Disclosure: I was invited out to Los Angeles for an all-expense paid trip to the Disney Animation Studios. All food and travel were covered but all opinions are 100% mine.
Have you ever watched a movie and wondered why they did certain things and you longed to ask the powers that be behind the camera questions about that movie?
Well I got that chance to go behind the scenes at Disney Animation Studios during my trip to Los Angeles for the Frozen movie premiere and although this is like my 3 or 4th time (lost count), I am ALWAYS amazed when hearing what it takes to put the famous whimsical Disney movies together.
It really is an INVOLVED process. It really takes a lot of thought (Animation Supervisor Wayne Unten, cranked up the music in his office and sang the song Let It Go like he was gearing up to win a GRAMMY!) and there’s tons of research (The Frozen team team also took trip to Norway where the majestic Fjords inspired the setting of the kingdom!)
Frozen is not only a movie that will melt your heart, but the storyline with two sisters working to fix a distance relationship will move you. I can definitely relate because my sister and I have a a distant relationship and haven’t spoke in over a year, but that’s another story on another day.
During my trip to Los Angeles for the premiere of Frozen I spoke to Director Chris Buck (“Tarzan”) and first-time Director Jennifer Lee (co-writer, “Wreck-It Ralph”) and longtime Disney Producer Peter Del Vecho (“The Princess & the Frog”, “Winnie the Pooh” who also remembered me from a previous trip squeee!)
Jennifer Lee said initially the story was supposed to have an evil queen because it just wasn’t resonating with the Disney cast.
In the original story she is a villain, she’s just pure evil. And you don’t know anything about her. And that was really hard for us but I think that’s what made that such a challenging story to tell. It has a great theme, the original story, by Hans Christian Andersen about love versus negativity or fear… But The Snow Queen herself was like an enigma. And we kept her a villain for a long time and it wasn’t- it wasn’t resonating with us, it wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. We didn’t want to tell a good versus evil story.
The producers even had a “sisters caucus” and invited sisters into the studio to get their take on sisterly relationships. Frozen is visually stunning and even elements like the ice, had to undergo research. So the Frozen team took a trip to Quebec City and stayed in an Ice Hotel.
And so we realized the glass- or ice has imperfections in it, it has flaws, and so we had to put those imperfections in. And, and then it started to look, it looked really good, but before that we did research. We went to an ice hotel in Quebec City, said Chris Buck.
And when you see Anna crunching through snow, just know even her movements had to be studied.
We had a crew go to Cheyenne Wyoming and we got all our animators and they wore big skirts with corsets, both the men and the women to walk through deep snow and understand what that means, said Jennifer.
Can you just picture a bunch of men trekking through snow in big skirts and corsets? Leave it to Disney to provide the total movie-making experience!
Some of the interview highlights:
- Kristen Bell’s singing was a sweet surprise to the directors. (The girl can really go and cut a record, ya know)
- The directors actually brought in a real reindeer to study for the character of Sven. Even with his Antler falling off and looking a little gross they were able to get the exacting movements and found out they eat and act a litte like dogs! Who knew?!
- And putting an animated movie together isn’t easy. Jennifer said it’s a a Rubik’s cube of sorts. “We’ll put up notes, ’cause we’ll hit- we’ll hit a wall of ourselves collectively. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, you solve everything and there’s one square that’s in the wrong place, and you’re like, oh my god. So, we just really rely on each other. And I think we always say we don’t have to have all the solutions right away. We just have to keep working it, you know, keep molding it.”
- One frame of Animation takes like 30 hours to render! (I’m tired just thinking about it!)
- And the internet helped the animators Discover cool Norweigan names for the characters. Anna was first Anika. I like Anika but I guess Anna will have to do!
And one thing that I love about this movie is there are really unique surprises. Like Anna, who acts totally like a clueless teenager who does some things that are really questionable (Like wanting to get married after just meeting Hans.) And that’s exactly the dumb stuff that teens do that makes her character so relate-able!
After our interview I got the chance to do something really cool. Take a seat as an animator myself and get to RIGGIN! What’s rigging, you ask? I didn’t know what it was either but it’s the art of making the characters on the screen come alive! They’re not just flat paper Stanley’s ya know. Characters have layers and volume and involved movement that makes them seem real.
The riggers build skeletons to the characters, attach muscles and skin on the characters, and build animator controls to allow the animator to determine how the characters move around – from a blooming smile to running and skipping.
In Frozen, there are 312 unique character rigs, more rigging done than on any other Disney film. There are 245 cloth stimulation rigs, an impressive number because it is more than double the number of all stimulated costumes in the combined Disney films preceding Frozen, including the movie Brave.
FACT: An average human has a 100,000 hairs on their head. Elsa has 420,000 hairs on her head. She has really thick, lustrous beautiful hair. The last very famous Disney leading lady was Rapunzel, who only had 27,000 hairs!
Now here’s the fun part: I got to rig the snowman Olaf! I was able to move his body parts around any-which-way I could. I had two computer screens and one allowed me to click Olaf’s body that I wanted to animate and the other showed how Olaf was moving according to my clicks. I could move Olaf in any position and the end result was a drunken looking snowman! I reckon Disney won’t be calling me to hire me as an animator anytime soon!
“Without a rig, characters are statues that slide through space. Rigging defines how characters move. Facial rigs allow characters to emote.” Greg Smith, Rigging Artist on Frozen
Animation Supervisors behind the MAGIC
I loved meeting the animation supervisors Lino DiSalvo, Head of Animation; Wayne Unten, Animation Supervisor for Elsa; and Becky Bresee, Animation Supervisor for Anna. One thing that stood out was their passion for the Frozen project. Wayne Unten said he cranked up the music in his office and acted out Elsa’s “coming out” scene where she belts out her ice anthem, Let it Go! The Snow Queen is real fiery as you’ll see in the movie and you can thank Wayne for the way Elsa moves and how she throws her hands up with such vigor and fervor that you can feel each nook and cranny of each note. I was sure to tell Wayne that he nailed it. Becky filmed herself acting out the movements of Anna so that the animators could mimic those movements and illustrate them to bring Anna to life.