Disney layout artist Rob Dressel on the challenges of visualising Moana

Director of cinematography and layout at Disney Animation StudiosRob Dressel is in the UK to speak about the challenges during the production of Disney’s latest animated film Moana.

Rob is a guest speaker at Animex – a festival dedicated to animation and computer games in the UK. He'll make an appearance alongside faces from VFX and animation houses Framestore, MPC and The Mill to name a few. Animex begins today at Teesside University. You can find out more information here.

Rob worked in visual effects for what was then known as Disney’s The Secret Lab for films such as 102 Dalmatians and Armageddon. He left Disney for a period of time to work at Unit Eleven LLC for Transformers 1 and 2 as well as Hancock, before returning to Disney to become the layout supervisor for Prep and Landing. Since then Rob has worked on Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and now Moana

For those unfamiliar with the storyline of Moana, it follows resilient female protagonist Moana, the daughter of the chief of a Polynesia tribe. She sets sail across the Pacific Ocean to find the demigod Maui, who will help save the people of her tribe. Although the film itself keeps Moana’s island home vague, the film’s narrative is based on traditions, myths and origins of Polynesian culture carried out in Maori culture in New Zealand and Pacific Islands such as Tahiti, where the Disney crew gathered research. Watch the trailer below.

Miriam Harris: Your job as layout supervisor for Disney seems like a monster job. How do you go about planning the layout of an entire animated film?  

Rob Dressel: "Yes it is a monster job. I usually roll on about two years out from the film's release and we spend about a year in pre-production. I try and figure out how best to shoot a beautiful film, but it's vital that the story is clear and the audience is connected with our characters. 

"With Moana a big part of the planning was how we were going to shoot a movie that takes place mostly at sea. From the technical side, this involved being able to visualise and control the ocean in Layout as well as simming the boats so they float properly on the water.  From the creative side we wanted to make sure the audience felt like they were on the journey with Moana and what the thrill of sailing is all about, so the camera work had to feel like the cameras were on the boat with our characters. 

"Research is paramount at Disney so we spent a week in Tahiti shooting tons of footage, hiking everywhere and most importantly sailing on classic voyaging canoes. With me were the lighting supervisor, the environments supervisor, and the art director of environments to make sure we could bring the feel of Polynesia to the audience." 

MH: Where do you gather inspiration? 

RD: "I usually get inspiration from favourite movies of mine as well as some of our previous films. For Moana I watched some great documentaries on wayfinding and some of the current day voyagers in the Pacific. Our research trip to Tahiti was a huge inspiration as well – seeing the beauty of the islands and the sea as well as meeting the people."

MH: What are common pitfalls when envisioning the layout of a film? 

RD: "Planning too specifically on shooting parts of the story a certain way early on can trip you up when the story changes out from under you, which happens very often. I try to keep a high level look at the broad arcs of the film and then get more specific as sequences come online."


MH: What were the challenges you faced with a film mainly based on the water? 

RD: "Water is very hard. We had to plan it so that all those conversations that took place on the water could be as easily done as though they were on land. That took a lot of work to allow Layout to have full control of how the water moved and the buoyancy of the boats before it ever reached animation. We also wanted the audience to feel like they were on the journey with Moana so our cameras had to feel like they were on the boats as well."

MH: How does being a layout artist satisfy you creatively?  

RD: "I get to work with the directors very early on to help craft the story and the film itself. Having such a hand in designing how the film looks and how the story is told is very satisfying and there are those moments where you elevate the story with how you shoot it and that's the best."

MH: What advice would you have for animators wanting to move into a role like yours? 

RD: "I used to be in animation and rigging so it's totally possible. We look for filmmakers and people who like to tell stories. Knowledge of cinematography is a plus but having a good eye for composition is a must."

MH: What is your background?

RD: "I'm an artist who wanted to go art school but got a computer science degree to have something to fall back on since I was big into maths and computers. I don't have formal art training but learned a lot during my career on the job. I have some great mentors including my one boss who went to USC Film School and taught me all about cinematography." 

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