Written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, the new animated short confirms that behind Olaf’s bouncy silliness is a character filled with optimism, joy, and concern for others.
In Once Upon a Snowman, released today on Disney+, Olaf, the bouncy, irascible, and playful summer-loving snowman from Walt Disney Animation Studio’s award-winning ‘Frozen’ franchise, returns in a gorgeously animated and charmingly funny new animated short. Josh Gad returns to voice everyone’s favorite winter sidekick though this time, he’s a bit more ponderous and inquisitive as he questions his own identify, as well as choice of noses. The film shares the previously untold origins of the innocent and insightful snowman we first met in the studios’ 2013 Academy Award-winning Frozen, and its 2019 follow-up, Frozen 2. In the new film, written and directed by Dan Abraham and Trent Correy, we see Olaf’s first steps as he comes to life and searches for his identity, mit and sans sausage nose, in the snowy mountains outside Arendelle.
The short, luckily enough, was produced before the pandemic, riding on the coattails of the enormous Frozen 2 production as it wound down. The short’s production quality, scene complexity and composition, and animation tremendous; the crew was obviously firing on all cylinders and ready for more after coming off the enormously successful sequel.
“Trent had come up with this idea many years earlier, and it was such a good one that everybody wanted to see this as a story,” Abraham says. “They wanted to see Olaf's first steps, his Bambi moment when he comes to life for the first time and is trying to walk and figure out everything. And even though everyone had just finished Frozen 2, they all got on board. They were like, ‘I have to be a part of Once Upon A Snowman because this is such a good idea.’ Everybody rose to the occasion. And it was amazing to see what people brought. Every department throughout the studio just plussed on everything. They were really into it.”
“After the story locked, we took advantage of the fact that everyone was in fighting shape,” Correy continues. “They were a little tired. But we were lucky that we basically had all the leadership from Frozen 2 rolling onto Once Upon A Snowman. So, they knew the character, they knew the rigs, they knew the environments.”
“We did have to bring some stuff back like Oaken's cabin, because that wasn't seen in Frozen 2,” he adds, noting they had to bring back and update their snow tool, Matterhorn, that was developed for Frozen but not needed on Frozen 2. “But we had all these pros that worked on both movies. They were just so good at animating Olaf. They made our jobs easy. We just got to kind of sit back and enjoy the process.”
Much of Olaf’s strength as a character lies in his expertly timed physical humor; sometimes raucous, sometimes subtle, Olaf’s mannerisms stretch the boundaries of slapstick, from a run-in with a cabin door, to an elaborate escape from a hungry wolfpack. Like all good animation, many of a great scene’s best moments are courtesy of the animation team and how they interpret, and sometimes riff, on what they’re given to work with. In the case of Snowman, one such instance comes in what might otherwise be a mundane walk through the snow. “There’s a scene where Olaf is walking through the forest,” Correy describes. “It’s right after he rolls down the hill. And it's just Olaf, pondering, ‘Who am I? I'm made of snow. That's kind of weird.’ Those shots could easily be a very simple walk off. But the animator added these really clever, creative choices, with Olaf walking around in a circle and shaking snow off his foot.”
“That’s such a fun part of the process,” Correy notes. “Being an animator, sitting in the director’s chair, and giving them reign to work the character, to bring something of themselves to the scene… that's exactly what they did and was fantastic.”
In similar fashion, the directors relied upon their story team to take an idea, often as simple as a single line, and bring it to life in their own style. According to Abraham, “It's all about collaboration because between the script and what the board artists bring to the script. For example, we had one line in the script that said, ‘The Wolf chases Olaf with his sausage nose.’ That’s it. We gave that to Seth Boyden, and he created a five-minute chase sequence with the wolves that Trent and I had a really hard time whittling down, it was that good. We had to cut it down because it can't go on forever, but he gave us so much to work off, there were so many great ideas and gags and stuff within that chase, that we tried to pick the best eight or 10.”
He goes on to note that more joy then happens after the material is given to Gad. “With Josh Gad, and his improv and giggles, the little idiosyncrasies he brings to that character… I mean, he is Olaf, and he plusses it. So, every department along the way takes what they have to work from and makes it that much better in ways we never imagined. It just gets better.”
Conversely, there are instances where the directors were absolutely certain something they’d written would be hilarious as written… but wasn’t. “You always hope you figure out what doesn’t work in the story process,” Correy laughs. “We lean on the other story artists, on Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Peter Del Vecho, who all watch the screenings with us. And our editor, Jeff Draheim, who's hugely important to the process. Letting us know when pacing goes off. But at one point, we had a beat when Olaf is walking through to Oaken's cabin and we had him humming ‘Let it Go.’ He's actually singing his own version of ‘Let it Go’ because he kind of heard it going on in the background, so now he's kind of singing it. In the story room, we thought it was hilarious. And then, in execution, it just, it never quite played out right.”
“It just wasn't funny,” Abraham concedes. “We were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be great!’ But, oh man, it wasn’t!”
Ultimately, what brought the most joy to Correy and Abraham was making a film about a character with such honest optimism and concern for others, even in the face of his own identity crisis. Abraham shares that “Whether it's a scene in Frozen, when he says some people are worth melting for; or in Frozen 2, when he's in Anna's arms, melting away, and says that she can go on without him and he'll be okay; or in our short, where he offers up his sausage nose to this hungry Wolf, it’s Olaf’s ability to always make that choice of putting others before him that makes him who he is.”
Correy agrees, adding, “During the story process, we had that scene where the door hits Olaf and he falls to the ground. At first, we just had him kind of make an ‘ouch’ noise and then get back up. But Chris Buck said to us, ‘Olaf would find the positive side in that. He would giggle or laugh. He wouldn't be in pain. He wouldn't carry on.’ And I thought that was such a good note from Chris that we made that change. He was right. Nothing fazes Olaf. He’s honest, sincere, and really inspirational.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.