Mark Henn is one of the most legendary animators alive today. If you’ve seen any of Disney’s beloved animated films since the late eighties, you’ve already seen Mark’s work. He has worked on 20 Disney films, including drawing Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and many other iconic characters. His latest work, “Moana,” is about to hit theaters everywhere this Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. You can check out the film’s website here, and its Facebook page here.
I’ve interviewed Mark before and learned that, besides being a legendary animator, he also happens to be a Christian. It’s always a pleasure to speak with Mark, and I had a chance to chat with him about faith, what he’s thankful for this year, and what we can expect to find in “Moana,” covering everything from the film’s animation to some of its worldviews and narrative themes to its music–including his surprising answer to my question about whether “Moana” has a song that could complete with “Let It Go” from “Frozen”:
The research was a big part of it, although not everybody on the staff gets to go on the really fun trip to Tahiti and all those places. That was left to the directors and the art director and the head of layout and head of story, so just a very small, small group that actually physically go on the trip. But all that information is brought back to the studio, and it kind of filters down through the ranks and that. People here probably did some of their own research. I know of one animator that he had a book that was based on the legend of Maui, and I think he was reading that, trying to just read up and bone up on what was available on that character. All those kind of things. If the animators themselves don’t experience it firsthand, that information is passed down from those who do get to go on these trips–filter it down to us in that fashion. It’s great. It gives you a base, a base of authenticity and truth in what you can compare things to–if you’re close or off-base or things of that nature.
I’m assuming it was a lot of water research? I mean “Frozen” was all ice and snow, and they captured that amazingly well.
Absolutely. I know there was a group of animators who spent a morning or two–well, it was our effects animators–they actually went out on the ocean, locally here, to do some research. But then there was a group of animators that spent a day at a pool locally here filming: like what does hair look like underwater? What do the bubbles do? And just all that kind of stuff related to the water. So there’s research done on many different levels.
Oh, you’re going to want to put your bathing suit on and jump in, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I swear it was real in some cases.
Wow, that’s awesome. So this is a question I’ve always wondered: how early in the process do you get to see the final version of the film? And is that exciting or is that more work?
Well, the key word you said was final version. Along the way we’ll see several versions of the film, and normally those are what we call “in story reel form,” so it’s the story that is developed first. It is put onto reels where you can actually sit in the theater and you’re looking at just still images that look like comic strips–just the story artist drawing things. So we’ll see several of those versions. Then as we’re going through production we have tools that allow us to see the different sequences as they’re being animated and as they’re moving down the production line.
But we actually won’t see the final version until just a few weeks before it comes out. For most of us on staff we didn’t see the final version until our wrap party, which was a week ago–two weeks ago I guess. That’s the final version. But like I said, we’ve seen maybe two, three, four variations in story reel form leading up to that, but they purposefully keep it from us while they’re finishing it up, and then they can just throw it at us for the wrap party so everyone gets as fresh of an eye on it as possible. That’s kind of the bad part of working on a film is that you lose that fresh eye, so jokes we all laughed at the first time we saw them we’re not laughing at the next time because we know they’re coming. So it’s important to give you as much of a fresh eye opportunity, so seeing it at the wrap party was, for a lot of us, finally seeing the final version and it turned out really nice.
So it kind of gives you a chance to experience it as a moviegoer would.
As much as we can, yeah.
Really! Wow! I look forward to seeing that, and it’s always fun to see how a culture reacts to a film. It’s different every time.
What in Moana will appeal to Christians?
That’s a good question. It’s dealing with the Oceana/Polynesian mythology, of their world and their culture. It’s hard to say, though I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film, and I think that will hopefully resonate with Christian audiences who know that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in. I think it’s going to open up some areas for conversations and maybe kids asking questions. I think those are always healthy, always good [conversations], particularly for a Christian family–i.e. understanding who Maui is as a demigod in the Polynesian culture versus what we have in Christ and all that. I think those opportunities hopefully will be taken advantage of by parents to have talks with their kids.
Absolutely. I love it when movies, whether or not they have a blatant Christian theme, focus on the spiritual. It does open up some great opportunities to be a conversation-starter.
As Thanksgiving approaches, what things are you thankful to God for this year?
Oh goodness. I’m a new grandpa. I’m thankful for my new granddaughter who’s seven months old. She just came to the studio [Disney animation studio] this week for the first time. So I carried her around. Whether she ever remembers it or not I doubt it, but just having her here and as a part of our family we’re just so very, very thankful for her and her health and everything. But I’m still thankful to be here at the studio. I’m fast approaching year 37, and I’m as thankful to be here as I was the first day I walked in that God has allowed me to be here as long as I have been.
That’s awesome. How many movies have you done with Disney? Do you even keep count now?
Just in terms of animated films, I think Moana represents my twentieth animated film, and I don’t think that includes–I did a little work on “Saving Mr. Banks” and of course I worked on “Enchanted”–I don’t think that includes those, but just in terms of Disney animated movies this is my twentieth feature film.
That’s amazing. Congratulations.
Oh, that’s a good question. Any character in “Moana?” Hmm. That’s a good question. Well, if I could be any character I would want to be Moana herself, maybe Maui second, but I think I would be Moana, I can identify with her.
And she probably goes on a really exciting adventure too, which doesn’t hurt.
Oh she does, it’s quite an adventure.
I’m really looking forward to seeing that adventure, and I want to thank you for taking the time to talk today. Best of luck with “Moana” and the film’s theatrical run!
Thank you very much!
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