Someone was kind enough to send me the art book for one of my favorite films this year, Disney’s FROZEN. Man, it was just such an emotionally powerful film and I credit the art with at least 60% of that. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I may end up spoiling large chunks of it so proceed with caution past the break.
I’m not much of an artist or even an art lover in so far as knowing names to drop and movements to cite. Hell, I can’t even doodle properly, and when I do doodle, it’s usually a dud-dle. Still, I wondered going into FROZEN how the artists would liven up all that snow and ice. So imagine my surprise when I read that the animators saw the white snow as a blank canvas that they could “paint with light.” That’s something I hadn’t considered, how much snow and ice and all things winter are changed by shifting light. The most breathtaking visual in the film comes in the form of Elsa’s ice palace. Based on the hexagon of a snowflake and composed of spires and columns of ice, the palace reflects her shifting moods quite literally as it takes on calming, assured blues and frightened, imposing red hues through out the film.
The art director for FROZEN, a returning Michael Giamo (whose work on POCAHONTAS is unparalleled,) found the right balance between stylized or as the book notes, “design-y” and grounded imagery. Here you can see the thought that went into the shape of tree branches.
I actually hadn’t realized how specifically the FROZEN crew targeted Norway until I visited Epcot Center at Disney World and found FROZEN tethered to her ice and wood. That’s where I first learned that Kristoff’s look in the film is based on an indigenous people known as the Sami. Think a Norwegian style inuit. Incidentally, trying to get Maya in to see Elsa and Anna proved to be impossible, as the wait was 3 hours plus.
Norway’s influence on the film extends beyond just Kristoff though, it can be seen in the design of the castle inspired by imposing stave churches and the rosemaling that decorates every costume with intricate details. Of special note is the idea brought up by FROZEN’s art team that this level of fine detail -in which you can see individual stitches- would not have worked as a traditional 2D animation because it would’ve devoured the studio’s animation budget as animators struggled to keep detail consistent between frames akin to “the trial of spots” a.k.a. 101 DALMATIONS.
In the end 3D, and specifically stereoscopic 3D ends up fitting the icy world of FROZEN best.
I love all the characters of FROZEN, but especially Princess Anna. She’s so… fumbly. I know Rapunzel was a bit of a single-minded ditzy doo herself, but Anna swings wildly from Ginger Rogers grace to full on derp in FROZEN and yet maintains her chipmunk adorableness and warmth. It turns out that in trying to crack the long gestating THE SNOW QUEEN, the key was in moving away from the episodic nature of the original dark fairytale and its two child protagonists. Instead, co-director, Chris Buck came up with a pitch that involved a bond between sisters, one of whom happened to be The Snow Queen of the fairytale. It’s as faithful an adaptation as say, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? is of Homer’s The Odyssey. The story writers note that Elsa was originally written and drawn as a villain but because of the bond between the sisters, the filmmakers couldn’t see her that way. The end result, a woman afraid of her own growing power, is far more interesting and dare I say, X-men like.
One thing that is stressed again and again in the book is that John Lasseter, head of Disney animation, believes in “truth in materials” meaning a snow man made of snow should not have elastic physics. His stick arms should behave like sticks and his body should be able to rearrange itself but never grow in mass.
As with many Disney films, FROZEN took shape over a long period of time but only really came into itself recently. As such there’s a feeling that the filmmakers were running blind as they challenged themselves to rush create something that lived up to the classic musicals of old but also served a more modern storytelling sensibility. It’s always fun to get a peek at the thought processes that went into creating a world and although THE ART OF FROZEN doesn’t have the luxury to delve quite as deep as other Disney art books, there’s plenty to learn from the making of the film about how to create images that evoke strong feelings without being flashy for flashy’s sake.