week 1: story through lighting

This week’s assignment was to find a scene from a 3D animation in which the lighting helps drive the story emotionally — I chose to look at Moana’s How Far I’ll Go reprise, which closes the first act of the movie in a way that always gives me goosebumps:

(spoilers ahead! turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie!)

I think the lighting in this scene works extremely well and very intentionally. This is an emotionally heavy point in the story: Moana found out about her people’s lost tradition of voyaging and is trying to convince her father to venture out to the sea in order to save their island from an ecological catastrophe, but his past trauma makes him unwilling to try. While they’re at an impasse, they discover Moana’s grandmother is at her deathbed — in her final words, she urges Moana to go. The beginning of the scene, as Moana gathers supplies to sneak away, is mostly dark, in order to serve the emotional heaviness of the story. There’s a sense of pain, fear, uncertainty captured by this darkness. But it’s not completely dark: we have a soft moonlight, and warmly-colored torches here and there, which help give us a sense of hope.

At the climax of the scene, the lights go out, quite literally signaling Moana’s grandmother’s passing. This is followed by a burst of bright, blue, otherworldly light coming from something beneath the water — a reference to the grandmother’s wishes of reincarnating as a manta ray. The song explicitly calls attention to the lighting: “See her light up the night in the sea / She calls me / And yes I know that I can go.” This light is a guiding beacon both visually and emotionally, giving Moana a sense of direction through the waves and leaping over them triumphantly, to signal that Moana can also prevail. As the scene closes and the manta ray light fades, the moonlight seems a little stronger, the impression overall brighter as we see its reflection against the water.

All in all, I think this scene wraps up the tension of the first act of the plot with tragedy and hope. The lighting works crucially along with the action and music to drive those emotional beats and keep us engaged and excited for the next part of the story.