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Elsa's Hair Journey
Tech Project

Elsa's Hair Journey

Collaboration between Visual Development, Technology, Lighting, Character TD, and Look Development teams

August 2019

From Frozen to Frozen 2, Elsa went on a journey of self-discovery and liberation. Through these adventures, she transformed from the Queen of Arendelle to the Snow Queen. Our artists and developers collaborated on this very unique aspect of her character, telling a visual story through her hair to emphasize her unique personal journey.

Elsa Visual Development Lineup

Visual Development of Elsa from Frozen to Frozen 2.

Visual Development

In Design, we use character and costume design to help show how characters evolve through films, and hair and groom design is no different. Throughout Elsa’s journey, her hairstyle has been designed to reflect her emotional state of being and is frequently changing to reflect her story.

When we meet Elsa as a little girl in Frozen, her hair is in a braid. As she gets older and more closed-off from the world, though, her hairstyle changes to become a tighter, more restrictive bun. This stays with her through her coronation until “Let it Go” allows her to return to form with a new, more personalized braid.

In Frozen 2, Elsa spends most of her journey traveling with her “Let it Go” braid, but as she gets closer to Ahtohallan and her physical and emotional challenges become more steep, she first lets her hair down into a ponytail, then ultimately undoes it altogether for “Show Yourself,” emphasizing her ultimate transformation into the Snow Queen.

Realizing Elsa’s Hair in Production

Of course ,the pivotal shot for Elsa in Frozen is when she lets her hair down and freezes it back into her signature flames. Taking cues from the animator's performance, we wanted the hair to spring out of its up-do the moment she pulls her hair free from the bun. This helped emphasize her character transition by giving a visual metaphor for audiences to witness.

For Frozen 2, with the introduction of multiple hair stylings, we noticed right away that we needed to preserve Elsa's shape language no matter what the configuration. Soaking wet, underwater, ponytail, hair down – all had to preserve an asymmetrical diamond shape to the crown of the head to feel like Elsa. With the hair down, it was writer and director Jennifer Lee who reminded us that the audience would need a visual anchor to call back to her braid.  She encouraged us to place a lock of hair in front of her left shoulder, mimicking the placement of the braid.  

We used this placement in "Show Yourself" for shots where Elsa was being more internal and reflective - a comforting familiarity for the audience.  And in shots where Elsa is active and external to her environment, we let that hair flow behind her shoulders, freeing her spirit in a visual sense.

Collaborating with Technology

From Frozen through Frozen 2, developers in production technology worked closely with the visual development and production teams to meet the challenges presented by Elsa's hair journey. We continued the evolution of our in-house hair toolset with a focus on improvements in three key areas: naturalistic motion with art-direction, iteration speed, and artistic control.

In order to animate the hundreds of thousands of strands that make up Elsa’s final hairstyle, a physically-based hair simulation generates the motion of a subset of the hairs which then drives the full set of hairs in the groom. 

Between Frozen and Frozen 2, our hair solver was re-written with a new hair model and re-architected for high performance. By incorporating twist and normal along the curve, the new hair model better captures the behavior of hair strands especially for the wavy hair in Elsa's Snow Queen look.

This allowed the artists to maintain the shape language through the base physical parameters alone – previously this was achieved by making the hair stiff and/or adding additional constraints to hold the groom.  

Scalability was a key consideration when redesigning the solver architecture. The performance gains provided by the new solver allowed the artists to simulate denser grooms and/or to iterate faster when crafting the hair performance. This was essential given both the wide range of shots– from subtle motion to heavy action, and the need to craft the hair motion to fit the narrative and art direction.

In order to hit very specific shapes in the grooms and preserve the shape language under motion, the artists need a high degree of control. Improvements to our grooming tools as well as new posing tools and workflows provided artists with fine-grained controls to achieve the desired hair grooms and performance.  We also introduced dynamic simulation parameter support controlled by the artist via maps, overrides, volumes, and expressions.  This made it easier to obtain the desired motion given the varied looks: wet, underwater, flowing, highly styled, etc.

Elsa in various conditions

Frozen 2 examples of various conditions the hair groom underwent in shots including wet, wind and underwater.

Putting It All Together

Many departments across the studio collaborated to achieve the final performance of Elsa’s hair journey.

This montage shows the journey of Elsa from a young girl in Frozen to her transformation from the Queen of Arendelle to the Snow Queen in Frozen 2.