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Disney’s ‘Once Upon a Snowman’: How Olaf Became Olaf

For writers / directors Trent Correy and Dan Abraham, discovering the source of heart, humor, and empathy in the ‘Frozen’ franchise’s irascible, loveable optimist was a passion project that began almost a decade ago; nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Animated Program, the film is available on Disney+.

In Walt Disney Animation Studio’s hilarious and touching Once Upon a Snowman, available on Disney+, audiences get to spend yet more quality time with Olaf, the bouncy, irascible, and chronically optimistic snowman we’ve come to love from the award-winning Frozen franchise. Josh Gad returns to breathe fun and heart into the loosely connected, summer-loving balls of energy that this time, come together as no mere sidekick. With Olaf questioning his own identify amidst the existential angst of choosing a nose, Once Upon a Snowman shares the previously untold origin story of the innocent and insightful snowman we first met in the 2013 Academy Award-winning Frozen, and its 2019 follow-up, Frozen 2.

The CG animated short, now with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Animated Program in tow, was produced before the pandemic lockdown hit, created by a running on all cylinders studio team coming off Frozen 2. Written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, the lusciously designed and animated short deftly shares with audiences that underneath Olaf’s stream-of-conscious banter and silly disposition lies a character filled with warmth and empathy.

The goal, and challenge, of any sequel is taking fan-favorite characters to new places of self-discovery while staying true to what made them successful to begin with. According to Correy, “Olaf is such an endearing and loveable character and the Frozen filmmakers have done an incredible job with his evolution, all while keeping the essence of what made him standout in the original film. In Once Upon a Snowman, Dan Abraham and I were excited about showing his beginnings, his origin story and shining a spotlight on his self-discovery which led to him being so beloved in the original Frozen. Olaf has unconditional love, he has a powerful connection to Anna and Elsa, he is unbelievably optimistic, and my personal favorite quality is that he always puts others' needs before his own... ‘Some people are worth melting for’ still gets me every time!”

He continues, “With these qualities in mind, we attempted to craft a story that built on these core characteristics while at the same time, showing them in a new and fresh way, staying true to the original Frozen. As super fans of the original Frozen and all things Olaf, Dan and I were beyond excited to bring him to life for the first time, show his optimism as he took his first few steps, answer our burning questions about his unconditional love of summer, but most of all, discover that when he puts others needs before his own, he becomes the Olaf we all know and love.”

In the film, Olaf spends more time in pieces than assembled, often careening about at high speeds. That meant a tremendous amount of complex work went into rigging and animating Olaf’s “parts.” The talented Disney team does an outstanding job crafting a performance both comical and captivating, bringing motion and emotion to the inanimate that’s the very essence of what makes good animation so mesmerizing to watch.  

“As an animator, I absolutely love animating Olaf, and it was incredible to watch our animation team discover new ways of bringing entertainment to his movements,” Correy notes. “Of course, the ability to break him apart is extremely unique to Olaf, and we finally get to see him in an action/chase sequence to fully utilize that ability! However, I believe it's the limitations of Olaf that bring an equal amount of entertainment to his character. Olaf's little snowball feet give him a cute and adorable toddler walk that brings an innocence to his character, his stick arms don't have the ability to bend at the elbow, which challenges the animators to come up with solutions that lead to specificity, and lastly, his general proportions are unlike any snowman we've seen, often forcing the animators to come up with distinct posing... which often ends with him falling apart, being impaled... and yes, even sometimes losing his butt!”

Dealing with the challenges of Olaf's intricate rigging date back to 2011 on the Frozen production. “In preparation for the original Frozen, we had to give Olaf what few CG characters have had in the past: the ability to break-apart with seamless control and ease,” Correy explains. “Luckily, we have some of the best artists, riggers, technology geniuses and collaborators in the world. Over the years, Olaf has evolved with our studio’s technology and artistic esthetics that we continue to grow with every production. Often, the story challenges riggers and animators to collaborate in new ways (among other departments), to take Olaf to new levels, whether it's needing the ability to melt, having a personal snow flurry, mastering the game or charades... or even trying on different noses that include everything from a snow globe to a fish or animated summer sausage!”

For Correy and Abraham, even more fun than Olaf’s animation was working with his heart and soul, actor Josh Gad. “Recording Josh Gad will ALWAYS be a highlight of my career,” Correy reveals. “Dan Abraham and I sat in the booth with Josh, and our biggest obstacle was trying not to laugh after every take... I might have ruined a few... sorry Josh!”

“Olaf's voice is so unique, that when we finally recorded Josh, the short sprung to life!” he adds. “Josh knows the character so well, that he often surprises you with his interpretation of the script, which in our case helped to create some of the funniest and most heartwarming moments. There wasn't a lot of rewriting, but there was a level of nuance, surprise and additions that took the short to a whole new level, which demonstrates why Josh is one of the best collaborators out there! I often relate Josh & Olaf to growing up with Robin Williams and the Genie; they both have an incredible ability to be hilarious and offer comic relief to the story, but at the same, surprise the audience with deep and nuanced emotions and often some of the most heartwarming moments. Talent aside and above all, Josh is as loveable as Olaf; he cares deeply for the animation process and brings his passion 100% of the time. Simply put we love Josh!”

Reflecting on the opportunity to helm such a high profile short, especially staffed with the talents of so many Frozen 2 artists, Correy shares how meaningful the project was to him and his directing partner. “I am so incredibly thankful that Dan and I had the opportunity to play in the Frozen sandbox with the support and trust of the Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and Peter Del Vecho to expand on Olaf's character,” he says. "Once Upon a Snowman was a passion project that started in 2012 while I was animating on the original Frozen and watched ‘Let It Go’ long before it became a worldwide sensation. I asked the question, ‘What happened between the moments when Elsa created Olaf and when he met Anna, Kristoff and Sven for the first time?’ All this to say, I believe it's important to always approach these characters with passion and genuine curiosity about their journey. I love where our studio has taken Olaf, and as a lifelong fan, I’m excited to see where he goes next!”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.