Jerry Beck and I got a sneak peek of Frozen a couple of weeks ago, and judging by the 20 minutes of footage we glimpsed, this is definitely a fresh take on the Disney fairy tale and the clear Oscar frontrunner. Frozen exceeds Tangled in melding hand-drawn and CG into a new aesthetic that’s both stunningly realistic yet richly stylized. So let’s begin with a look at the design.
This was actually the first opportunity for art director Michael Giaimo (who attended CalArts with both Frozen director Chris Buck and John Lasseter) to work on a classic fairy tale, loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which even eluded Walt Disney. Visiting Norway was obviously essential in coming up with the design aesthetic for Frozen in terms of color, light, and atmosphere.
According to Giaimo, there were three important takeaways from the research trip in making Frozen unique to the Disney canon: the fjords, which are the massive vertical rock formations, and serve as the setting for the secluded Arendelle kingdom; the medieval stave churches, whose rustic triangular rooflines and shingles inspired the castle compound; and the rosemaling folk art, whose distinctive paneling and grid patterns informed the architecture, decor, and costumes (the most elaborate in Disney history, designed by Brittney Lee).
For Giaimo (Pocahontas), whose background is animation and got into story, character design, environment and art, definitely achieves a unity of character and environment. “Now that I look back on Frozen, that’s why I’m not afraid of color. I wanted very saturated colors and I wanted to use black, which is usually a no-no in CG.”
The art director was greatly influenced by the legendary Jack Cardiff’s work in Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which lends a hyper-reality to Frozen. Giaimo also insisted that Frozen be in CinemaScope, which was fine by Lasseter. “Because this is a movie with such scale and we have the Norwegian fjords to draw from, I really wanted to explore the depth. From a design perspective, since I was stressing the horizontal and vertical aspects, and what the fjords provide, it was perfect. We encased the sibling story in scale.”