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Immersed in Movies: First Look: Designing the Winter Wonderland of ‘Frozen’

Immersed in Movies: First Look: Designing the Winter Wonderland of 'Frozen'

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.”

In fact, The Sound of Music was another major influence. “The juxtaposition of character and environment and the counterpart of how they played in terms of cinematography was brilliant in that film,” Giaimo adds.
Meanwhile, the construction of the magnificent Ice Palace by Elsa (Idina Menzel) during the liberating song, “Let It Go,” originated with Lasseter’s idea of starting with a snowflake, which emanated from Elsa’s magical talent. It’s easy to see why Lasseter closely identified with this princess who’s like an artist.
“That is John’s brilliance for creative simplicity. Walt said that simplicity is the keynote of good storytelling. Once you have it, you elaborate on the framework. You can see what great visuals can come out of it. That shot took nine months. It was very complex and very dense. Because of so much reflection and refraction, it helped determine the color palette inside, which needed to be controlled. I think more reductively in terms of palette. Mostly on the cool side, but when she battles the guards we used a bolder palette of yellow. A lot of people were shocked. But yellow is used to symbolize caution.”

Overall, the look of nature was captivating in Frozen. But how do you layer on top of so much white? Norway provided examples from sunlight to moonlight, to sunsets to storms, which achieve dramatic effect unlike any other animated feature.
One of Giaimo’s conceits was achieving an elegant jewel-like palette. Therefore, they have two light sources: natural light and Elsa’s magical powers.
Lisa Keene, who was responsible for the lighting design, adds, “So with those magical powers, she’s actually able to light the ice herself [inspired by a trip the design team took to an ice hotel in Quebec]. So not only were we using natural glacier-like colors for our palace but we were also using sunlight to affect those colors, and then we also have Elsa and the emotions she is experiencing through our narrative, and we were using that to actually illuminate the ice from within.”
Organic to the end, which is part of the special charm of Frozen.

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