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The Evolution of Disney’s 3D-Animated Hair From ‘Tangled’ to ‘Encanto’


  • “Encanto” was Disney’s first animated movie to feature all hair textures, from 1A to 4C. 
  • We trace the evolution of Disney’s CG-animated hair from Rapunzel’s mane in “Tangled” to the curly hair seen in “Moana” and “Encanto.” 
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: If you peel back the layers of Rapunzel’s hair in “Tangled,” you’ll see just how complicated animating 3D hair can be. But back then, Disney had mainly focused on straight hair, building on its previous 2D looks.

With “Encanto,” the studio figured out how to create coiled hair like Mirabel’s with natural movement. But the animators didn’t stop there. “Encanto” made history as the first Disney animated movie to represent the full range of hair textures, from 1A to 4C.

Getting from here to here required over a decade of innovation.

The story begins with a familiar storybook princess who in 2010 was seen for the first time in 3D.

Disney’s first major foray into 3D hair animation came with “Tangled.” Rapunzel’s 70 feet of hair was basically its own character in the movie, pretty much breaking every real-life law of motion, and not just because it was magical.

Hook Hand: That’s a lot of hair.

Flynn: She’s growing it out.

Nadim: Every shot of every movie has a lot of bending the laws of physics. Otherwise, things would look very flat.

Narrator: This emphasizes a key tenet of Disney’s animated hair. The goal isn’t always to make it as realistic as possible, but rather believable within the fictional world of the story.

To make Rapunzel’s CG-animated locks look as appealing as Disney’s hand-drawn ones, the filmmakers started with a “hair bible” created by artist Glen Keane, who was behind some of the biggest hair hits of Disney’s 2D past. The bible set rules, like how Rapunzel’s hair could never fall in anything resembling a straight line. It had to have volume; rhythmic curves, twists, and turns; and a signature swoop in the front.

But that shampoo-commercial hair wouldn’t be so easy to replicate in 3D.

Nadim: It’s not hand-drawn, where you’re focusing more on the shaping and you could cheat. You have to kind of take everything into account when you’re doing CG hair, even stuff that’s not on screen.

Narrator: Like wind or different sources of light or shadow.

And Rapunzel’s strands interacted with the environment in ways never seen before. You had hair interacting with cloth, with skin, with other hair. The other characters were constantly touching, pulling, climbing, and rolling in it. Accounting for all these interactions would require simulation, a way of automating the movement of elements like hair, fur, and cloth.

Michelle Lee Robinson: The only movie before “Tangled” where I think we had really even attempted simulated hair was “Bolt” with Penny. We knew we had a huge task ahead of us to go from basically that to 70-foot-long flowing hair.

Narrator: Engineers then created a program called Dynamic Wires, which combined physically based simulation with laws for determining the hair’s behavior that defied physics. This allowed the artists to make Rapunzel’s hair twist and turn in exactly the ways they wanted.

In real life, this hair would weigh 60 to 80 pounds, so it’d clump into a mass or drag on the ground, like a heavy tail. But in the movie, you see it gliding smoothly along.

Meanwhile, to give the artists more power to sculpt the look of Rapunzel’s hair, the team broke down her 140,000 strands into 147 different tubes.

Michelle: The idea was to sculpt tubes of hair that would represent the main blocks of hair. That process allowed us to kind of control the way the hair would break apart and interpolate.

Narrator: This tube-grooming tool was the predecessor to Tonic, the hair-grooming software that Disney still uses today.

Nadim: A lot of the technology from that movie pretty much still exists till this day or has evolved into a newer form.

Narrator: You can see that clearly in “Frozen,” which had over 50 unique hairstyles. Believe it or not, Elsa was originally going to have black, spiky short hair. But as the characters evolved, Disney decided to give both Elsa and Anna light-colored braids, in line with the Norwegian cultural traditions that inspired the movie.

Michelle: We were pulling the hair from her head, weaving it through into a braid all the way to the end. And just trying to ensure that those braid pieces didn’t crash into each other and would bend and move properly was a challenge for us.

Narrator: For “Bolt,” Disney had developed a hair-brushing tool called iGroom, which worked well on short-haired characters. But that plus the tube tools from “Tangled” weren’t enough for braided looks, so Disney’s engineers built a new hair-grooming system called Tonic. Tonic is a volume-based tool, which lets artists group the hairs on a character’s head and move and direct those sections of hair in the desired ways. This allowed look artists like Michelle to create the first versions of complex styles within a few days, a process that before would’ve taken several weeks.

The team was also able to use Tonic for the hair on the wolves and horses and the shaggy reindeer hair on Sven’s neck. Elsa’s hair had another environmental element to adapt to: snow.

Michelle: Particles of snow or sparkles on top of hair is like procedural geometry on top of procedural geometry. So that was hard to figure out.

Narrator: And then there were the gusts of wind.

Michelle: Very stylized bang shapes that, you know, these kind of pieces that formed that really distinctive silhouette. She really does, towards the end of the movie, get blown around quite a bit, and trying to balance maintaining that stylization and that kind of appealing shape language with real physical motion.

Narrator: Figuring out hair’s interaction with the wintry elements in “Frozen” paid off in “Moana,” where the focus was on hair’s interaction with more forces, like water and character movements.

Things might have been more straightforward if the demigod Maui had been bald, like The Rock himself, which was the original plan. But Polynesian cultural advisors pointed out that Maui’s long hair is a source of his spiritual energy, so both Maui and Moana ended up with long, curly-wavy hair. I’ve only been thinking of keeping this hair silky and being awesome again.

Narrator: The first task was sculpting their zigzag, or S-shaped, curls, a hair shape Disney hadn’t created before. Michelle: Making those shapes on very, very long hair and then trying to figure out how to manage those individual curl locks so they don’t poke through each other and catch on each other.

Narrator: This task required Disney to expand Tonic’s tube-grooming tool, giving it the ability to curl the hair up. After sculpting the shape, the team figured out how the waves would move and hold their look.

Nadim: Part of the trick with something like wavy hair or curly hair is retaining the volume of the hair. Because if you just sim it as is, it’ll just collapse and fall flat on her head. So how do you retain the flowiness of it?

Narrator: The team developed what they called an elastic rod model, which determined the degree to which the hair would retain its twists and springiness under different forces, like wind or water.

Nadim: If, let’s say, Moana is falling through the sky and her hair’s really stretched, well, how much of her hair is going to be a full straight line versus how much curl is going to be there? Or if she compresses, how much is it going to bunch up?

Narrator: But Disney also wanted to give its animators an ability to guide the simulation of the hair. So the engineers built a new hair program, Quicksilver, that combined rigging and grooming controls. Instead of animating the characters with static hair, now, the animators could put the hair into starting poses, and Quicksilver’s engine would use those poses to determine the resulting movement.

By allowing artists to shape the posing of the hair, Disney was able to recover some of the expressiveness of hand-drawn animation that could often get lost in CG.

Michelle: It’s particularly useful for the interaction moments, where the character is doing something with their hair specifically, and the animator wants to guide what that’s going to be.

Narrator: They wanted Moana in particular to be able to constantly play with her hair, since that habit is typical of teenagers, as they observed it in actor Auli’i Cravalho as she performed Moana’s lines in the studio.

The characters’ darker hair also broke new ground for Disney.

Nadim: If you look at kind of previous movies, “Tangled,” “Frozen,” we haven’t really done any black, darkish hair colors. So that reacts fairly differently to light than other hair colors, and how do you kind of still show its richness? You kind of have to have a movie that needs a hair color to then be able to see how far your technology goes and then tune to that. And now we’re at a pretty good spot with actually the shader being able to handle a wide range of hair colors.

Narrator: All of these technologies and more came into play in “Encanto.”

The shading advancements from “Moana” made it possible to get the rich shades of hair in the Madrigal family, and the S-shaped curls seen on Moana and Maui appeared on some characters in “Encanto.”

Jose: We had the software to be able to do type 1 hair, type 2 hair very easily, but we hadn’t really figured out how to do coils that are actually helical and that actually look like springs. Specifically for Mirabel, she had kind of a type 3 curly hair, like, loose ringlets that get kind of tighter in certain places.

Narrator: The team added this tighter type of coil into Tonic.

Jose: So there was a lot of collaboration with the technology team trying to figure out what is hair actually doing when it starts to coil versus when it’s wavy and then figuring out how we can get our tools to actually do that.

Narrator: Emphasizing the unique attributes of each hair type was a big part of Jose’s job as a character look development artist.

Jose: We’re trying to figure out, what naturally is beautiful about this type of hair and how can we emphasize that?

Narrator: And the diversity goes all the way down to the individual hairs on a character’s head.

Jose: Curl direction is very important. Because you don’t want two curls to look exactly the same, because then it feels very artificial. In everybody’s hair, there’s a lot of variation. Things like variety in size of the curls, hair color. We try to make sure that nothing is symmetrical.

Narrator: Every strand of hair also figured in to the dance sequences of “Encanto,” building on the movement work in “Moana.” The artists started by looking at a lot of reference material, including footage of the choreography.

Michelle: We knew that Mirabel and Luisa and a lot of the characters were going to be really active and jumping around and in a musical fantasy sequence that they could be hanging upside down. Sometimes in those tests, you find out that, like, one piece of hair is quite a bit longer than the other. And so you have to go back in and adjust it.

Narrator: The team would have to look at whether all the strands of hair reacted naturally to the character’s movements and to each other. It was important as ever to honor differences in textures for every character.

Previously, Disney princesses had mostly straight hair that moved in big, sweeping paths. To make more tightly curled hair move naturally in “Encanto,” the team had to adjust this approach.

Edna: We used to talk about how, when they were dancing, how the hair would have to move, how the hair would have to perform. For example, we have the idea that Afro hair, or African hair, has not movement. And we have the perception that that’s something bad, but that’s not bad. It’s just our hair. Our hair doesn’t have a lot of movement. It’s OK that it stay like that, you know? So it doesn’t have to be a ponytail with straight hair to be beautiful.

Narrator: What set “Encanto” apart from previous movies was also the sheer scale of its hair diversity, not just for the Madrigal family but for the entire town.

Edna: We have the 12 hair textures in the 12 chapters of the family, but also we have different styles in the whole town in “Encanto.” You can see turbans. You can see other type of braids. More indigenous population, for example, in Colombia. There’s a little girl in the town, she has an Afro not like this with turban, but all free. And also you can find women with braids, very Colombian and African style.

Narrator: Every single head of hair had to be styled meticulously by the artists, picking up where they left off with “Frozen.”

Nadim: So if you watch kind of the evolution of having straight-hair characters, and then suddenly “Encanto” has all these crowd characters with braids, and we could barely do two-braid characters on “Frozen.” So the advancements are really there, and they trickle down.

Narrator: But at the start of production, braiding hair was still a very manual process.

Jose: So, like, how you would actually braid actual hair in real life, we have to do that with essentially 3D tubes that we use in our computer. By the end of the movie, we had a more automatic process for making braids where you just draw or you create a curve, a line along the head where you want your braid to come out, and then it’ll do a little computer-made braid for you.

Narrator: That doesn’t mean all the work is finished.

Jose: There’s so much diversity, even within braid types, that then there’s more complex braids that we’re looking at to try to figure out how to make those look really good.

Narrator: Ultimately, “Encanto” made history as the first Disney animated movie to represent the full range of hair textures, from 1A to 4C; a milestone reached by building a foundation of tools and then adapting them.

Nadim: What’s also great about these tools is we’re able to repurpose them in areas that you might not expect. The system that we use to do hair is the same system that we use to do plenty of other things, like Mirabel’s dress. Her skirt has tons and tons of embroidery on it. We were able to use iGroom to be able to do some of the embroidery.

Narrator: The technological progress is impressive on its own, but it’s always done in service of telling bigger stories.

Michelle: I think now at this point we have a really complete set of tools, and we should be able to make and represent the panoply of humanity, which is a really good place to be.



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