Both Frozen and The Croods contain transcendent moments that summarize the visual and thematic essence of these two Oscar-nominated movies: the powerful “Let It Go” song and the exquisite “Family Maze.” I go deeper into the scenes with the directors and filmmakers to better understand and appreciate their context and significance.
In many ways, the Frozen juggernaut can best be summed up by “Let It Go.” It’s a sublime combination of Idina Menzel’s memorable performance as Elsa — her liberating coming out to embrace her magic; a stirring song by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez; and gorgeous animation in which very real-looking ice becomes her artistic expression.
Indeed, when Jennifer Lee came on to the project and was elevated to co-director alongside Chris Buck, the change of emphasis with the sister story between Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa required a lot of tweaking, and the “Let It Go” scene was so strong that it necessitated rewriting the rest of the movie to support it.
“As they started working on it visually, we brought on director Dean Wellins, who’s a great board artist, to work with us,” Lee recalls. “It was six weeks before we turned it into layout. John Lasseter even worked in layout with us. ‘Let It Go’ was key and one of the things it let us do besides setting Elsa aside as the villain, was to look at the artistry of her magic. And we started finding a shape language for her magic based on her emotions. There’s the [smooth] language when she’s being artistic and there’s the [jagged] language when she’s scared.
“And with ‘Let It Go,’ it was starting to decided how that artistry was represented. And the snowflake became the key symbol and the foundation was when we found the logic behind building something so artistic. Once we had the snowflake as the anchor, and everything, including the pillars, came from that snowflake, and that power of her lifting it up off the mountain, it was the moment of understanding the strength in this woman that she’s been holding inside.”
Meanwhile, building Olaf is a return to the innocence of childhood. But as the scene progresses, according to Buck, Elsa’s power grows stronger and more mature in what she can achieve. “That’s why we had to do it early on in the scene,” Buck suggests. “I always like to look at Olaf as being designed by kids.”
There was also a tricky hurdle when Elsa looks back at her home of Arrendale. Initially, Elsa just stands there. But the beat of the music and the lyric (“It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small”) were more propulsive. So even though they were in a crunch and approved the shots, the directors asked to redo two of them and were granted the request.
“So instead of standing still and looking back at Arrendale, we start to move forward to the beat of this music, and she looks back a little bit, and then she runs right before she builds the staircase. It was hard for us to say we have to redo this because it cost a lot of money. But for the song, it just demanded that we changed it. And we’re so glad that we did,” Buck observes.
Then there was the complication of the Ice Palace. As Wayne Unten, lead supervisor, says, Elsa’s painting, sculpting, transforming. “Elsa lets her hair down, and her breathing is imperative.” There are more elegant curves and shapes as the ice grows. It echoes the architecture and costumes. As I initially reported, it was Lasseter’s idea to use the organic simplicity of the snowflake for building the Ice Palace for creative clarity.
“Once we started constructing it, it was four months for one shot when we sweep in and follow the building of the Ice Palace up to the chandelier,” Lee states. “And it was almost 100 people involved. It had to be everything: the power she feels emotionally and had it to feel like ice and it had to be stunning. And it was sweeping because it was a moving shot. It definitely was the most complicated shot in the movie and at the same time there was a simplicity to it.
“One of the shots that isn’t talked about enough is when she builds the staircase the first time. And she’s running up it as she’s building it, and that’s a lot like what the making of this movie was like. It’s a moment of sheer trust in herself that she won’t have again until the end of the film. You make it to the top until you run out of energy.”
Likewise, “Family Maze” elevates The Croods to a whole new level of achievement. “The Maze was custom-made for each character to have their own particular revelation,” explains co-director Chris Sanders (who worked alongside Kirk DeMicco). “Mostly it was about characters confronting a fear and realizing that they could handle it. These are people that have been told their whole lives that staying in a cave and staying out of the real world is the best way to survive. And now they have a situation where there is no safety net. Grug isn’t there to protect them and there’s no running back to the cave. So that’s where we started the sequence.
“And it was an incredible opportunity for the designers to influence where the characters were going. The flower field is a great example: the effect of the sunlight filtering through the red flowers was like putting a rose-colored gel through our camera. It’s shockingly beautiful.”
Early in the development process lighting was always an ambitious consideration, particularly for the Maze. According to visual effects supervisor Markus Manninen, the research trip to Zion offered inspiration with light streaming in and shaping the environment of the caves.
“We already had the light behavior as an aesthetic in the film and we had the opportunity to take it to the next level and the art department found these beautiful small, colorful rocks and these beautiful patterns, and they had the idea to scale it up for this bigger than life sensibility,” Manninen adds. “We had the idea of big vegetation but didn’t find a natural place for beautiful flowers that we had in a painting: the translucency of the pedals and the look. And the most essential moment of that sequence is the crystal cave. And our production designer, Christophe Lautrette, found a way to encapsulate that interior of the cave and here was an opportunity as a storytelling statement but also for the emotional aspect.”
After much iteration, lighting and surfacing worked together to get a physical light that was also theatrical. “They used the materials to let light flow through every detail and visually gave us a statement about contrast and color. The crowning moment occurs in the crystal cave where they look up at the ceiling, transmitting light through and back lighting Eep in a romantic moment.
“We used proprietary lighting and rendering tools but transferred to compositing in Nuke throughout, but in this sequence, in particular, Nuke worked as a creative tool. Christophe and I got to work with Nuke interactively to push the coloration in a particular way. If you see the original artwork for the crystal cave has a muted palette. The directors wanted us to find an extra richness but still be part of subtle aesthetic. Nuke let us see how far we can push it. We wanted the same look that you find in smaller crystals but on a much bigger scale. So we had to throw the physicality away and embrace the over the top nature of the behavior of the light.”
And like “Let It Go,” “Family Maze” transports us to a special place while shedding light on the emotional core of The Croods.