IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee Talk 'Frozen'

Tuesday, 26 November 2013 21:25 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee Talk 'Frozen'

No one makes animated family musicals better than Walt Disney Animation Studios!

Now the company that brought you Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and The Jungle Book, as well as contemporary classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King returns with Frozen, which opens in theaters on November 27th. The film was directed by Chris Buck (Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (screenwriter, Wreck-It Ralph) and is inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen.

Frozen features a sensational cast of talented voice actors and singers including Kristen Bell (Hit & Run), Idina Mendez (Enchanted), Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee), and Josh Gad (The Internship). The story revolves around princess Anna (Bell) who is forced to team up with Kristoff (Goff), his reindeer sidekick Sven, and a snowman named Olaf (Gad), on an epic journey to find Anna's sister Queen Elsa (Mendez), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in an eternal winter. The film also includes soon-to-be classic songs from Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon), and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Winnie the Pooh).

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee to talk about their work on Frozen. The animated filmmakers discussed their new movie, pitching the idea to Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter, their research, the animation process, creating the story and characters, casting, the music, how the film falls in the tradition of Walt Disney animated musicals, and which classic Disney animated films helped inspire the movie. 

Here is what directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee had to say about Frozen:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about your original pitch meeting with John Lasseter and how you got him to sign off on making Frozen?

Chris Buck: Well, we pitched three or four ideas to John, but this was the one that he just really jumped onto. The icy snowy world was just something he’d never seen before in an entire Disney feature. Then the magical part of the story itself about The Snow Queen character was something that just spoke to him, even though it went through many iterations of that character and how someone that has this power, the snow and icy power. I’m trying to think about how the original pitch and what it was. 

Jennifer Lee: I remember having had to look through everything.

Buck: You did that recently too. 

Lee: I did recently. Like you said, what was amazing was that the ending was there but the way to get there wasn’t fully fleshed out yet. 

So you started with the movie’s ending first, is that right?

Lee: Yes, an ending. Our original pitch was much more about romantic love, and this is much more about fear vs. love thematically. It had this really surprising ending that was emotional, if we earned it, and that was there from the very beginning. I remember that was always the thing that John went right to. He doesn’t make you have the whole story when you pitch. It’s not like going to a studio and then they say, “Yes, write it and we’ll make it.”  It’s not that honed. It’s more about the energy, the world, the characters, and the potential of the story. They’re very flexible after that, but then usually they say yes to an idea and then the first thing they say is research it. Make it this believable world, make it big, make it interesting, and find things that are going to introduce the world to stuff they didn’t know about.

Buck: John was the first one to say, “You have to go to this ice hotel. There’s this ice hotel in Quebec City.” So I went there and stayed overnight.

So when you went to the ice hotel, did you know at that point that you were going to use it as a model for designing Queen Elsa’s castle? 

Buck: No, it’s more about knowing that we were going to use a lot of these icy snow escapes in the movie.

Lee: We knew we were going to end up high in the snowcapped mountains at some point in the film. 

Buck: I think at that point we also knew that we were going to have some kind of an ice castle in the movie. 

Lee: For a while it was going to be a cave, I remember that. 

Did you already have the story of the film structured when you went on your field trip?

Buck: We had the first kind of pass at it. So it’s still going and doing all the research you can. Mike Jones the art director had done a lot of research too on his own and he was going through a lot of books and stuff on the Internet. Turns out all the ones he had tagged were in Norway. 

Lee: So they went to Norway the week I started. When I came in Norway was just starting to take shape, which I loved. 

Buck: In the meantime the animators were going to Wyoming and researching walking in the snow and trying to feel what it would be like for our characters.

At what point did you begin developing the characters?

Lee: It’s all a process and it shifted a bit because it’s all happening at the same time.

Buck: Yeah, it’s not like we just say, it’s going to be this, this, and this. It was more like, we met with the character designer and talked about the character ideas, but we hadn’t really fleshed them out. They started playing with ideas, winter costumes, and all that kind of stuff. 

Lee: Then things shifted. We had a costume for Anna, which is in the film with the big cape that’s her travel outfit. However, the story changed and she was then going to set out after her sister immediately. Being Anna, she didn’t think that through because she just kind of goes with her heart. So the storm hadn’t fully set in, it was just starting to snow and little did she know she’d be in a coronation dress in the middle of three feet of snow. Then we had to create another costume. It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not. Han has changed a lot and Elsa has certainly changed the most. Even with Anna there was a tug of war for a long time.

How large a role does casting play in creating the characters? Do the characters change once you cast actors to voice them?

Lee: That’s definitely a huge part of it. Usually with the casting it affects the character’s personality, which is wonderful because all you’re doing is getting a better, more specific voice. You always want a character that is totally uniquely that character. The ideal thing in animation is that you get to work with the actor and develop it so it’s even more special, but it’s more personality in terms of the bigger arcs and things. You’re still pushing them and there’s a tug of war a lot with how flawed a character should be. Can you carry a story where her only flaw is coming of age and is that enough for today’s audience? Does she have to be even more flawed? There are elements of it that we didn’t land on with Anna until late into production, so we changed some of the animation to support it. It feels like from the very beginning it’s always growing. We can play in the recording studio. It’s not like you have limited film. We get to cut and paste whatever we want and we do a lot more of that at the beginning because you’re finding the voice. Then you get into a groove where it’s pretty solid. But in the beginning you leave room to just test and try. We did that with all of them actually.

The film is a musical, so at what point in the process did Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez join the team and start writing the music?

Buck: They came in about half way through, but there was still a lot of pre-production that had been done. 

Lee: Kristen Bell was already attached.

Buck: Kristen was kind of attached, and Josh was sort of attached.    

Since you knew it was going to be a musical, you had to cast actors that could sing as well as they could act, is that correct?

Lee: Oh absolutely. But when we were casting, we didn’t even know which characters would have a song in the film. Some of them have bigger songs than others and it’s just a matter of what the story dictates. But you have to make sure they can sing no matter what because you never know when you might throw something at them.

Buck: So during casting the actors would always come in and read lines, but they’d also come in with a song too.

I understand that Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is a story that Walt Disney himself originally tried to adapt into an animated film. Can you talk about how Frozen really falls into the Walt Disney tradition of animated filmmaking?

Buck: Traditionally it is kind of a timeless story, which I think Walt did so well. There’s a timely feel to it in today’s society. Walt’s films always had a little bit of magic and a lot of heart, humor, action, and drama. I think that’s what we always try to do. 

Lee: He would always go to a lot of those old more fable type stories and the old traditional stories. They were a way of dealing with life through these epic victories you didn’t have to go on yourself. That was the best of storytelling and so pulling from those I think for him was always just a natural go to. With The Snow Queen, how can you not want to make that into a film? It’s just such a rich idea. 

It’s actually very surprising that Disney Animation Studios hasn’t made The Snow Queen into an animated film before now. 

Lee: I think it’s about how hard that material was to translate into a different medium because it’s so symbolic, poetic and not necessarily visual and concrete. It was about us having to force choices on it of saying, that’s inspiring, but now we’ve got to make it concrete. So we’re taking a certain character and giving her a different personality. You have to be willing to do that in order to make the jump. Sometimes it becomes difficult to narrow it down

Finally, are there one or two classic Disney animated films that helped influence you while making Frozen

Buck: I always say my favorite film is Pinocchio. It was the first one I saw as a kid. But I think they’re all in our heads. We know all of them so well. 

Lee: I will say in terms of scope, I wanted to push this like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. I loved how the scopes of those felt and they resonated, particularly The Lion King for me. I’m a big fan of The Lord of the Rings. For me, I always think, who wouldn’t want to do that in this medium? It’s so gorgeous and fun. So I did pull from those in terms of pushing the scope.  

Frozen opens in theaters on November 27th.    

To read our preview of Frozen and it's opening short, Get A Horse!, please click here.


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