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Costume design for animated movies is ridiculously difficult. The team behind Frozen 2 explains why.

How dresses of velvet and ice are animated. Plus, Anna gets a new hairstyle.

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Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Sven in Frozen 2.
Walt Disney Animation Studios

When Brittney Lee first signed on to do animated work for Disney’s Frozen more than six years ago, our Queen of Arendelle sported a very different look. “Elsa was blue and had black spiky short hair,” Lee says. The character went through many iterations before landing on her final beauty look of a thick white-blonde side braid, white skin, and an impressive purple smoky eye. Her wardrobe went through just as many changes. What started out as a coat made out of living weasels was eventually turned into a glistening gown that millions of little girls around the world would go on to wear.

Lee and her colleague Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay are part of the visual development team at Disney. This means they’re animated artists responsible for designing everything from the characters to the environment to the props. And, yes, the costumes. Both worked on designing the outfits for Anna and Elsa on Frozen 2, which Sastrawinata-Lemay notes might be the most intricate of any animated movie in history due to advancements in 3D and computer generated imagery technology. It’s an upgrade that’s made her and Lee’s jobs both more exciting — “because it helps to enhance the storytelling” — and more challenging, “because there are so many more details to consider.” For example, as Lee explains, many of the costumes in the first Frozen involved embroidery, but the technique wasn’t nearly as involved as it is now. “On this film, we could really be elaborate and add a lot of extra bead work or sequins that wouldn’t have been possible to do on the first film,” she explains. “We really tried to meet technologies’ needs in creating more art work and more design where appropriate.”

Then there comes enhancements to the fabric. Lee and her team use a C.G.I. tailoring program called Marvelous Designer that allows them to see how certain materials would drape on an animated character in the same way that it would drape on a person. “Something that is meant to be a velvet shouldn’t be moving as if it was tulle or if it was cotton,” Lee explains. “We run a whole bunch of tests until we can get it moving in a way that is believable and that is also hopefully true to the fabric that we’re trying to represent.”

Elsa’s costumes had to move realistically — even underwater.

The way a fabric behaves in motion is important in this particular film because both Elsa and Anna spend a big chunk of it on the move, traveling through forest and ocean. As Lee explains, the simulation team at Disney has a process of testing different settings on the digital fabric to predict how it will react to certain elements. For one scene that Elsa spends in the water, Lee says, “we could see the way her dress looked when she was walking in the water, we could see it soaking wet, and we could see it floating underwater before we ever signed off on the final approved design that she’s wearing.” Lee and her team also pulled a lot of underwater photography and videos for reference “so that [the animated dress] can be built and perform the way that everyone’s anticipating it to perform.” She continues: “We try to do as much leg work as we can in the design phase.”

When it comes to the costume design direction for Frozen 2, Sastrawinata-Lemay says they were told three things about the film beforehand: it takes place in the fall, Anna and Elsa will be three years older, and there’s going to be an epic journey. “Everything else is being worked out at the same time as we’re designing,” she says. Thankfully, since this is a sequel, they already had a good idea of who the sisters are style wise. “We didn’t have to ask the question of ‘oh, would she or would she not wear this,’” Lee says. “It was always more of ‘well, what’s right for this girl at this moment in time?’”

Anna’s style draws inspiration from traditional Norwegian folk wear known as the bunad, a dress typically made out of wool and adorned with embroidery, and silhouettes like the cinched waist and full, A-line skirt from Christian Dior’s “New Look.” Her looks tend to be grounded in the fabrics and materials of the place and time period (the 1840s-1850s, according to Lee), which means she wears heavier materials like wool and velvet and her color palette skews on the warmer side. The focus for this film centered around upgrading her wardrobe to something that felt more mature than the “bubbly younger effervescent sister,” Lee says. One instance is the shape line of Anna’s dress which, before, always included a rounded scalloped shape. “We really squared those shapes off, so she’s just a little bit more linear and a little less playful,” Lee says. After 122 iterations, the team ended up with a classic A-shape dress with a bell skirt and a deep purple travel cloak.

Anna (left, with snowman Olaf) wears Norwegian folk wear inspired capes and dresses.

For Elsa, the focus wasn’t to make her seem older, since “she’s always been a little more stoic and reserved,” Lee says. “She’s the older sister and so we sort of played that into her from the beginning.” But rather the challenge lay in how to design a costume that was going to endure high amounts of action. Elsa’s outfits draw inspiration from designers like Alexander McQueen and Elie Saab “just in their mystic grand silhouettes and bold statements,” Lee says. And everything the team had created for her up until the second film included long trains and floor length hemlines which would prove cumbersome. So the question then became: “How do we cut her hemline so that it’s not floor length, but still makes her feel like Elsa?”

Lee and her team managed to do this by creating a tailored coat paired with a double paneled cape, which allowed Elsa to “retain that snow queen dress quality that she had in ‘Let It Go,’” Then, for strength, they added snowflake encrusted shoulders that are meant to look like militaristic epaulettes. “We wanted to make sure we were illustrating that she’s the Queen of Arendelle,” Lee says. “There should be some sort of authority in the costume that she’s wearing for the bulk of the film.” As far as fabric and color go, tulle and cool shades are reserved for our frosty protagonist, who is creating these materials herself out of ice.

To add even more practicality to both Anna and Elsa’s wardrobes, they wear pants underneath their dresses. “We didn’t want [the pants] to be the element that you’re looking at, but we wanted them to function and help them be able to move through everything that they needed to move through,” Lee says. Elsa’s outfit is topped off with a pair of snowflake-adorned ice boots.

Sven, Kristoff, Olaf, Anna, and Elsa’s costumes look more realistic than ever in Frozen 2.

Along with the costumes, Lee and Sastrawinata-Lemay also received a directive to upgrade the sister’s hairstyles. “The big thing for Anna on the first film is that she really owned pigtail braids,” Lee says. “But anytime that we tried to put her in the pigtail braids for this film, particularly in her travel costume, she just felt too young. It felt like she was still a school girl.” With the suggestion from director Jennifer Lee, they ended up pulling half of her hair down and adding a crown braid that runs across the back of her head.

This is another case when the technological advancements proved to make things tricky. The program used for grooming was intended to build things like grass; meaning, the hair looked almost too much like hair. “At Disney, we like to stylize and we like to caricature things and make them feel very appealing and very approachable,” Lee says. “So we can’t necessarily go straight to completely realistic hair because then that fights with what our characters look like.” The team then had to find a balance of being somewhat realistic and somewhat caricature like. “That might mean that the hair follicles are a little bit larger than what they would be on a normal human or smaller and it might mean that there’s just more of this magic hair spray in Elsa’s hair,” Lee says. “There’s always things that we’ve gotta consider that are different than real life.”

Lee and Sastrawinata-Lemay are designing for what would be best for the characters and for the film, but they eventually have to grapple with whether or not people will want to wear their designs in real life. (They will; Disney reported that more than three million Anna and Elsa dresses were sold in North America in 2014 alone.) The duo try not to think about that when they’re in the thick of working though. “At the time, it’s more like solving a puzzle piece than designing for a consumer product,” Sastrawinata-Lemay says. Eventually they have to pass off what they refer to as “call outs” to their design team so that they can manifest their creations into physical costumes.

Elsa’s dresses in Frozen 2 are inspired by designers Alexander McQueen and Elie Saab.

The timeline of the process goes something like this: Once an outfit is approved and while Lee and Sastrawinata-Lemay are finalizing how the garment is constructed, where the seams are, and what specific fabrics they’re going to use, they simultaneously put together a diagram made up of call outs for the team that’s designing the physical costumes. “It’s like a bible on how to make the dress,’ Sastrawinata-Lemay says. “It’s really detailed, down to what direction the embroidery thread would go and how big or how small it is.”

It takes many iterations to get right, a relative idea since very rarely is there a one-to-one translation from film costume to consumer product, especially when it comes to the fabrics. Sastrawinata-Lemay says that, if somebody were going to make an exact replica of their designs, down to the materials used, “it would definitely be more of an haute couture gown outfit that would cost so much money.” The pair doesn’t have control over what the alternative materials are, but they understand the need to use affordable fabrics for items being mass produced. “It is no more expensive for us to put a very luxurious velvet cape on Anna than it would be for a much cheaper material,” Lee says, noting that this isn’t the case for product designers.

For the past two years that they’ve worked on Anna and Elsa, the animators have been immersed in the Disney universe, where the real world rules and restrictions don’t apply. “You’re designing for a princess so we kind of go all out,” Sastrawinata-Lemay says. “Because, well, why not?”

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