Last month, Corrina Lawson was slated to head out to Disney Studios for a behind-the-scenes look at the hit movie Frozen—which crossed the $1 billion box-office mark on Sunday, the day it won two Oscars—plus the acclaimed Saving Mr. Banks and the upcoming Pirate Fairy. Sadly, she wasn’t able to make it, and she threw the opportunity for the trip out to the rest of the Geek Dad family. I somehow managed to be the first to hurl myself on that grenade.
You know. To save the others.
It turned out to be a wonderful trip and a fantastic excuse to leave the Wisconsin winter behind me for a few days. The Disney folks treated me and two dozen other family bloggers like royalty for those days, and they crammed a ton of stunning information into our heads while we were there. This is the first in a series of posts about that trip and my experiences there.
On the morning of February 11, we were brought into Disney Animation Studios. This is where Disney makes its feature films, including Frozen and the upcoming Big Hero 6. The marketing art team there went all out, decorating most of the place in Frozen artwork and displays. (I was happy to discover that my old friend Joe Dunn was the art director for much of this. Joe used to work for WildStorm Studios back when I helped create the WildStorms CCG for them, way back in the mid-’90s.)
After a quick breakfast in the second-floor lobby, they broke us up into three groups and rotated us through three stations: the voice recording studio, the rigging lab (both of which I’ll get to in a later post), and an interview with three of the people behind Frozen.
The trio of creators included Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho. Chris and Jennifer directed the film together, Jennifer wrote the screenplay as well, and Peter produced the movie.
Chris has worked on several Disney films, going all the way back to The Small One back in 1978. He’s best known for co-directing Tarzan and Surf’s Up.
Jennifer got her start with Disney by co-writing Wreck-It Ralph with Phil Johnston (who also wrote Cedar Rapids). She’s the first female director for any Disney Animation Studios film, and she’s also the first writer there to become a director as well.
Peter’s first production for Disney was Treasure Planet, and he also helped bring Chicken Little, The Princess and the Frog, and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh films to screens.
Chris, Jennifer, and Peter sat down to answer a few questions from us and chatted for about twenty minutes. Here are the highlights.
Peter originally pitched Frozen about five and a half years ago, along with a couple other ideas, and it was known as The Snow Queen then, as it was based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. Even then, he had set out to see if they could redefine true love in the story, to bring something new to the screen. Peter and Jennifer came in later to help out, and the final version of the film wound up being in production for about two and a half years.
They’d always had two female leads in the film, but it wasn’t until during a story meeting that someone suggested the two be sisters. “That struck a chord with everyone,” said Chris.
I asked them, “What was it that finally got it green lit? What was the magic moment where you finally said, okay, we’re going to do this?”
Chris listed a number of reasons.
- This was a new kind of world, one filled with ice and snow, something Disney had never tackled in a feature before.
- It offered the chance to redefine true love in a family way.
- The Snow Queen character (Elsa) started out more as a villain and stayed that way for a few years until they figured out she should be Anna’s sister, which is when she really clicked.
- It has always been pitched as a musical, which helped sell it.
Peter chipped in that the story had always held so much promise. John Lasseter, Disney’s Chief Creative Officer at the Animation Studios and at Pixar, had said (as he often had before), “Let’s take the audience to someplace they haven’t been before.” And the film certainly succeeded at that.
I mentioned the irony in the fact that they’d created a movie about snow while living in southern California. They laughed and told me that all three of them had grown up in snow at one point or another, but their art director, Michael Giaimo, had never seen snow. They’d sent him to the Hotel de Glace in Quebec—a famous hotel made of ice—to get a better feel for it.
They joked about how the film had come out during the recent polar vortex weather. At one theater, the marquee had read “Frozen. How Ironic.”
Much of the film’s look was based on Norwegian culture, but they strove to make it something all its own. As Jennifer said, “You could pull any frame from this film and know it was from Frozen. Everything was stylized. Every shot, every frame.”
They discussed working with Robert (Bobby) Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. They came in to write the music after much of the story had already been worked out, but Jennifer said she’d bring them in from the start next time if she had the choice. “We had to pretty much start over once we started with the music because it changed the tone. It changed everything.” As it was, they wound up working with the Lopezes every morning for about fourteen months straight, to which Jennifer attributed the music working so well with the film’s story.
According to Chris, they switched the title from The Snow Queen to Frozen because “as we went on, it became much more of Anna’s story. Frozen works for the landscape, and for their relationship, which is frozen in the film when they were little girls.”
Jennifer also revealed that she’d written a lot of back stories for the characters, not all of which got to be shown in the film. She spoke about one of the heroes, Kristoff. “He’s an orphan, and he probably ran away from the orphanage so he could live the life he wanted.” She gets asked about it a lot and said, “There might be a book.”
Chris pointed out that they’re in early development for a Frozen Broadway show, “And you never know what could happen with that show. You have to fill things out a bit to fill up a three-hour show.”
Jennifer revealed the secret behind the shopkeeper Oaken’s accent. When they were writing the scene, Chris Williams (director of Bolt) came in and did this funny little voice with Oaken and his drawings. Chris is Canadian, and his wife is Scandinavian, and Oaken’s accent is a combination of those sounds. “We asked him to do the scratch recording, and we just loved it. We auditioned about 40,000 actors to find the voice of Oaken, and we never got over Chris.” In the end, he wound up voicing the character for the final film.
They haven’t started to look much past Frozen yet, as far as what they’re going to do next. When we spoke with them, the film had yet to open up in Japan, and they had been promoting it nonstop for months. As Peter said, “We’re still on the ride of this movie, and it’s become such a phenomenon that we just want to enjoy the ride, and then take a little time off.”
Chris chipped in. “These movies take so much time, it’s almost like going to college and graduating. You need to recharge your batteries and start absorbing things again. We spent four years of output, and now we need some input.”
Jennifer’s time with Frozen overlapped her time with Wreck-It Ralph. “I might need to check in with my life,” she laughed. “But we get to go back up to the secret development floor and dream something new up, and that’s the fun part.”
Special thanks to Disney for many of the photographs, and to Tori Michel at TheTVMom.com for recording the interview and sharing it with the rest of the bloggers on the trip.