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Kidzworld at Disney Animation for Frozen: Part 1

Oct 07, 2013

By: Lynn Barker

Kidzworld spent the day in Burbank, Ca. at the studio under the big “Mickey Mouse” hat. We mean the star-spangled pointed hat Mickey wears as the famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The Disney Animation Studio is a cool maze filled with ink and paper, computers, cameras and the many artists and tech wizards who operate them.

Disney Animation Studios buildingDisney Animation Studios buildingCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

On behalf of Disney’s upcoming fantasy adventure Frozen based upon the myth of “The Snow Queen”, the studio invited a bunch of reporters to see firsthand how the film was conceived, developed and finished right down to a great musical score and some amazing visuals of a snow-encrusted realm high above the timberline. We’re told that Norway served as locale inspiration.

The frozen kingdom of ArendelleThe frozen kingdom of ArendelleCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

First treat of the day was to watch several selected scenes from the new musical animated film. Frozen is the story of fearless, optimistic princess Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) who teams up with rugged mountain man Kristoff (voice of 'Jonathan Groff' ) and his (very sweet) loyal reindeer Sven on a quest to find her sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) the queen of the realm. Elsa’s icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Anna and her friends encounter trolls, challenging weather and befriend Olaf, a zany snowman on the way.  Can they find Elsa and help bring back the other seasons?

Group shotGroup shotCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Years ago the Snow Queen story was going to be done in 2D animation (like The Little Mermaid) but today’s CG work with added 3D makes the movie just look amazing. The studio still uses a combo of hand-drawn and computer animation.

Before we watched Frozen, reporters got to see the fun and revolutionary short film Get a Horse which you can see in theaters with Frozen starting November 27th. “Horse” combines classic, old fashioned hand-drawn black and white animation from the early days of Disney with modern, computer-generated color animation. The result is a lot of entertaining laughs as the black and white characters appear to burst through the screen and become more modern color versions of themselves. Producer Dorothy McKim explained the process. Mickey’s voice is actually Walt Disney himself rescued from an early voice track. Very cool!

Producer Dorothy McKim talks about Get a HorseProducer Dorothy McKim talks about Get a HorseCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Come along on our tour of the many departments at the studio where artists and tech whizzes told us just how Frozen was put together:

The Artistry of ArendelleArt design, lightning design and costume design. Lisa Keene (Assistant Art Director), Brittney Lee (Visual Development artist), Michael Giaimo, (Art Director) talk to us in a room full of great artwork from the film. We are shown slides to illustrate the filmmakers’ various points.  

Art Director Michael Giaimo with  Lisa Keene (Assistant Art Director), Brittney Lee (Visual Development artist)Art Director Michael Giaimo with Lisa Keene (Assistant Art Director), Brittney Lee (Visual Development artist)Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Michael Giaimo went to Cal Arts and graduated with Pixar’s John Lasseter and director Tim Burton back in the 1970’s. He says that the story of the Snow Queen is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale. For a snowy story, you need a snowy location. The artists traveled to several Scandinavian locales and settled on Norway as their model for the icy kingdom of Arendelle and gave it an “elegant yet rustic look”.

Disney team checks out Norway fjordsDisney team checks out Norway fjordsCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Huge ice cliffs called fjords, ancient but still standing wooden churches and the folk art decorations called Rosemaling served to bring the kingdom and its characters to artistic life.

Lisa Keene designed the lighting for the movie. Snow and ice isn’t easy to light. Nature does a great job but visiting an Ice Hotel in Quebec where colored lights shine through the ice, gave her great ideas for a jewel-tone color palate to use.

Inside the Quebec ice hotelInside the Quebec ice hotelCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Brittney Lee did the costume design and many layers of clothing were needed (Hey, it’s COLD in the movie!). Much of the fabric for the warm costumes had to be heavy wool and had to move that way. Every costume was decorated with the curley-cue Rosemaling designs; some delicate like flowers for the girls and some more graphic and masculine for the guys. Else the snow queen’s costume decoration included a snowflake design however, John Lasseter said “Don’t make these characters look like walking doilies”. They don’t.

Brittney also talked hairstyles. Elsa’s hair is a unique loose braiding and the filmmakers used a professional hair stylist to help design it. It has a more modern look not the traditional tight braids worn a lot in Norway.

SvenSvenCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Meet the Directors and Producer  - Chris Buck (Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (wrote Wreck-It Ralph and wrote Frozen as well as co-directing) with producer Peter Del Vecho (The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh) answered some questions for us:

Producer Peter Del Vecho with directors Chris Buck and Jennifer LeeProducer Peter Del Vecho with directors Chris Buck and Jennifer LeeCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Kidzworld: Can you talk about how the project to tell this story changed over the years? I understand Walt Disney wanted to do a “Snow Queen” based animated film years ago.

  • Chris: The original pitch was inspired by that story but it was about a character that had a frozen heart and some other person would warm that heart up and bring that person back.
  • Jennifer: There was more of a villain at first (not two sisters with one feeling rejected, etc.) That evolved over time.
  • Chris: Then it was two women but not sisters. That emotional bond between them, everybody got it. They could understand breaking apart the sisters and wanting them to get back together.
  • Jennifer: Elsa now represents fear in society and Anna represents love and that light through the fear. Don’t live your life through fear. We loved that theme from the original (ideas). There is a special ending that must be earned. No one had seen an ending like this. I was told, as a writer, to earn that ending.
  • Chris: We can’t tell you what it is but it was difficult to do.

ElsaElsaCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Kidzworld: This is a musical as well. How did you select the music?

  • Peter: I had done a picture with Bobby (Lopez, the music) and Kristen (Anderson-Lopez, lyrics) before. They are a talented team that was involved from the beginning.
  • Jennifer: We wanted a different, fresh style for this big, complex movie. Every song drives the plot forward or gives you information or is about the theme. If the story evolved, we’d have to lose a song.

Kidzworld: Casting the voice actors, did they have to be able to sing?

  • All: Yes. They had to have both.
  • Chris: It’s important to have that character who can go into a song and you know it’s the same person.
  • Jennifer: Kristen Bell has a beautiful voice that is sweet and warm like (her character) Anna. And Idina Menzel (who sang the part of Elphaba in the original Broadway music “Wicked”) has this huge, powerful voice as the Snow Queen and this lovely vulnerability when she speaks. You knew they were right. And all the others too.

AnnaAnnaCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Kidzworld: What is the tone of the film? Funny, serious or mixed?

  • Jennifer: You always want to be entertaining. You get the perfect balance of comedy and drama if you give it to the characters. People are funny. Even in dramatic situations, they do awkward things. Root your comedy in that. You laugh and cry together. You need to care about their journey. Humor helps you get through the drama.

Kidzworld: Biggest challenge?

  • Chris: For this one the challenge was always to give the visual artists a good story so that their great visuals could be on top of that.
  • Jennifer: John (Lasseter) will always put the story first.

Kristoff rides reindeer SvenKristoff rides reindeer SvenCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Kidzworld: How do you make these Disney Princesses different from the rest?

  • Jennifer: We didn’t have pressure to make them princesses or queens. The film is set in the time when royals have the most pressure on them. Anna is in the situation where her sister, the queen has just (spell) cast an eternal winter and she’s stuck between protecting the kingdom and helping her sister. Them being princesses has to do with the responsibility.
  • Chris: I look at them as characters first and princesses second.

Elsa's Ice PalaceElsa's Ice PalaceCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Kidzworld: It is cool that you didn’t make the queen Elsa evil. She is just sad and fearful.

  • Chris: She is a very three-dimensional character. Originally, it wasn’t that way.
  • Jennifer: The first song we heard was “Let It Go” (Idina Menzel sings it as Elsa). We knew, when we heard it that it belonged in the movie. That allowed us to make her character more complex. We all know someone who is ruled by fear, like moms (laughter) “Don’t go out there! It’s dangerous!” so you understood her. People make bad choices when they are scared.

Kidzworld: Is there a definite villain in the film then?

  • Jennifer: There are definitely antagonists; people who will exploit fear. That’s all I can tell you.

Kidzworld: Olaf the snowman is really funny. What is his story?

  • Chris: He changed a lot. He started as one of Elsa’s snow guards and he wasn’t quite right. We got rid of all but one guard and he became more important to the plot. The two young sisters create him when they are kids. It’s the last time they had when they could be free and could love without the weight of the world. He represents innocent, childlike love. Josh Gad does a great job with the voice.

Fun sculpture of snowman Olaf at the studioFun sculpture of snowman Olaf at the studioCourtesy of Walt Disney Animation

Check out Part 2 of our trip to the Disney Animation Studios for Frozen!

Frozen is in theaters November 27th!