An Interview with Adam Green, “Moana” Animator

By Akif Khan

Adam Green, a Disney Animation Supervisor, spoke with the New University about his job and working on “Moana,” which comes to theaters this Wednesday, Nov. 23.

New University: What would you say is a typical day at work for you?

Adam Green: You show up at nine-ish, then you typically have rounds in the morning … You show what you’ve done on your shot for the last couple of days, just a check-in with your supervisor to show them what you’ve been working on. Actually, lemme back up a little bit. The first thing you do when you get to work is you get a bowl of cereal. You get your cup of coffee, you get your cereal, your bagel, whatever, ‘cause they got creature comforts at Disney, which is one of the benefits of working there. There’s a whole cereal bar with a ton of different cereals. Then you go to your desk and you browse the internet for a while, just hang out and just think “I should probably get motivated to do some work today.” Then you show in rounds. Usually dailies are in the afternoon at some point, so then you show it to the director … The director will talk through the shot with you — things that are working, things that aren’t working, basically on this journey to get your shot finished … You need to get what they’re trying to get on screen, on screen. But the daily majority of your work is at your desk, working through the different processes of animation. Sort of like a very traditional studio environment where you’re creating your thing, then check in with your supervisors, check in with your directors. Then you leave at six, rinse and repeat.
As a supervisor, it’s a much bigger role. You’re doing all the collaborating with different departments. Checking with your animation team, giving them notes, draw-overs, feedback meetings with directors to get a better sense of what they want. It’ s a different scope. As an animator, you spend 85 percent of your time at your computer, at some phase of your shot, working on it, basically animating it frame by frame, and then checking in with your leadership team to see if you’re going in the right direction.

New University: What’s some general advice for anyone who wants to end up where you are?

AG: For me, it boils down to passion. It’s an idiom, right, [that] you can do anything if you work hard at it. That couldn’t be truer in animation. I wouldn’t say many people, myself included, have any intrinsic skill in animation. It’s a muscle you exercise. If you’re passionate enough about it and you keep doing it, you’re going to get it. Best advice I can give is to be passionate about it and just do it. There are fundamentals, then, to explore while you’re building that passion. Learning to draw, learning to caricature life through your drawings or sculpting. Any sort of character work or caricature work is going to really help out a lot in animation. And then learning the software. You have to really roll up your sleeves and start reading tutorials, or if you’re in school, go to your classes. Just do the nuts and bolts work that a mechanic would when fixing a car.
For the vast vast vast majority of the animators at the studio, it starts with “I am going to be a Disney animator, and nobody in the world is going to stop me from doing it.” Period. That’s the thing. We do these really fun, monthly, “get to know your team” sort of meetings. Every animator puts together a presentation once a month, one animator a month, about how they came to Disney. And everybody’s journey is so different. Some people are from Syria, some people are from New Zealand, some people are from England, some people are from the United States. Different races, different genders, different everything. But the one thing that’s the same for everybody is that they wanted to be an animator. And they worked their hearts out to become an animator for Disney. That’s the work ethic that is the definer for me. Not talent.

New University: There’s a lot of idealism about working at Disney. People see it as such a magical experience. After working there for eight years, what do you think is actually a big obstacle in showing creativity in such a big industry?

AG: Well, to answer one of your comments, a common misconception is that the computer does all the work. That’s one we get a lot. You know, especially in the public eye. It’s all soulless computer animation, you know. Dude, we pour our souls into this for being so “soulless.” Working within a studio the size of Disney and being creative within this paradigm of a studio setting, in my viewpoint, is liberating. One thing about being a good artist is working within limitations. If you’re an artist and have no limitations at all, you can do whatever you want — it’s easy. You can literally do whatever you want, you have no limitations. But at Disney, there’s a limitation on what we make. There’s a very specific film that we are interested, as a company, in making. However, we don’t want to be stagnant. We don’t want to keep making the same film over and over. It needs to be fresh, it needs to be interesting, it needs to be relevant, it needs to be more modern, it needs to be something that speaks to audiences. And so that is a very difficult thing: Be new, but be the same. Well, okay, that’s a very hard limitation. So I find it creatively empowering that we have to solve this problem within this scope.

New University: How do you think your role has changed as an animating supervisor on “Moana” as opposed to just an animator on all your other projects?

AG: As the supervisor, you’re more responsible for the big picture of certain characters. While you’re an animator, your job is to create footage. Your job is to animate your shots. It’s a very rewarding position … It’s your work up there on screen. As a supervisor, you own entire sequences, you own entire characters. And with that comes a lot of responsibility … The experience is, while more stressful, a lot more rewarding. Because your work affects a lot more of the film. It isn’t just that three-second shot, or that five-second shot, or that ten-second shot. It’s this entire sequence, or that entire character. You spend less time at your desk doing the animation work and you spend more time supervising a team, being involved with other departments, collaborating with other departments, making sure the train stays on the tracks. It’s really rewarding, but also pretty stressful; but ultimately, worth it.

New University: For “Moana” specifically, why do you think animation is so much more powerful than using real life actors and visual effects?

AG: The great thing about animated films is that everything you see on screen is placed there by choice. It is our decision to put whatever on screen [to the] left, or the character here, or the cinematography here. Without the artist, there is literally nothing on the screen. I feel like, because of that, we go through great pains making things exactly the way we want them to be, to tell the message exactly the way we want to tell it. We are very particular about every pixel that’s on that screen, to make sure that’s it’s perfect and it’s saying the right thing at the right time and telling the right story … All those choices ultimately culminate into this final film where nothing has happened by accident, it’s all intentional. And I think, because of that, the messages are stronger and the storytelling is stronger.

New University: Keeping in mind the current social and political climate that the world is in right now, why do you think it’s important for people to go out and watch “Moana”?

AG: We got really fortunate with this film because it couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. The film is about identity. It’s not about what color you are, what gender you are, it’s not about what you look like. It’s not about what identity has been placed [on] you. It’s about how you define your identity and what you do that defines you. And that couldn’t be a more relevant message for today’s audiences.