F is for Flame-buoyant: How Pixar Made Merida’s Brave Hair Misbehave

by Janine on 22 June 2012 · 11 comments

I knew a girl in university who had the most amazing thick, untamable waves. It was a time before John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease and Carmen Tal’s argan-infused MoroccanOil; Nicola’s dark mass of springy, below-shoulder-length hair coiled, curved and danced, driving girls nuts with envy, and men wild with desire. “After-sex hair,” we called it.

I realize Brave is a family film, but I’ma go see it for that fantastic red mane. Sure, it’s nice that Princess Merida is a strong, independent female character — Pixar’s first female protagonist, in fact — who doesn’t need a man to complete her. But I’m mesmerized by. That. Hair.

As bold and determined as she is, Merida’s powerful hair sparked Pixar’s first major animation-system upgrade. The CGI studio is behind monster hits such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. The technology Pixar’s animation wizards masterfully wielded for 25 years helped earn $7 billion, 29 Academy Awards (according to Time; Wikipedia says 26), five Golden Globes and three Grammies. But it wasn’t quite up to creating the reality-rich depth and movement required for Brave, particularly for That. Hair.

Aside from spawning a new CGI system, getting the texture right also meant developing an infallible understanding of how unmanageable curls behave — no small process when one of the initial concepts likened curly hair to “a telephone cord you wave around.”

Telephone-cord coils aren’t an exactly natural representation, but throw in some realistic colour-and-curl variety — 1,500 individual curves, to be exact — and 111,700 hairs, and you’re on your way.

“We finally figured out that Merida’s hair actually experiences a much lower gravity than the rest of the characters,” says the movie’s simulation supervisor Claudia Chung in an interview on Animation Magazine.  (You know exactly what that gravity-thing means if you have crazy, bouncy, willful curls of your own, right?)

Pixar artists also had to build five different hairstyles for the film, and figure out exactly how the hair should move in specific circumstances — apparently the archery-scene sequence in which Merida pulls back her hood was a two-month long labour of love.

The results are spectacular — that much is evident even in the movie’s posters and stills, as well as the trailers.

From just a beauty perspective, perhaps Merida’s wonderful hair is already fostering more appreciation for unruly curls that lean toward unkempt (lean is the operative word), and inspiring healthier self-esteem in those who might otherwise live a life too full of bad-hair days.

Are you going to see Brave? For the same reason I am?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki 23 June 2012 at 12:36 pm

We’re going to see Brave! But maybe for different reasons. :)


Danielle 25 June 2012 at 9:00 am

I cannot wait to see this movie!! I have a huge mane of curls, and I absolutely despise when makeover scenes in movies take the frumpy girl with the wild curly hair and have her straighten it in order to look “beautiful.” I love my curls and embrace them! Way to go Pixar!!

A colleague who saw the movie this past weekend said that the hair was basically it’s own character – love it!


Janine 25 June 2012 at 10:23 am

I totally agree re: that makeover move, Danielle! And your colleague is right about Merida’s hair as its own character. With its lively colour and movement as well as the incredible detail, it comes close to stealing every scene. Amazing, amazing, amazing.


Susan 26 June 2012 at 1:34 pm

Wow, love her hair! Have to see this movie!!


Sandra 13 July 2012 at 2:47 pm

I will go to see Merida but not for the hair… I have the same curls so I’m not really impress for a computer that do what nature give me already…


Janine 14 July 2012 at 8:39 am

Enjoy, Sandra — and lucky you with that fabulous hair.

My perspective is that usually, animation doesn’t quite measure up to real life. What Pixar does with Merida’s hair is pretty special; in a way it pays tribute to wild, unruly curls. I’ve met too many women who consider their wild curls trouble instead of a blessing. I hope that seeing their hair portrayed as wonderful, dynamic and stunning, as well as beautifully animated with ground-breaking technology makes them like their hair more.

I like your attitude — you sound like you love your hair!


Alexa 9 January 2013 at 9:26 pm

God help me, I’m actually going to be COSPLAYING Merida this summer. This wig is going to be the death of me.


Janine 9 January 2013 at 9:51 pm

Omigod, I can only imagine. How humid do your summers get — where are you?


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