Book Review: The Art of Frozen, by Charles Solomon
This winter to me, is a rather interesting milestone in my life. In December of 1988, our local cable company where I grew up, ran a free 2-week showing of The Disney Channel. I recall a few programs here and there, but the one that caught my interest, was one that gave a behind-the-scenes look (at the time) into the world of Disney’s animation studio. It was the first time I had ever seen anything showing just how the animated features that made up a good portion of my childhood were made. They even discussed the production of the just-released Oliver & Company, showing how they painted the characters on clear animation cels, and the computer technology to make vehicles drive around the animated New York City of the film’s world.
As the years passed, I ate up as much making-of material as I could, but I soon found that information on Disney’s animated features could be found within the pages of myriad books. One of those books that I encountered in 1995, was The Disney That Never Was, written by Charles Solomon. Within that book, Solomon wove a tapestry of information over decades of unproduced animated shorts and features, with images that had never been seen outside of the closed walls of The Walt Disney Archives.
Both an animation historian and critic, Solomon has written numerous books on the subject over the years, including one of my favorite Chronicle Books releases, The Art of Toy Story 3. Reading that book, it was as if I had met an old friend after many years. Solomon’s use of interviews and descriptions, provided one of the most inciteful stories of a sequel that people had waited 11 years to see. So when I heard that Mr Solomon was the author of The Art of Frozen (also released by Chronicle Books), I made sure that I was going to get a copy to read as soon as possible…after I saw Frozen 3 times in theaters.
Since 2008, Chronicle has picked up the torch on publishing Art Of books for Disney’s animated features, and has given us some fine coffee table books on the likes of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Wreck-It-Ralph.
With Frozen, Solomon divides the bulk of the material up into 5 sections, along with a preface by John Lasseter, and a foreword by directors Chris Buck, and Jennifer Lee.
The book offers some rather intriguing insights into the production, including a summary of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the task of making what was considered by some to be a “protracted” story, into an exciting film. The nut was cracked when someone suggested that the female lead and the Snow Queen should be sisters. Aside from 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, this was territory that had never been tackled in a fairytale setting: “Princess sisters.” One intriguing thing the story people did, was arrange “A Sister Summit.” Co-director Jennifer Lee explains a little about what happened in the book’s prologue:
“They brought all of us who have sisters into a room and we shared the real conflict, the real angst, and real heart. We had a lot of fun exploring what sisters do-from fighting over clothes to deeper issues like watching your sister struggle and not knowing how to help.”
Its little stories like that one that make Solomon’s book all the better. He doesn’t just lay out all sorts of great conceptual art, but he gets insight from various filmmakers, on many different aspects of the production.
We even get myriad images of character evolutions. Probably of all of the characters, it is Elsa who went through the most drastic changes. Early concepts show everything from her having blue-tinted skin, to a sharp-looking, “dark” hairstyle (as seen by the digital image on the right next to her sister Anna, by artist Bill Schwab).
One chapter that I didn’t expect to find so intriguing, concerned the production and costume design of Frozen. Early on, Production Designer Michael Giaimo (who had served in the same capacity on Pocahontas) claimed he wanted to give the film a Scandinavian style, and a team was tasked to go to Norway for research. In the last few decades, such excursions have proved valuable sources of insight and culture, that one would not get simply looking up pictures of Norway on Google. There’s even a great 2-page spread talking about the art of rosemaling, along with many different pictures Giaimo took for reference.
Costume design information on the film breaks down just how Giaimo and his crew decided to color and tone the various outfits, leading to several of the filmmakers to consider the film “a costume drama.” Compared to the light garment that Rapunzel wore in Tangled, the characters in this film wear several layers of clothing given their northern environment, with the likes of wool fabric taken into consideration.
This realm of characters in various costumes and patterns may seem boring to some, but offers some insight into the various directions the artists could have gone, as well as where the final product ended up. There are allusions in the stylings to such past inspirational Disney artists like Mary Blair (who did concept art for Alice in Wonderland & Peter Pan), and Eyvind Earle (who was responsible for the design aesthetic of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty).
Another highlight since John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought into the studios, is the use of color keys to layout the tone and “atmosphere” of various scenes. Those of us who had seen Pixar’s Art of books for years have always seen such works included, and since the Art of Bolt, these 2-page spreads have become commonplace for the Disney Studios’ books. What’s amazing to consider when looking at these, is they seem to be just a few shades shy of what the final image became. Just take a look at the color key image above of Elsa’s coronation, and the final image from the film below it.
Speaking of Elsa, fans of her character will probably get a big charge out of the third chapter in the book, titled The Ice Palace. One sequence that has had people talking for several weeks, is when Elsa runs away from the Kingdom of Arendelle, and near the summit of the kingdom’s North Mountain, constructs a giant ice palace. Solomon devotes over 23 pages to design work that the studio’s artisans created to come to the final product. There are also myriad additional art pieces that show more of Elsa’s evolving character design.
Earlier this year, many were shocked that the attempts to once again revive hand-drawn animation in the studio had died, with the announcement that there were no current projects being worked on with the medium. It certainly seems that digital is the way of the future, even when it comes to the likes of concept art. I remember opening The Art of Toy Story 3, and being surprised how much of the work being done was now being classified as “digital,” away from the “pencil” and “pastels” that I had seen designated in the past.
When it comes to The Art of Frozen, much of the concept work that was done on the film was digital, but there are a few spots where we see the “old-school” techniques still being done by a few artists. Notable among them are works by Claire Keane (daughter of animator Glen Keane), and Jin Kim.
“Art Of” books can often serve as a great companion piece to our favorite films. While the Entertainment Media may fawn over the likes of big-name celebrities on the red carpet, there are those of us who wonder about the hundreds of artists who pour so much time and effort into making films like these. Charles Solomon’s The Art of Frozen is another great entry in behind-the-scenes material. Just as Beauty and the Beast and its Art Of book inspired me at the age of 11 to pursue animation as a career, I can see plenty of young people out there being inspired by what the artists at Walt Disney Feature Animation have created, and working to one day possibly go to Disney and work on something just as inspiring as Frozen is.
“The fairy tale of film – created with the magic of animation – is the modern equivalent of the great parables of the Middle Ages. Creation is the word. Not adaptation. Not version. We can translate the ancient fairy tale into its modern equivalent without losing the lovely patina of its once-upon-a-time quality…We have proved that the age-old entertainment based on the classic fairy tale recognizes no young, no old” – Walt Disney
The Art of Frozen is published by Chronicle Books. Standard List Price: $40.00 (US)