ANNECY, France — Disney Animation Studios, a long-time friend and collaborator of the Annecy Intl. Animation Festival, returned to the French town on Friday with three new shorts from its experimental animated shorts program Short Circuit, destined for Disney Plus, before providing an inside look at upcoming “Frozen 2.”
Held at Annecy’s lakeside Bonlieu Theater, “Frozen 2” head of animation Becky Bresee and head of effects animation Marlon West shared behind the scenes details for the making of Disney’s most anticipated sequel in years, telling stories, showing photos and screening two scenes, never-before-seen outside of Disney’s Burbank studios.
Before the first clip, Bresee and West explained that the film kicks off, as did the first, when Elsa and Anna are still young girls. Their father regales the girls with a lavish bedtime story from his youth, when the young prince himself visited an enchanted elemental forest, before something went horribly wrong and he was quickly brought back to Arendelle. Since then, there has been a disconnect between the people of the town and the elements: Air, fire, water and earth.
In the first scene screened on Friday morning, Elsa, Anna, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven are engaged in a less-than-fair game of charades. Anna starts, and successfully playacts the word villain, quickly guessed by the other players.
When Olaf heads to the front he declares the next round as boys vs. girls before adeptly transforming himself into a series of instantly recognizable forms, each guessed almost immediately by Kristoff and prompting Anna to accuse the two of cheating.
When it’s Elsa’s turn to mime, she is distracted by a haunting voice that only she can hear, and excuses herself to her room to be alone.
The scene ended there, but West and Bresee explained that Anna then checks in on Elsa, and the two fall asleep watching the northern lights, before Elsa is awoken by the mysterious voice. In a scene featured in the already-released trailer, Elsa heads outside and casts spells like she’s never done before, causing countless ice crystals covered in runes to be suspended in the sky over Arendelle.
The second scene was a longer cut of the one which starts the trailer. In it, Elsa runs headlong into dark and ominous water and massive crashing waves. The clip showed an intense and graphically-satisfying magical battle between Elsa and a horse-shaped water spirit on the spirit’s home turf.
Bresee and West also introduced three animated shorts from the studio’s Short Circuit animated shorts program: “Just a Thought,” directed by Brian Menz, “Exchange Student,” directed by Natalie Nourigat and “Jing Hua,” directed by Jerry Huynh, which screened their world premieres to the thousand-person theater.
Each creator shared a bit of their own background before describing the innovative techniques they developed for filming their shorts, and the personal connection they shared with the films.
With Disney since 2008’s “Bolt,” Menz has been involved on films such as “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and its popular sequel, a hit at last year’s Annecy sneak peek, “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” He is currently an animation supervisor on Disney’s 2020 feature release.
“Just a Thought” was inspired by Menz’s own awkward pre-teen years and his love for newspaper comics. His son Jack voices the young boy Ollie in the film, a student whose every thought is broadcast in a comic-strip bubble over his head.
“Exchange Student” director Natalie Nourigat is the newest of the short-makers Disney brought to Annecy, having joined the studio in 2015. Originally a comic book artist, at Disney she served as a story assistant and artist on “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”
Growing up in Oregon but wanting to learn French, she convinced her parents to enroll her in a French language emersion summer camp for artists, not realizing that every other kid was a first or second generation French speaker. Upon returning home she had a new perspective towards the immigrant kids at her school for whom English was not a first language
That empathy inspired the story of “Exchange Student” in which a young human girl finds herself on an Alien planet struggling to communicate with her native classmates.
Jerry Huynh started at Disney as an intern in 2011 before working as an engineer at Western Digital and software QA lead at Double Negative. He eventually returned to the House of Mouse as a technical director on films such as “Moana,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and the studio’s upcoming 2020 release.
More abstract in its theme and execution, Huynh’s “Jing Hua,” or “Flower in the Mirror” in English, was inspired by a period of intense grieving in the director’s life that he says still hasn’t passed. There was hardly a dry eye in the room as Huynh bore his soul on the Bonlieu stage, explaining that during the development and production of the film he lost both his grandparents and a close cousin, and shared the regrets he holds onto in each case.
The film features a woman practicing kung fu in front of a shrine dedicated to a departed loved one. The film’s sweeping score and ambitious action shots tore at the audiences heart strings with no need for dialogue as, the woman in the film uses martial arts to battle intense feelings of loss and grief reflecting Huynh’s own.
The Short Circuit program, started in 2016, allows anyone working at Walt Disney Animation Studios to pitch their ideas for original short films. So far, 20 artists have been given studio backing and support to realize their ideas. According to the company, the goal of the program is to “take risks in both visual style and story, surface new voices at the Studio and experiment with new technical innovation.”
The entire Short Circuit slate of shorts will appear on Disney Plus in the spring of 2020.