Wave of the Future | A Look at Water in Animation

In film, there is the term “fluid simulation”. This means animating fire and smoke, hair strands and follicles, and many other parts of real-world life that need to be recreated for an animated world. It also includes water. H20 makes up about 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface. It isn’t just in our oceans. It flows through our rivers, our lakes, in glaciers, in the water vapour of the air and within every human.

So, it’s safe to say that the world is full of water and that it’s an important element. And so, when animating aspects of the real world, there is no doubt that animators would need to animate water at some point. How has this developed over the years? How has the liquid changed its form, to flow through our narratives and crash into our screens? To begin, we must go way back to early Disney and wind our way forwards to the CGI oceans of today.

From the tears that run down the dwarves’ faces in Snow White in 1937, to the rain and vast ocean depicted in Pinocchio three years later, audiences saw a gradual development in effects animation. This was something not really seen before. Animation was becoming not only about the characters but about the environment they inhabited as well.

As the years passed, viewers got to witness better animated ripples, splashes and reflections. We moved from the early fantasia moments of water animation to the likes of The Jungle Book (1967) and The Fox and the Hound (1981). Aqua began to become more detailed and visually beautiful. Eventually, films like Atlantis, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan all gave us scenes involving water which are just breathtaking. The ability to animate such subtle movement is something that Disney has managed to prove, time and time again.


Moving into the modern era and the birth of CGI, we then got a taster of the true magic that software and animators working together can create. Finding Nemo, by Disney subsidiary company, Pixar, created one of the most impressive water simulations of its time. The effects team started by creating the flow of the water, before adding dirt and particles to the liquid, as well as caustic illuminations to simulate the way light passes through seas. The result was mind-blowing.  Water, however, continued to ebb its way into an ocean of technological advancements. Frozen 2 and Moana are major examples of this.

Moana in particular had a huge challenge. For one thing, water is one of the most difficult substances to create in 3D films. It relies so much on individual particles affecting one another, everything contributing to its mass, that things can get complicated very quickly. Add to this the fact that Moana’s creators wanted an ocean, one that was sentient, and you realise how ambitious they were. How did they pull it off?

To create it effectively, the effects team used mathematical algorithms and high-end technology to render out the intended look and motion. They layered boats and other objects onto the liquid, making it so that the water would react accordingly to these items as if it was the real world through programming within the particle system. Based on how well it turned out, the approach was truly ground-breaking and was later pushed further with Frozen 2, which included a fully CGI animated water horse.


The Nokk, from Frozen 2, is gorgeous. It took eight months to make its liquid form, the elemental spirit of water that serves as the guardian of the Dark Sea. The animators left Moana behind in complexity for this character and pushed the boat out, having water coming off of its mane and tail, leaving a trail of simulation that made the finished creature appear to have a mist like quality to it. The incredible end result captured the look and weight of water and really showed how far animating H20 has developed since those early years.

Water is not easy to control. Some call it the driving force of all nature. Some call it magical. It is indeed powerful and complex, especially in animation. Its animated form has grown over time into a wonderous thing, displaying a life of its own within this unique visual medium. If you put water into a scene, it becomes the scene. If you put water into an animation, it becomes the animation. Water can flow and it can crash. Be water, my friends.