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Immersed in Movies: Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Heats Up SIGGRAPH

Immersed in Movies: Disney's 'Frozen' Heats Up SIGGRAPH

Frozen (Nov. 27) wowed the tech crowd at SIGGRAPH in Anaheim on Tuesday, revealing a more stunning and sophisticated 2D/CG blend than was previously displayed on Disney’s Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and the Oscar-winning Paperman short. Judging from the brief footage and the “Craft of Character & Cold” presentation, this hipper fairy tale from Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee will be a major Oscar contender.

Even if they’re no longer making hand-drawn features at Disney, the 2D legacy is still very much a part of the aesthetic, with draw-overs increasingly shaping the character performances (Mark Henn was instrumental), and drawings providing the foundation for the sculpted snow effects. It’s all about “truth in acting” on Frozen, and we were treated to an informative discussion by Lino DiSalvo (head of animation), Frank Hanner (CG supervisor), Marlon West & Dale Mayeda (effects supervisors), and Andrew Selle (software engineer).

DeSalvo explained that acting is accentuated more than on previous films and dailies were strictly about evaluating performance. “Do you buy what the characters are thinking? It helped having Jen as both writer and director and wanting to raise the level of performance, telling you what’s on the mind of the characters and what the subtext is. And we explore the right subtext without going too hyper-real.”

We viewed a marvelous meet cute scene between spunky Anna (Kristen Bell) and handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana), who awkwardly try to hide their instant attraction. This brought back memories of The Little Mermaid, only Disney has exceeded its hybridization of hand-drawn and CG with warmth and richness and dynamics. The skin, in particular, is more beautiful than ever, thanks to better algorithms for subsurface scattering and improved artistry. And detail is very accurate, such as shallow and deep breaths, which help set the tempo of the pantomime performance.

“What do we do best? Oh, yeah, we do caricatured humans better than anybody,” DiSalvo told me afterward. “Let’s embrace it! It’s very much about performance. How does it look in continuity? Let’s go back — it looks too big and too broad. Keep pulling it back. And the comedy that Olaf [the delightful talking snowman who keeps falling apart] brings is pretty obvious.”

In fact, they improved the procedural, object-oriented dRig system developed on Wreck-It Ralph for Olaf. They made him breakable with full space switching components, which is evident in the humorous teaser.

“But people are going to be surprised at Anna’s performance,” DiSalvo added. “She’s a very likable character and very quirky, curious, and funny. She’s the ultimate optimist.”

Hanner echoed that they’d be remiss not to take advantage of the strengths of 2D animation and all of that knowledge base. “Finding a way to marry that into the CG process is what makes us special: the sensibility of that hand-drawn technique with the appeal of shapes and silhouette performance. It’s what we look for in everything we do. It comes out in character design and then we pull that into effects. I think it’s better to approach filmmaking this way.”

Of course, Frozen boasts some noteworthy technical advancements, starting with a new grooming tool called “Tonic,” which art-directs hair as a set of procedural volumes that’s more sculptural than a series of curves. It’s particularly good for braids and is quicker for simulation and rendering.

For the challenges of snow, however, Disney developed the “Snow Batcher” pipeline for automated contact with the characters. You could see early results for subdivision surfaces, snow debris, and chunks. But the footfalls are a further result of accurate detailing.

But they developed a more robust solver, “Matterhorn,” for heavier snow that needed parameters of change (wet and sticky) along with compression and breakup on a much larger scale. 

Selle said it took a year of R&D in collaboration with UCLA to crack this hybrid for representing all of the snow particles and attaining a continuous structure. You didn’t want it to look like mashed potatoes.

A quick sim would go to cloth and then come back again. Speaking of cloth, they upped their sim to tackle the multi-layered, Scandinavian style wardrobe full of pleaded dresses and capes.

Meanwhile, West and Mayeda talked about riffing on snow effects in the same room with storyboard artists and character animators. “We wanted to leverage off we did on Wreck-It Ralph where we had very stylized and deliberate storytelling,” West observed. 

The magical snow effects spun by Elsa (Idina Menzel), for example, are particle-driven with Houdini and Maya and closely resemble the original drawings. They even used effects previs for the first time along with effects performance capture to achieve sculpted curves in real-time.

“It’s caricatured fun, but we’re giving a scene so much weight to it,” DiSalvo underscored in returning to the “truth in acting” theme.

We’ll find out soon enough how it all comes together. I can’t wait.

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