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Book Review: The Art of Frozen

Fred Patten discusses Charles Solomon’s insightful new book as to what makes a good animated theatrical feature.

The Art of Frozen, by Charles Solomon.  Preface by John Lasseter.  Foreword by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.

San Francisco, Chronicle Books, November 2013, hardcover $40.00 (159 [+ 1] pages).

This is the umpty-umpth The Art of … coffee-table art book about the making of a modern animated cinematic feature masterpiece.  How many have there been?  In 2013 alone, I’ve reviewed five; in 2012, at least a half-dozen.  And this doesn’t count all of the wonderful animated theatrical features for which there have not been art books, like Despicable Me 2 and Free Birds in 2013.

Each art book has been spectacular and a gorgeous memento of its film, but there has been an overall sameness about them.  I had expected the same of this book about the Disney studio’s Christmas-season 2013 release, Frozen.  But while the movie and its art book do fit into their general formats, Frozen has a subtle frankness and originality to it – and The Art of Frozen emphasizes what that is.

That The Art of Frozen is a visual treat goes without saying.  There is the splendid art: the original sketches, concept paintings, storyboards, backgrounds, maquettes, and finished art; each piece identified to its artist.  There are the photographs of mid-19th century Norwegian architecture and costumes used for art reference.  There are the informative comments by the production staff.  But more than most art-of books, The Art of Frozen describes the thinking that has made Frozen almost imperceptibly different from all of the other modern animated features.

For one thing, it is a computer graphic feature that does not look like a CGI feature.  Co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and art director Michael Giaimo wanted it to have the visual feel of a traditional Disney 2D cartoon feature, with all the additional subtlety that the computers could add to the production.  The computers added a reality to the overall cartoon look of the settings, the intricate Scandinavian costumes and décor, and the “naturalness.”  The production staff knew from the beginning that they wanted Frozen to look stereotypically Scandinavian, but they soon discovered that a generic “Scandinavianness” was too broad, and concentrated on a Norwegian and far-Northern ethnic Sámi look in particular.  The lighting, depth, and similar technical details are explained.  “You have to make sure that the wallpaper doesn’t come in front of the character.  It’s a lot of lighting and use of shadow, taking hues back. We’ll be dialing all kinds of things, the light, the look, the way in which certain objects are decorated, the textures and patterns.  You have so many dials that you can work with to make everything harmonize. – David Womersley, production designer” (p. 51)  “The patterns on Elsa’s cape and the rosemaling [rosemaling is defined as “from the Norwegian for ‘decorative painting’”] on Anna, Hans, and Kristoff’s clothes would be a nightmare in drawn animation.  The ‘pencil mileage’ needed for so many details would probably break the budget.  And keeping the patterns in register so they didn’t seem to crawl over the characters would rival keeping all the spots in place on the cast of 101 Dalmatians.  In CG, it’s easy technically, but demands careful planning.” (p. 72)  “’We’re bringing out the fine details in the embroidered clothing: if you look closely you can almost see individual stitches,’ [director of look and lighting] Mohit Kallianpur adds.  ‘We’re trying to mimic the properties of different kinds of materials.  If it’s silk, is it a rougher, raw silk or a shinier, smoother silk?  That’s going to give us a really rich look.” (p. 73)  In traditional cartoon animation, a costume is a costume.  “In keeping with the traditional Norwegian aesthetic, most of our fabric in Frozen is wool.  For accents we used velvet, linen, and silk.  Since wool is not highly reflective, it provided a great base for [color] saturation.  […] – Michael Giaimo, art director” (p. 75)  Sven, Kristoff’s reindeer (who is animated to act like an overly friendly big dog) looks realistically dumpy, unkempt, and shaggy.  “I didn’t know what reindeer actually looked like until I got on this movie.  I always thought they were the graceful, powerful creatures I saw in the cartoons.  I was wrong.  I was lied to!  My whole childhood! – Chris Williams, story artist” (p. 102)

For a second thing, everyone explains why Frozen is not Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.  It started out to be, and Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer John Lasseter and the production staff tried to keep close to Andersen’s classic fairy tale.  It was decided to not only make Frozen look Scandinavian, but set around 1845 when Andersen wrote The Snow Queen.  Walt Disney started out to make The Snow Queen as early as 1938, and studio staffers went back to the project off and on over the years, but nobody could get over the episodic nature of Andersen’s story, the lack of personality of the Snow Queen, who was a motiveless villainess, and the absence of a strong protagonist.  It was not until Lasseter and co-director Chris Buck decided in 2008 to make the Snow Queen a sympathetic character – Princess Elsa, cursed with an uncontrollable supernatural wintery power who is terrified that she may accidentally kill someone – and to turn Andersen’s Gerda into Anna, Elsa’s sister who loves and ultimately saves her – that the story came together.  By the time they were through rewriting it, it was easier to think of it as Frozen, an original story inspired by The Snow Queen, than as an adaptation of The Snow Queen.

Princesses Elsa and Anna of the mythical Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle are introduced as young children, playmates who love each other.  But Elsa is blessed, or cursed, with an uncontrollable power of freezing ice and snow.  When she accidentally almost kills Anna, her royal parents keep her away from social contact with others, establishing her as a “loner” who prefers solitude.  Anna cannot understand why her best friend has suddenly become so aloof.  This works until the princesses are teenagers, when the King and Queen of Arendelle are killed in an offstage accident.  Elsa is forced to come out of seclusion as the new Queen.  She tries to keep her power hidden, but a mishap at her coronation celebration reveals it to her court and the foreign guests, while all Arendelle is plunged into a frozen winter.  Elsa flees into the mountains, to use her power to build herself an ice palace and an ice-monster guard to keep people away.  Anna joins Kristoff, a young mountain-man ice-harvester, and Olaf, an innocent snowman that Elsa made when they were children, to rescue her; before pursuing knights from Arendelle can kill her as a witch, and while villains among the foreign guests plot to take over the kingdom.

Frozen has been simplistically described as just another Disney animated Princess movie, but it is actually the first with two equal Princesses.  The audience can guess (the direction makes it clear) that Anna is the real protagonist, but it is in doubt up to the climax whether Elsa will be saved to join her, or whether Elsa will fade away in exile or be killed in a bittersweet ending, leaving Anna as the usual sole Princess.

Thirdly, there is the nature of Frozen as Disney’s first big animated musical since The Lion King almost two decades ago.  And Frozen does not just have a few musical numbers scattered through it; it begins by emphasizing them, Broadway-style, especially with Elsa’s bravura “Let It Go.”  “Everyone involved in Frozen stresses that the film is a musical, not just a film with songs.” (p. 145)  “The Frozen artists had to construct a film where it felt natural for the characters to sing, as they had in Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp.” (p. 153)  “When the new Disney musicals became big box-office hits, other studios tried to copy the model.  The result was a spate of uninspired films where the plot halted, a character sang, and the filmmakers tried to pick up the story.”  (p. 150)  “‘Other studios assumed, you write a song, you put it in the movie, and it’s a musical.  The only way a musical works is if the songs heighten the emotional beats in a way that grows organically out of the story.’”  (Producer Peter Del Vecho, ibid.)  “Tangled was more of a movie with songs, so we’re going [to] take this one to the next level.’ – Scott Beattie, layout supervisor” (ibid.)  “In recent years, American animated films have grown increasingly talky, with sitcom one-liners replacing the minimal dialogue of earlier films.” (p. 19)  Charles Solomon repeatedly quotes the production staff on how careful they were to make the songs advance the plot rather than just repeat something already established in the dialogue, or feel like they were just stuck into the story; and feel natural to whether the singer is singing to herself, to another character, or to the audience.

But to most readers, The Art of Frozen is primarily an art book.  Due to the movie’s mid-19th century Norwegian look, there is a greater emphasis than usual on its architecture and costuming, and on the different forms and lighting of the snow and ice.  The character designs of Elsa and Anna are especially fascinating.  The ice-blonde Elsa was originally seen as a brunette, while the russet-haired Anna was tried as practically every hair color except pure white and pure black.  Since Elsa was originally thought of as a villainess, many of her early designs feature a haughty, superior, or patronizing expression.  Her nature as a mistress of a supernatural winter was depicted in the early conceptual art in frozen-looking wild hair designs, and dresses of ice-white and chilly blue.  Fans of the movie characters have to see these!

The Art of … movie books are usually for those who have seen the movie.  The Art of Frozen is so insightful as to what makes a good animated theatrical feature that even if you have not seen Frozen (not that any AWN reader’s not seeing Frozen can be imagined), you should really study this book.  Don’t just read it; study it!

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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