Disney's latest animated film "Moana" will be released on Wednesday. The Kansan got a chance to have a conversation with Hank Driskill, a University alumnus and technical supervisor for the film. Read as he discusses his Kansas beginnings, his work at Disney and "Moana."
Kansan: How did your Kansas beginnings help prepare you for your career in Hollywood?
Driskill: I went to high school in Gardner, Kansas, which at the time was a small town of 2,000 people, and they didn’t have AP classes. Most of the students were kids who were going to go back onto the farm afterwards. Even a good chunk of the students weren’t going onto college. So when I hit KU, I was suddenly surrounded by people – really smart people who wanted to teach me all kinds of stuff – so I became a sponge in college. I was taking a lot of math and physics classes, as well as computer science classes, English, history and Western Civilization. That really built a great foundation for me for coming out into this industry. Computer graphics, at its core, you’re drawing pixels on the screen, but what you’re doing underneath is a lot of math and physics. On "Moana" alone, one of the big pushes was in water simulation. That is, at its core, physics. Computer science is the foundation for building the thing, but what you’re building, physics and all of that is a big component to solving those problems. I credit my four years at KU a lot for preparing me to come out into this industry.
Kansan: What does your role as the technical supervisor for Disney films entail?
Driskill: The technical supervisor’s job, early on, is to figure out all the nuts and bolts of the "how?" What can we do with tools we already have? What do we need to build new technologies for? Every one of our films is ambitious, and in every one of our films early on we’re looking at some points going, ‘how are we going to do this, again?’ So, it’s spear-heading all the R&D teams during preproduction, building all the new technologies, and then as we get into the actual making of the movie and we wrap up all the tool development, I become kind of chief fire fighter. We’re trying to hold everything together, tying to keep everything moving, trying to keep all the artists productive and get shots finished.
Kansan: Speaking of fire fighting, were there any particularly large fires you had to put out while working on "Moana?"
Driskill: It was funny. In an early screening, John Lasseter on the story retreat the next day gave a really memorable quote that all of us quoted many times in the months that followed, which was, “'Moana’ makes ‘Big Hero 6’ looks like a one-man show.’” The visual effects supervisor, Kyle Odermatt, and I had just come off of "Big Hero 6," and we were feeling that same thing — that this movie was just tremendously ambitious in what we were trying to pursue. And with each screening, it kept getting bigger. As the story was evolving, it kept having new challenges. The scope and scale kept growing, and we kept being faced by things we didn’t know how to do, so we kept having to invent pipelines and processes to just be able to pull the movie off.
Kansan: What makes "Moana" unique?
Driskill: This is the first movie I’ve worked on at Disney where we felt a weight of responsibility early on. One of the fun things about working at Disney is after the movie is out, there’s a world. Our movies touch people. Regularly, I go around, and I give talks. For instance, after "Big Hero 6," I had people coming up and talking about what that movie meant to them: how it celebrated STEM, how it showed a future that wasn’t dystopian. There were all these positives from the movie after it was released. With this movie, I gave a talk at D23 a year and a half ago, and I had a couple from Hawaii come up and talk to me. They couldn’t get two sentences out without tearing up. We felt such a sense of responsibility with this movie, in particular. Because it was celebrating the Pacific Island culture, it was important. Everybody working on it felt that this was an important movie for us to get right and to work really, really hard in creating something special. I’m hopeful that everything we put together, you know, that people see that on the screen and that they feel something special.
—Edited by Cody Schmitz