From gaming to movie-making to marketing, animation has a long list of uses. But who knew possibly solving a decades-old mystery was one of them?
If you’re in the tech industry, you have probably seen the 3D animated feature film ‘Frozen’ and ‘Dyatlov Pass’ strung together in multiple headlines. That’s because the snow animation in the 3D movie Frozen was so realistic that researchers Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin had to use it to attempt at uncovering the Dyatlov Pass incident, a mystery plaguing Russia for over 60 years.
In this article, we explore the event that sparked more than 70 theories, and the recent study that could put these theories to rest.
What’s the Dyatlov Pass Mystery?
Before we get into how the 3D movie Frozen is relevant to all of this, let’s first take a quick dive into the Dyatlov Pass incident.
In February 1959, nine bodies were found in the snow-covered Ural Mountains of Russia. The bodies, discovered in an area called Kholat Syakhl (translation: “Dead Mountain”), were later identified as hikers who went on an expedition to where the weather was cold and harsh.
When the hikers were reported missing for weeks, investigators set off to the mountains and found the group, which was reportedly composed of a ski instructor and students from Ural Polytechnic Institute, in odd circumstances. Two of the bodies were more than a mile away from the site, according to CNN. Three bodies were somewhere closer to the campsite. And two months later, the remaining bodies were located in a forest ravine, according to The Telegraph.
While several speculators might theorize their deaths were caused by an avalanche, a few others tend to believe otherwise.
One of the central discoveries the investigators made was the injuries on the hikers, which include fractured skulls and a missing tongue, are not ordinary injuries you would find in avalanche victims. This scenario is what ignited so much speculation about the case, making an avalanche difficult to imagine. But researchers Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin tried to debunk these contentions concerning the Dyatlov Pass mystery — with the help of Disney’s 3D animated movie Frozen.
How the 3D Animated Snow of Frozen Helped Build Clues to What Happened
Researchers Gaume and Puzrin teamed up to provide quantifiable evidence supporting the avalanche theory. According to Google Scholar, Johan Gaume is a professor at EPFL and the head of Snow and Avalanche Simulation Laboratory (SLAB). Alexander M. Puzrin is a professor of Geotechnical Engineering at ETH Zurich.
In their paper “Mechanisms of slab avalanche release and impact in the Dyatlov Pass incident in 1959”, they mention two of the main motivations for researching the Dyatlov Pass mystery. One of these motivations is to determine a “quantifiable physical mechanism” to address the conflicting arguments surrounding the avalanche theory.
What the Dyatlov Pass Researchers Found
A few key points the researchers wanted to address through quantifiable evidence are:
- The likelihood of an avalanche to cause the victims’ injuries
- Whether or not the slope of the area in which they set up camp
- The possibility of a delayed avalanche causing the victims’ death
Here, we talk about how the researchers attempted to tackle the first point. With the help of the 3D animated film Frozen, of course. The elements Gaume and Puzrin needed in order to determine how an avalanche could have caused the injuries were:
- A realistic depiction of snow behavior
- The kind of impact an avalanche would have on rigid bodies
If you’re thinking they enlisted the help of Frozen’s animators and engineers to simulate realistic snow behavior, then you are correct.
As for the second part, the pair used General Motors’ (GM) simulation of a car crash. In the experiment, GM used inanimate subjects “braced with rigid supports” and subjects without these supports, reports National Geographic. This allowed the researchers to see how an avalanche will impact sleeping bodies on rigid surfaces.
With this setup, the researchers found the injuries suffered by those involved in the Dyatlov incident were warranted. They said an avalanche was still probable despite their differences from the injuries of a regular avalanche victim.
What Makes the 3D Animated Snow of Frozen So Realistic?
The team responsible for Frozen’s snow animation and special effects explained real-world snow behaves differently depending on its phase. They elaborated on this in their paper “A material point method for snow simulation”. As it is a substance that straddles between solid and liquid states, real-world snow can exhibit a spectrum of behaviors that may be difficult to capture in a singular model.
In their paper, the Frozen team developed two models so their animation can embody snow behavior comprehensively. The first one is an approximation of the Material Point Method (MPM), which is a mathematical approach determining how different states of matter behave. In the approximated version of the MPM, the team applied it specifically to snow and the varying circumstances it could be in, such as during collisions.
The second model the team created is a constitutive model. According to the team, this model presents how snow, with an “elasto-plastic” quality, gives the illusion of real-world snow physics.
The Importance of High-fidelity 3D Animation
Our company has high regard for 3D animation that closely mimics the movement made by real objects and people. This is because we know well-executed 3D animation achieves the following for viewers and users, making their experience more impactful:
- Readability and clarity
- Emotional effect
Since the Frozen team perfectly captured snow behavior, they were able to satisfy all three. In their paper, they also beautifully described the importance of hyperrealistic 3D animation, particularly for snow, despite the difficulty that comes with its execution:
Whether it is powder snow fluttering in a skier’s wake, footsteps shattering an icy snow crust, or even packing snow rolled into balls to make a snowman, it is snow’s rich repertoire that makes it…compelling for storytelling.
Through realistic animation, viewers understand what characters and objects are trying to communicate, even without any dialogue. In the case of Frozen, snow was able to convey moments of tragedy and moments of joy. This creates an impact among people who consume a piece of media and may even elicit the artist’s intended emotional effect. These, among others, are the reasons why realistic animation is important. Plus, it might just help curious researchers solve a troubling mystery.
Researchers Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin employed the snow animation of the 3D Disney movie Frozen to support the avalanche theory of the Dyatlov Pass incident.
Through Frozen’s animation and General Motors’ car crash study, they determined it was possible for the victims to sustain the injuries caused by an avalanche, however irregular they may be.