Today’s Rapunzel Disney’s modern CG tale
November 19, 2010

Today’s Rapunzel Disney’s modern CG tale

Disney lets its hair down, creating a funny, enchanting stereo 3D version of a beloved tale.

In the November issue of Computer Graphics World, we go behind the scenes to give a detailed look at the cutting-edge CG techniques used to create Disney’s “Tangled,” a hilarious, hair-raising tale based on the story of Rapunzel, about the girl with the long hair who is locked away in a tower (see “Once More with Feeling” in the November issue). Here, we present a look at the movie from beyond the step-by-step content creation viewpoint, compliments of Disney.

When the kingdom’s most wanted—and most charming—bandit Flynn Rider (voice of Zachary Levi) hides out in a mysterious tower, he’s taken hostage by Rapunzel (voice of Mandy Moore), a beautiful and feisty tower-bound teen with 70 feet of magical, golden hair. Flynn’s curious captor, who’s looking for her ticket out of the tower where she’s been locked away for years, strikes a deal with the handsome thief and the unlikely duo sets off on an action-packed escapade, complete with a super-cop horse (named Maximus), an over-protective chameleon (named Pascal), and a gruff gang of pub thugs.

Also featured in the talented vocal ensemble is two-time Tony Award® winner Donna Murphy as Mother Gothel. Ron Perlman lends his voice to the Stabbington Brother, one of Flynn’s double-crossed partners in crime, and Jeffrey Tambor and Brad Garrett provide the voices of two of the thugs Flynn and Rapunzel encounter along the way.

“‘Tangled’ is so full of hilarious characters, but it also has tremendous action and a lot of heart,” says John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. “We wanted to create a unique world and story that evoke the rich, dramatic feeling that is classically Disney, but is also fresh and humorous, and that gives the audience something it has never seen before in computer animation. The filmmakers have created a world that builds on Disney’s heritage but transports us to a land that is completely new.”

Adds producer Roy Conli, “It’s this wonderful story of two people who don’t really know who they are yet, and in the course of the film, they both discover their destiny. We wanted to break some of the stereotypes that had been done before. Flynn is a guy who’s been there, done that, and seen it all. Rapunzel is a sheltered, naïve-but-smart girl who hasn’t been there, hasn’t done that, and hasn’t seen anything! He helps bring her to a place where she can see herself more clearly, and she helps bring him to a place where he can change some of the mistakes he’s made in life. Together, they fill in what’s missing in each other.”

Lasseter tapped two of the studio’s most revered talents to helm Disney’s 50th animated feature. As the animation industry’s top rising stars, Byron Howard and Nathan Greno were called on to create a movie that could sit on the shelf next to classic Disney animated films, while also being an entertaining roller coaster ride for modern audiences. And Lasseter, who’s a two-time Academy Award® winner (“Toy Story,” “Tin Toy”) with directing credits that include “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars,” says they’ve done it. “They are some of the most talented young directors I’ve ever seen,” he says. “They have such incredible story sense, but one of the things that I love about them is their sense of humor. And they really understand what makes a Disney film a Disney film: the heart. Walt Disney always said, ‘For every laugh, there should be a tear.’ They have such a fresh, contemporary twist on something that’s classically Disney.

“It looks like a classic Disney animated film, but it’s also in 3D CG animation,” adds Lasseter, “so it’s really unlike anything we’ve ever done before.”

Howard directed Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Bolt,” the 2008 animated comedy adventure that grossed more than $300 million worldwide and earned two Golden Globe® nominations (Best Animated Film and Best Original Song), and an Oscar® nomination for Best Animated Feature. Greno, a 14-year Disney animation veteran, served as head of story on “Bolt,” and has animation and/or story credits on “Mulan,” “Brother Bear” and “Meet the Robinsons.”

With its incredible cast of appealing human and animal characters, fantastic settings—from castles and towers to forests and pubs—and spectacular visual effects including a climactic scene with as many as 46,000 glowing lanterns, “Tangled” is a contemporary comedy for audiences of all ages that also represents a technical and artistic milestone for Walt Disney Animation Studios and for the art of computer animation.

“Audiences may think they know what to expect from a film featuring Rapunzel,” says Greno. “But we flipped it on its head to make a movie that’s relevant, fresh and different. Byron and I both love the classic Disney films, and we wanted to go back to this cool, retro look from the fifties, and mix it with contemporary storytelling, pacing, action and humor. This puts a whole new layer on this kind of story.”

Howard adds, “The scope of this movie is gigantic—with horse chases and sword-fights, prison breaks and floods. The story gave us a chance to take modern-day moviemaking sensibilities and pump it into a classic story.

“We also had the amazingly funny and clever Dan Fogelman doing our writing,” continues Howard. “He brought life to Flynn, he brought the sort of clever wit to Rapunzel and this great sarcastic nature to Gothel and we couldn’t have done it without him.” The filmmakers all agree that they’ve created some amazing characters. “The characters just steal the show,” says Lasseter.

RAPUNZEL may have lived her entire life locked inside a hidden tower, but she’s no damsel in distress. The girl with the 70 feet of golden hair is through with her sheltered life and ready for adventure. When a charming thief seeks refuge in her tower, she makes the deal of her life, leaving the tower for a hilarious, hair-raising journey that will untangle many secrets along the way. Mandy Moore, who gives voice to Rapunzel, says, “I knew that Disney would put its signature twist on the story. It’s really, really funny and heartwarming. Rapunzel is a young woman who’s just coming of age. She’s extremely passionate, creative and eager to investigate the world. She’s so open and ready to embrace whatever comes her way; she definitely has a sense of adventure. The film has an overwhelming theme of female empowerment—she’s a lot stronger than even she realizes.”

The ultra-confidentFLYNN RIDER is his own biggest fan, and he has long relied on his wit, charm and good looks to get out of even the stickiest situation. Flynn is a thief looking for the one last, big score that will allow him to finally live the life he’s always dreamed of. He's never been closer to having it all when he meets Rapunzel, an odd girl with ridiculously long hair. An unlikely alliance with this girl from the tower sends Flynn on the adventure of a lifetime. “He’s a dashing bandit,” says Zachary Levi, who provides Flynn’s voice, “but I like how they turned it on its head—he’s a selfish thief, while at the same time being a very charming dude. Comedy plays a huge part in this film, which is so much fun.”

She may be controlling, manipulative and over-protective, but MOTHER GOTHEL is the only mother Rapunzel has ever known. By stealing Rapunzel as an infant and raising her in the tower, Gothel ensured that she alone would have access to Rapunzel’s magical hair, which she uses as her personal fountain of youth. Award-winning stage actress Donna Murphy provides the voice of Gothel. Says Lasseter, “I get so excited when a story has a good villain and ‘Tangled’ has a great villain with Mother Gothel. She is theatrical. She is hilarious. She’s way over the top—one of the best villains we’ve ever created.”

The Captain of the Guard’s horse,MAXIMUS, has made it his personal mission to capture the wanted criminal, Flynn Rider. Fearless in his pursuit, the horse defies danger to follow Flynn where other guards refuse to go – it seems nothing will stop this “tough-guy cop” from getting his man. Once Maximus meets Rapunzel his heart softens, and he begins to see the world differently. What started as a relentless pursuit may just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The horse, who behaves more like an canine than an equine, sort of steals the show, say the filmmakers. “It’s a take on an animated horse that you’ve never seen before,” says Greno. “It’s really fresh and smart.”

Rapunzel’s one true friend is her silent, color-changing sidekickPASCAL. Pascal may be just a small chameleon, but he plays a big role in Rapunzel’s life. Confidante, coach and cheerleader, Pascal is a driving force behind Rapunzel’s decision to leave her lonely tower. This supportive and encouraging companion’s true colors just might hold a key to unlocking a royal mystery.


Championing the storytelling behind “Tangled” and the true inspiration behind the character design and expressive, nuanced animated performances is the remarkable Glen Keane, a 35-year Disney veteran considered one of the true modern masters of the medium.

“We’ve got all these incredibly talented animators here,” says Greno, “and we have Glen, who’s taking all the knowledge and tradition that he has and passing that along to this next generation of animators. We have this thing that no other studio has: legacy.”

During the course of his illustrious career, Keane, who’s an executive producer on “Tangled,” has created and supervised such memorable characters as Professor Ratigan (“The Great Mouse Detective”), Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), Marahute (“The Rescuers Down Under”), the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan and John Silver (“Treasure Planet”), among others. For his latest role on “Tangled,” he served as animation supervisor (along with John Kahrs and Clay Kaytis), and worked closely with the entire animation team to raise the bar for human animation in the CG world.

“From the very first moment that John (Lasseter) and I saw some of the early tests on ‘Tron’ back in 1981, we were just astounded by the possibility of being able to move dimensionally through that world,” recalls Keane. “We’d never seen anything like it, and we started immediately talking about doing a test. We worked the backgrounds out, and I found that anytime CG intersects with hand-drawn animation, it always forces you to draw better. Years later, everything that John was doing up at Pixar was a reminder that we can move into space and around the characters with total freedom in CG. On ‘Tarzan,’ I worked with the technical experts to add dimension to the character sliding along the trees in a 2D environment. Whenever I’m animating something, I see it more like sculptural drawing.”

When Lasseter took over the creative reigns at Disney in 2006, the question on everyone’s minds was whether to make “Tangled” in the hand-drawn or CG medium. Says Keane, “I thought about the hair, the lighting on the hair, the fabric, the textures on the skin. So I continued down that path, bringing as much of Ollie (Johnston) and Frank’s (Thomas) principles of character and sincerity to the process. That’s really the foundation.”

Adds Howard, “The human animation on this movie is like nothing anyone’s ever seen. And I’m not blowing our own horn, because I think we’re both really proud of what the animators have accomplished. We looked at films like “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”—the level of subtlety that they’ve got—those films set the bar and raised it. We needed to continue to raise the bar. And the animators really rose to the task—little micro-animations on the lower lids of the eyes, tiny eye shifts that have all this great subtext to the film but are so important to the story.”

Improved technology allowed the directors and animators to work on the look of the film together like never before. Keane could actually draw right over a frame during dailies. “Byron and Nathan are phenomenal actors,” says Keane. “They would perform for the animators, getting up there, acting together. Byron would play Flynn, and Nathan would be Rapunzel, or vice versa. I could fast-forward, freeze, and then I’d draw over the top.”


Key to the film’s success was finding a way to animate Rapunzel’s hair, and make it seem believable, organic and able to do all that the filmmakers and animators needed it to do.

When it comes to animating hair, Keane is perhaps the ruling expert on the subject. “If you look at my characters, their problems are always defined by their hair,” he observes. “Ariel is always floating in a cloud of floating red hair, and it’s a reminder that this girl is living in one world but wants to be up there in another. With the Beast, his hair is a constant reminder of fur. He’s an animal and it covers him everywhere. Pocahontas’ hair is always blowing in the wind. This represents her spiritual side, and her struggle to communicate the invisible spiritual nature of the new world to those who see it only for its gold. Tarzan’s roots were Lord Greystroke, and his heritage was aristocracy, but now he has dreadlocks that have never been touched by a comb. The hair defines his problem of whether he’s a wild animal or a human. In the case of Rapunzel, her hair is a constant reminder that she has incredible potential. She was born to rule a kingdom, but she’s being held back in this tight place. It seemed the more you hold her back, the more it has to get out. Even her hair is pushing out.”

Visual effects supervisor Steve Goldberg, CG supervisor Jesus Canal, and a technical team of hair experts (headed by Xinman Zhao and Kelly Ward), were charged with finding a way to bring Rapunzel’s hair to life. They developed new software (called Dynamic Wires) and new techniques to carry out Keane’s ambitious ideas for animating the hair.

“Glen gave lectures and provided specific guidelines to make sure Rapunzel’s hair always looked beautiful, appealing, and natural,” says Canal. “He didn’t want the hair to ever lie in a boring straight line. He wanted it to be visually appealing. It had to have volume, sensuous twists, graceful turns, breaking strands and a trademark swoop in the front. For every shot, we had to pose and simulate the hair according to those guidelines. The technical team would animate 147 different tubes representing the structure of the hair, which would then be rendered into a final image with up to 140,000 individual strands of hair.”


Art director Dave Goetz, co-art director Dan Cooper and production designer Doug Rogers were charged with creating the look of the film from its environments and architectural design to its color palette. Taking their cue from Lasseter, they designed Rapunzel’s tower to be “the nicest, most charming Bed and Breakfast in the south of France, ever.” His reasoning being that Rapunzel is so smart that she would have escaped long before her 18th birthday if the place had been unfriendly. For the King and Queen’s castle, the team looked at architecture from just about every country in Europe before settling on a Danish-influenced style that features copper-clad onion domes, and scroll-shaped gables. Inspired by the S-curve shape language from “Cinderella,” and the bulky proportions of “Pinocchio,” which added a friendly and inviting tone, the artistic team created CG sets that were both unique and beautiful. Goetz relied on a saturated color palette to get the heightened reality the filmmakers wanted.

For the colorful murals on the walls of Rapunzel’s tower, Claire Keane (Glen’s daughter) lent her talent and imagination. Rapunzel documents the things she discovers over the years, and uses this outlet to express her emotions and desires. She paints herself into the pictures, and depicts the progression of time.

“Tangled” features new songs and a score by eight-time Oscar®-winning composer/songwriter Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” and, most recently, “Enchanted”). Lyrics are by Glenn Slater, a 2008 Tony® and Grammy® nominee for his work on “The Little Mermaid.”

In theaters November 24, 2010, in Disney Digital 3D™, “Tangled” is a story of adventure, heart, humor and hair—lots of hair. “This film is so entertaining, so exciting,” says Lasseter, “and the audience is just going to love it.”