At a recent early press day at Disney’s Animation Studios in Burbank, some of us were able to watch clips of Disney’s new 3D animated feature, Frozen, the trailer for which was released a few weeks ago, as well as get mini-tutorials on how the various and plentiful groups of people did what they needed to do to make this film. We were also able to see the entirety of the short film that will precede the feature, Get a Horse, starring Mickey Mouse and company. It was quite an educational day. Here are some of the interesting things I learned:
1. The songs for the film were written by the same people who did The Book of Mormon
– Disney called upon Robert Lopez, Tony Award-winner for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and his wife Kristen to write the songs for Frozen, just as they did for Winnie the Pooh in 2011.
2. Animators are responsible for most of the characters’ performances
– This one should have been a no-brainer, but it never really occurred to me. While the voice actors are the ones who do press and are “the face” of animated movies, character animators spend hundreds of man hours shaping every movement, twitch, and gesture of their characters. Some use sketches to get the movements just right; others film themselves acting along with the voice track to ensure the most accurate visual representation of the line. It’s a “wowzers” type of process.
3. The characters and story changed drastically over the four years it took to make the movie
– Unlike live-action movie making, the story and scripting phase of an animated feature is almost never done. It goes through dozens of permutations and story tweaks. Sometimes, whole characters are rewritten, often after the voice actors have finished their initial recording sessions. In the case of Frozen, which was loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the character of Elsa was initially the out-and-out villain of the piece, but slowly she changed to be much more sympathetic and the story became about her sister Anna trying to save her rather than defeat her.
4. The design team pined for the fjords.
– As this was based on literature from Scandinavia, the art and design team took a pilgrimage to Norway to study everything from their architecture and traditional clothing to the way the landscape looks, especially the fjords, which are giant sheer ice cliffs. They designed Frozen‘s magical kingdom to be nestled within a fjord for added dynamism.
– Another thing the art and design team did was look at the way light refracts through ice, seeing as Elsa’s ice castle was a main focal point of the movie. Whilst in Norway, they spent considerable time at a real working ice hotel to get a sense of what different shapes and patterns can exist within and looking through ice. This was then given to the effects team to create the distinct look of the these shots.
– Snow is another huge part of the movie. Obviously, the conceit is that the Ice Queen Elsa makes it winter in the summertime, so the ground is covered in snow and it blows in the wind and things like that. The effects team on Frozen were unsatisfied with the way existing programs had snow moving, saying it looked too much like foam packing peanuts when characters trudged through it. A program was built specifically for this movie that changed the consistency of the snow to better reflect real life and the different types of snow. For instance, if it’s wetter, denser snow, it moves differently when characters walk through it than more powdery snow. The result is the most accurate computer-generated depiction of snow ever on screen.
– In the same way that a special program was designed for snow, a new program called Tonic was created for characters’ hair to make it thicker and act more like a sculpture that moves rather than individual strands, unless specifically asked to do that. The typical human head has around 100,000 individual hairs on their head (some of us have considerably fewer), but Elsa has 420,000 individual hairs, to allow for better shape and range of movement.
8. Camera Techniques‘
– You might not think cameras are even a factor in digitally animated movies, and you’d be wrong about that. While, yes, a traditional film or video camera isn’t needed, the act of moving the virtual camera is of utmost importance. The animators can move the virtual camera anywhere they want to capture the programmed movements of a scene. We were shown a tool, which looks basically like a shoulder-mount rig, but instead of an actual camera on it, there’s a bunch of sensors and a monitor. Anywhere you move this within the designated area within the sensor-filled space, the virtual camera picks it up. I was given the opportunity to test this out and, like with a real camera, move to follow the action, in this case of the lead character Kristoff on the back of his trusted reindeer Sven running across a frozen lake. This technique adds the “human element,” jostling and slight imperfections, that can make even the most cartoonish animation look more realistic. It’s called “verisimilitude,” people!
9. The short, Get a Horse! features a mix of 2D and 3D animation
– Preceding Frozen in theaters will be the incredibly impressive and fun animated short, Get a Horse, featuring Mickey Mouse in the style and manner he was drawn in the beginning – in black and white, hand-drawn frames. At a certain point in the short, Mickey, after being kicked by Peg-Leg Pete, flies through the screen in the theater and into the “real world” in which he’s in color and in three dimensions. What follows is a chase scene in and out of the cartoon being projected. This was done by actually mixing hand drawn animation (done by the legendary Eric Goldberg) and computer-generated animation that still tries to ape the look and feel of the 2D counterpart. It’s an absolutely brilliant thing to watch. Enjoy your forthcoming Best Animated Short Oscar, director Lauren McMullan.
10. Mickey Mouse in Get a Horse! is performed entirely by Walt Disney
– The old Mickey Mouse cartoons to which the short is paying homage all featured the man himself, Walt Disney, doing the voice of Mickey Mouse. McMullan and producer Dorothy McKim scoured through every one they could in the archives to extract bits of dialogue recorded at the time so that every line spoken by Mickey in the new short is actually performed by Walt. It was the same for Pete and Minnie, though other voice actors were used to pad out a bit of them. Mickey, though, is all Disney.
You can see all of this amazing animated craftsmanship when Frozen and Get a Horse! are released in theaters on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013.