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Countdown to Disney "Frozen" : The flaky design idea behind the look of Elsa's ice palace

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Countdown to Disney "Frozen" : The flaky design idea behind the look of Elsa's ice palace

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For 84 years now, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been in the castle-building business. Whether it's that golden castle-in-the-clouds that we glimpse at the very end of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs " ...

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... or that shiny undersea abode that King Triton resides in ...

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... the artists & designers at WDAS certainly have a knack for creating memorable domiciles for royals. Be they kindly sultan ...

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... or mistress of all evil.

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Which brings us now to Disney "Frozen." Since the storyline of this big-screen comedy-adventure was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" ... Well, one of this film's main characters is Elsa, a beautiful young woman who has the ability to magically conjure up ice & snow out of thin air.

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"When you first meet Elsa in this movie, she's just a little girl. So we wanted Elsa's magic at this point in the picture to be very child-like and whimsical. So the simple snowflake shapes that she conjures up reflect her age and her innocence," explained Marlon West, co-Effects Supervisor on "Frozen." "But later on in this movie, when Elsa finally lets go and really starts owning her magic, we wanted the ice & snow that she conjures up to get across the idea that Elsa has now grown up and become this beautiful, elegant, confident and powerful young woman."

But how would the artists at WDAS visually underscore Elsa's new-found power and confidence? By having Disney's newest princess create her own castle. Have Elsa use her magical abilities to manipulate ice & snow to craft an elegant new home for herself out in the frozen wilderness.

(L to R) Lisa Keene, assistant Art Director; Mike Giamo, Art Director; Brittany Lee;
Visual Development Artist and yours truly. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But what exactly should Elsa's ice palace look like? Mike Giaimo -- Art Director of "Frozen" -- admits that he and his design team genuinely struggled to get a handle to get on this aspect of the film.

"We tried all of these magical castles, creating all of these snow-packed interiors of what we thought Elsa's ideal home might look like and we then showed them all to John Lasseter. And he then looked at us like we were crazy," Giamo explained. "John said 'You're overlooking the obvious choice here. Elsa's conjures up ice & snow, right? Well, have you ever taken a close look at a snowflake? It's this simple, elegant, six-sided shape. So why not make a giant snowflake the foundation of Elsa's Palace and then turn it into a six-sided structure?'  The solution was staring us right in the face and we didn't even realize it. It took John to point it out to us."

Please note the giant snowflake shape that's imbedded in the ice floor that Elsa is
standing on. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But Lasseter didn't just want the look of this elegant ice palace to be influenced by snowflakes. John also suggested that the way that snowflakes actually form in nature could then be reflected in the way that Elsa conjures up her castle.

"Snowflakes are these tiny little ice crystals that form in mid-air. And when there are changes in temperature and humidity, these snowflakes start growing in a pattern that's known as branching and plating," said Dale Mayeda, Co-Effects Supervisor on Disney "Frozen." "When we did a pitch to John Lasseter early on about the science behind Elsa's magic, he just loved the idea of how a snowflake forms, how it branches & plates. And he said 'You know, when Elsa builds her ice palace, it would be so amazing if -- every step of the way as this castle forms out of thin air -- it's just branching & plating, branching & plating all along the way."

Please note that the decorative fountain to Anna's right also echoes the over-arching
snowflake motif of Elsa's ice palace. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"And we just loved that idea. That the epic & grand way that this ice palace magically forms would then echo the way that a snowflake really forms at the microscopic level. Which is why we ended up carrying this design conceit all the way through this sequence in the film," Mayeda continued. "After Elsa stamps her foot and that giant snowflake on the ground forms, her ice palace then magically grows up around her by branching & plating. And right from the beginning all the way through to the last chandelier forming, this magical structure keeps on branching & plating."

Mind you, committing to this design conceit did come at a price. "For that one single shot in which Elsa builds her palace, 50 people worked on the technology required to execute that shot," said Jennifer Lee, co-director of Disney "Frozen." "And that shot is so complex that just one frame took 30 hours to render. That's a perfect example of how much the 'Frozen' production team has put into this movie. And it really shows. The finished film is just breathtaking."

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And just so you know: John Lasseter's love of the look & science behind snowflakes not only influenced the look of Elsa's ice palace, it also had an impact on this character's costume design. Don't believe me? Then check out Elsa's long, elegant, white lace cape.

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Yep. That's a snowflake too. So it seems like John's flaky idea eventually became a pretty smart design motif for much of Disney "Frozen," don't you think?

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  • Love that last rendering of Elsa.  Wish the rest of the movie reflected this style...but I guess for a full-length animated feature, going 2D would be going "backwards".  Smart motif though, and nice looking work.

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