Blog . Andy Harkness, Art Director on Moana, visits CIA
By Bradley J Wancour
Disney art director Andy Harkness, who has worked on a number of feature films, visited the Cleveland Institute of Art recently as part of a promotional tour for the new animated film Moana, which opens Nov. 23, 2016. Harkness presented an hour-long talk, showed clips from the movie and behind-the-scenes videos, and met with students afterward. Harkness, who is also a picture book illustrator, spent a few minutes answering our questions about growing up in rural Mississippi and fulfilling his dreams.
Can you talk about the influence of art in your early years, before your career began?
I was born in Marietta, Ohio and then moved to Starkville, Miss. I think sixth grade is when drawing and painting started to really become my full focus. That’s all I did all the time, I’d either be outside fishing or inside painting or drawing. I had a really great high school art teacher. Around 60 to 70 percent of the kids that went through her class went on to art colleges, which in Mississippi is a big deal. She was a huge influence for me.
When did you know you wanted to work at Disney?
In 1991 a man named Bill Mathews came to Columbus College of Art and Design, where I was studying at the time, and showed us a clip, the unfinished first sequence of “The Lion King,” and some pencil drawings from “Pocahontas.” Up until that point, all I wanted to do with my life was to be a children’s book illustrator. And while that is still my dream, something clicked, and from that point on all I wanted to do is to work for Disney.
How did you end up as an art director?
A friend of mine from CCD contacted me and told me that Disney was starting to ramp up internships. At that time, around 1993, all it took was figure drawing to get in. So I put my best work into my portfolio, kept the top three drawings and trashed the rest. Then I kept drawing and filled it up so they were all as good as the top three. I did that same thing three times. When I knew it was as good as it could possibly be, I sent it off. On my 21st birthday, I got the call to go to Disney as an intern. From there I got hired to be an in-betweener on “Pocahontas.”
One day I walked into Ric Sluiter’s office, the art director on Mulan, and there were color keys all over the walls. Later on, I got to talk to him about how color can accentuate the mood of a film. It was a huge eye-opener for me and I set a personal goal that in ten years I wanted to be an art director.
I always knew exactly what I wanted to do and I never let anyone tell me that was never going to happen.
What is your role in the production of Moana?
My job is everything to do with the overall look of the film. I work closely with the character designer to make sure the character designs work with the background. Once all locations are designed, the shape language and locations are set and designed; I dive into color, which for me is my first love.
How did you and your team go about getting the look of Moana?
We got to take a research trip, which was amazing, to Tahiti, Bora Bora and Mariana, where we traveled around with a botanist and a historian. We really got a feeling how much they love their culture and how important it is for us to get it right. A great elder of the village said, “For years we have been swallowed by your culture. Once, can you be swallowed by ours.” This became our guiding star.
Was all the work in the film done on computer?
I built the island out of clay. It worked out really well. I could show the directors very quickly and manipulate it right in front of them. We scanned this model in 3D, which became the model in the film. One of our interns, who is now a full-time employee, designed the whole Kakamora barge set out of clay and paper. So a lot of what we do is computer, but traditional elements are still everywhere.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with other artists and when they get really excited about the shot they are working on. Whether it’s a modeler working on a character or a mountain, or an effects artist working on a wave, or a lighter working on a whole shot, I love to see when they are really into it.
What is your favorite part of the job?
There are two parts that I love. One is when they give me a script, just a couple outlines of a story and they say, “we don’t know what we want it to look like at all, it’s going to be the South Pacific, 3,000 years ago — GO.” That would have been terrifying when I first got into the industry, but now I’m more comfortable and I know where to start, so that’s the greatest gift a director can give me. It’s total blue sky and we just start from looking at images, going on research trips, and looking at paintings to inspire the crew. That part is awesome.
The second is when we start to see our first shots come through lighting. A lot of times these shots don’t look that attractive. You’re seeing all the bells and whistles until the lights come on, then things go into shadow you get the color going and suddenly it’s alive. That’s a really magical moment.
What advice can you give to students interested in animation or visual storytelling?
I would say prepare to be turned down numerous times, and every time that happens be sure you get feedback from whoever says “no” and take that feedback to heart. Always be open to feedback, because there is always someone who knows more than we do. And don’t ever give up, that’s the big thing. My book [Bug Zoo, Hyperion] took 12 years; I just never gave up.