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.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Over the years, numerous people from Walt Disney Animation Studios -- including Walt himself -- have tried to make a film out of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen.
The studio finally cracked the fairy tale with Frozen, which doesn't quite tell the same story as Andersen's 1845 classic but captures its "essence." Co-director Chris Buck, whose credits include Tarzan and Sony's Oscar nominee Surf's Up, points out that even Walt Disney took some liberties with source material when he made classics like Pinocchio: "We felt you can take license with some of these tales and create something that is both timeless and timely."
Buck first pitched Disney on adapting The Snow Queen five years ago. The book tells the story of a young girl, Greta, and a young boy, Kai, who live in "the North." In the story, Kai is cursed to see the world negatively, and the optimistic Greta sets out to save him.
In Frozen, fear paralyzes Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and her Norwegian kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa was born with the power to control ice and snow, but she's never been able to harness this power. The fear of losing control has caused her to distance herself from everyone, even her sister. And when she does lose that control, her magic dooms her realm to a wintry eternity, and it falls to Elsa's sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), to save her sister and the kingdom.
Co-director Jennifer Lee (who co-wrote Disney's Wreck-It Ralph) relates that a key goal was to make the classic story relevant. "Today, negativity is fear, and that theme is very timely," explains Lee. "We all watch the news and how frightening it is. … We use fear as an excuse to do things, and we make choices out of fear."
In August 2012, Disney moved the film from a 2014 release to Nov. 27, 2013, a shift that Lee says gave them a two-year production schedule -- and Disney animated features typically take three. Having two directors made that pace doable, as they could divide the work when needed, with Buck focusing on the animation and Lee working with the writers.
Like any good Disney princess, the film's protagonist, Anna, is filled with optimism and love -- traits also found in the original text's Greta. But the challenge that kept the filmmakers busy was developing Elsa, who started as an all-out villain and evolved into a far more complex character. Producer Peter Del Vecho notes that once you learn Elsa's story, "you may not always like what she does or the choices that she makes, but you can understand and relate to her."
According to Lee, executive producer (and Disney Animation's chief creative officer) John Lasseter "really was protective of Elsa. … He loved the notion of her not being a straightforward villain."
It's therefore unsurprising that the look of this character also went through the most transformations during production. "She started off [looking like] a villain," says Del Vecho. "I think she had black spiky hair at one point; her skin might have been blue. Then we started to redesign her." In Frozen, Elsa starts off wearing constricting clothing, with high necks and gloves. When she accepts who she is, she gets a softer, freeing look.
To create Frozen's world, members of the production team made research trips to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and to Norway during summer 2012. Art director Michael Giaimo says that some of the key design takeaways from Norway included fjords, or "rock formations that seem to shoot up into the heavens"; stave churches, specifically their textured wood roofing; and rosemaling, a decorative Norwegian painting style.
Armed with these inspirations, Anna and Elsa's fictional kingdom of Arendelle took shape, tucked away between snow-capped mountains and fjords.
The research trips also allowed the team to study a key "character" -- the snow -- as it needed to create a magical snowman named Olaf, as well as all of the ice and snow that blankets Arendelle when Elsa loses control. In Jackson Hole, some of the character animators even wore heavy full-length dresses to learn how they would react in deep snow.
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."