Netflix’s Over the Moon uses every trick in the Disney playbook

Glen Keane spent almost 40 years as an animator at Disney, working on some of the animation giant’s best loved films. But his feature length directorial debut is launching on Netflix – now a major competitor to Big Mouse in the streaming wars.
Over the Moon is an animated musical in the vein of some of those Disney classics. It’s based on the Chinese legend of the lunar goddess Chang’e – and follows Fei Fei, a young girl who builds a rocket to the moon to try and meet her.

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Keane cut his teeth in hand-drawn animation, but says he worked hard to retain a human element to the CGI. Rather than using an actor as a model for the animators to use in each scene, he asked them to film themselves acting out different expressions and pick the best bits from each to inform their creations.
Computer graphics have given animators more powerful tools to work with when it comes to creating the subtle microexpressions that we don’t consciously notice, but which transmit meaning and emotion, he says. “The corners of the characters’ mouths, the way the lips fold in and turn; when she opens her mouth and sings, it feels supple and real; how Fei Fei’s eye finishes and the folds of skin there – those were all based on observation and study,” Keane explains. To help the animators get the right expressions, Keane repeated a trick he used when working on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. He asked the animators to film themselves acting out scenes from the movie so they get the facial quirks right.

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“I kept thinking of this movie as an espresso,” he says. “The flavour is richer and more powerful.” That’s particularly evident in the second half of the film, after Fei Fei makes it to the Moon and discovers Lunaria – a magical kingdom which posed a technical challenge for the animators. The design was inspired by the art of Joan Miro, and the iconic album cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

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One of the biggest considerations was lighting and colour. On Earth, where the scenes are largely set in rural China, production designer Celine Desrumaux was focused on capturing the different textures of whitewashed walls and stone roofs, and how they reflected light from the Sun.
On Lunaria, the dark side of the Moon, there’s no external light source, so everything is lit from within. The creatures and buildings of Lunaria glow – which meant careful choreography was required to make sure Fei Fei and the other human characters remain visible. ”In the CG process they had to remember that,” says Desrumaux. “It’s OK to cheat, but you can’t put a light in front of the character if the source of light is behind.”
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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