Frozen: Setting and Visual Look

The “Frozen” script called for a dramatic setting, complete with ice and snow, fjords and mountains. Filmmakers took a cue from Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, which was set in Scandinavia. The production team referenced details from their extensive research trip to Norway for the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, which sits on a fjord and includes elements of classic Norwegian architecture like its stave church. The steep, majestic backdrop serves as the perfect setting for Anna and Kristoff’s journey.

The inspiration extended beyond the setting and influenced the look of the characters and the costuming, including elaborate rosmaling details discovered in native garb, as well as the braided hairstyles.

Extensive research was conducted and members of the “Frozen” team consulted with experts to create a world that was both believable and inspiring. Many of the elements—from the snow and ice to the braids worn by Anna and Elsa—required significant technological advances to make the final look possible.

The Setting

“It’s a road movie of sorts, so the setting is integral to the story,” says director Chris Buck. “One of my first mentors was a man named Eric Larson, who’s one of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. Eric always said, ‘We don’t have to create a real world, but we do have to create a believable world.’ So while our setting isn’t meant to replicate Norway—we wanted to pay tribute to it and yet make it our own—it will feel familiar to audiences and ground our characters in a place that makes sense.”

When art director Mike Giaimo began his work on the film, his initial explorations included a lot of research in books dedicated to Scandinavian countries and cultures, and even a trip to Solvang, Calif. At that early stage of his process, he’d identify imagery he liked without considering the specific locales. But after the trip to Solvang, Giaimo decided it was time to zero in on an area. “Embracing a culture or place as a starting point often ensures a certain truthfulness to the end result,” he says. “When I started reviewing all the visuals that appealed to me, it was very interesting, because 80 percent of them were Norway visuals.

“We wanted to create an intimate world with an enchanting and dynamic setting that would be immediately identifiable for generations to come,” Giaimo continues. “Norway offered a cultural backdrop we’d never explored before and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to blend its dramatic natural environment, architecture and folk costume aesthetic?’ It feels like a world from a classic Disney film, but it’s completely new.”

Giaimo and his team traveled to Norway to soak up the atmosphere, check out the architecture, research the local culture and mythologies, and garner inspiration from the environment for their fictional kingdom of Arendelle. Via cars, trains and boats, they visited fortresses, castles, shops, museums, cathedrals, fjords and glaciers. To gain insight for Arendelle’s castle, the team visited Oslo’s medieval Akershus Castle, and the city of Trondheim’s Stiftsgården Royal Palace, one of the largest wooden buildings in Scandinavia. Artists took boat tours in the Geirangerfjord and Sognefjord, which at 205 kilometers, is the longest fjord in Norway (and third longest in the world). Fjords are a well-known spectacle of the Norwegian landscape. In fact, the Geirangerfjord and the Nærøyfjord are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

With a clear picture in mind of what the film would look like, filmmakers began exploring ways to make it happen. And one of the key tasks at hand was making it snow.

Let It Snow!

With a film inspired by a story called “The Snow Queen,” filmmakers knew from the beginning that “Frozen” would feature a wintry setting. It was one of the factors that first drew director Chris Buck to the project. “This story gave us the opportunity to create a world that audiences could do more than just see and enjoy—we could make a place that they could feel—a place they’d want to go to and experience along with the characters.

“But as much as a snowy, icy backdrop offers this beautiful blank slate where anything is possible,” continues Buck, “it’s really tough to get it right, to make it believable, to base it in reality, and then take it somewhere magical.”

So the team at Walt Disney Animation Studios—from technology to art direction to animation and special effects—had to learn how to make it snow—literally. Among the first challenges was achieving the right look for the varied textures of snow—wet snow, fluffy snow—and ensuring it reacts like snow should when it makes contact with feet and clothing. According to principal software engineer Andrew Selle, in “Frozen,” the snow was treated like a primary character, and as such got some special attention. “We asked, ‘How does snow behave and what are its essential properties?’” says Selle. “It’s not really a fluid. It’s not really a solid. It breaks apart. It can be compressed into snowballs. All of these different effects are very difficult to capture simultaneously, so we needed a simulator to do it for us. We developed a snow solver technology called Matterhorn.”


The tool was particularly useful when characters walked through deep snow, ensuring that the snow reacted naturally to each step. “We thought we’d use it on a few shots,” says effects supervisor Dale Mayeda. “But the results have been just staggering, so we’ve used it throughout the production.”


Mayeda and fellow effects supervisor Marlon West were among the team of artists that traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to experience deep snow. They donned various attire—including long skirts—to capture the impact created by their steps and how snow interacts with clothing. “We have characters walking around in ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep snow,” says West. “So we were willing to do anything—even wear skirts in the snow—to better understand how that should look and feel.”


For more shallow snow, a special tool was developed called Snow Batcher, which helped artists create imprints in the snow and the bits of snowy debris that are created when trudging through the snow. Filmmakers also consulted with snow experts to ensure authenticity in their recreation. Dr. Ken Libbrecht from Cal Tech was called on to share his vast knowledge about snowflakes and how they grow. Libbrecht, who actually grows snowflakes in a controlled environment and documents the phases of growth on video, explained how humidity and other conditions affect the process of branching and plating, which is why no two snowflakes are alike. His expertise helped filmmakers develop 2,000 unique snowflake shapes for “Frozen.” They also replicated the branching and plating concept in the creation of Elsa’s ice palace.


Ice House

Filmmakers knew early on that once Elsa’s secret powers were revealed, she would use her magic to construct a majestic ice palace. “We sent several members of the production team to Quebec City to an Ice Hotel to get a feel for how light reflects and refracts off snow and ice,” says producer Peter Del Vecho.


The structure, which is built annually and stands for just four months, is made of 15,000 tons of snow and 500,000 tons of ice.  Some walls are as thick as 4 feet. “It’s cold,” says Buck, who visited during production. “It was incredible watching how the sunlight refracted through the ice. That was the moment we knew Elsa’s palace could be really spectacular.”


But it wasn’t easy. “For one single shot in which Elsa builds her palace, 50 people worked on the technology required to execute that shot,” says Lee.  “And the shot is so complex that just one frame takes 30 hours to render. That’s a perfect example of how much this team is putting into this movie. And it really shows. It’s just beautiful.”


The sequence required specialized lighting and choreography that made the palace literally spring from Elsa’s magical movements. Ice is very difficult to make believable—to differentiate it from the look of glass or plastic, says director of cinematography, look and lighting, Mohit Kallianpur. “Ice is a very refractive medium with a lot of light going through and bending, and so we had to use ray tracing a lot more than we have ever done before, as well as coming up with other techniques.”


New shaders were created for “Frozen” to allow artists to apply textures like frost to the ice for a more naturalistic look. They also introduced tools called modifiers so artists could more easily change the look of the ice—from clear to frosty to clear again within a single sequence.


“The scope and scale of this film is huge,” says Kallianpur. “From the number of characters to the number of costumes and hairstyle changes each character has—it’s unprecedented.”



All Dressed Up

Giaimo and his team were inspired by Norwegian bunad—traditional folk costumes that feature elaborate and colorful designs. The look required some technical preparation, however, due to the highly detailed and layered looks.


Layers are not easily understood in the CG process, so advances were made to build costumes in a different way to ensure authenticity in both the look and movement of the costumes. The film has more than two times the number of cloth rigs represented in every WDAS CG feature film prior to it—combined. The result is more sophisticated, dynamic and believable clothing for each and every character (even background characters).


Additionally, filmmakers constructed the costumes in “Frozen” utilizing digital pattern-making techniques and introduced the real-world properties of fabric to ensure that costumes behaved on screen much like they would in a live-action production.


Artists were able to blend the traditional look inspired by Norway’s rich culture and work their own magic. “We combined the authenticity of the Norwegian bunad with a kind of Hollywood glamour to get a look that was distinctly ours,” says Giaimo.


For example, rosemaling, a style of decorative folk art found throughout Norway’s history, appears throughout the film—on clothing, within the architecture and is even evoked in Elsa’s magic and her icy creations. But for Giaimo, it’s Elsa’s Snow Queen costume that tops the glamour category. “It’s probably the most stunning outfit in the show and perhaps the most stunning that’s ever been done in CG.”


The look, which was a huge challenge to create, went through many iterations, says the art director. The crowning detail—so to speak—was a 12-foot cape. “It’s this elusive cape made of ice crystals,” says Giaimo. “The back features her large signature snowflake with smaller ancillary snowflakes.”



Topping It Off

The characters in “Frozen” were given traditional hairstyles that evoked the Norwegian cultural inspiration. The introduction of braids—and the number of styles featured—proved challenging to the production team.


Filmmakers took advantage of their Southern California location when it came time to capture Elsa’s newfound boldness upon fleeing Arendelle. Celebrity hairstylist Danilo hit the Burbank studios to experiment with various styles, which ultimately led to Elsa’s eye-catching look.  At 420,000 hairs, Elsa has more than four times the number of hairs as the average human. (The famous locks of Rapunzel in “Tangled” had 27,000 very long hairs.)


For Elsa and Anna’s more traditional styles, the challenge required even more resources. Though it might seem that “Tangled” presented the WDAS team with the biggest challenge when it came to hair, “Frozen” actually takes hair to new lengths. A program called Tonic (created by senior software engineer Brian Whited—the creator of the Meander software that made Disney’s Oscar®-winning short “Paperman” possible) was developed that helped artists group the hairs on the characters’ heads and direct them in desired ways. “Once Tonic was up and running, our look artists, who groom the hair, were building a first pass at styles like Elsa’s detailed coronation braids in a few days,” says character CG supervisor Frank Hanner. “Before Tonic, it would’ve taken several weeks.”


The volume-based sculptural representation of hair was essential in styling the culturally appropriate looks of the core characters. The existing comb/brush technique wouldn’t work for braids; with Tonic, artists could push and pull volumes of hair, which was effective for both the braided looks and others (like Anna’s serious bedhead style early in the film). But filmmakers didn’t reserve Tonic for the film’s female leads. It was also utilized for parts of the wolves and horses. Even Sven’s shaggy neck hair got the Tonic treatment.



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