Talking Animation with the Directors of ‘Frozen’

maxresdefaultLate last month, I was invited to partake in a number of activities related to the new Disney film Frozen (my rave review of which can be found right here). One of those activities actually included ice skating in Central Park, which was a load of fun (I’m pleased to report that I didn’t fall once), but I also was a part of the New York Press Junket for the flick, getting a chance to interview the movie’s co-writers/directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. We didn’t get a whole lot of time to talk, but in those precious few minutes I tried to find out what I could about their process in creating this delight of a film. Below you can see the transcript of our chat, which I hope you’ll enjoy. Frozen is expanding this week, so be sure to see it…it’s one of my favorite films of the year so far!

Joey Magidson: I had to start things off by telling you that walking out of the movie, and even while watching it…I hope this isn’t a weird compliment, but it felt like I had seen it before, very much like the Disney movies I grew up on.

Chris Buck: Right right.

Jennifer Lee: Mhmm.

JM: I’m 26 and grew up on these, and you just don’t get these too often anymore.

CB: That’s good.

JL: Thank you.

CB: Appreciate it.

JM: I haven’t talked to too many people who’ve worked in animation, but it’s a real different job than sitting there, calling action, and watching Ben Affleck do his thing.

CB and JL: (laughing)

JM: It’s hard for me to even wrap my head around, so in our short time together, give me a crash course on what it’s like to direct animation.

CB: Oh boy.

JM: And they will be a test afterwards!

JM: (laughs) Okay, go (to Buck).

CB: It basically takes a lot of patience. All of the things you’re talking about, yelling “action”, well, they act and the scene is there, and everything is there, the background, lighting, this, that, you do several takes, and then you’ve got it all. Well, we get to not only take the voices ahead of time, and then that goes to the animators, that goes, besides the storyboarding, which we do first, besides that, there’s just so many layers…

frozenposter2JL: I think it’s challenging, with animation you need to build everything. You know, the simple thing to say is you need animate that giant fjord shot, but you’re really creating everything from scratch and it really does start in the story room. You have the ideas and the script, but also the story artists start responding to ideas and you want to build them, and you have an entire crew that has to come up with how to do that. Plus the technology that it takes to be able to say “you know we’re gonna cover the entire fjords with snow, and then we’re gonna have a blizzard, and then take that blizzard and freeze it in mid-air”…and they have to do that from scratch. A lot of the time, you know, is trial and error of technologies, while at the same time you’re working with the animator trying to subtly push the face so you can read a subtext.

JM: I was thinking about that, talking to a director sometimes you’ll hear how they came on late in the process or the script was just ready, etc. This is a situation where you have to have all of those normal script related issues, but also you have more than just telling Affleck to do it again, for example.

CB and JL: (laughing)

JM: You guys have to go back and tell people “you know that thing that cost $57,000 to do and took a week? Do it again and I need it tomorrow. Also, we can’t do anything else until you finish, so chop chop”.

JL: Have you been there? Because you just summed it up exactly! No, it’s true!

CB: You try to get all your work done in the storyboard phase, before it goes to the animators, because you really don’t want them to have to redo things! I mean, there are times where you do, you have to do some thing over…

JL: We were still working on some story points and still discovering some songs while animating, and whenever a new song would land, it does impact just about every scene in a little way, so there is some reanimation that has to be done. You really never want to not know why a character is doing something, and if you add something new that changes their motivation, we have to change it. The crew was fantastic about knowing that too, knowing the schedule we were on, we were moved up a year, doing story and production simultaneously…they were very patient.

CB: They really were.

JM: I was thinking about that, actually, in terms of the music. I was trying to think of things to ask, knowing I’d wind up just asking some stupid random question…

CB: (laughing) And we’ll give you some stupid answer!

JL: (laughing too) Unless we did that already!

JM: The idea of the music, when does that come into play? When you read the script, is there a song specified there, is there “song break”, or is there nothing?

JL: You know, when you do the outline, you very roughly put in “you know, it’d be cool if there was something right here”…

CB: Where you think a song would work…

JL: But it doesn’t ever work out. (laughs) I mean, it’ll eventually work, but with Bobby and Kristen (the Lopezes), we’d work with them every single day, I’d bring them pages and they’d react. Then they’d bring in some song thoughts and that would impact the story, so there’s a lot of chicken and egg there. Literally, that’s why it took us working together each day, we had to keep shifting and pushing each other. A good example we say is “Let It Go”, since that was the first song we knew we wanted in there, and it changed Elsa dramatically to earn that song, so we had to rewrite the whole first act, and it was worth it, but we had to do that several times. And there were other songs that we thought would be in the film, but as late as May they came out.

CB: Yeah.

JL: I think the last was finally in, at the end of May, was the troll song…

CB: The fixer upper song…

JL: It just, it has to be that organic, because you know, they’re just songs, but you want everyone to be able to feel them, whatever age, whatever gender, because they’re organic to the story and they’re fun and playful, and also work on all different levels. Every song works on an adult level, a teen level, etc, and to do that they have to work together.

CB: And also, you look at the whole movie and sometimes even on storyboards, we’ll just pin it up and go “this is the whole movie”, and just plot where a song goes, where they feel right. You don’t want to put a whole bunch of songs together and then have nothing for a while, so you try to pace them.

JL: But you don’t usually put songs after the, towards the end of the second act, you don’t usually have them in the third act.

CB: It’s pretty hard to do.

JL: By then, people don’t want to stop.

JM: I think, just growing up on Disney musicals, you sort of have that sense of when you feel a song coming on and when a song breaking into the action would throw things off.

CB and JL: (laughing)

JL: You know, that’s a lot of our back and forth, once we have a song, the ideal situation is you suddenly find yourself in a song, and it just feels like you should just be there, since no one actually sings in real life…

JM: Hey, speak for yourself!

CB: (laughs hard)

JL: (laughing) That’s true, I shouldn’t say that!

JM: Especially since I focus so often on the Oscar race, I always have this ear out for Original Songs, and the category is always a mess for most of the year, so watching Frozen, when I realized that it was a musical, which was something I actually didn’t know randomly. Even with trailers…

JL: I think with the trailers there’s just a focus on getting the story out and the music, they usually, it’s not what they focus on, so people can understand what they’re going to go see.

JM: Trailers also try to figure out what movie you’re like too, so they can say “if you liked this we’re like that too, but if you didn’t like that, we’re different enough that you’ll still like us”…

JL: God, that’s exactly right!

JM: This one, when I heard the first song, I was kind of surprised, and then just one after the other, they were so great, so…no question there I guess, but I liked the songs! I do want to ask about the flexibility that you guys have. I know Disney would get very mad at you if you did this, but technically you could go in today and say you needed to change something in the film, so how do you resist the urge, to I guess…George Lucas it?

CB and JL: (laughing)

JM: (I turned to look at the Disney rep who was smiling) Touchy subject?

CB: We have our production people…

JL: You don’t want to kill the crew…

CB: And we still have a lot left to do, even after we finish one sequence, we still have this much more to do. We have what we call a CBB list, which towards the end of the movie we go over, it’s a “Could Be Better” list and we look at certain scenes and go “oh yeah, we can change that”…

JL: We have the ones we’ve been thinking about all along too, that we can’t wait to get to. Usually, if there’s something we want to change, we all do, so we make it happen. We’re very careful to try to give animation and effects only what we want, because, not just them, but the rendering hours that it takes to change, in “Let It Go”, building the ice palace, one frame, and there’s 24 frames a second, one frame took 30 hours to render, so you’re very aware of those things…

JM: That’s crazy, and I’m such a terrible artist it boggles my mind!

CB and JL: (laughing)

JM: I guess in a way though, instead of shooting and then going into the editing room, every scene is sort of the editing room.

CB: That’s true. There’s too many challenges and choices…

JL: It can be challenging in the beginning, but I think that’s part of the development process, but that’s why we rely on screenings. We put the film up several times, sometimes even just as storyboards with our own crew, just to see what’s resonating and take notes, because otherwise you could just spin.

JM: It seemed to work!

JL: Well, thank you!

CB: Thank you!

JM: And thank you to you two, this was fun!

CB: Thanks!

JL: Thanks!

There you have my talk with the Frozen filmmakers, but now…be sure to go out and see the film. It’s a winner, I can assure you of that.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!