Saturday, 7 December 2013

BFI Southbank: Disney's "Frozen" Preview & Director Q&A!

*This review will be spoiler-free! :) Sensitive spoiler material will be written in white text so you have to highlight it to read!*

Last Wednesday (4th December) I got the exciting opportunity to see a preview of Disney's latest CGI feature Frozen, as well as the short film opener Get a Horse! followed by a Q&A with the Directors and Producer at the BFI Southbank after work in London.

The part 2D hand-drawn black and white, part computer generated colour film, Get a Horse! (directed by Lauren MacMullan, the first female Disney animation director) was a treat to watch. The original steam-boat willie style animation was recreated beautifully and the CGI counterparts were also very closely animated to the same style. In fact in a recent Skwigly podcast with Eric Goldberg and Lauren MacMullan, Eric Goldberg said that they managed to fool Disney veteran John Musker that the old style, tea-stained black and white cels they were creating were actually authentic cels from the '30s, not "new" animation.

Most interesting is the fact that the clean-up artists actually had to unlearn their skills to trace back perfectly with a fine, clean line and instead learned to animate like the creator of Mickey, Ub Iwerks. In this short they actually had to leave intentional mistakes, at the cost of their professional sanity! Lauren MacMullan joked that this 'mistake pass' was actually painful for some of the artists. But the most gripping thing about it was its' inventiveness. The interaction between 2D and CG was flawless and truly showed off Disney's technical capabilities. There was a ton of laughs and lots of fun references, and of course Walt Disney's original recorded dialogue for Mickey Mouse! It was a lovely short and I can't wait to see what they do next with mixed mediums like in this and Paperman. 2D is definitely still alive.

But on to the main show! I first heard of Frozen a couple of years ago, it was first pitched as a 2D film based on the Snow Queen which would have been particularly exciting but what with the not-so-big success of The Princess and the Frog and the phenomenal success of last year's Tangled and Wreck-it-Ralph, the change in direction is understandable, but more-so, I don't think the style of 2D would have fitted this film quite so well. If it were a direct adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, then I could have easily seen it as a hand drawn feature, but Frozen is a story inspired by The Snow Queen, not adapted from. From a technical standpoint, the snow and ice could not have been rendered quite so convincingly in 2D (at least not without a lot of time and a huge budget) and the CGI approach is highly suited to this gorgeous, heart-felt, modern and progressive film.

I originally had misgivings, the teaser they released a few months ago, featuring the sentient, talking snowman Olaf (played by Josh Gad) and another dog-like horse character (like Maximus in Tangled) in the form of a reindeer, Sven, seemed to reveal another whimsical, tongue-in-cheek comedy flick. And I wasn't that fond of the snowman character, but boy, was I wrong!

As much as I love 2D drawings, Frozen was stunning as a CGI feature.

Put simply, if The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph and Pixar's Brave, were all leading up to something, it would be this movie. Frozen takes the lush CGI visuals of Tangled, combined with the 2D drawovers they did on top of the CG to bring appeal to the poses (Glen Keane notably did this process for Tangled, but since his departure from Disney, Mark Henn has taken over this role for Frozen); the feminist role reversals from Brave; the modern attitudes and humour from Wreck-it-Ralph; and the traditional fairytale roots of The Princess and the Frog and everything leading up to it, and ended up with the next step of Disney's legacy.

In a spoiler-free nutshell, Frozen is a story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa (played by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel respectively), who are princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle in a country based roughly on Norway. The older sister, Elsa, was born with extraordinary powers to create ice and snow from her hands, but is forced to keep it a secret from her sister Anna, causing a rift between them. Eventually Elsa's secret gets out and she escapes Arendelle to keep her powers from hurting anyone, so Anna and a village boy, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his best friend reindeer, Sven, go on a mission to bring her back.

A tale of two sisters, not a Princess looking for her Prince.
Like in Lilo & Stitch in 2001, and last year's Brave, it's really special seeing an animated movie centred on such strong, funny, entertaining and complex female characters. It's still appalling that this is a rare occurrence, but thankfully Frozen has all the empowering qualities a girl could ask for, complete with a feminist twist! Not to mention it is officially the first feature-length animated Disney film directed by a woman (!): Jennifer Lee (screenwriter for Wreck-it-Ralph) co-directed with Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf's Up) and she also wrote the screenplay. If only this had happened years ago!

In the Q&A, director Chris Buck (and I'm paraphrasing here) explained that in the process of creating Frozen, Chris and Jennifer Lee wanted to explore what 'True Love' meant from fairytales, as often in stories and curses, the spell wouldn't specify that true love has to come from a love interest, when it could quite simply come from the love of a family member or platonic friend. So it became a question of what is True Love versus Romantic Love? Chris Buck joked that "Romantic Love only lasts about 6 months--sorry to break it to you!", but true love from your family that would do anything for you can be much stronger and last forever. This has been pointed out in original fairytales for a long time, so it's about time that animated features caught up!

BFI Southbank in London. Front left to right, Peter Del Vecho, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and BFI Interviewer
They were asked about the changes in the story of Frozen from the Snow Queen, as they are very different stories. Jennifer Lee explained very understandably that the changes were necessary to better understand the Snow Queen's character and make her more human and relatable and not just an evil villain. In earlier versions of the story, there was a more evil and older version of The Snow Queen that became problematic for them because she couldn't be connected emotionally to Anna, so instead they made them sisters and then royalty soon after that (which merchandising was very happy about!) to raise the stakes. Jennifer Lee said that she would refer back to the book by Hans Christian Andersen many times throughout production to make sure they were on the right track, but ultimately she said the original was too dark and episodic to turn into a Disney feature, but that the heart of Anna (or Gerda) was the true force of the story.

Ultimately I believe these changes were vital for the story they wanted to make and gives it such a passionate and important message. I was initially disappointed that Elsa wasn't the iconic snow queen I know from the book, but having seen the film, I now adore Elsa and the relationship to her sister Anna. I do think you have to go into this film not expecting a retelling of the Snow Queen and take the movie its' own right.

Concept art of Anna and Kristoff by Minkyu Lee
The Directors also spoke about taking the film to Ed Catmull periodically. In the ending of the film (I won't say what part it was, but if you've seen it, you'll know!) it was planned to end in a particular way from the very beginning, and Ed Catmull would say (to the Directors) that it was great and that they could take any path they wanted to get to that ending, but they couldn't change it and he had to really feel it. And it wasn't until June 2013 (not long before the film would be finished!) that he finally said he felt it. It's one of the best parts of the film so it's wonderful that is was there from the start of the whole project.

The powerful emotional core of Frozen is all the more strengthened by the utterly breathtaking soundtrack featuring songs written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Winne-The-PoohAvenue Q, The Book of Mormon) and scored by Christophe Beck. The married song-writing duo turn Frozen into a true broadway musical, the songs blend perfectly from talking to singing and bring the power and passion of the characters out of the screen. The lyrics perfectly accentuate the themes of the film and there are lots of lovely details to pick up on repeated listens. Christophe Beck also went to great lengths to get the Norway inspired music, some of which was recording with genuine Norwegian instruments and choirs.

And do I even need to explain how amazing and catchy these songs are? I'm going to let this one sing for herself:

*Warning: You will not be able to stop listening to this once you start, also, it's really worth saving this scene for the big screen first!*

It also helps to have real broadway performers voice and sing for your characters, hats off to Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana, they all do an excellent job bringing these characters to life and of course singing their hearts out! When is the broadway musical coming out, Disney?

The producer, Peter Del Vecho, also explained during the Q&A that this film was made under extremely tight turnarounds, so that production had to start well before the script was even finished! It's truly marvelous what they managed to accomplish with such overlap between writing and animation (which is way too expensive to change so decisions have to be stuck with!) but the Directors said that they didn't have to compromise that much and production seemed to go quite smoothly despite the schedule.

Personally I felt that in some aspects of the story, the fast production did show, but only in respect to setting up the world and the characters, i.e. where did Elsa get her powers from? Does it run in the family or is it a 'one-off'? And for that matter, *mild spoiler* where do moss-covered stone trolls come from and why so they adopt Kristoff and his reindeer? And why did Elsa never reveal to Anna that she had nearly died as a child? It's not that important but could definitely have added to the drama! */mild spoiler* I also really do wish the first song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" could have been that little bit longer! Elsa and Anna as children are so fun and adorable and I just wanted to see more! And the song is too short! More verses, another chorus... now! ;)

And really, all that means is that my main problem with the film is that I just want more, which is arguably a good thing for a film to leave a viewer wanting. So for now, I'm happy with that...

One aspect that didn't look rushed at all though, has to be the animation and effects. Everything that Disney has done so far has really culminated here, you can almost see the charming pencil drawings move through the CG characters, showing again that a traditional understanding of animation is vital in producing computer animation. It really pays off too, Elsa and Anna really do look like they are singing and they are so endearing the whole way through. They squash and stretch and move in intricate and dynamic ways. And Olaf the snowman (the one character I wasn't sure about) actually ended up being a lot of fun and it's clear that the animators loved getting his scenes to play with. Jennifer Lee mentioned that they loved breaking him apart so much (one of the perks of being a sentient snowman with no internal organs to worry about) that when it came to the more emotional scenes they would have to reign them in and say "can we keep his head on just this once, please?"

The art direction by Michael Giaimo (Pocahontas) demonstrates how a world covered in white snow can actually be multiple colours at once (never just white!) and the characters design and costumes show lovely traditional touches with great appeal. Frozen did have some prior criticism due to the likeness between Elsa, Anna and Rapunzel from Tangled, but in the film the likeness doesn't show. They have similar 'pretty girl' looks but the direct likeness is more apparent in promotional artwork rather than the film itself.

And then there's the effects which have really gone above and beyond what has been done with ice and snow thus far and created such a magical yet believable world. The effects department had to go in and create new software to create dry, powdery snow, or crystal clear ice, or wet, slippery snow, the possibilities were endless. Chris Buck said their first test looked like 'packing peanuts' so they must have really come a long way to reach this level. The ice palace sequence for Elsa's "Let it Go" song (the video embedded above) is the most stunning sequence in the whole film. On Disney's Facebook page, they posted recently that the scene where she walks out on the balcony for the first time is 218 frames long and in particular, one of those frames (just one) was the longest they've ever had to render for a film. It took 5 whole days!! Just for one frame! Thankfully the result is worth it and this is really one of the best CGI films to date.

All in all, we have a wonderful feminist film that is great for both children and adults (and those big kids in-between!) with instantly gripping music, beautiful visuals and a story full of heart co-directed and written by the first female Director for a feature and another for the short Get a Horse!, we have certainly been spoiled this Christmas! I sincerely hope Disney keeps this up with their future films. There really isn't much else I can say except to go and watch this amazing film and just--

-BRB, listening to the soundtrack for the 100+ time :3
P.S. expect a lot of Frozen fan art from me this Christmas. A Lot.