Walt Disney Animation Studios released their first full-length animated feature film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1938 to great acclaim. Since that time, they’ve brought us a vivid parade of stories told with humor, whimsy, and graceful and endearing visual presentation. Of course there have been missteps; films that may not have exemplified the same standard of visual interest and elegance as some of their predecessors—however, I feel confident in saying that for nearly every person there is at least one Disney classic that they look upon with fondness.
I am certainly one of those people. I grew up with Disney, and with the eager eyes of an aspiring artist I remember poring over scenes from “Fantasia” and “Sleeping Beauty“, simultaneously entranced and inspired. Even as I was entertained I was learning; an anxious pupil trying to decipher the gorgeous visual language in which Disney spoke that I might one day be fluent as well. “Tangled” will be Disney’s 50th animated film, and the studio has placed a heavy amount of gravity on the significance of that achievement.
Disney stands on its own
I had wondered why there was not a direct partnership with Pixar for this film (it is through Walt Disney Animation Studios alone), and through the dialogue with the directors and various people who worked on this I believe the answer goes back to this “50th” situation. To me it seemed Disney wanted to assert this film as both a celebration and nod to their classics—and a fresh, relevant statement of their modernity and presence as a studio that has, does, and will continue to release fantastic movies.
I was invited to spend the day at Disney Studios for the first press screening of “Tangled“. Due to embargo I can’t tell you much about the plot, except for that it’s a Rapunzel story that’s been given a hearty twist or two (or three). I can’t go into detail on the numerous hilarious moments it has, except to say that it has them.
I can, however, tell you a bit about the visual elements, and that is something that I will gladly do. First and foremost, this movie is spectacularly gorgeous. The artistic team has managed to take some of the visually defining aspects of their beloved traditionally animated lineage and integrate them in the today’s CG mediums. Glen Keane had a healthy hand in the character design and animation process, which I feel was an important reason why the film visually articulates that indefinable “something” that Disney does so well. Just to give you an idea, Keane is best known for his work on movies such as “The Little Mermaid“, “Beauty and the Beast“, and “Aladdin“; and there is much of the gentle, mischievous, organic charm of his drawings in the translation to CG characters.
During a conference with some of the animation team, in which we were in a room plastered with original art from the movie, I gestured at the walls and remarked that it seems that there was a deliberate, conscious decision made to design the characters such that they soundly resonate of archetypal Disney figures throughout the canon, simultaneously typifying the look enough to feel familiar, and differentiating it in that it is in CG. I was told from enthusiastically smiling faces that this was exactly so. Character appearance aside, even the motion had something of the whimsy of Disney’s classic films.
Hair with personality
Motion capture was not used, though the model animators looked at ample reference both from themselves and from the voice actors. If something did not appear to be as fluid as intended, Glen would actually draw over stills with his Cintiq stylus to indicate how it might be improved. Needless to say we were told that believably portraying Rapunzel’s 70 feet of hair presented the biggest challenge, especially since hair is notoriously hard to handle in CG format. I don’t feel well-versed enough in the technical side of things to elaborate much on the details, but I do know that 120,000 strands of hair, countless tests in software and observation later (they even rigged a helmet so that it had a 70 ft trail of hair attached to it and had the crew walk around the studio with it), they have very successfully brought to life Rapunzel’s hair as an extension of her own personality. In a non-distracting way it has gravity, strength, elegance and beauty in every shot.
Going back to my mention of integrating traditional illustration principles, there were many scenes in which the artists physically drew out how they wanted the hair to move and rest before it went to the animators. The lighting was gorgeous as well, and great consideration was taken in each scene with composition, mood, and storyline.
This film is everything I wanted it to be and then some, as an artist and a movie lover. It’s at once innovative and familiar, and above all a sensational visual treat that does the world of computer graphics proud without once sacrificing the importance of story. Though it was an indescribable treat to have been surrounded by walls festooned with what I consider to be art from the greats, I left the studios yesterday deliriously happy—primarily at having spent the day amongst the first to experience a movie that is not only a proud addition to their legacy, but worthy of championing the title of “50th”.