The 2019 film from Walt Disney Animation Studios is, of course, Frozen 2, which really does not need any additional introduction. Instead, here is a brief personal anecdote. I remember seeing the first Frozen in theaters the day it came out, and at some point halfway through the movie, it dawned on me that what was unfolding on the screen was really something special. By the end of the first Frozen, I was convinced that I had to somehow get myself a job at Disney Animation some day. Six years later, here we are, with Frozen 2’s release imminent, and here I am at Disney Animation. Frozen 2 is my fourth credit at Disney Animation, but somehow seeing my name in the credits at the wrap party for this film was even more surreal than seeing my name in the credits on my first film. Working with everyone on Frozen 2 was an enormous privilege and thrill; I’m incredibly proud of the work we have done on this film!
Making Frozen 2 saw us push Disney’s Hyperion Renderer the hardest and furthest yet to date, and I think the result really shows in the final film. Frozen 2 is stunningly beautiful to look at it; seeing it for the first time in its completed form was a humbling experience, since there were many moments where I realized I honestly had no idea how our artists had managed to push the renderer as far as they did. During the production of Frozen 2, we also welcomed three superstar rendering engineers to the rendering team: Mark Lee, Joe Schutte, and Wei-Feng Wayne Huang; their contributions to our team and to Frozen 2 simply cannot be overstated!
On Frozen 2, I got to play a part on several fun and interesting initiatives! Hyperion’s modern volume rendering system saw a number of major improvements and advancements for Frozen 2, mostly centered around rendering optically thin volumes. Hyperion’s modern volume rendering system is based on null-collision tracking theory, which is exceptionally well suited for dense volumes dominated by high-order scattering (such as clouds and snow). However, as anyone with experience developing a volume rendering system knows, optically thin volumes (such as mist and fog) are a major weak point for null-collision techniques . Wayne was responsible for a number of major advancements that allowed us to efficiently render mist and fog on Frozen 2 using the modern volume rendering system, and Wayne was kind enough to allow me to play something of an advisory / consulting role on that project. Also, Frozen 2 is the first feature film on which we’ve deployed Hyperion’s path guiding implementation into production; this project was the result of some very tight collaboration between Disney Animation and Disney Research Studios. Last summer, I worked with Peter Kutz, our summer intern Laura Lediaev, and with Thomas Müller from ETH Zürich / Disney Research Studios to prototype an implementation of Practical Path Guiding in Hyperion. Joe Schutte then took on the massive task (as one of his first tasks on the team, no less!) of turning the prototype into a production-quality feature, and Joe worked with Thomas to develop a number of improvements to the original paper. Finally, I worked on some lighting / shading improvements for Frozen 2, which included developing a new spot light implementation and, with Matt Chiang, a solution to the long-standing normal / bump mapped shadow terminator problem. If you want to learn more about all of the above, go to SIGGRAPH 2020, where I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot more about Frozen 2!
I think Frozen projects provide an interesting window into how far rendering has progressed at Disney Animation over the past six years. We’ve basically had some Frozen project going on every few years, and each Frozen project upon completion has represented the most cutting edge rendering capabilities we’ve had at the time. The original Frozen in 2013 was the studio’s last project rendered using Renderman, and also the studio’s last project to not use path tracing. Frozen Fever in 2015, by contrast, was one of the first projects (alongside Big Hero 6) to use Hyperion and full path traced global illumination. The jump in visual quality between Frozen and Frozen Fever was enormous, especially considering that they were released only a year and a half apart. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which I’ve written about before, served as the testbed for a number of enormous changes and advancements that were made to Hyperion in preparation for Ralph Breaks the Internet. Frozen 2 represents the full extent of what Hyperion can do today, now that Hyperion is a production-hardened, mature renderer backed by a team that is now very experienced. The original Frozen looked decent when it first came out, but since it was the last non-path-traced film we made, it looked dated visually just a few years later. Comparing the original Frozen with Frozen 2 is like night and day; I’m very confident that Frozen 2 will still look visually stunning and hold up well long into the future.
One particular thing in Frozen 2 that makes me especially happy is how all of the water looks in the film, and especially how the water looks in the dark seas sequence seen in the trailers. On Moana, we really struggled with getting whitewater and foam to look appropriately bright and white. Since that bright white effect comes from high-order scattering in volumes and at the time we were still using our old volume rendering system that couldn’t handle high-order scattering well, the artists on Moana wound up having to rely on a lot of ingenious trickery to get whitewater and foam to look just okay. I think Moana is a staggeringly beautiful film, but if you know where to look, you may be able to tell that the foam looks just a tad bit off. On Frozen 2, however, we were able to do high-order scattering, and as a result, all of the whitewater and foam in the dark seas sequence looks just absolutely amazing. No spoilers, but all I’ll say is that there’s another part in the movie that isn’t in any trailer where my jaw was just on the floor in terms of water rendering; you’ll know it when you see it.
To give a sense of just how gorgeous Frozen 2 looks, below are some stills from the movie, in no particular order, 100% rendered using Hyperion. As usual, these are all from marketing shots and trailers; once the film is out on home media, I’ll swap out for higher quality stills. If you love seeing cutting edge rendering in action, I strongly encourage going to see Frozen 2 on the biggest screen you can find! The film has wonderful songs, a fantastic story, and developed, complex, funny characters, and of course there is not a single frame in the movie that isn’t stunningly beautiful.
All images in this post are courtesy of and the property of Walt Disney Animation Studios.