This new setting has a level of movement, texture, dimension, and scale that would have been unthinkable 17 years ago, when Disney made its first foray into full computer animation with “Chicken Little” (2005). Since then, Disney has expanded its tool set with each successive film to create landscapes that feel just as alive as the characters.
For the storybook setting of “Tangled” (2010), the environment artists created new tree-modeling and growth tools to help them build art-directed forests at scale. For the even more highly stylized vegetation in “Frozen” (2013), Disney developed a full vegetation tool to create not just trees but bushes, foliage, and plants, all in very specific and artistically guided shapes.
Having mastered these organic environments, the studio took on the challenge of a densely packed, lights-filled urban setting in “Big Hero 6” (2014). To handle the hundreds of thousands of lights in the city of San Fransokyo, Disney’s engineers built a powerful new renderer that could work with several million rays of light at once.
The island environments of “Moana” (2016) drove Disney to find new ways to simulate water, lava, sand, mud, and foam, improvements that laid the groundwork for more ocean simulation in “Frozen II” (2019), while the Southeast Asian settings of “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) pushed Disney to revamp how it creates atmospheric elements like fog and mist.
With all these tools, the team on “Strange World” had to balance creating an interactive, dynamic environment with a life of its own and staying true to the story-first principle of the classic Disney movies. To strike this careful balance, the filmmakers used a new animation pipeline and tools like camera lenses, editing, and sound design to make sure their world always supported — never distracted from — the characters’ emotional journeys.
We spoke with “Strange World” VFX supervisor Steve Goldberg, head of environments Larry Wu, animated environments supervisor Ben Fiske, and editor Sarah Reimers to find out how they did it.