Inside The Research, Design And Animation Of Walt Disney’s Frozen With Producer Peter Del Vecho

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A little while ago I was lucky enough to see a good sized chunk of Disney’s next animated feature, Frozen. It was unfinished, and ended rather abruptly, but I did get a better taste of what the film will actually entail. It was a lot funnier than I expected, thanks largely to Josh Gad’s surprisingly well-written deluded snowman character, and the footage had a very strong sense of place and mood, all rendered beautifully.

After the screening, I sat and spoke with the film’s producer, Peter Del Vecho. The last time we met was back in 2009 and that’s when he confirmed to me that, yes, Walt Disney Animation were indeed planning a version of the Snow Queen. It made headlines at the time, I’ve spent four years waiting to see it come to fruition, and now… I half have.

There was a lot of transformation on the way from Snow Queen to Frozen, with a whole new roster of characters and just a few plot elements remaining. This was something Del Vecho discussed with me, as well as talking about the film’s design and animation, the two-director process at Disney and whether or not this is a Princess movie.

Here’s all of that and plenty more.

Like all of our films, research was a big part of out process. With our animators living in California, we needed to send them to Cheyenne, Wyoming so they could experience what walking through deep snow is like. They actually did it in dresses – the guys did it in dresses to – in order to get a sense of what it would be like for our heroines to traverse the snow.

We also sent out lighters up to Quebec to stay in an ice hotel. There they were mainly studying how light refracts and also reflects in both ice and snow. Probably most importantly we sent our production designer and art direction team to Norway. Though the film isn’t set in Norway, it has inspired a lot of the visuals. That was a really groundbreaking trip for them and they brought back a lot of useful information that they’re actually putting in the film themselves.

You’ll notice that this Disney castle is set down on a fjord. Most Disney castles are set up on a precipice but for us it was really important to think of the environment is a character, and to make it feel like the castle is surrounded by the environment, hinting at the adventure that’s going to take place later in the film.

Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. For us the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen.When we decided to make the Snow Queen Elsa and our protagonist Anna sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today’s audiences.

This film has a lot of complicated characters and complicated relationships in it. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her.

“Inspired by” means exactly that. There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit. We do try to bring scope and the scale that you would expect but do it in a way that we can understand the characters and relate to them.

I love both mediums. This particular tale because of its epic scope and nature just lent itself to CG. You only saw glimpses of it but there’s are some real vistas, a Lawrence of Arabia scale to the movie. We’re actually producing it in Cinemascope and that world really lends itself more, in my opinion, to the realistic look you can get in CG. This comes from someone who also produced Princess and the Frog and thought hand drawn was the right look for that film.

The cinematography is being handled by Scott Beattie, our head of layout. He and his team are the ones who set up the camera and move the camera around. We have people in charge with lighting what he sets up. Cinemascope for him was a no brainer, and opened up the lenses he could use.

I came on to Frozen two years ago. The project was in development but usually we don’t add producers until the project is greenlit and moving forward, so I joined two years ago. Chris Buck had been on longer.

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We had a very successful table read as I joined the project but the script really has evolved, it’s been totally rewritten since then. Some characters went away and some new characters came in, and the story was very different then from how it is today.

We brought Jen [Lee, the co-director] as a writer originally but she so quickly took to the story we were trying to tell, she worked so well with our song writers and had such a passion that it became clear she’d bring a lot of creativity to the film, was very much in sync with Chris. And given the timeframe we needed two directors.

In story planning we’re always together. That’s myself, the head of story, the songwriters and Jen and Chris; you can’t do anything until you get that story working. But after that, we have the ability to keep Jen working on story while Chris is working on animation, and then they come together again in editorial. The idea of two directors is that they can come together to bounce ideas off each another when they need to but also split their duties a little bit so that, essentially, they can get more work done in a straight day.

We’re telling a story about family and relationships and that in itself can be very complicated. A lot of times what you perceive something to be isn’t what it turns out to be – Elsa has to hide for her whole life who she is, even from her sister. That clearly effected her and made her into the character she is. Hopefully, if you look at the story through Elsa’s eyes you’ll be able to understand what she does or if you look at it through Anna’s eyes you’ll be able to understand why she does what she does, but they’re all complicated relationships.

We don’t think of it as a Princess movie. They happen to be Princesses but we don’t think about it that way, so I always get a bit thrown when people talk about this. But I can say we want to make them really believable and not set them up on a pedestal. Our version of these characters should feel really real and be relatable to things you might go through in your life.

There’s no question that, just like in life, various people have different reactions to similar situations. We like to put different characters in those situations and see how they act accordingly. Kristoff pretty much lives day to day while Hans is a little more privileged and lives a more calaculated life. It’s fun to see Anna, who is clearly in love with Hans but also “sees” Kristoff relate to them.

Hans obviously grew up in privilege while with Kristoff there’s more of a Sami influence to his clothing, very rugged, leathery and practical. We have two castles, the classic fairytale castle and Elsa’s palace, a manifestation of her feelings to the world. We have the contrast of Olaf being a Snowman but loving the idea of Summer. Bobby Lopez tries to look for things that, even in his songwriting, allows him two twist ideas from what you’d expect.

When we first talked about creating a character who can fall apart and put himself back together we thought “How are we even going to do that?” Rigging a character for this is not something we would normally do, but because this was such an interesting task for the team they had fun doing it. Olaf has become his own sort of standout comic character and the animators are having fun animating him. There’s a lot of squash in there – I mean, a lot – and he’s the only character we can throw off a cliff and have him come apart on the way down, still survive and be happy.

A lot of the animators who worked on this movie work on Tangle also. At the time, Tangled was great for human animation but there was a lot they couldn’t do. When it came to really subtle animation in the face, they just didn’t have the controls to do that. We keep looking at facial animation and asking “What is it that’s not real?” You can get away with it with non-human characters but with humans, we’re so good at reading other people’s faces, even though we’re not conscious of it, we can see even the tiniest fluctuations in other people’s faces. So when we don’t see these, the face can seem too stiff and rigid. Getting this subtlety and getting things like the brows to work correctly was a big job for the modellers and the rigging team, to build what the animators really wanted. Now we’re getting towards that point.

The title Frozen came up independently of the title Tangled. It’s because, to us, it represents the movie. Frozen plays on the level of ice and snow but also the frozen relationship, the frozen heart that has to be thawed. We don’t think of comparisons between Tangled and Frozen, though.

The decision to call the film Frozen was the filmmaker’s decision. The studio’s decision to then call it the Snow Queen overseas was because that just resonated stronger in some countries than Frozen. Maybe there’s a richness to the Snow Queen in the country’s heritage and they just wanted to emphasise that.

The story team was pretty much split between male and female, we have one director who was male and one who is female, but if you think about in terms of telling a story about family, we all have experience of that whether or not we’re a guy or a girl. We can all understand this story whether or not we’re 

This film more than any other film we’ve done, we’re doing the stereo [3D] along the way, almost in parallel to making the film. We have a whole stereo team and we go to stereo dailies every week and meet the team. Much as how Tangled was put into stereo, we’re trying to make it really realistic as well as immersive.

On this movie we do have character leads, supervising animators on specific characters. The animators themselves may work on multiple characters but it’s always under one lead. I think it was different on Tangled, for example, but we chose to do it this way as we wanted one person to fully understand and develop their own character and then be able to impart that to the crew. Hyrum Osmond, the animator on Olaf is quiet but he has a funny, wacky personality so we knew he’d bring a lot of comedy to it; Anna’s animator, Becky Bresee, it’s her first time leading a character and we wanted her to lead Anna.

We never totally finish the movie, as John Lasseter says, they just yank it out of our hands and put it in theatres. 

And that’s going to happen this November 27th, in the US, and on December 6th in the UK. I’ll tell you more as we get closer to release.

Thanks again to Peter for taking the time.

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