In the short time since PIXAR Animation created the first 3D computer animated feature film, Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), 3D computer graphics (CG) have replaced the classical 2D realist styling of Disney Animation to become the dominant aesthetic form of mainstream animation. (1) The dominance of 3D CG in animated films (over traditional mediums) is largely due to the remediation of the fundamental principles of animation. Although Tangled (Nathan Greno and Bryan Howard, 2010) is not Disney’s first CG animated film, it is the first time they have attempted to use the medium to tell a classic Disney-style fairy tale. This paper offers an analysis of the character animation in Tangled to develop a deeper understanding of how Disney has approached the extension of their traditional aesthetic into the CG medium. It should be noted that frame counts used in this paper will vary from the original production. This being an unfortunate by-product of the digital encoding for DVD release and subsequent re-encoding and manipulation to allow me to step through the film frame-by-frame. This is not a major concern for this analysis as the frame count is used to simply highlight the variation in timing for the character movement as it appears on screen and not intended to be an accurate record of the exact frame count used by the animator during production.
A single drop of sunlight falls from the heavens and from it grows a magical golden flower. An old woman, Mother Gothel, learns of the magical properties of the flower and for centuries uses its power to retain her youth. One day, while pregnant, the queen of a nearby kingdom falls ill and the flower is used to restore her and her unborn child, Rapunzel, to health. When Rapunzel is born, the magical properties of the flower are embodied in her hair. Mother Gothel kidnaps Rapunzel and locks her in a tower deep in the forest. She raises her as her own daughter and uses the magical properties of Rapunzel’s hair to retain her own youth. On her birthday each year, Rapunzel is able to see floating lights in the night sky from her tower window. Rapunzel longs to see the floating lights unaware that they are actually floating lanterns released by her family and the community in memory of the lost princess.
After stealing a royal crown from Rapunzel’s family, Eugene Fitzherbert (aka Flynn Rider) is chased into the forest by the palace guard. He unwittingly finds his way to Rapunzel’s tower while looking for a place to hide. Rapunzel convinces Eugene to take her to see the floating lanterns and so they embark on a journey to the castle at the centre of the city. Mother Gothel discovers Rapunzel has left the tower for the city. As her own life depends on Rapunzel’s magical hair, she plots to return Rapunzel to the tower and have Flynn put to death by the palace guard. Shortly after her return to the tower, Rapunzel figures out that she is the lost princess. Flynn escapes prison with the help of some thugs that Rapunzel befriended on their journey. He returns to rescue Rapunzel from the tower only to be stabbed by Mother Gothel. Before Rapunzel can heal him, Flynn cuts the hair from Rapunzel’s head and breaks the magical bond between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel’s life. Without the magic of the golden flower, Mother Gothel ages rapidly turning to dust while Flynn, unable to be healed, dies from his wound. In her grief, Rapunzel sheds a single tear, which unknown to Rapunzel carries the magical properties of the original flower. As the tear is absorbed into Flynn’s skin his life is restored and they return to Rapunzel’s kingdom to live happily ever after.
Tangled is Disney Animation Studio’s 50th animated feature film and the studio’s first fairy tale musical to be created using 3D CG animation. The films original director, Glen Keane, played an important part in the film’s visual development. As a Disney animator since 1974, Glen Keane had the opportunity to receive training from animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston who were the progenitors of the fundamental principles of animation as documented in their text The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. (2) Keane originally wanted the film to be animated using a traditional 2D animation process, however, the Disney studio executives David Stainton and Dick Cook would only approve the film for production if it were created using the 3D CG medium. In response to this requirement, Keane called a meeting with both 2D and 3D Disney animators to discuss the pros and cons of the two mediums. From that meeting it was decided that they would go ahead and create the film using 3D CG animation but do so in such a way as to become an extension of the traditional 2D Disney aesthetic. (3) The “Disney aesthetic” is a reference to the naturalistic animation that conforms to the principles of animation as described by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation.
In order to achieve this extension of the Disney aesthetic, there was a need to develop new creative processes and technologies that would allow the animators to use the 3D medium in a more traditional way. For example, by using a digital drawing device known as a Wacom Cintiq, Keane was able to critique the CG animator’s work by drawing on top of their animation on the computer. Keane’s “draw-overs” and animation notes allowed the character animators to refine their CG animation to create an organic feel that resonated with the traditional Disney aesthetic. There was also a need to create new ways of controlling Rapunzel’s hair. Rapunzel’s hair forms an important part of the story and character action, it was therefore ideal for the hair to respond to high levels of art direction. Animator Jesus Canal describes Rapunzel’s hair as being an important part of her character that required a great deal of collaboration between the animator and the technical team. (4) The technical team developed a system that combined rig-based key-frame animation with hair simulation. This allowed the character animators to control the motion, poses and silhouettes of the hair in response to Keane’s “draw-overs.” (5) This deliberate effort to extend the Disney aesthetic to the CG medium makes Tangled ideally suited to close analysis.
Another significant aesthetic element of Tangled is the overall art direction, which was inspired from previous Disney films such as Pinocchio (Norman Ferguson and T. Hee, 1940) and Cinderella (Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson, 1950) along with the Rococo style art of French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Fragonard’s The Swing (1767) provided early inspiration for the art style, as Art Director Dave Goetz explains, the “undulating forms, decorative colour, rich details, and period fantasy subject matter, would lend itself well to a romantic comedy.” (6) The rounded shapes found in Cinderella were used to inspire the character design, according to the film’s director Byron Howard they wanted to capture the familiarity that comes from watching a Disney classic character. (7). As the first Disney fairy tale hero to be designed in CG, the artists were careful not to make Flynn Rider appear too mechanical. By relaxing his expressions the design is able to remain angular yet fit within the soft rounded world created for Tangled. A signature ‘shape language’ was developed to fuse the thickness of Pinocchio with the lyrical and graceful shapes of Cinderella. (8)
The term ‘shape language’ refers to a design philosophy that “unifies the film by using the same visual vernacular and guiding design principles throughout every scene and setting.” (9) Pinocchio for example avoids the use of right angles and strait lines together with a compacting of shapes. Cinderella on the other hand achieves a comfortable and intimate world through the use of flowing lines arranged in rhythms that create graceful and appealing compositions. (10) As something created on a computer, 3D CG animation often appears inorganic and ridged. To create a more organic feel in Tangled, artists adopted a shape language that reduces the use of parallel lines by “wedging” straight shapes against curves. (11) In Tangled, the character motions, gestures and expressions reinforce the influence of the shape language as a unifying concept.
As previously stated, the visual style of Tangled is the result of a deliberate effort to extend the traditional Disney aesthetic to the CG medium. Disney style animation typically adheres to the 12 Principles of Animation as described in The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (12) and is often referred to as ‘cartoon style’ animation. According to Bishko (13) these principles of animation are not complete movement concepts and their application can result in formulaic animation that relies upon specific movement patterns. At times there are clearly identifiable movement patterns appropriated from the 2D medium in Tangled. For example a classic “cartoon take” as described by Richard Williams (14) can be seen when the palace guard turns around to find that the crown he was guarding has just been taken by Flynn Rider.
As this sequence demonstrates, Tangled does feature typical cartoon patterns of movement even if their application is very subtle. Despite this however, for the most part characters in Tangled appear to be authentic as opposed to clichéd, formulaic animation. The character motion is often very subdued with actions that are relevant to the context of the story and the character’s intent. According to Bishko characterisation is authentic when there is “congruence between a character’s intent and its resulting action”. (15) An example of authenticity in Tangled can be found in how Rapunzel reacts to seeing the floating lanterns in the lantern scene.
Rapunzel’s reaction to seeing the lights is important to maintaining the authenticity of her character. This moment not only resolves her life long dream of seeing the lights but also shows a transition to her new dream; being with Flynn. When Rapunzel is apprehensive about seeing the lights rise into the sky, she asks Flynn what she is to do if they turn out to be everything she dreamed they would be. To which Flynn responds by telling her she will get to find a new dream. The scene is pivotal to consolidating who Rapunzel was before meeting Flynn and who she will become in the later part of the film. There is a subtle moment when we see Rapunzel’s thought process as her focus shifts from the lights to Flynn and their possible future together. The lantern scene begins with Rapunzel and Flynn in a boat placing flowers in the water.
As she leans forward and looks into the water, Rapunzel sees the reflection of a single lantern floating up into the night sky. She looks up at the sky and holds her pose for approximately 40 frames before the film cuts to a point of view shot revealing the single lantern floating in the sky. An impulsive movement follows this short pause as she pushes herself up and scrambles toward the front of the boat for a better view of the floating lantern. There is a noticeable lack of cartoon motion such as squash and stretch as Rapunzel propels herself toward the front of the boat. Without taking her eyes off the floating lantern she almost falls onto the figurehead. At that moment nothing else has her attention while she clings to the boats figurehead. In contrast to her frantic scurry toward the bow, she is now almost motionless, moving only to counter the motion of the boat floating in the water.
She holds this position for approximately 60 frames, only moving to adjust the grip of her left hand and to move her head closer to the scrolled figurehead. After adjusting her position by moving from one side of the figurehead to the other, in 20 frames, Rapunzel holds almost perfectly still for another 20 frames before the shot cuts to another point of view shot. We see the single lantern has drifted further into the sky while a large quantity of lanterns slowly floats up above the castle wall. Cutting back and forth between a close up of Rapunzel and the floating lanterns we see that Rapunzel is holding the same pose as the night sky fills with lights.
Rapunzel slowly blinks, relaxes her shoulders and brings her head down to rest on the ship’s figurehead. This pose and facial expression is a reference to an earlier shot in the film in which Rapunzel is a young child looking at the lanterns from her tower window.
This moment indicates that the floating lanterns have been a childhood comfort for Rapunzel in the way a child may find security in a cherished blanket or toy. She holds that position for as many as 35 frames before it cuts to a shot of Pascal. Returning again to a mid shot of Rapunzel we see she is gazing up at the lanterns in the same held pose. She holds this pose for approximately 60 frames with nothing more than some subtle eye movement and blinks. The eyes and her blinking show her inner thought process as she realises she is still there with Flynn. She drops her right arm down and we see her expression change. Leading the action with her eyes, she turns to look at Flynn who has prepared two lanterns for them to release into the night sky. At this point Rapunzel’s movement changes from slow and deeply thoughtful to an almost childlike excitement as she hurries to sit down with Flynn.
The subdued motion, held pose and lack of cartoon style is significant in this scene as it demonstrates that cartoon patterns of movement have not been used. Rather the animators have focussed on creating motion that is authentic and therefore believable. The action is appropriate for this character at this moment as the lanterns have a deep emotional meaning for Rapunzel; they have been her link to the outside world while locked in a tower for 18 years. There is also a familiarity in the performance because we have seen her gaze at the lights as a child. Had the animator chosen to have Rapunzel jump around with excitement as if she were at a fireworks display, that had no emotional connection to her, it would have resulted in a character action that was not authentic and therefore not believable. According to Bishko’s criteria for authenticity in character animation, an action such as the one just given would not be authentic because there would be incongruence between the character’s intent and its resulting action.
Tangled contains many strong story-telling poses that are often held completely still for several frames. The technique is known as a ‘hold’ and is common practice in 2D animation because a hold allows the audience time to absorb the attitude of a strong pose (16) and as Williams explains, “very often a hold is the strongest statement we can make”. (17) Holds are therefore a technique typical of 2D animation where an animator may slow a character into a pose and hold that pose for several frames. Held poses typically are a problem in the 3D CG medium because as Lasseter explains the combination of the realistic look and smooth motion causes the motion to “die” when the character enters a held pose. (18) The held poses in Tangled therefore conflict with the common practice of 3D CG animation. Yet in Tangled there are moments when characters are completely motionless, in the lantern scene for example, Rapunzel holds a static pose for almost 2 seconds. Other examples can be found throughout Tangled including an early shot that introduces Flynn Rider on top of the palace roof.
This is the first time we see a clear shot of Flynn after he has made his way across the roof tops, the use of a hold gives the audience a chance to absorb the attitude of his pose. In this shot, Flynn holds for approximately 30 frames yet remains plausibly alive despite the absence of motion. In fact there are multiple moments in which Flynn is completely still in this sequence.
The shot below shows Flynn Rider in a close up with two fellow thieves behind him. Even though we have a close up of Flynn’s face, the animator still holds his pose for as many as 20 frames. Of note in this situation is that the absence of motion on Flynn allows our attention to be redirected to the background characters. When the animator wants to shift our attention back to Flynn Rider the two characters in the background move only slightly while Flynn moves. The flicking motion of Flynn’s right hand again sends our attention to the background characters as Flynn settles into a held pose for another 20 frames.
In this case, the held pose functions as a way of influencing where our attention is focussed. Tangled therefore successfully uses holds to allow the audience time to absorb a character pose and to influence the audience’s attention, however, it does little to explain why the characters remain plausibly alive despite the absence of motion. There are several concepts that support the use of holds in Tangled. This includes a concept known from 2D animation as a ‘moving hold’ and other concepts adapted from life drawing and figurative sculpture called ‘rhythm, tilt and twist’.
According to Thomas and Johnston, Disney animators realised that when a drawing was held for too long “the flow of action was broken, the illusion of dimension was lost, and the drawing began to look flat”. (19) To address this problem, animators would use what is known as the “moving hold”. The concept of a moving hold is relatively simple to grasp. Thomas and Johnston, explain a moving hold as simply two drawings that maintain all the elements of the pose but with one more extreme than the other. (20) Williams adds that it is important that not everything comes to stop at once and that it can be helpful to have the character blink as they stop. (21)
Moving holds are not the only hold used throughout Tangled. As already identified there are times at which the hold is literally a held pose absent of any motion. Recalling a conversation with Frank Thomas, Nancy Beiman calls this kind of hold a “pure hold” and uses the analogy of punctuation to explain the difference between a ‘moving hold’ and a ‘pure hold’. She explains that moving holds work like a comma in a sentence while ‘pure holds’ act as a full stop:
Imagine. If. Every. Sentence. Was. Like. This. It’s far better, really, to vary our punctuation. (22)
In Tangled the ‘punctuation’ is varied as Thomas suggests, at times the animators make use of a moving hold and when appropriate a ‘pure hold’. When pure holds are used, it is the pose design that maintains the illusion of life.
Tangled shows us that a well posed character can communicate story, attitude, and emotion even without movement. This indicates that pose design is possibly the most important element of character animation. Early Disney animator, Ham Luske, believed that animation was only as good as the poses and that timing, overlapping action and follow through were not enough to create good animation. (23)
According to the animators who worked on the film, animation supervisor Glen Keane placed an importance on the character poses over motion and would continually push the animators to loosen up the pose by incorporate ‘rhythm’, ‘tilt’ and ‘twist’ in the pose design. (24) As elements of pose design, rhythm, tilt and twist work together to create appealing story-telling poses that help support the illusion of life.
The use of tilt and twist are relatively obvious throughout the character pose. The head, shoulders and hips are titled on a single plane to create a pose based on the principles of contrapposto. The contrapposto pose creates asymmetry and the illusion of weight distributed through the body. Twist is used to create appealing poses that convey a sense depth in the composition of the image and a life-like movement quality in the figure. Twist in these poses is a simplified approach to the concept of figura serpentinata. This is a term used to describe a serpentine twisting of the figure around a central axis. (25)
In Tangled, the characters often appear in a contorted yet graceful pose with the lower limbs facing in an opposite direction to the torso. The promotional image above illustrates an exaggeration of tilt and twist applied to the characters. Rhythm is a more abstract concept than tilt and twist and is more difficult to identify throughout the film.
There are a variety of approaches to explaining the concept of rhythm in pose design. According to Andrew Loomis, rhythm is a “flow of continuous line resulting in a sense of unity and grace”. (26) He goes on to describe the feeling of rhythm as a “follow-through” of various contours of the body. Lines flowing along a contour of the body follow-through the solid form and are “picked up” by another contour. Michael Mattessi has a more functional explanation, he describes rhythm as a seamless interplay of forces in the body that helps it stay balanced, or creates equilibrium. (27) Rhythm is created when the attitude or direction of one line or force applies itself towards the next.
The image below shows the subtle application of rhythm, tilt and twist applied to Rapunzel to create an appealing pose.
In this image the green lines indicate tilt applied to the hips, shoulders and eyes. The head is tilted up and to the side to counter the shoulders. The yellow line indicates the outside of the neck is in alignment to the inside of the weight bearing foot giving a sense of balance. The red ‘S’ shaped line gives an example of rhythm as the contour from the hip is ‘picked up’ by the torso. The shoulders and hips are also twisted; the shoulders are facing toward the camera and the hips point toward screen right. The lower limbs are offset creating depth and a more natural looking life-like pose.
Note the eyes even have a sense of tilt that helps direct the audience’s attention.
Rhythm, tilt and twist work together throughout Tangled to reduce the often-stiff appearance of CG animation and bring forth a more organic feeling closer to that of life drawing. In addition to sophisticated pose design, there is also a diverse range of motion present throughout the film.
At times – like the lantern scene discussed earlier – the characters move with very subdued action and minimal cartoon style motion. In contrast to this, there are moments of very broad character action that feature a lot of squash, stretch, smears and timing that is typical of a more stylised cartoon approach. For example in the scene where Rapunzel and Flynn visit the Snuggly Duckling the characters tend to ‘pop’ from pose to pose with a lot of stretch applied to the transitional frames between each pose.
Another example can be seen in the struggle between Flynn and the horse Maximus. In this scene, Flynn is trying to escape from Maximus with the crown he has stolen. Maximus tries to retrieve the crown before Flynn and they wrestle their way forward.
The use of broad cartoon motion has been used throughout Tangled during moments of comic relief. Emotional moments are handled with a more subdued motion and character action. This indicates the movement style can change throughout an animated film so long as it reflects the context of the scene.
The eyes are another important communication device used throughout Tangled. The eye shape, pupil motion, blinking and the eyebrows work together to communicate character emotion, thought process and subtext. The saccadic motion (eye darts) in particular sustains the illusion of a living being and illustrates internal thought processes. Flynn Rider’s death is a scene where the animation of Rapunzel’s eyes were integral to portraying the performance.
After Gothel stabs and mortally wounds Flynn Rider, Rapunzel pleads with her to let her heal him. Bound in chains, Rapunzel looks up at Gothel and promises to go with Gothel if she allows her to heal Flynn. While making the promise, Rapunzel does not blink and there is very little saccadic motion in her eyes. There is some subtle micro flexing of the lower eyelids and tightening of the eyebrows. The absence of the blink and eye movement in this case punctuates the promise that Rapunzel is making. Earlier in the film she states that she never breaks a promise, so what she is saying to Gothel is the truth. Rapunzel’s eyes behave differently when Gothel falls from the window to her death. Rapunzel holds her eyes wide open and in a series of six eye darts, her eyes make their way over to look toward Flynn. The eye darts vary in speed and distance and her eyes begin to slowly relax as her attention shifts to Flynn.
This is a classic example of showing the change in thought process for Rapunzel. Gothel raised her and the shock of seeing her ‘mother’ falling to her death has an emotional impact on Rapunzel. As an audience we see her pause and then come to terms with what has happened as she then returns her attention to the now dying Flynn Rider. The eye darts and shape of the eyes communicates all of this to the audience in as few as 100 frames before she turns her head toward Flynn. The moment after Flynn dies illustrates the eye movement working together with the eye shape and eyebrows.
At this moment the eyes are a completely different shape to how they appear throughout most of the film. They are now half closed and taper off toward the edges. There is little to no saccadic eye movement in this moment and for what is there it is hard to pick up through the smaller eye opening as Rapunzel begins to cry. She blinks slowly, taking as many as 5 frames to close her eyes, which remain almost shut, opening only slightly before blinking again. There is a subtle flex of the orbicularis oculi (the muscle surrounding the eye), which does not affect the eyebrow but shows a tightening of the area between the upper eyelid and the eyebrow. This is then extended to the entire eyebrow as the movement radiates out to include the lower eyelid and upper cheek. The micro gestures in moments like this are so effective in Tangled that the audience is able to forget that Rapunzel is a digital puppet and truly believe she cares for Flynn.
Glen Keane’s knowledge of traditional animation and his willingness to work in the 3D CG medium with technicians and CG trained animators such as John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis – amongst many others – has further developed the application of traditional principles to the 3D CG medium. By focusing on non-formulaic performance centred animation, Tangled demonstrates a sophisticated use of the traditional animation principles to successfully convey the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters. Keane’s traditional animation sensibilities have resulted in the use of strong storytelling poses that use rhythm, tilt and twist to maintain the illusion of life.
The focus on strong story telling poses and a reduction of gestures results in subdued motion that prevents characters in Tangled from being “over animated”. The concept of rhythm within the pose results in all body parts working together to express the essence of motion and support the use of longer holds without causing a breakdown in the illusion of life. When the film calls for action or comedy there is notably different movement qualities in the character action. Tangled blends subdued character action and realistic motion with moments of broad cartoon motion. In particular there is a strong presence of squash and stretch and cartoon patterns of motion and timing. The motion in Tangled therefore reflects the emotional context of the scene helping to progress the story in an engaging manner.
The weight and physicality of the characters is portrayed through a sophisticated use of timing and spacing with the moments of physical interaction between characters and objects appearing to plausibly influence each other through various forces acting on the body. Moments of subdued character action allow for nuances in the character motion, in particular the character eyes are critical to conveying their inner thoughts and emotion to the audience. The subtlety in the movement conveys a performance possibly unachievable in the 2D medium. Tangled has applied the traditional principles of animation to the 3D CG medium with a degree of sophistication that often makes them difficult to identify. However, as I have shown in this analysis, the traditional principles of animation have been applied and the result is fluent and organic CG animation that successfully extends the traditional Disney aesthetic into the 3D CG medium.
This article has been peer reviewed.
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- Ibid., 35
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- Ibid., 62
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