The latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios was born out of the rich oral traditions of Oceania. For centuries, the people of Oceania were sailors and navigated the waters of the Pacific. But, for reasons unknown to historical scholars, their voyages stopped around the year 1000 B.C., and they stayed put for almost a millennium. “Moana” aims to, at least partially, answer the question of why these voyages stopped by following Moana, a teenage princess, as she sets sail beyond her island shore for the first time in hundreds of years.

Amy Smeed, the head animator for the film, came to the University of Michigan earlier this month to talk to Screen Arts & Cultures and Art & Design students about the creation of the film. Smeed oversaw the animation for many of the human characters, but was particularly fond of the heroine, Moana.

“She’s very courageous and fearless, and I love that about her,” Smeed said in an interview, “And she’s very athletic … The scenes that I got to animate, I picked Moana.”

Smeed said Auli’i Cravalho, the young actress who voices Moana, landed her the role alongside seasoned actors like Dwayne Johnson and Temuera Morrison because of her tenacity and spirit. Having her on set helped Smeed and her team of animators visualize Moana’s energy.

“As animators, when we’re out in the world, we’re constantly observing — watching movements and mannerisms of teenagers and what that energy is,” Smeed said.

Smeed began her career as a painter. She attended art school at Western Michigan University but transferred to School of the Art Institute of Chicago after she was sent a disc advertising their animation program. After discovering animation and finishing her studies, Smeed went on to become an animator at Disney, working on animation for projects from “Meet the Robinsons” to “Frozen.” For “Moana,” Smeed served as the head animator. 

“When I was living here in Michigan, I loved painting, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with it as an actual career,” Smeed said. “For me it was always trying to figure out, within art, what can I do with that? So when I found animation, I really do feel lucky.”

Even though Smeed doesn’t spend much of her time painting and drawing anymore, she stressed the importance for young artists and aspiring animators to keep pursuing art in a more traditional, pen-and-paper kind of way.

“I think sometimes there’s a misconception that now that everything is in the computers, you just do it in the computer,” she said, “But there’s so much drawing that actually takes place, even in a computer animation film. “

Smeed has found tremendous success working at Disney, but noted that animation, like many other fields, can be a little bit of a boy’s club.

“I don’t know why that is. I’m trying to figure that out, and that’s one of the reasons I love coming to talk to students, because I’m hoping that it will inspire other women … to know they can do this career,” she said. “When I was in art school, there weren’t many women in our classes, so it made sense to me. But now there are. I see a lot of women in the classes.”

The content of the studio’s most recent films, she said, reflects the increased, albeit still slight, role of female leadership and involvement. Storylines are moving away from traditional love stories and are focusing instead on strong, independent female leads. That trend continues in “Moana.” Moana and Maui traverse the ocean and fight magical creatures without the slightest hint of romance. 

“It’s great to see the two of them together and how they interact with each other. But I love that … she’s not in love with him, he’s not in love with her,” Smeed said.

“Moana” hit theaters right in time to relieve Thanksgiving tables of tension and political debate. 

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