Update: A Disney spokesperson has given a statement to Zap2it concerning Lino DiSalvo’s comments regarding animating the female characters in “Frozen”:
“Animation is an intricate and complex art form. These comments were recklessly taken out of context. As part of a roundtable discussion the binaries was describing some technical aspects of CG animation and not making a general comment on animations females versus males or other characters.”
Before Kristen Bell returns to the big screen for the “Veronica Mars” movie, she’s joining a very exclusive club. With her next film, the animated “Frozen,” she will join the ranks of Disney princesses. Bell’s Anna is perhaps the quirkiest and most awkward of all of Disney’s princesses, something partly inspired by Kristen herself.
The journey from real life to animated character is no easy feat, though. The animators go through several stages, which takes years, just to make sure they are creating the best possible product. Zap2it was invited to Disney Animation Studios to learn about the process of creating the characters in the movie, from conception through the finished product.
It all begins with concept art for the characters and the world they’ll inhabit. To do that, the art direction team has some research to do. For “Frozen,” that meant they traveled to Norway, the setting that inspired the look of the movie. While there they document and study everything that serves as inspiration for the movie, from architecture to clothing and hair. Then the concept art is created showcasing the influences from both the research and the voice actors themselves.
That art gives the animators a jumping off point for creating the CG characters that they will bring to life. One of the first steps in the animation process for “Frozen” was to bring in an acting coach for the team to work with.
According to Lino DiSalvo, the movie’s head animator, “We go over every single hero character and we think about where the characters were before and if we used the film as the present, where the characters lived before, what they were doing before, and obviously the film and what the characters were doing after.”
Having a better understanding of the characters helps with their individual emotions. Part of that process involved hand-drawn sketches of the main characters wearing various facial expressions, from different angles. This is something DiSalvo says is especially important with “Frozen,” which features two females as main character, who are related no less.
“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really difficult, cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but … you have to keep them pretty,” he says. “So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”
Another valuable resource in developing the characters is to actually have access to the actors voicing the roles. “We bring in someone like Idina Menzel, who’s voicing Elsa. We brought her right here and I’d moderate like an ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’,” DiSalvo says. Menzel was particularly helpful as her character does quite a bit of singing in the film. She was able to show what her breathing looked like while performing, something the animator’s wanted to focus on.
Taking everything they’ve discovered about the characters and actors, the animators create the rough cartoon, but that step doesn’t include much movement. For that process, the project gets handed over to the rigging department.
What is the rigging, you might wonder? Frank Hanner, Character CG Supervisor on “Frozen,” explains, “We build the skeleton; we attach the muscles and make sure the skin moves properly; and we build a set of controls that the animators can use to push and pull the body around.” Essentially they take the character designs and turn them into virtual puppets that the animators can control.
That includes everything from full-body movement, down to something as small as an arched eyebrow. The department also builds rigs for character hair and clothing, since it all needs to move as realistically as possible. In fact, clothing was especially important for “Frozen.” The movie consists of 245 cloth rigs, which is more than twice the amount used on all previous Disney films.
Armed with the rigs created for them, the animators then create their fully illustrated movie, which goes through several drafts until everything is just right.
One character theater goers might mistakenly overlook in the movie is snow. Seeing as the movie is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” it’s a pretty important part of the story.
So important, that the FX team created the snow right down to individual flakes. They built 2,000 different flake designs, using a generator that creates them in the same way they are actually formed, through a process called branching and plating. It starts with a small ice crystal at the center of the flake, growing out from there to create the unique shapes. Anytime snow is falling in the film, each individual flake was created with the generator.
The character’s also interact with snow, though. After all, what’s a movie set in this climate without a snowball fight at some point? To make the digital snow interact in a more life-like way with the characters, Disney Animation developed a tool they call Matterhorn, which simulates the behavior of actual snow.
For a brief example of how the toolk allows for realistic snow movement, check out the video below, created for Zap2it:
From beginning to end, creating the characters of “Frozen” was an incredibly detailed process and seemingly one of the biggest undertakings Disney Animation Studios has gone through. The various teams worked on their individual pieces of the movie, coming together to create a memorable film.
Chris E. Hayner is equal parts nerd, crazy person and coffee. He watches too much TV, knows more about pro wrestling than you do and remembers every single show from the TGIF lineup. You may have seen him as a pro-shark protester in "Sharknado 3." His eventual memoir will be called "You're Wrong, Here's Why..." TV words to live by: "I'm a firm believer that sometimes it's right to do the wrong thing."