Do You Wanna Build a CGI Snowflake?
March 22, 2014

Do You Wanna Build A CGI Snowflake?

If you cannot guess from the title, I am going to talk about Frozen.

I went and saw Disney’s Frozen when it came to theaters and I loved it, ranking it pretty high on my list of Disney film, as well as animated films overall. It has beautiful effects, wonderful music, interesting characters, beautiful digital cinematography, a rather unique set of twists – at least for Disney films – and did I mention beautiful? Okay, not trying to shy away from it, the film is gorgeous. Worth a particular mention are the snow and ice effects, particularly those of Elsa’s magic. The scene of her now famous Let it Go song where she crafts a castle of ice, creating a dazzling chandelier, was an incredible visual display. Now, while personally I prefer the older style of cell-shaded animation (and do not get me started on mixing cell-shaded with CGI) I will admit that the animators for this film did a spectacular job. An interesting point to note, however, is that the same technology used to make those gorgeous ice crystal effects are also used to simulate explosions and material wear and tear. That technology is called the Material Point Method, or MPM.

Simulation-based engineering science, or SBES, is what allows researchers to predict the effects of building explosions for use in both demolitions and to protect against explosive attacks. Created by the University of Missouri, the MPM is a program that determines the effect of blast and impact resistance in various material and design. Created more than 20 years ago, MPM has been used to research many real-world problems such as fire, severe weather patterns, terrorist attacks, and others. MPM creates scenarios that allow researchers to determine what sorts of materials and design strategies are best, or react most favorably, to impacts and explosive detonations. Through simulation, designers are able to test their various theories before putting them into practice application, which saves on building costs, labor, and even lives.

Recently, Disney has used this same technology in developing its realistic looking snow-effects for Frozen. This was how they were able to create the particle effects of a character walking through snow, of snowball fights, and the overall way that snow reacts when force is applied to it. Their use of MPM is what made it all seem realistic, an important element of drawing the audience into the picture. Virtually the entire movie was snowy, with characters interacting with it in all sorts of different ways ranging from the magical to the mundane. Because of that, the animators knew that they had to get the snow effects right. That is why they looked to SBES, and the MPM in particular, for how to generate those sorts of effects.

MPM has had many applications over the years, and now being part of the Disney “magic” can be added to that long list. Its a fascinating technology that never seems to run out of things it is able to do. What is next? According to the University of Missouri, they are developing a new MPM for the purposes creating alternative energy sources. We will all just have to see where that takes us.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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