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Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee Talk 'Frozen'

Two sisters desperately race to overcome their fears and the magical powers that separate them in Disney’s Snow Queen-inspired animated adventure.

'Frozen'. All images © 2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Frozen hits U.S. theatres on Thanksgiving, an epic tale of two loving sisters, forced apart by tragedy and the hidden curse of powerful magic.  Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, Frozen is an intricately crafted movie, a stunning mix of wintry mountain panoramas, icy blizzards and Nordic design, with a bevy of bold musical numbers and one exceptionally funny snowman named Olaf.

Veteran director Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf’s Up) has teamed with Wreck-It Ralph scribe Jennifer Lee, bringing to audiences a story ultimately about redemption, trust and true love. I recently had an opportunity to sit with Chris and Jennifer, who talked about the dynamics of co-directing, the pressure they endured helming such a massive project and the challenges they faced finding the film’s central theme.

Frozen concept art.

Dan Sarto: Jennifer, you weren’t originally working on Frozen.  How did you come onto the film?

Jennifer Lee: What happens is that we often work on each other’s projects. I was a writer on Ralph [Wreck-It Ralph] but I would check in and give notes when they were doing a screening or a pitch. I was very aware of what they were doing [on Frozen] and was madly in love…

Chris Buck: …She gave great notes…

JL: [Laughs] A couple months before I came on, they’d found the Anna sister angle. They also had this amazing ending they’d pitched back in 2009…

CB: …1925…

JL: [Laughs] …that ending was really special and I loved it. It’s actually the ending we have now. I was really passionate about it. When Peter [Del Vechio, the producer] asked if I would come on as a writer, we’d just had a screening, we were kind of restructuring, wanting to go away from Elsa as a villain, wanting to go away from action-adventure and more towards comedy, adding some music, adding more of an epic scope that was driven by character, where the environment was a character. And I said, “OK!” When you have screenings of story sketches, you have the flexibility to tear it up…

From left to right: Producer Peter Del Vechio and Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.

CB: Every 12 weeks we try to screen the movie and bring in all the directors and writers.  We have a notes session that sometimes lasts two days. At the end of the notes session, as John [Lasseter] would say, it’s as if someone has dis-assembled your car and laid all the parts in your driveway. Your job is to put them all together again and hope it’s actually better than the one you started with.

JL: So coming in, I had free reign. I knew obviously we were keeping the Snow Queen setting and the ending.  Then in the fall, after the schedule had gotten moved up a year, I was asked to direct with Chris.  The schedule had gotten intense and this allowed us to keep going simultaneously.

DS: How do you guys work together?  What’s the working dynamic of being co-directors?  Do you each do the same things, just on different scenes or shots?  Do you divvy up the different responsibilities?

JL: We’ve been lucky enough to spend much of this film working together.  When I first came on as a writer, we worked together very closely. I was really moved by a lot of what Chris had done and we shared a vision from that point forward. We had very similar sensibilities. But he has a history steeped in animation and I come more from the writing and story side. So, we do both bring different elements to the job. There were times, because of our schedules, where we would split up. I’d work with the story team and Chris would work with the production team, like the animators, visdev artists and the art director. That was just for a portion of the production. Once we had the final screening where we knew we had our main story, we stayed together. Getting two perspectives, going to the same place but from two different perspectives, is really helpful.

From left to right: The Duke of Weselton, Anna and Elsa.

CB: You have to have a shared vision of the story. You couldn’t bring two directors together that didn’t share the same vision of the story you want to tell. Also, just from a standpoint of sensibilities, the types of entertainment and animated films we like are very similar. But like Jennifer said, we do have different strengths. That’s very helpful. There are times with the writing, or the structure, I’d ask her, “Jenn, what do you think of this because I’m not so sure?”

JL: We have animation dailies every day. We work with the animators for hours. We see their scenes and give notes. I tend to really stick to the motivations of the characters and what I can bring from a story perspective.  You get less from me on the silhouettes, or the understanding of the animation technique involved. Chris did both. He could always speak to the story, but he could also translate the technical side. As I got used to it I began to understand.  I was very comfortable with, and people seemed to be very comfortable with me, coming in with the story vision and not suddenly trying to jump in from an animation technique perspective. To me, Chris has all the goods. He could do story and tech notes. It was a good fit.

DS: There are 100,000 decisions that go into making a film like this…

CB: [Laughing] 300,000…

DS: [Laughing] at least.  Some are mundane and some have much more significance. What were some of the most challenging areas of decision making you faced on the film?

CB: A real turning point for us, and it was a hard one, was deciding how to get our two female leads really emotionally connected.  Until we came up with the idea of making them sisters, we were floundering a bit. “I’m not sure, how do these two characters relate…?” Then the idea of two sisters came up and it just clicked. It was a huge moment.

JL: I remember I was on Ralph.  That day we were all there when that new idea came up and everyone felt it. John [Lasseter] felt it. That was huge. Chris had pitched a beautiful ending way back, which is still the ending. But, to earn that ending was a lot of work. It was not something that came easily.  When I came on, I remember Ed Catmull specifically saying to me, “First and foremost, no matter what you have to do to the story, do it.  But you have to earn that ending. If you do it will be great.  If you don’t, it will suck.”

CB: No pressure there!

JL: He would always say, “You’re almost there.” Finally, when we screened it in June, he came up to me and said, “You did it.”  To me, that was way beyond the technical scope and scale of things like the snow, the ice, the things you had to just push forward on even if it meant putting a lot of stress on the production. If you can’t get a good story, if you can’t get it right, then none of that matters. It was always the story issues.  You had to have faith that you were going to get there. Sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it, those decisions can be overwhelming.

Frozen concept art.

DS: What skill do you each possess that served you best directing this film?

CB: Boy, that’s a really good question. The best skill I have personally to get me through one of these movies, because they’re a marathon, is patience.  You really need to stay the course. It’s really understanding that even an idea that no one believes in at the beginning, like in the first year, when you go, “Hmmm, that idea should come around again...let’s let production run its course and we’ll see if it’s as strong as I think it is,” a lot of times those good ideas do come back.

JL: Why that is so key is because this work is so collaborative, unlike any other type of filmmaking. The way we make our films here, out story teams have 15 people, wonderful storytellers that draw, who constantly push the story to get better and better. Constantly throwing ideas into the mix. You have to be flexible and want to take those ideas but you also have to protect the story that you know you’re trying to tell. You don’t have that same challenge anywhere else.  So patience is key. Plus flexibility to be able to incorporate the visions of a lot of artists and yet know what to protect. This is a medium where there are a lot of voices and you have to listen.

CB: Because we are seeing it in our heads, and the two of us may agree on a visual, or we may have talked about it and agree on how stunning, emotional or funny a shot may be, we realize no one else can see it yet. No one can see what you’re passionate about…

JL: That’s why you have to fight for it. We joke that, since the theme of the film is fear versus love, and Anna has this quality of being fearless, for better or worse, we just say, “Be Anna. Be fearless.”  Because you have no choice. We have to remind each other of that.

Princess Elsa.

DS: This production is enormous.  How do you manage such a large group of artists? I’m sure there have been many times where you’ve thought, “Jeez, I’ve got a tiger by the tail and I’m not sure what to do!” But if you run around like your hair is on fire, what does that tell the rest of the crew? 

JL: You can’t.  We’ve certainly had our moments where we’ve said, “OK, we’re going to stop right now, take a break.  This is great, we’re going to take all this and process these ideas, what’s happening in this room. We’re going to take it all in and think about it.” And we do.  But, that allows everyone to step away and for us to take control of what we know needs to be done before we all return. You never want people to feel like they can’t throw things into the mix. That’s what this place is about, what collaboration is about. But, they do look to you to say, “When!” But, you have to do it in such a way that you never say, “Well, we’re not doing that.” It’s always, “Well, we’re going to take that and go away and think about it.” Then you come back and say, “We’ve thought about things and these are the things we think we’re going to work with.” Then we pitch it. Usually, you find that the team on board because they feel the parts of themselves that contributed and were important.  Because if they really felt passionate for something, it’s because there was a reason.

The story team has very smart storytellers, in addition to the other directors.  But sometimes you have to be willing to fight, to stand up in front of them, like when we stood up with “fear versus love,” and said we don’t want a dysfunctional, co-dependent Anna, we want a girl who is a triumph of the human spirit, whose only flaw is that she needs to mature...that’s who’s driving this very complex, epic story...and getting the team to not go, “But maybe she should be more like Ralph…” You have to stand up there and say, “No, that’s not it.” If you do it with the right conviction and you can convince them, then you know you have the right thing.

Olaf.

DS: You have joined a distinguished group of Disney animated feature directors, part of the studio’s tremendous creative legacy. Does it ever creep into your thinking that 25 years from now, your film is going to be judged in the same light that we’re judging The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast today?

CB: If we really let that happen, we’d be petrified…

JL: …and that’s what we feel already…

CB: Fear…

JL: Fear would win that one…

CB: And that’s an honest answer.  For me, I’ve been here for quite a while. I worked on The Little Mermaid. I worked on some of these older films. I do know the feeling we had at that point, working on something different, something new and exciting. For me, they all have their challenges. I know the legacy.  I trained with some of the 9 Old Men that were teaching us how to become the next generation of great Disney animators. I can’t live there, is what I’m saying, or I couldn’t get anything done. I wouldn’t leave the house.  I’d be petrified. So, I have to keep moving and do the best that I can with those guys on my shoulders.

JL: Since we had a short schedule and because I never wanted the story to suffer because of the pressure, I would use Cinderella and The Little Mermaid in particular, when I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning to write, as the “why” I kept going.  You have a limited amount of time and you want your film to live up to that standard. So I did use that legacy, but more for lighting a fire under my butt. It made it so you wouldn’t compromise and that you always knew why it was worth the long hours for all those months when we were in the thick of it.

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Dan Sarto is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.