Ten years ago, Disney’s status as the premier producer of animated feature films was in question. A creative and commercial rough patch marked by strife between talent, management and shareholders struck just as such rivals as Pixar and DreamWorks Animation were hitting their stride.
But with its most-recent release, “Frozen” — released Nov. 27 to near-ecstatic reviews and strong box office — Walt Disney Animation Studios is enjoying a creative and commercial streak that began with “Bolt” and has gained momentum with “Tangled” and last year’s hit “Wreck-It Ralph.”
The source of this sea change came in 2006, when Disney not only acquired chief rival Pixar but put its top executives — chief creative officer John Lasseter and president Ed Catmull — also in charge of the Disney toon house. The resulting transformation of the studio into a collaborative, creative and successful environment has made possible such projects as “Frozen,” says Chris Buck, who directed the film along with Jennifer Lee and has worked at the studio more than three decades.
“It has changed substantially,” says Buck. “For the first time since Walt (Disney), we have someone in charge who is a filmmaker and an artist. I never had that in my career. (Lasseter) understands us as filmmakers and he knows what we’re going through at each stage of production.”
Pitched and developed by Buck, the story is loosely adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and it was the idea of a winter environment that helped sell it. As at Pixar, the movie was put up multiple times as rough reels for the studio’s directors, writers and creatives to comment on and give notes.
It was several such notes that helped the film find its creative footing: “The story did not originally have the two as sisters, and somebody said — I don’t remember who — ‘what if they were sisters?’ And suddenly the emotional connection became clear,” Buck says.
That’s where Lee came in. Nearing the end of her work on the screenplay for “Wreck-It Ralph,” Lee says she really connected with the material, and her contributions encouraged producer Peter Del Vecho to invite her aboard “Frozen,” first to write the screenplay and then as a director.
Lee, who is the first woman to work as a director on a Disney animated feature, says making Elsa and Anna sisters opened up the story in a new way. “Elsa was very much a villain, and we just found the more we explored her and connected the girls, and made them sisters, she became more complex and interesting.”
Lee and Buck both say that while Disney has benefited from borrowing various Pixar techniques, each studio retains its own personality that comes from the filmmakers themselves.
That type of energy has been growing through the studio, says Andrew Millstein, exec VP of Disney Animation. “What we learned, or are learning, through this process is the more our teams push and support each other, the better our films get,” says Millstein.
Implementing these changes took time for people to embrace, Millstein says, but success has a way of building on itself. “Once people see how it’s applied, they get a better understanding of the potency of the process.”
“There’s something we say here, which is trust the process,” Lee says. “We work the process hard and get a lot of notes but we trust in what we’re doing and that it’ll get better. I look at what we were able to do with the film as an example.”