Released in 2013, Frozen became a worldwide blockbuster that had fans around the globe singing “Let It Go”. They also bought tickets to the computer-generated musical fantasy film, helping it sleigh its way to a cool $1.29 billion USD box-office return, making the story of Elsa and Anna one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Directed by Chris Buck (who had previously helmed Tarzan in 1999) and Jennifer Lee (who became the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature), Frozen wasn’t just a financial success, but a critical one too, taking home Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film, and two Grammy Awards.
It was quite literally a cultural phenomenon, thanks to its humour, charming and complex characters, anthemic musical numbers, crystal-clear animation and message of self-belief and acceptance. It also features two strong and independent Disney princesses in sisters Elsa and Anna, who ultimately don’t need a man – prince or otherwise – to save them or fall for them to feel worthy. Adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Snow Queen (1844), Frozen cleverly re-cast the book’s villain Elsa (who becomes the titular Snow Queen) as a “sympathetic hero, so afraid to hurt others that she isolates herself from the world”, while also making the hero’s journey Anna’s, not Prince Hans or Kristoff’s. After decades of princes and princesses finding love and saving the day in Disney movies, the studio reworked their own trope and made the love story a familial one between Elsa and Anna, which not only melted the ice entombing the kingdom of Arendelle, but also the hearts of audiences all around the world.
In the sequel released six years later, the first film’s spirit of sisterhood remains. In a flashback sequence of the young Elsa and Anna playing with toys made of ice, Elsa is quick to tell Anna – who believes the fairytale tropes of princes saving the day – that “kissing won’t save the forest” and conjures a fairy queen to win their game. This is when we learn about a real enchanted forest beyond Arendelle. Years later, after the events of the first film, Queen Elsa begins to hear a haunting, siren call from the forest, which becomes the destination for Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven’s journey to discover the origin of Elsa’s powers.
One night in the palace, Elsa is awakened by the secret siren’s call and initially resists the angelic vocalising, reasoning (through song) that’s she already had her adventure and everything she loves is inside the palace walls. But gradually Elsa begins to suspect that the voice calling her into the unknown could belong to someone “who’s a little bit like me... who knows deep down I’m not where I'm meant to be”. Using her growing powers, Elsa enters a dark space illuminated by her magic and representations of the elements – earth, fire, water and air – from the enchanted forest. The above concept art is taken from this sequence and shows Elsa, in her purple nightgown, using her powers, which light the scene in a dazzling blue. She has her back turned to the camera, her platinum blonde braid hanging down her back. While it’s easy to see Elsa’s growth embodied by her powers, the animators have also been illustrating her character development in a much less dramatic way: her hair.
Aside from the new software systems developed during production on Frozen to create over 2000 different types of snowflakes, Disney also developed a procedural (or rule-based) computer modelling tool specifically to create and style a character’s hair, which is called Tonic. While it’s impractical to design hair strand by strand, Tonic lets animators build up hair styles in sections before its algorithm populates them with individual hair follicles. As the Disney animators themselves explained, hair in the Frozen series isn’t just adornment, but demonstrates Elsa’s evolution during her "journey of self-discovery and liberation" in the movies.
“Throughout Elsa’s journey, her hairstyle has been designed to reflect her emotional state of being and is frequently changing to reflect her story,” the Disney Animation website states.
For instance, in flashbacks to Elsa as a child, she wears her hair in a braid. During the events of the first film, when Elsa’s unpredictable powers cause her to retreat from her kingdom, she wears her hair in a tight bun to demonstrate how she restricts herself from her friends and family. According to Disney, “this stays with her through her coronation until “Let It Go” allows her to return to form with a new, more personalised braid”. This is the hairstyle she wears throughout much of Frozen II (2019), until the challenges of her journey, both physical and emotional, are reflected by wearing a ponytail and later, completely freeing her hair when she becomes the Snow Queen.
Of course, costume design is also an integral part of developing characters and communicating their inner qualities. In the first film, as Elsa escapes into secrecy and solitude, visual development artist Brittany Lee explained:
“She gets higher collars and longer sleeves and gloves... her hues deepen... it’s not until we ultimately get to see her let it go that we bring her back to the hues that you meet her in when she’s very young”.
In Frozen 2 she mostly wears that original colour palette of light blue that helps her “stay light, bright and feel like ice”, but during the “Into the Unknown” song sequence, she’s wearing a magenta night gown and a more casual version of her iconic braid (after all, she’s meant to be prepared for sleep), which gives her character design continuity, while the magenta falls on the approved colour spectrum of “blues and cool colours”. As Lee said, “If we go too warm with her, you inherently feel like something’s wrong.”
Lee worked with her colleague Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay on designing the costumes and hairstyles for Frozen 2, and it’s not just Elsa who got an update, or whose hair is important to telling the story. Willful and spunky little sister Anna is also at the centre of Frozen, and by the time the sequel was released had also grown up. This meant her iconic pigtail braids from the first film had to go. "Anytime that we tried to put her in the pigtail braids for this film, particularly in her travel costume, she just felt too young," Lee told Vox. “It felt like she was still a school girl.”
And Anna’s travel costume went through 122 different iterations before the team decided on the one we see in the film, which included trying different colour schemes, shapes and silhouettes. “There are 121 iterations of it that you’ll never see,” Sastrawinata-Lemay told the New York Times, which demonstrates the amount of work that goes into crafting seamless on-screen characters who are loved the world over.
That love isn’t just because of how the characters look, but what they represent: independence, loyalty, love, compassion, fairness and fierceness.
– Matt Millikan
Discover the creativity and innovation of almost 100 years of Disney Animation in our latest exhibition Disney: The Magic of Animation.
Delve into the Walt Disney Animation Studios collection in the comfort of your own home.
*Subscription required. Conditions apply.