Disney’s Peter Del Vecho on Frozen, Treasure Planet & more

Producer Peter Del Vecho chats to us about Disney, Frozen, Treasure Planet, IMAX, animation and more...

This December, Disney releases into UK cinemas its latest animated feature, Frozen. The movie has, in different forms, been a long time coming, given that it’s, at last, Disney’s take on The Snow Queen, a project that’s fallen by the wayside more than once at the studio (most notoriously just over a decade ago, when a hand-drawn take on the material came apart).

After catching an impressive preview reel of Frozen, we had the chance to sit down with its producer, Peter Del Vecho, to find out more. Here how it went…

As someone who has been waiting to see The Snow Queen story done by Disney for a long time, it’s encouraging to see it in such good shape. Three out of the last four films from Walt Disney Animation Studios – this, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph – were projects that people had tried to get made their before in different forms. In those two cases, the previous material was all but ignored, I gather. But what was the approach with Frozen?

Originally – even our version has evolved over time – we played the Snow Queen as solely the villain from the beginning to the end of the movie. And the problem with that was it was hard to relate to her. She was up in a castle, sequestered there, and had no real participation. And it was hard to relate to her on any human or emotional level. By making [the two lead characters, Elsa and Anna] sisters, it forced us to write it in such a way that the audience would understand why Elsa is the way she is. And why Anna is the way she is too. That provided a natural conflict.

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Once you hit that eureka moment, do you then dig back into the past at the previous development work done at Disney?

No. Early, early on in development, we read through other variations and discussed what did or didn’t work. And then you put that to the side, because you’re trying to come up with something that does work. It wasn’t until we made the main two characters sisters that we managed to get it to work, that was our eureka moment.

The interesting approach here is that you’ve got two directors here, one with a real bedrock of experience in Chris Buck (Tarzan), and Jennifer Lee, who’s making her debut (after co-writing Wreck-It Ralph). At a point where you’ve got animated films that increasingly lean on just one director, what were you looking for when you decided to bring those two together? What was the spark?

There were a lot of things. One was Jen was very related to the character, and it was important to us also to have a female perspective on this movie in particular. Two, she brings a different sensibility to Chris, but they work extremely well together. They build off each other. We had both that classic feel of Disney, but at the same time it feels fresh.

Personally, I got into Disney films in the late 80s and early 90s. And I think if you go back to the casting of the likes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, it wasn’t a movie star hunt. Disney leant on the talents of Broadway. As such, the films got voice casts who had pre-knowledge of working with each other, and who could record together more. You’ve pulled together a Broadway-centric team here, although you’re making the movie on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. So how did it happen?

Was there a relationship between the people we cast, and did they necessarily know each other? No. However, obviously cop Lopez is writing the music, he did The Book Of Mormon which is how Josh Gad came about. Actually, Josh Gad was part of the table read now I think about before cop was involved, so it actually developed independently.

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Do we get the actors together? Absolutely we do. We work separately with them first until they’re comfortable with the character, and then we like to bring them into the studio and pair them up. They’ll perform a scene, and they record and overlap, but sometimes you get a performance you wouldn’t get if you recorded them separately. So we do both.

It almost went out of trend for a good ten years that voice talents record together.

It did, yeah. They elevate each other. It’s like anything. If you’re in an isolated room by yourself, that’s one thing. But if you’re reacting to the energy, and the other actors, you perform differently, and we try to take advantage of that.

Moving on to you specifically, you came to Frozen then a year and a half ago?

About two years ago. A little over.

Coming off the back of making The Princess And The French, some years before that, you were talking about doing this. So what happened in the intervening years? You obviously did Winnie The Pooh in there, but what happened with you and the project itself?

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I did go right from The Princess And The French to Winnie The Pooh, right to this one, with very little break. So for me, it’s consistent. For the project, it was on in early development stages for quite some time with Chris [Buck]. A lot of that time was going back and reading other versions, working out what did and didn’t work. Coming up with ideas, pitching it to John Lasseter. But we didn’t start ‘crewing up’ until I joined as producer a little over two years ago.

When you did come into it, by that stage the decision had been made to do this with computer graphics, and to push the 3D as well. You’ve talked before about how this is the right time to tell the story, but technologically, given how beautiful some of the hand drawn early concept work was ten years ago, was this the absolute right time? Or is there an argument that in five years time, the techniques we saw in Paperman would be perfect?

You know, I’m really proud of the animation. I think that one of the things we pride ourselves on is being able to push CG facial animation in humans, and to me this movie is taking it to another level. Right now, I can’t conceive of the movie in any other medium than CG. It’s what I’ve lived and breathed with on this, certainly the scope and scale with the big mountains and the vistas. CG is the right medium, but also cinemascope, and 3D. All of it feels right for this project.

It’s interesting you talking about pushing CG facial animation. The one thing I think that CG has finally got right is eyes. I remember watching Tangled, and thinking that the eyes had really, properly clicked.

It’s interesting because in the animation room we always say look at the eyes. If you don’t believe the eyes, you won’t believe what they’re thinking and saying. Then you won’t improve the scene. We’re very hard on ourselves, but it all starts with us. First look at the eyes: if they’re believable, then we can do everything else.  

I think Tangled was pivotal in that sense. That hand drawn wouldn’t have worked for it. But that felt like a real turning point for Disney animation to me, and I get the impression that the success of it ending up buoying the studio?

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No question. And I think we’re building off of that success they had, both as a movie and technologically. And the same people who worked on that movie are working on this movie, in terms of the animators. There were things that they wanted to do on Tangled that they couldn’t in terms of facial animation. Now, they can do it on our movie.

You’ve invested a lot of money to make technological progress at the studio, but I wonder if you’re spending more and more to achieve smaller and smaller advances now? That so much of the big chunks of progress has been completed?

I would say that we’re being very fiscally responsible with the movie. Frozen, we’re very responsible, and we’re also getting better at delivering the technology. It used to take us a long time to deliver, now we’re much more efficient at it. So we get both. We get a movie cost that’s actually reasonable, and we’re more able to spend more time on the detailings of it, because we can get there faster.

If quality is our number one job, then that is the driving force, so details become very important. That’s both in terms of story, and in terms of technology, the emroidery on the clothing, the making sure the snow feels real.

We’ve touched on this being a story of its time. One of the eureka moments in Tangled seemed to be turning the character of Mother Gothel into a passive aggressive antagonist. We’re at a point where all films seemingly have to be dark in movie theater at the moment. But what Tangled particularly captured, and it seems to be what you’re aiming for here, is for a movie that captures the darker moments and does interesting things, but is ultimately a big, bright family extravaganza?

There are dark ingredients to this. Obviously if you’re trying to set the stakes high for your characters, you have to put them in difficult situations. But it’s how they triumph, how they get through those situations that gives you that gratifying feeling that you want to get from a family movie. We have lots of characters, very interwoven, a complicated plot, but it all comes together nicely.

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Has there even been a discussion about doing IMAX scenes?

Not specifically for this movie.

Has it been tossed around a bit within the studio itself, given the aforementioned inroads in technology? I can’t imagine it’s that far off.

No, I’m sure we could do it. It hasn’t been talked about for this movie, certainly. Cinemascope, 3D, certainly big screen movie theater. We could adapt this quite easily to IMAX.

The other technological evolution over the last year has been the introduction of Dolby Atmos.

And this will be Atmos!

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I’ve always felt that sound is the most overlooked part of animated films. That it’s as much created from scratch as everything else. You sent the crew here on research trips to Norway for this movie. Capturing the authenticity of the sound while you’re there must be vital?

We send our sound designer… he spent many a day at a frozen lake up in Canada, recording sounds of cracking ice. My point is, he does his research as well to get authentic sound.

I wonder if we can go back in time a bit now. Can I go back to Treasure Planet, one of your earlier projects. I’ve always really liked it, but it came at a point where Disney wasn’t in trend any more, that it was the company that had apparently lost its way. But if you go through there are these extraordinary films. The Hunchbacks, HerculesMulanTarzan.

Then you arrive at Treasure Planet, and I spoke to producer Roy Conli about it once upon a time, and his argument now is that it was well ahead of its time. Can you capture, though, what it’s like to be in the midst of something like that. That you have something that you know is good, that for reasons out of your control didn’t connect at that point?

You know, I think we had a good movie and I’m proud of that movie. It was obviously nominated for an Oscar so it can’t be too bad! Different films at different times maybe. Roy may be right. It is a movie that would have done better in CG, and fully exploited that. We tried to mix the mediums, which I also enjoyed doing. Maybe if it had followed the success of Johnny Depp we would have found a different audience!

Finally, The Snow Queen, Frozen as it’s become, was one of the last films that Walt Disney himself wanted to make. But does this empty his locker now? Are there any more that he’s had his fingers on that are somewhere in gestation?

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I am sure that there are other things somewhere that he wanted to do that I’m not aware of! For sure there are other projects in gestation at the studio. A plethora of projects. I’ve been so focused on this one that all else sort of melts away!

Melts away! Very good.

I didn’t mean that! Sorry…!

Peter Del Vecho, thank you very much.

Frozen arrives in UK cinemas on December 6th.