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Disney Animator & Academy Alumnus Jorge Ruiz Cano Gives Students an Insider's Look at 'Moana'

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(L–R) Elham Sepehrjou (Teatime Animation Club), Jorge Ernesto Ruiz Cano (Disney animator and Academy alumnus), Gaby Rojo (Teatime Animation Club), Fernando Penafiel (Teatime Animation Club) and Josephine Sun (Teatime Animation Club). Photo courtesy of Becky Johnson.

Save for perhaps Dwayne Johnson himself, Disney could not have sent a more charismatic ambassador to introduce its newest animated film, Moana, to Academy of Art University students. Venezuelan animator Jorge Ruiz Cano, who holds a Master’s in character animation from the Academy, visited 620 Sutter Theater on Nov. 1 to discuss the film at an event hosted by the Teatime Animation Club and the School of Animation & Visual Effects.

The guest of honor made no attempt to contain his own enthusiasm in the name of coolness. “You can see my face, I’m nerding out with excitement,” said Ruiz Cano. “I was there [in the audience] a couple of years ago, and now I’m here [at the front of the room].”

An impressive body of work powered the role reversal. Ruiz Cano joined Disney in 2012 as part of the animation trainee program. His credits there include Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana

The lifelong Disney fan shows no signs of taking his dream job for granted. The goal of one day working at Disney “seemed untouchable for me,” Ruiz Cano said. “I never saw anyone with a name like mine [in animation].” 

Passion, imagination and dedication, combined with strong communication skills and professional kindness, turned dreams into reality. On “Moana,” Ruiz Cano worked with directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo behind Disney classics including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, the film that sparked Ruiz Cano’s love of animation. “It’s still surreal to work with these two guys,” he said. 

Using clips, commentary and behind-the-scenes footage, Ruiz Cano presented Moana. Set in Oceania, the story is grounded in research into the region’s traditions, mythology and seafaring legacy. Adventurous 16-year-old Moana sets out to save her people by proving what their voyager ancestors once knew—that the sea is an artery of connection.

Themes of identity, self-discovery and connection to the natural world swirl through the film like ocean currents. “That sense of roots, of identity, of where you’re going, is tied up with Mother Earth,” said Ruiz Cano. Backstage in a post-event exclusive, he elaborated. “We hope this movie is a catalyst for kids. Education is key in order to save the planet. You don’t respect something you don’t understand, and you don’t understand something you don’t care about.”

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho gives the brand-new heroine a fresh voice. Her presence is undeniable, even in her first role. The aforementioned Johnson brings star power as the voice of Maui, a tattooed, shape-shifting demigod who helps guide Moana. 

“Maui is bigger than life,” said Ruiz Cano. So much so that he embodies not one character, but two—the second being Mini Maui, a tattoo come to life. 

Mini Maui illustrates the intersection of imagination and technology at the heart of an animator’s job. “We give the illusion of life. We’re not making realistic movies, we’re stylizing reality,” said Ruiz Cano. Success requires “a lot of guerilla-style work with beautiful technology.” 

During the Q&A session, Ruiz Cano offered more industry insight. Answering each question with ease, humor and authenticity, he covered the technical aspects of animating water and what it’s like to work at a big-name studio, among other topics. 

He proved equally capable of conveying the film’s central idea with succinct grace: “Know your heritage. Care about it. Know your destiny.”