“Every once in a while, a movie comes along where it starts to tell you what it needs to be,” says Producer Peter Del Vecho of his recent project, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Frozen. “And this is one of those movies.”
The film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen, which was first published in 1845. While the Disney version pulls from elements of the original fairy tale, the finished product is a largely original story.
“In the versions we looked at that had been attempted prior to this,” says Peter, “it was hard to understand or feel for that character. The key became tying it to a sibling relationship. There was more at stake. And now I think there’s more reasons that you can feel for her.” Peter says the sibling storyline unlocked potential for depth of story and emotion that was lacking in initial stages.
Rather than a story simply of one woman, the sisterly relationship in Frozen made for far better story fodder. “You may not always like what Elsa does in the movie, you may not always agree with what Anna does in the movie, but you should be able to understand each of their points of view in the movie,” Peter says.
Once the basic story was set, it came time to figure out how to do this epic tale justice. The production, art, lighting, and design leads needed to gather inspiration, so research trips were the next logical step. They sent the animators to Wyoming so they could get familiar with walking through snow. “They came back with an appreciation for the fact that there’s a top layer of the snow that supports your weight, but you break through and you’re caught on the more compacted level,” says Peter. That new appreciation actually led them to develop tools for the animators so they could animate the snow on two different ground planes. “One was the top of the snow and one’s the bottom of the snow so they would know where to put the resistance and then break through,” says Peter.
The lighting and art teams went to the Ice Hotel in Quebec, Canada to do some observations of how light reflects and refracts on snow and ice.
The last trip was to Norway to get inspiration for the look of the film. They knew the story needed ice, mountains, water, and other elements that made Norway an ideal choice for inspiration. Says Peter of one aspect they really drew from, “They may not be the tallest mountains in the world, but they’re very vast.”
These trips helped to inform the look of the film, both in big ways and in small ones. You might see nods not just to the vast expanses of Norway, but also to the subtleties of the country’s architecture and even clothing style.
Going on these trips allowed the participants to return with a newfound appreciation for the complexities of what they had undertaken. “When you’re dealing with an environment that’s basically an effect, practically the whole movie has effects in it,” says Peter. What does he mean? “Getting animated ice to have the depth and refraction that real ice has… to actually see through it and feel that depth is something that actually isn’t that easy.”
Once they understood where they were going, it came time to start thinking about the details. One example is the the way Elsa’s powers are actualized on screen. “One of the things we wanted to differentiate was between snow that might appear just from nature and snow or ice that might appear from Elsa’s magic,” says Peter. “We wanted it to have at times a very lyrical feel to it and at times a very dangerous feel to it depending upon her emotions.”
In order to accomplish the lyrical feel, they had to take influences from hand-drawn animation and figure out how to make that work in CG. “To get that same effect in CG,” says Peter, “they came up with the idea of going to a capture room and having the effects animator sort of animate out what they would imagine that motion to be, put that into the computer, and use that as the generation of her effects.”
As all this was going on, the rest of the elements were starting to fall into place. Peter and his team had daily video chat meetings with the songwriting duo for the film, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, with whom he also collaborated on Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Winnie the Pooh. They were involved in the story process and worked alongside the team so that the music fit seamlessly within the story. Then it came time to add the voices to the characters, meaning the likes of Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell (Elsa and Anna respectively) were gracing the Studios in the recording booths.
According to Peter, at some point in this creative process, those involved in the process began to see the film emerge. “ What I mean by that is it takes on a life of its own and ends up becoming bigger than any of the individuals working on it,” he says. “You don’t know when it’s going to happen or if it’s going to happen, but it’s very exciting when it does.”
From the motion capture techniques developed for the project to the emotional storylines to the influences of the research trips around the world, you will be able to see the word of Arendelle come to life November 2013. You can catch glimpses of the film at the Disney D23 Expo later this month in Anaheim and read more about the two lead voice actresses in the Disney D23 Magazine Fall issue.