A couple weeks ago myself and a few other journalists got the great opportunity to explore behind the scenes of Disney’s latest animated achievement with “Frozen.” There’s a lot of the animation within this film that’s intriguing, but before we get to that, it’s time to focus on the directors and producers of this cool new film (no pun intended). If it isn’t for their combined effort to keep a movie off the ground a couple of these classic Disney animated films would have taken forever to get made.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee both have previous experience with animated Disney movies throughout the years, ranging from “Tarzan” to their most recent hit with “Wreck-It Ralph.” Basically “Frozen” is in really capable hands when these two directors, and producer Peter Del Vecho, came along to push this movie forward.
It’s no secret about the story behind the making of Disney’s “Frozen.” For years before his passing, Walt Disney wanted to adapt the famous tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” in his own way. Unfortunately he passed away before that could become a reality, but years later Walt is getting his wish with a creative team from his precious company that’s blossomed throughout the decades. When we got the chance to sit down and chat with the directors and producer of “Frozen,” they gave us a better insight into how difficult but rewarding it is to take part in a Disney animated movie that has some incredible songs sprinkled into the mix.
Chris [Buck], you’ve had characters that really interact with their environment. On this film, what was the fun environment to sort of play around with animation-wise?
Chris Buck: The very deep snow that they get into was a trick, and that was a fun environment. The ice is another one. A lot of the slipping and sliding that the characters do, but then just creating it and the beauty of it. I think that was phenomenal. The guys just did an incredible job. It wasn’t easy, by any means. The first things we did they looked kind of plasticky. CG can make things too perfect, and you have to go in and give it the flaws. We had to do that with the ice, give it flaws that help make it believable. So, that was a challenge, but I think it’s gorgeous what they did.
Jennifer Lee: The shot where Elsa builds the ice palace in her song, just in effects and lighting alone it took 50 people several months to make that shot. When we finally approved it in lighting, in this little approval room, there were a hundred people in the room cheering ’cause it was a bear to pull that off.
This dynamic between sisters seems like something that’s fresh in terms of the whole Disney princess genre. Why are fans not being told about it via the trailers?
Jennifer Lee: I don’t know. I think that might be coming. I think part of it is when you’re rolling it out, trying to introduce the story, and it’s a very big story. You want to set who the lead is and what the general issue is, then you want to start adding the layers. We found that trying to throw everything in the trailer was confusing people.
Chris Buck: Part of it was the trailer that just came out is giving people an idea of what is this movie about and who is gonna save the day. Who’s gonna save the kingdom from this eternal winter? We had done some tests and things just to see what works and that was one of them.
Jennifer Lee: Hopefully our big thing is it’s a very big movie and it’s complex. It has high stakes and we just wanted to make sure that you don’t watch it and go, “I don’t even know what that’s about.” So we’re doing it in stages.
Could you talk a little bit more about the musical numbers and how intimidating it is to do those for Disney?
Peter Del Vecho: We hired Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez really early on in the process and worked with them every day. They were based in New York but they would come out here when needed. We had a big screen video conference connection with them at least two hours every day. And a lot of it was just about story and story development, character development and really understanding what there were ’cause it’s very important. Our story is very complex and the songs needed to fit into that story and propel that complex story. Before they could write anything they had to understand who these characters were.
Chris Buck: And they really hammered us about simplifying these characters more. What does each one want? A song has to have a very simple idea and then it can shoot off from there, but it has to have a very clear idea. So it was a challenge for us to simplify each of their wants — Olaf, Elsa, Anna.
Jennifer Lee: Oftentimes in the past it’s a very simple story, and so the music in it is just sort of the stop and start in that. We wanted a big movie and we wanted to have the songs either drive the plot forward or reveal something about the character that was significant. There’s the song “Let It Go.” The minute we land on that song it changed everything in the movie. And so then we would ship the movie and then do a song they wrote would have to fall out and they’d have to do a new one. It was this chicken and egg constant all the way ’til June when we had the final song. Even that then we had to go back and would hope it wouldn’t affect the animation. We try to hold off anything we thought we might change, but it was just what we wanted.
When it comes to mentioning the character Elsa, who do I get to thank for casting Idina Menzel?
Chris Buck: Well, I mean, that was us. That was all of us, but our casting director brought Idina in. We always thought, “Who, who could do this?” you know? We knew that the songs were gonna be outrageous, and just that character, the strength of her. We had seen her in “Wicked” and knew what an amazing talent she was. When we started working with [Idina], we told her the character of Elsa is so powerful and yet there’s a really vulnerable side to her. Idina’s the same way. Her persona is very powerful, but–
Jennifer Lee: A very gentle spirit.
Chris Buck: And it comes out in Elsa, this vulnerable side. So besides the voice, which we knew was just killer, her acting was really — she nailed it. It was beautiful. We did a table read with Kristen Bell, who plays Anna. We actually put John Lasseter right between the two of them. They read through the script, and of course it was wonderful but we had no songs yet. We had to show the power of the music in this, for this film, and they sang this beautiful song. They sang it to each other, Kristen and Idina, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was just magical.
“Frozen” is out in theaters everywhere on November 27th. If you want to read more about our “Frozen” event day, scroll through the first half of our coverage and keep your eyes out for the last article popping up online this week.