FARMINGTON — For one Davis County native, Moana is a love letter to the people who have gone before him.
Farmington native David Derrick was one of the story artists for Disney’s new hit movie, “Moana,” the story of a chieftan’s daughter and a Polynesian demigod who work together to help save her people. According to Derrick, he kept his own Polynesian ancestors firmly in mind the entire time he was doing his part to help shape the movie.
“I made this for my ancestors, to try to honor them and ultimately honor the people of the Pacific Islands,” he said. “It’s very personal for me.”
As a story artist, Derrick takes plot ideas and sketches out scenes that the animation team then uses to guide their work. When story changes are made, or people are looking for visuals to test out whether a new idea would work, the story artists work up a new set of sketches.
“We’re kind of like Marines – we’re the first to go in,” he said. “The movie’s always in flux.”
For Derrick, however, his own family’s story served as a constant. He spoke of his great-grandmother, Simea Fua Savea, who he named his daughter after. Savea lived in Iosepa, a ghost town in Utah’s Skull Valley where 200 Polynesian members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived from 1889-1917. The town was located 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake in Tooele County.
“It’s the place where my Polynesian ancestors were segregated to,” he said. “It’s pretty much the opposite of Polynesia.”
Derrick took a rubbing of her gravestone, and put it above his desk at Disney. He said he looked at it every single day he worked on the film.
“Whoever you are, and wherever you come from, you stand at the end of a long line of ancestors who can inspire and guide you through life,” he said. “(My work on the movie) was a thank you to her, and an apology for how she was treated.”
His efforts to honor his ancestors also had a more whimsical side as well, inspiring him to a sense of playfulness with the little details that make Disney movies so memorable.
“My grandfather had a 14-foot long tapa cloth, and whenever I could I snuck it into the movie,” he said with a laugh. “Everything is by design.”
Sometimes, however, the design changes. “Moana” went through several different iterations during the development process, from the characters who would serve as Moana’s companions on the voyage to the shape of her family.
“She had like seven brothers at one point,” said Derrick. “Mom came and went (with different versions). There was always a fight to keep Mom.”
There were also plenty of animation challenges that the creative team faced, from creating an independently moving two-dimensional tattoo on a three-dimensionally animated character to making the ocean a character with its own personality.
“The ocean wasn’t just something that divided (Polynesians), it was something that united them,” said Derrick.
Throughout it all, Derrick and the rest of the creative team kept the Polynesian culture firmly in mind when making their decisions.
“Polynesia is a culture that hasn’t been portrayed accurately in the movies,” he said. “The culture is deep and rich, and it’s alive today.”