SciTech Awards to Honor Trio of Female Engineers for Taking on Characters' Hair Simulation

Rapunzel’s hair in Disney’s 'Tangled.'
Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Rapunzel’s hair in Disney’s 'Tangled.'

A trio of female engineers will be among the honorees during the Academy's virtual Scientific and Technical Awards — particularly fitting given that Kathleen Kennedy will lead a tribute to women who work in the science and technical aspects of filmmaking.

The awards, to be handed out Feb. 13 at a virtual ceremony streamed on the Oscars website, will honor 17 technologies representing 55 total individuals.

This is a field still largely dominated by men. Since 1961, only 23 SciTech Awards have been given to 20 women, including the Award of Commendation to Mary Ann Anderson (environmentally responsible efforts) and multiple honors for Hildegard Ebbesmeier (cinema projection lenses), Diane E. Kestner (developments in motion picture film) and Jean Messner (color video-assist camera technology).

This year, three women — Hayley Iben of Pixar Animation Studios, and Kelly Ward Hammel and Maryann Simmons representing Walt Disney Animation Studios — will join their ranks, receiving Technical Achievement awards for advancements in hair simulation.

For the uninitiated, the process uses math and physics to move and control CG hair, a challenging task due to the complexity of hair itself. "The human head can have over 100,000 strands [that] are in constant contact with each other and the head," says Ward Hammel, who holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from the University of North Carolina and was a senior software engineer at Disney. "Real hair can look and behave in a lot of different ways depending on the style, length or environment."

Ward Hammel, Simmons and their team created the SciTech-honored Walt Disney Animation Studios Hair Simulation System to manage Rapunzel's ultra-long waves in 2010's Tangled. "We knew we couldn't use anything off the shelf," says Simmons, a senior software engineer at Disney who has an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from UC Berkeley. "Long hair is notoriously difficult to animate. [Rapunzel] has 70 feet of hair — she's constantly touching it and using it as a tool. That's when the work got started."

It's now a standard part of Disney Animation's toolset, having been used in Moana's look and Frozen's princess styles. Simmons notes that Elsa needed "a very stylized look with her braid … while still looking natural in the transition to long, flowing hair."

Iben, Pixar's director of engineering who holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science from UC Berkeley, is among the team being recognized for the studio's Taz hair simulation system, first used on 2012's Brave to create Merida's long curls. Her look had "thousands of hairs, but each was in a group and used to collide with each other and to give Merida her signature volume," says Iben, a member of PixWIT (Pixar Women in Technology), which focuses on outreach to young women. "We wanted to have this bouncy motion that looks natural and soft but also maintain the shape of the curl during that motion. And she's moving very quickly."

All three women hope to see more females in the field. Says Simmons, who contributes to efforts like the group Girls Who Code: "The talent's out there. It's [about] exposure."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.