How many animators does it take to change a light bulb?
If it's a real light bulb, probably just one. If we're talking about a light bulb changing sequence being drawn up by the folks at Disney, it would likely take a village.
We didn't see any light bulbs being animated while visiting Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank last month, but we did see the Northern Lights in some enticing first footage of Disney's next animated wonder, "Frozen." And while the footage was certainly impressive, seeing how many artists it takes to bring such fantastical ideas to life was just as remarkable.
Along with a select group of journalists, we basically had the chance to go to animation school with some of the best in the business. Here's what we learned:
1. The main theme of the film is "the power of love over fear," says co-director Jennifer Lee.
2. The film is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but strays from the story while keeping "the essence of it," according to co-director Chris Buck.
3. They had an amazing ending early on, but they spent the next four years trying "to earn that ending," says Lee.
4. The goal is to make something that's "timeless yet timely," says Buck.
5. "Kristen Bell for Anna was the very first person that we saw. We did a lot of casting to find Anna, but she just hit it out of the park. From the beginning we loved her, and she just kind of became Anna and Anna became her. I don't know which one is which," says Buck
6. "What I love about [Bell] is that she just wanted to just push the boundaries of what we could do. She, like me, believes that girls can be funny," says Lee.
7. Olaf the snowman (Josh Gadd) isn't just funny, he's also got a "big role to play representing the innocent love in the scale of fear versus love," says Lee.
8. The musical team behind "The Book of Mormon," Kristen and Robert Lopez, wrote original songs for "Frozen," but "the songs have to earn their way into the film," says producer Peter Del Vecho.
9. Rigging is "making our characters able to move," says Frank Hanner, character CG supervisor, "the process of rigging is we take that digital sculpture, and we start building the skeleton, the muscles, and we attach the skin to the character, and we also create a set of animation controls, which our animators use to push and pull the body around."
10. "In 'Frozen,' we ended up with 312 character rigs, which is more than we've built for any of our other Disney films. We also have 245 cloth rigs – that's 245 simulated costumes – which is far beyond the amount that we've created for all of our Disney films combined to this point," says Hanner
11. Elsa, the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel) is one of the most complex Disney characters ever, not just from an emotional standpoint, but also from a follicle focus. "The average human has about 100,000 hairs on their head. Lotta hair. Elsa has 420,000 hairs. So she has incredibly dense, incredibly thick hair. And just as another point of comparison, one of our last famous Disney leading ladies Rapunzel, only had 27,000 hairs," says Hanner.
12. The effects group got schooled by Cal Tech professor Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht, aka Dr. Snow, about how snow and ice form, and why snowflakes are unique."One of the really interesting things that we found from him is that basically when snowflakes form in nature, it starts off with a little tiny ice crystal that's like floating through the atmosphere, and because of changes in humidity and temperature, they actually start what's called branching and plating. So the crystal continues to form, and it'll branch or it'll plate," says effects supervisor Dale Mayeda. The group used this knowledge extensively while creating the ice and snow covered world of "Frozen."
13. Using this knowledge, the effects group created a snowflake generator that allowed them to randomly create 2,000 unique snowflake shapes for the film. "Whenever you see any snow falling in this film, if you stop in on a frame and you zoom in, it'll be one of these 2,000 different snowflake shapes," says Mayeda.
14. The effects group created a "capture stage" where the entire world of "Frozen" gets displayed on monitors, which can be "filmed" on special cameras to operate a three-dimensional scene. "We can take this virtual set that's mimicking all of my actions and put it into any one of our scenes in the film," says technology manager Evan Goldberg.
15. The animators at Disney really think about the characters the way actors do. "We brought in acting coach Warner Loughlin. She came in and we literally went through every single page and we did these exercises in emotion and detail with the whole animation crew," says head of animation Lino DiSalvo.
16. Voice actors like Menzel and Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) came into the studio to teach the animators how they approach character. "We'd take away little tidbits and use them for our performances. That was huge for us," says DiSalvo.
17. Everything in animation is there for a reason. "There's no fat. Everything means something. Every line of dialogue means something. We're not treating this as just singing a song, everything has to mean something. We're communicating something to the audience," says animation supervisor Wayne Unten.
18. Some animators even do their own acting. "I actually film myself acting the scene out, which I find very helpful," says animation supervisor Rebecca Wilson Bresee, "I see some poses that I like. It's the general feeling of the scene. Sometimes I find little bits of information that when you put it into the scene it makes it feel real and believable."
19. This is a BIG movie. "I would say almost more than any other classic Disney tale, it does have an epicness to it. Ironically enough, most classic tales here are slightly more intimate. This one is much, much, much more expansive," says art director Michael Giaimo.
20. There's a lot of Rosemaling involved. "Rosemaling means 'rustic painting,' which is basically [Norway's] folk art. It's found in clothing. It's found in furniture. All architectural elements: ceilings, columns, wood trim, etc. It can be cursive. It can be very geometric. But it's everywhere in Norway. And Norwegians take great pride in it, so we ran with it," says Giaimo.
21. These Disney princesses wear underwear. "Aside from the sheer number of costumes on the show, the types of costumes and the layers of costuming have never been done. These characters are running around in the snow, so they have to petticoats, and they have to undergarments, and they have to have capes, and they have all these layers and layers of things that are all meticulously designed," says visual development artist Brittney Lee.
See all the parts come together in the "Frozen" theatrical trailer: