In the decades-long quest to perfect animated hair, the makers of Merida's wild locks in Pixar's Brave have gotten one step closer to perfection. Hair has presented a particular problem for animators -- a problem that CGI animation has improved upon but not ameliorated. The way locks move can make a character look just the right amount of real. Though, there is such a thing as too real, where we fall into the Uncanny Valley, a land with creepy too-human characters that mess with our minds. But, even with some slips in the wrong direction, we have seen a marked improvement in hair animation, with this ginger's wild locks presenting a new level of hair animation.
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Let's take a look at how far we've come:
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Pre-Pixar and the modern CGI era, animation didn't get hair right because the technology wasn't there. "As any animator will tell you, the hardest thing to accurately render is the millions of tiny strands of hair on a human head," Janelle Brown wrote in Spin back in August 2001. Brown's story was about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which was at the cutting edge of CGI-rendered actors. Ariel of Little Mermaid fame, for example, was supposed to have curly hair, but the technology wouldn't allow it, according to Wired's Rachel Gross. So instead, we got that flowy red blob, which was more of a singular mass than individual strands of hair. We wouldn't call that curly. Maybe wavy? Flouncy?
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Whatever the official texture, it did not look natural. We have to admit, as children, we loved her hair. But that was probably because it was an unattainable ideal of perfect hair: Smooth and big. It had all the volume, without any of the frizz. There is one scene her hair verges on human, when she does that hair twist move. We suspect it has to do with the individual strands we can see. But throughout the rest of the movie it looks weird, a term many of our Atlantic Wire colleagues used to describe '90s Disney animation hair.
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However romantic we kids found Ariel's hair, once CGI came along, animators tried to make things look realer. "Good God, that hair," is how Brown begins her Spin story about Final Fantasy's animation strides. Given the ability to animate each and every strand, the characters really did look realer. With that power, however, came a lot of missteps. Like we said, things can get too real, which is where the notion of the "uncanny valley" comes into play. "It's a paradox of animation that you can put arms and a face on a spoon, say, or make a deer talk, and it looks cute. But make a character too lifelike, and the brain no longer reads it as good animation, but as reality with something wrong about it. That's the uncanny valley," explains The Guardian's Steve Rose about the creepy characters in last year's Tin Tin.
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But, in general, CGI has helped animators give their characters more, well, character. Take the princess in Tangled, the Disney movie based on Rapunzel, a heroine who is half hair. "We could have drawn the hair in 2-D but it would have been just a yellowish shape on screen," director Byron Howard told The Wall Street Journal's Christopher John Farley. "With CGI, we can render 100,000 strands of hair—it's almost a character in itself."
CGI and Curl Perfection
Curls are harder to draw than boring straight locks. (Full disclosure: This writer has curly-ish hair.) Pixar had to invent a whole different type of animation to get the texture and bounce right, simulation supervisor Claudia Chung explains in the clip below via Wired. "The tricky thing about curly hair is the curls themselves are really firm," she said. "There is this weird paradox where a 'spring' of hair needs to remain stiff in order to hold its curl, but it also has to remain soft in its movement," she added in a separate interview with MSNBC's Emile Lorditch. To get the right look, her team used more than 1,500 hand-made strands, some more twisted than other. Chung gives a full explanation of the process here:
Did it work? Well, most of Brave's reviews mention Merida's hair ("a joyful burst of fiery red tendrils that move with a bouncing life of their own," according to The Atlantic Wire's Richard Lawson), so Pixar must've done something right.