Frozen’s Art of Tech: Do You Want to Build an Olaf?

GeekMom TV and Movies
Image courtesy of Disney.

I think one of the reasons that Frozen has become such a massive hit is that you can enjoy it on more than one level. I’ve previously written about the story and the characters, but it’s also such a delight to look at. There is a feeling of an artistic hand at work in every frame, from the architecture to the costumes to the decorative rosemaling on the textiles and scenery. It may not be something you think much about when you’re watching the film, but all of that luscious detail came from somewhere, and it took a team of hundreds to pull it off so flawlessly. These designers, artists, animators, programmers, technical supervisors, and engineers may not get to stand up on the stage at the Oscars and you won’t see their names on billboards, but they each contributed their own little bit of magic to the film.

I got to meet a few of these unsung heroes during a recent press event organized by the studio to promote Frozen‘s upcoming release on home video. Like any geek, I’m always curious about how things are made and the technology used to make them, so I was excited to get a first-hand look at the animation operation and have a chance to play around with the tools used to create the characters.

Our first stop of the day was at the rigging lab. A rig is what gives the characters the ability to move in a realistic way. Just like people, animated characters need to have a skeletal framework underneath layers of muscles and skin. The technical animation team is responsible for building those elements and also the means to control them, so the animators can make the characters do anything the directors need them to do. Sometimes, especially in the cast of a sophisticated project like this, they may also need to create entirely new software packages to handle things like hair, fabric, or snow.

Frozen Rig Lab
Photo by Cindy White.

Three members of the team were on hand to give us a quick overview of their work on the film. Frank Hanner, character CG supervisor, kicked things off; followed by Keith Wilson, character simulation supervisor; and Greg Smith, character rigging supervisor. Here are some of the astounding facts they shared:

  • There were 312 character rigs built for the film, including background characters. That’s the most of any film in Disney history.
  • They built 245 cloth rigs for the film, meaning there are 245 unique simulated costumes on-screen.
  • Elsa has 420,000 hairs on her head. That’s 320,000 more than the average human (we only have about 100,000 hairs) and 391,000 more than Disney’s previous record holder for luscious locks, Rapunzel, who had a mere 29,000 or so.
  • Anna’s intro dress has exactly 12 box pleats in the skirt. Art Director Mike Giaimo was very specific about the number and type of pleats her costume would have.

Before allowing us to try our hands at being Disney animators ourselves, Greg Smith talked a little about creating one of the film’s most popular (and challenging) characters, Olaf the snowman:

“Olaf was a really fun character in the movie and we had a really fun time with him on the show. In the rigging department, we always like challenges with characters. What’s going to be interesting about this character? How do we make him move? How do we provide that control set to animation to really allow them to explore what needs to happen? And Olaf was one of those characters for us. And when we started this we thought, ‘Okay, they’ll move him a little bit.’ And then we saw the teaser and we were like, ‘Okay, wow, you guys went a little further.'”

Each of us was assigned a workstation where we could manipulate Olaf using the 3D modeling program Maya. It took some getting used to, but I was able to move him into a jaunty pose, one hand on his hip, the other behind his head, hips jutting out slightly to the side. The controls for his mouth were incredibly sophisticated, so I had to play around with it before I could get just the right smirk rather than a scary, buck-toothed grin. I won’t be sitting by the phone waiting for Disney to call me to join their animation team, but I sure enjoyed getting a look at how they work.

Another call I probably won’t be getting anytime soon is for voiceover work. And here’s the reason why:

The above clip has me singing the beginning of “In Summer” and totally screwing up the intro timing. With a booth full of other bloggers, a publicist and a professional sound engineer (not to mention the pressure of recording in the very booth where Josh Gad recorded the very same scene), I couldn’t keep a straight face. You can hear me breaking in the middle of that last note. It may not have been professional quality, but it sure was a lot of fun.

So, yeah, my Olaf turned out to look a bit more like a burlesque dancer who sings in an off-key female voice, but I’m kind of fond of him. I guess the actual movie version is okay, too.

Frozen is currently available for digital download and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, March 18.

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