rather well. Firstly, he understands the importance of honoring his roots. Harkness feels a close connection to his hometown of Starksville, Mississippi. As a child, he would study and chase bugs there; this fascination would eventually lead to the creation of his children’s book, “Bug Zoo.” Harkness continues to honor “Bug Zoo”’s roots by selling his clay sculpture illustrations from the book, with all proceeds going to the town’s public library. In addition to acknowledging personal roots, he also remembers the lessons his mentors taught him over the years. Harkness continues to reference the advice of his former high school art teacher, who told him to “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.” He is grateful for her advice, stating that this “power of observation” helped him grow to be a better artist. The animator also considers the stylings of artistic predecessors to have had an impact on his own work, citing inspirations like A.J. Casson, N.C. Wyeth, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Finally, despite all of the success he has garnered over the years, Harkness remains humble, perhaps because of the roadblocks he encountered early on in his career.

Harkness clearly knows where he has been, and seems eager to continue working and innovating. Further Disney animations are undoubtedly in his future. He is also hard at work on his second children’s book, “Wolf Boy,” which is shaping up to be a darkly humorous treat.  

When it comes to advice for future animators, Harkness advocates for a strong, polished portfolio (he recommends starting off big) and encourages art students to engage in collaborative projects in order to experience what it’s like in the workplace. Yet to really survive in an increasingly competitive industry, Harkness emphasizes that passion is key, saying, “It’s gotta be something you truly love, really love.… At every job there are tough days, and so I always fall back on ‘I love drawing, I’m drawing for a living, and it can’t get better than this.’” Harkness believes that passion needs to be accompanied by persistence. “If you truly love it, then you’ll put the work in that it’ll take to continue and to get through being turned down, possibly multiple times … and then never give up. You cannot give up, because it’s going to happen someday.”  

So, if you’re a disheartened college student, just take Andy’s advice and know this: It’s going to happen someday.