Snowed Under: Chris Buck talks about Frozen

Trevor Hogg chats with Chris Buck about the creating an animated musical with a snowballing appeal with critics and moviegoers….

Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Producer Peter Del Vecho

With a flurry of Best Animated Feature awards from the Visual Effects Society, BAFTAs and the Oscars, Frozen co-director Chris Buck (Surf’s Up) is overwhelmed by the worldwide movie industry acclaim.  “It has been crazy.” Adapting the classic Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Snow Queen about a royal who casts an icy spell and a young woman who attempts to break it began in 2008 when Buck pitched his version to Disney.  “There were two female protagonists.  We were always trying to get these two together and Elsa [Indina Menzel] was more of a villain at the time too.  It wasn’t until someone asked, ‘What if they were sisters?’  Suddenly everybody could wrap their heads around the emotion of the story and how do you take these two people who have a problem and split them up?   If they’re family it just made the movie so much stronger and emotional.”  Sharing the directorial duties was Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph).  “Jen being the writer, especially, when it started to get into our crunch time she took on the responsibility of more the story end of it and working with the story artists while I was off working with the animators, effects artists, and the backgrounds.  We still worked together quite a bit during the day.   There were a few hours here and there that we would have to split up to keep everything going.  All the balls were up in the air and we didn’t want to drop any of them.”

Despite being computer generated Frozen remains grounded in the tradition of hand-draw animation.  “It’s Disney’s legacy,” observes Chris Buck.  “We still have quite a few of our hand-drawn animators there and CG guys.  I come from hand-drawn too.  In the animation dailies room we would stop on a frame when a CG animator was showing his scene and Mark [Empey] would go over it and give a wonderful hand-drawn appeal to the poses.  There’s the combination of that in all of the animation where you get that feeling of the hand-drawn and then we do have some hand-drawn effects that are in the movie too.  It’s a nice blend in the whole thing.”  Scouting trips were taken to Norway and Canada.  “The one I did was the ice hotel in Quebec City; that was a huge inspiration for Elsa’s ice palace.  We could see how the light came through the ice, and the reflections and refractions of things.  We took a little of pictures and videos while we were there and that was terrific.  Jen and I did not go on the Norway trip because we were still working on the story while our Art Director Mike Giaimo [Pocahontas] and several of his artists went.   They took in everything in Norway from the scope of the environment all the way down to the detail of the folk art which is called rosemaling in Norway; we even put it into the clothing and architecture.  There are so many things even the opening song happened to come from a bit of music they found in Norway.  Norway was terrific even though we’re not saying that the movie was in Norway it was still a huge inspiration.”

                

“One of the things I was drawn to was that Disney had never done a feature that all took place in this ice and snow,” states Chris Buck.  “Ice and snow to me is magical.  You don’t even have to add the Disney magic but we did.  The challenge of the ice and snow was that the snow we first did looked like Styrofoam or packing peanuts.  It didn’t have the quality of believable snow so we created this software for that and the same thing for the ice.  The first ice that we did was too perfect.  It looked too much like glass or plastic so we had to go in and give it the flaws that real life has.  Those were the struggles throughout and we did have to create some new software to make those things happen.  I’m very happy with the result.”  A dramatic blizzard had to be simulated by the CG animators.  “They took a box and put different kinds of snow falling in it.  Some snow had wind to it, some was falling straight down and some swirled around.  We had different choices of snow to look at and put it into the scene.  But then they would still have to go in there by hand to craft it so it would fit. That’s how we did it on the fjord in the final sequence.  They would take some of the snow they’d already done but would have to go in and say, ‘We have to clear this area out here.  You have to be able to see Anna [Kristen Bell] and Kristoff [Jonathan Groff].’”

Music plays a pivotal role.  “The songs have to be part of the story,” notes Chris Buck.  “We worked closely with Bobby Lopez [Avenue Q] and Kristen Anderson- Lopez [Winnie the Pooh] to craft the story with the songs.  We were working with them everyday.  For two hours we were video conferencing between L.A. and New York making sure that we were never stopping the action for a song.  It was always telling some story within the song and we were hopefully moving the story along.  Bobby and Kristen taught Jen and I the shape of a musical so they helped us immensely and are very talented people.  Christophe Beck [Edge of Tomorrow] used a beautiful score but also used some of the elements of the songs in there to remind the audience once and awhile the feeling that they had when hearing the song so to bring back some of that emotion to something that happens later in the movie.”  Amongst all of the music are sound effects.   “Our amazing Sound Designer Odin Benitez [Silver Linings Playbook] went up to Mammoth Mountain, a resort in California; he went on a frozen lake and recorded stuff there.  What it was like when you put a hammer on the ice or threw things.  Odin had some beautiful ice and snow falling effects that he got on his own.  These weren’t from his library; they were special for our movie.  All sorts of things he took care of that give you the feeling of being out there in these mountains and fjords yet are unique.  Odin did a beautiful job.”

“There were a lot of technical challenges,” remarks Chris Buck.  “Luckily the studio was on board when we said we wanted to do a musical.  One of the challenges was we had two strong female protagonists and as we went through we had to define them and finally found it.  Anna is ruled by love and Elsa is ruled by fear.  That took us awhile to get there to clarify who they were and once we did the story clicked in and was much easier but it took us a few years to get there.”  Two sequences standout to Buck.  “One is the Let It Go Sequence, the song is so wonderful and amazing that the challenge was there for us to match it visually and the artists were all up to it.  We worked really hard on that one.  The other one is the finale on the fjord with everything that went on and all of the effects and snow, and the emotion of that whole sequence where Anna goes and saves her sister.  That was a real bear to do but luckily it was one of the first sequences that went into production so we had time to craft that one.”  The creative talent behind Frozen is a source of admiration for the filmmaker from Wichita, Kansas.  “They have become our family throughout and we work on these movies for a long time.  I’m forever grateful to these amazing artists.”

Production stills, concept art and video © 2013 Disney.  All rights reserved.

Many thanks to Chris Buck for taking the time for this interview.

Make sure to visit the official website for Frozen.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada. 

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