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It’s hard to think of Disney lagging behind when it comes to animated storytelling, but the emergence of Pixar in the mid-1990s signaled a downturn – at least by comparison – for the studio’s hand-drawn, and later, computer-animated departments. But in the last several years, Disney has seemed to regain its footing, releasing increasingly entertaining and resonant films, culminating in the wonderful Frozen. The story of two princesses who are sisters, the film deconstructs classic fairy tale values, offering a powerful story about sisters, and self-actualization, that never resorts to cliché.
At the Los Angeles premiere of Frozen, Spinoff Online spoke briefly to Lino DiSalvo, the film’s head of animation – and a supervisor on several of the studio’s recent animated features, including Bolt and Tangled. In addition to talking about the foundations for the film’s unconventional approach to its material, DiSalvo talked about the contributions of writer Jennifer Lee, and explained the collaborative process that enabled Frozen to become a truly special, unique film that enhances the Disney canon even as it razes it.
Spinoff Online: When you embark on a new project like this one, do you start fully over from scratch, or is there maybe a unified Disney aesthetic that you build on and tweak to suit the individual project?
Lino DiSalvo: For this film, being so influenced by Norway and the architecture and the traditional aspects they use in design, we used that as a starting point. But as far as character designs go, they’re completely from scratch. Because it’s basically about how can you take Norway architecture and build a character from that. And from the acting coach to working with the voice actors, we created animation delivering something unique to Frozen, when you’re watching the film, you should feel like these characters only live in this world.
This film is so iconoclastic in terms of its storytelling. How does that manifest itself in what you do as head of animation?
As head of animation on the film, the collaboration between [Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation] John Lasseter, the directors, the voice actors, everything kind of congeals, and we make decisions based on, like, Jen [Lee]’s writing says this, then we go into animation. And if it doesn’t ring true and we can’t get as much acting as we want out of it, it potentially goes back to writing. It goes back to Josh [Gad] – Josh reads something in order to help the animation, so that the iterative process, especially on this film, the back and forth was amazing.
What was the biggest task you faced in bringing this world to life as effectively as possible?
The subtleties of the film, animating characters’ wheels turning and thinking, as an animator that’s the juiciest stuff to animate, because there’s so much there. I think animating the really broad stuff is fun, but when you’re watching the film and you see those characters thinking and those wheels turning, we’ve succeeded, and this film being very much that – like there’s so much juicy stuff to animate in this film. It was so exciting.
How difficult is it to preserve the fairy tale aspect that we’re familiar with, and still present these dimensionalized female characters?
Having Jen Lee as a female writing a film about sisters, the truth in that, like Jen’s writing is so tight as an animator that when we would read the pages, animators were running around, like, “I want to animate those pages!” Because there was something so true about it, and the thing is, I feel like when you watch the film, us bringing a unique perspective to characters you think you might know, I feel like we broke down walls in that regard. Like you’re watching fresh new characters with a fresh new perspective.
Disney’s ‘Frozen’ is in theaters now.