The Best of Both Worlds: The Art and Animation of Disney’s “Tangled”


     Perhaps you haven’t seen the film, but chances are, you’ve heard of it. Disney’s Tangled, officially their 10th “princess” movie, was released in 2010. A total of six years and roughly $260 million went into the making of the film, which earned considerable success at the box office, and became the second installment in what many have dubbed Disney’s “new Renaissance”. Although largely overshadowed by the success of Disney’s immensely popular Frozen (2013), Tangled is, in reality, a significant film that took the beauty of animated films to new heights, and changed the world of animation forever.

      Originally, co-producer Glen Keane wanted the film to be done using the traditional 2-D animation process. However, others insisted the film use the more advanced 3-D CGI (computer-generated imagery) medium. After a lengthy discussion concerning the pros and cons of each style, the two sides compromised: they would attempt to create an animated film that would use the new technology and programs available to them, but also invoke the look and feel of traditional, hand-animated Disney films. Tangled, as Disney’s 50th animated film, would aspire to “combine the best of both worlds.”

      Though this sounded simple enough, it would prove to be no easy feat. To begin with, capturing the complexity of the human form with computers had been a challenge for animators ever since the release of the first computer-animated film in 1995 (Toy Story). It was also a challenge to transfer the emotion and feeling captured by pencil and paper to the computer screen. This time, however, Keane was determined that they would make the computer “bend its knee to the artist”, rather than vice versa.  

      A new program called “Wacom Cintiq” soon came in handy, as it enabled the team to “draw” in 2-D over the animation on the computer. This allowed them to compare the two styles, and in turn, refine the animation until it had the natural fluidity and organic feel of hand-drawn animation.  

     New technology also needed to be invented to help in the daunting task of animating Rapunzel’s hair. To prevent Rapunzel’s hair from clumping and hanging unattractively, a group of software engineers used a new program, Dynamic Wires. “We developed different techniques to put in the twists and turns and hold it while it moved, which is not what hair wants to do naturally….we had to make up physics to do it!” said software engineer Kelly Ward, who spent six years designing programs to help them animate Rapunzel’s hair.   

     In order to ensure that they would portray the heroine’s long hair realistically, animators also spent hours studying how human hair behaves in different circumstances. They hired a model with knee-length hair to move her body into different positions, allowing them to observe how her hair shifted with each subtle movement. They hung a long cloth from an office balcony, eager to see how it interacted with wind. And in order to understand how it would actually feel to have hair as long as Rapunzel’s, they even ran through the office wearing helmets weighed down by 70 ft of fishing line!

      Finally, after succeeding in getting the heroine’s hair to “obey” them, the team had to colorize it without giving it a “dyed” look. The result they wanted (and ultimately ended up with) was seventy feet of lustrous, silky, golden-blonde hair…not an easy feat in the CGI world!

   A lot of work also went into creating the other characters. Thankfully for the team, none of Rapunzel’s companions had very long hair. However, they did possess a wide range of unique traits that had to be captured on-screen. And in order to bring this about, the team had to start with pencils and pads of paper. 

    Some of the earliest concept sketches for the characters in Tangled bear little semblance to the characters we know and love from the finished production. “Flynn Ryder”, for example, started out as a long-haired British farmer known as “Bastion”. However, after quizzing a large group of women on what they found most attractive in a man, the handsome, swashbuckling thief recognizable from the film came into existence.      

     Originally, flamboyant, beautiful “Mother Gothel” looked like an updated version of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. After choosing to give her a more youthful appearance, the team heightened the contrast between the villainess and her “daughter” by giving Gothel a darker, more brazen look. The scarlet dress that Gothel wears (inspired by fashions of the 1500s) was also designed to clash with Rapunzel’s more demure eighteenth-century wardrobe.

     And although Rapunzel’s appearance changed little over the film’s evolution, her mascot, a chameleon named “Pascal”, began life as a squirrel! His transition into the color-changing reptile came about after the team decided they wanted him to reflect the heroine’s creative, quirky personality.  

     Creating a world in which to place these characters was another challenge. However, Disney’s employees excel at creating fantastical worlds, as they have proven time and time again. 

    One of the primary inspirations for the fictional kingdom in Tangled was Jean-Honore Fragonard’s painting, “The Swing”. The famous painting (a version of which can be seen during one scene in Disney’s Frozen) conveys the same “lush and romantic” atmosphere that Glen Keane and his colleagues wanted to re-create in the film. The deep, rich greens and dream-like haze captured by Fragonard’s paintbrush were duplicated by the 3-D team, who chose to taken an aesthetic, rather than realistic, approach to the film.  

    Two of Disney’s previous films, Pinocchio (1940), and Cinderella (1950), also served as inspirations for the world in Tangled. The lyrical, graceful lines that made up the appealing compositions in Cinderella were also used in the linear, curving compositions seen in Tangled. These subtle curves play a large role in creating an aesthetic, visually pleasing arrangement on-screen.  

    In designing the buildings and furniture seen throughout Tangled, the team turned to Pinnochio for inspiration. In Pinocchio, compact, heavy shapes are wedged against each Straight lines and angles are juxtaposed against curves, giving the film a unique feel.  

    These trends were also observed in Tangled. One need look no farther than the “Snuggly Duckling Inn” seen in the film as evidence of this. Just as in Pinocchio, bulky shapes contrast in a pleasing manner with neat angles and soft curves. In fact, as a tribute to the beloved classic, the team of animators discreetly tucked a “Pinocchio” puppet in the rafters of the inn; he can be seen briefly towards the end of the song “I’ve Got a Dream.” 

     However, perfecting the symmetry and composition of each scene in the film was only one of the many steps in the artistic process. The team also had to “flesh out” each prop and background element, choose color schemes, decide how to contrast light and shadow, and add the unique details that would stick in viewer’s memories and make the film truly one-of-a-kind.  For example, in order to make the fact that the heroine willingly spent nearly 18 years in her tower more believable, the team realized that they would have to give her living quarters a homey, secure feel. Thus, they strove to design a tower that viewers would actually enjoy living in.

     The tower is a place where Rapunzel, an artist at heart, can freely express her bright, hopeful personality. She truly makes it “her own” by filling every square inch with her handiwork. Inspired by the whimsical artwork of Glen Keane’s daughter, Claire, the team strove to capture Rapunzel’s playful, imaginative nature in the numerous paintings and murals that adorn the walls of her tower. They also flooded the tower with light, creating an illusion of peace and contentment. Only when Rapunzel finally sees her tower as the prison it is does light abandon the tower, shrouding it in an oppressive shadow.  

     Perhaps the most visually memorable scene in the film was the sequence in which the kingdom releases thousands of floating paper lanterns into the sky- a tribute to their long lost princess. Over 45,000,000 digital shimmering yellow lanterns bring warmth and contrast to a dark, cool background. In the words of A.O.Scott (The New York Times) “…[this scene] is especially breathtaking, partly because it departs from the usual 3-D insistence on deep focus and sharply defined images, creating an experience that is almost tactile in its dreamy softness.”

Though years of hard work were put into this 100-minute film, the result was worth it. Disney’s Tangled proved to the world that two different styles of animation could successfully be combined to tell a timeless tale. It also testified to the fact that Disney was still capable of producing an inventive, memorable, family-friendly film that was up to par with previous classics such as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1992).

   Will Disney’s “neo-renaissance” continue? Only time will tell. But Tangled continues to serve as a reminder of the imaginative minds employed by the company, which in turn gives us hope for the future.

Meredith Joy is a homeschool high school student who lives with her family in Ohio. Most people would probably describe her as a shy, generally quiet person; they might also say that she is rather artistic, since she loves to draw, sketch, paint and make all sorts of crafts from the privacy of her ‘studio’ (really a table in the middle of her room piled with yarn, bits of paper, glue, and bins of supplies). Her other interests include cooking, star-gazing, writing, and of course, reading! If asked what her favorite books are, she would say “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Mark of the Lion Trilogy, and “The Hunger Games Trilogy”. As a result, she spends a lot of time day-dreaming about Middle Earth, Ancient Rome, and future North America! One of her many aspirations in life is to design costumes for films dealing with these topics.