Beneath a ceiling of stars in the Walt Disney Animation Studios building in Burbank sits what looks to be a small, bright yellow clapboard house. A patch of green plastic grass and a plastic pink flamingo are by the front door.
The playhouse is actually Becky Bresee's office. She is supervising animator for Anna, the character voiced by Kristen Bell in “Frozen,” the studio's spectacular new 3-D animated musical. It opens today at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and Wednesday everywhere else.
“I don't often show people this, but it's kind of helpful for you to see my process,” says Bresee, who describes her job as making the character more believable. On her computer screen she calls up a clip of herself. In the picture, she stands there tethered by her headphones acting out part of a scene in the movie between Anna and Kristoff, a handsome mountain man voiced by Jonathan Groff.
“Anna's a little bit nervous and uncomfortable, and I had to find a way to put that into the animation,” explains Bresee, who performs the sequence a number of times, each emphasizing the character's gestures differently. The animator — who says she has taken acting classes but doesn't really perform outside the office — then shows how what she did is incorporated into the film. It's part of a long route to the final product, but it illustrates the increasing flexibility in creating animation features.
“Frozen,” which is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's “The Snow Queen,” is the 53rd animated feature from the studio. It's directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the script.
Buck has been in the animation business since 1978, co-directing “Tarzan” and “Surf's Up” along the way. “Frozen” is Lee's first as a director, after being a screenwriter on “Wreck-It Ralph.” She is the first woman to direct a full-length animated motion picture produced by Disney Animation Studios.
As far back as the 1940s, Walt Disney had been interested in making “The Snow Queen” into a feature. Because of its potential visual qualities — glimmering ice and snow — it had always seemed suited for animation, but various attempts over the years were unable to solve the fairy tale's narrative problems.
“Frozen” brings a number of changes to the story, most notably making Anna —based on Gerda in the original story — the younger sister of the Snow Queen, now called Elsa.
“That changed the story very dramatically,” says Lee.
In the new Disney version, Elsa (Idina Menzel) has superpowers that can control ice and snow, which she has suppressed and kept hidden from everyone while growing up, thus cutting herself off from her sister.
When Elsa's secret is accidentally revealed the day she becomes queen, she uses her abilities to unleash an eternal winter throughout the land and flees.
While pursuing her, Anna meets Kristoff, his reindeer, Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), whom the sisters had made as children, but who has suddenly come to life.
For the story to work, the filmmakers felt they needed to find a way to thaw out Elsa's character. That was helped along by songs composed by Robert Lopez, known for his work on “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon,” and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The pair had earlier written songs for the Disney animated film “Winnie the Pooh.”
Buck jokes that the couple would tease Lee that “they were going to take her best scenes and make them their songs.” And sometimes they did. One tune in particular — “Let It Go” — turned out to be a game changer and, if this were Broadway, a showstopper.
Sung by Menzel, the Tony Award winner for her role of Elphaba in “Wicked,” the song sheds a new light on Elsa.
“Up until then, Elsa was pretty much a straightforward villain,” says Lee. “We wanted to know more about her, what she would be like if she could be herself without fear. After that, she was much more complex, more interesting and sympathetic.”
The change required Lee to do some rewriting, which she was happy to do.
“Everything now hangs on the theme of the power of love versus the power of fear,” she said.
Buck says Disney and Pixar creative chief John Lasseter was so taken with “Let It Go,” he would play it over and over in his car.
Buck and Lee were impressed by the vulnerability Menzel brought to Elsa and how she and Bell, also a Broadway veteran, related.
“During one of our early read-throughs, Kristen and Idina sang a ballad to each other which had so much emotion that everyone in the room was in tears,” Buck says. “It not only showed how great their voices were together, but showed the power the music would have in the story.” As a longtime animator, Buck also was excited by the possibilities of creating the wintery landscape in 3-D. A research team even went to Norway to get some ideas.
Alex Torija-Paris, a senior software engineer, showed me one of the new tools, a device that allows the user to sprinkle snow wherever wanted in a scene. You point and shoot at a screen and then twist your wrists around; it creates a magical effect.
Torija-Paris also let me wield a lightweight shoulder camera that put me in the middle of a short scene where Kristoff is furiously riding his reindeer across the snow and ice. As the scene repeated, I was able to film it in different ways and from different angles — none of them particularly well, but well enough to get the idea of how a real animation filmmaker could move the camera within a sequence and isn't locked into a particular shot until the finishing phases of the process.
Buck and Lee agree that one thing to be aware of with technology is not to do too much.
“We try not to go overboard with the camerawork so we don't make people queasy or anything,” says Buck.
Lee notes that 3-D technology is getting “better and better.”
“The snowfall is right there in the audience,” Buck adds.
With “Frozen,” Disney has created two more animated princesses, although technically Elsa does become a queen in the story. The filmmakers say adding to the Disney princess franchise was never their intention, and that neither Lasseter nor Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, put any pressure on them to do so.
”We were oblivious to that,” says Lee. “It was just about the story.
“The reason we ended up making them princesses was just to raise the stakes so that as royalty, what they did affected more than their own lives.”
Now that “Frozen” is about to hit theaters, Buck's and Lee's characters are apt to take on lives of their own. Anna and Elsa will be greeting patrons at Disney's theme parks in Anaheim and Florida, and there are “Frozen” character toys already in stores. An ice skating show would be a natural.
“So now that it's done, there's a lot of fun stuff,” admits Lee.
“Frozen” will be accompanied in theaters by the visually witty “Get a Horse!” directed by Lauren MacMullan. It begins like an old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon, featuring the voice of Walt Disney, and soon blossoms into a fun, colorful 3-D musical short. Mickey, who turned 85 this year, has never looked better.