Oscars: With 'Frozen,' Disney Invents a New Princess (and Secret Software)
The studio is gunning for its first-ever best animated feature award by revamping a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale featuring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and songs from a "Book of Mormon" Tony winner.
Says Buck: "Getting the snow to look just right was extremely important to us. We animated our characters in a believable fashion, and we needed them to fit in a believable, snowy environment. We never wanted to take the audience out of the story because of technical issues."
In order to get the desired results in the animation, new tools were developed, including software dubbed Matterhorn, which allowed the animators to create a seemingly infinite number of variations on fresh snow, wet snow and sticky snow. "Often you can simulate snow as a rigid body or a fluid character, but for close-ups, it needed different, more organic control," explains Andrew Selle, principal software engineer.
And because Frozen is a musical, another key element is the eight original songs, all of which were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Tony-winning Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q), complementing a score by composer Christophe Beck (the Hangover films and 2011's The Muppets).
One way the audience comes to understand Elsa is through the lyrics of "Let It Go," one of the film's signature songs, performed by Tony winner Mendel in a key scene during which her powers are exposed to the kingdom and, as she flees, she accepts her ability.
"It was the first song we knew we wanted," says Lee. "It changed Elsa. Any of the full-on villain stuff went away. We wanted each song to move the plot forward or tell us something about the character that we need to know to shape who they are for the rest of the journey. Songs let you do things that would take five or six scenes to do. Bobby and Kristen made sure it would feel organic to the audience."
Adds Buck: "What we loved about Idina is that she has the strength and control in her voice, but it also has that vulnerability. Plus, she sings like nobody else. She was perfect for the part."
As surprising as this might sound, should Frozen prevail at the Oscars, it will be the first Academy Award for best animated feature for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Since the category was first created in 2001, the studio has earned plenty of nominations -- for such films as Lilo & Stitch, The Princess and the Frog and Wreck-It Ralph -- but has never made it to the podium.
Del Vecho is cautious when asked whether this might finally be the studio's year. "I have never worked on a movie that I think is as big in scope in terms of the visuals and the story," he says. "There are a lot of adult themes and subtexts and twists. I personally feel that it is a contender. But I'm not the one who decides that. Hopefully the movie will speak for itself."