Interview with Chris Buck, co-diretor of Frozen
The Kansas-born director was finishing Frozen when tragedy struck in 2013. “I was ready to kind of say: Cartoons are a joke. Why am I doing this?” Yet, in persevering he found purpose, and a deep belief he was put on this planet for a reason: “to bring hope and inspiration.”
Director of Frozen, Frozen II
Frozen II opens wide November 22
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC – Chris Buck is standing before a packed lecture hall at the new Emily Carr campus, warming up the crowd of hopeful young animators attending the Spark Festival of Animation with stories of his student days at CalArts in the ‘70s. Before presenting a teaser reel for Frozen II — only the fourth sequel to be produced under the Disney label — he talks about how he fell in love with animation. He confesses he was a shy kid living in Wichita, Kansas, when Pinocchio changed his life. He started drawing cartoons, studying the lines of Peanuts characters and replicating them at whim, finally landing in a nest of creative talent in Southern California. His classmates included Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Lasseter, and his mentors included surviving members of “Nine Old Men:” the core of Disney animators who put pencil to paper to create a hand-drawn dynasty, and in turn, an entire catalogue of work that, for many, is practically synonymous with the American Ideal.
After the presentation, I asked Buck if that’s a fair equation, and in a candid 20-minute one-on-one with the Oscar-winning director, he answered this, and many other questions about working in the “Magical World” of Frozen— while staying warm, and decidedly human.
Ex-Press: I’d like to ask about this idea of a Disney morality, because you talk about watching Pinocchio as a four-year-old, and I remember watching Bambi in the church basement. Disney movies affirmed something so wholesome, I sometimes wonder what set my moral compass more, the church upstairs or the Disney movies below?
Chris Buck: I think it’s Walt’s message to the world, or it was to me, which was always about giving hope. And not necessarily with a hammer on the head, that this is the theme of the movie or this is the message. But all the characters have this hope in them, and they push through all the challenges they have. For kids growing up, there are challenges along the way. You have all these things in your life that are scary … and the Disney characters go through hell. For me, it was Pinocchio, and he goes through hell….
Ex-Press: He does go through hell, and yet he still wants to be a human being. And being a human being is really, really hard.
Buck: Yeah. It is. And yet he still wants it, and he still gets it. And there is a fascinating story that could be told, which is what happened after? You know, now he’s a real boy — now what?
Ex-Press: Yeah. Especially since being human doesn’t come with special powers. Which brings up something else: special powers. Who gets to have special powers? I think kids have this need now, which has maybe always been there, but the idea that special powers validate you — make you important.
Buck: Here’s a true story. There was this little girl, and I was introduced to her by her Mom as ‘the guy who did Frozen.’ And she’s probably in the third grade, and she goes, ‘oh, tomorrow at school, my friend and I are dressing up as Anna and Elsa… But my friend is Elsa, and you know she has all these special snow and ice powers. But what’s Anna’s power?’ And I said: ‘Well, Anna’s special power is love.’ And her eyes got so big. And she went, ‘Oh wow!’, and she couldn’t wait until the next day to share that with everyone. You know, it’s not obvious. She does not have a physical superpower, but her superpower is her love, the love that she exudes. So I think when kids see that some characters may have magical powers in our films, but a lot of the ones — and even the ones with magical powers — sort of realize it at the end, that what really matters is the love inside their hearts. It’s the strength of their family or their relationships. It’s those things that are really important, as opposed to these external magical powers that they may have.
Ex-Press: This is all common sense in a lot of ways, but there is something about the way Disney can put these things together that is emotionally poignant. I mean, I am a grown-up and I cry at these movies when they are well done. And I hardly cry at anything, and it makes me wonder what the process is as far as all the creative individuals who come together and make it happen. I mean, it’s not that easy to manipulate people into feeling emotions, real emotions, especially in someone as jaded as me. Why does it work? What have you learned about the successes and the failures? What is it about being a little human creature that undoes us? What have you learned about it?…
Buck: I think the only thing is that when we are coming up with ideas, if they are going to move people, first they have to move us. We have to be emotionally invested in the character and their journey. And we heave to earn that moment. If the movie is going to make you cry, you have to earn it. You have to set it up, and it takes a lot of work to set it up from the beginning to earn that moment, but it really comes down to talking about it. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get goosebumps and chills just talking about an idea…. If it works then, to add the images and the amazing animation and the fantastic music… that just kind of takes it over the top. But it really starts with us trying it on and feeling it. Because if we don’t feel it, the audience isn’t going to feel it. You just can’t fake it.
Ex-Press: But it is all about feelings, and feelings are so abstract. There’s a fundamental mystery to it, and I wonder have you sort of surrendered to that? Because earlier in the talk, you mentioned how you stumbled into books on the shelf and they initiated a whole other life path…. [Buck said he’d picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest and read the quote; “People regret the things they haven’t done more than the things they have.” ]
Buck: Yes. Yes, and I am speaking for myself, personally, but I don’t think there are any mistakes that have been put in my life. Everything is in my life for a reason. I don’t think a lot of people know this but at the end of Frozen, my eldest son [Ryder] was killed in a car accident..
Ex-Press: Yes, I did read that, and I am so sorry.…
Buck: Thank you. When that happened, I was ready to kind of say: Cartoons are a joke. Why am I doing this? I should really be doing something more powerful in my life. And then I kind of listened to him, and what he was trying to tell me. And it was: ‘No. No. No, Dad. You need to keep going.’ And the success of Frozen, not the monetary success… but the stories and the people who kept coming up to me and telling me how much Frozen meant to them, and how Frozen had changed their lives, I don’t know… We did a thing with Reddit, Ask Us Anything, and a woman wrote in saying she was in a very sad, dark place in her life. And she saw Frozen and saw Elsa’s journey and said she was still here because she was inspired to keep going, she said ‘I’m still here because of you guys.’ I was ready to give it up when I heard about my son. But I have these stories now. And I realize this is what I am here for. This is what I was meant to do. And it kind of took his passing to reinforce that. Otherwise, I could have gone on in life not really processing it: That I make cartoons for a living, it’s what I do. And it took that to let me see why I’m here on this planet. Whatever I can do to bring these stories to people who need hope and inspiration, I will do. Sometimes, it changes lives.
Ex-Press: That’s a huge responsibility to put on your shoulders as an animator. For a guy who went to CalArts and goofed around with Tim Burton…
Buck: Well, I still goof around, there’s no doubt about that, but I guess what I don’t do is take what I do lightly. I don’t just say: ‘Hey, we’re making cartoons, who cares what’s in it? Let’s just make the characters silly and goofy and they can fall on their face.’ I mean, you can do that. And make the audience laugh, but there is this other consideration… because if I am going to spend 90 minutes of my life watching a movie, any movie, or if I am going to spend four to five years of my life working on something, I want to make a film that has a positive impact on the world.
Ex-Press: And we seem to need that more than ever. I mean the current reality is tough for kids. Maybe you reference climate change a little here… that we need harmony with the elements? But climate seems to be an ambient source of anxiety for young people.
Buck: Not really. I mean, it’s not what we went for, but Elsa does have ice and snow powers.
Ex-Press: But as far as being able to address real world problems, how willing is the Disney entity to go there? I mean, now we have female heroines and characters that represent greater diversity, where is the company on this? Or maybe an easier way of asking is, how do you feel about being there? You left, did commercials for a while… then went to Sony and got an Oscar nomination for Surf’s Up, which sadly suffered from what you called ‘Penguin Fatigue’ … And you came back, made Frozen… what I consider a modern Disney masterpiece. And now, you’re obviously pretty comfortable there. How have you seen the whole Disney brand evolve? Let’s even say this Disney morality. Because I have to say, I do equate the Disney brand with the American Ideal. Is that wrong of me?
Buck: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a very good question. I think maybe we get that morality from is the best of America, and the best of the American people. When I did my cycling trip with my wife, we took three months off, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people along the way. And a lot of them hadn’t seen the movies I had worked on, which was very refreshing, but we weren’t the centre of their universe. Yet, I met these people and there was such a kindness there. We were just two little people teetering down the road, and folks would invite us in, and they would want to hear our stories, and I just got this feeling of this goodness in America that a lot of times, we don’t. A lot of times we just see the strife in America and the problems. So I really think it comes from that surviving American ideal: The hope for something better. I think Disney sort of takes from that, more than America necessarily takes from Disney.
I met these people and there was such a kindness there. We were just two little people teetering down the road, and folks would invite us in, and they would want to hear our stories, and I just got this feeling of this goodness in America that a lot of times, we don’t. A lot of times we just see the strife in America and the problems.
Ex-Press: So it comes down to infusing these Disney entities with something that translates as human and relatable… taking a thing that starts on paper and making it feel real… That’s hard. What has to be present in the animated form to convince us it’s human?
Buck: That is something that has been handed down by the “Nine Old Men” and my mentor, Eric Larson, was one of them. It’s sort of this world where you aren’t creating realistic characters or realistic worlds, but believable characters and believable worlds, so an audience can connect with these characters. I think the best characters — and we try to do this with ours — the best characters have flaws. So they are just like us and none of them are perfect. That way, there’s this instant identity right away, so it starts there. Then there’s always, how to make it entertaining… I mean Olaf wasn’t just a snowman. When Elsa was still a villain in our minds, she was creating a snowman army to protect her, and Olaf was her first creation. But her powers weren’t at full strength yet. So she creates this sort of half thing that looks like a marshmallow. We always referred to Olaf as the “first pancake’ — the little guy burned on the bottom that you throw out…
Ex-Press: Oh no! I love the first pancake…! And I hate wasting food….
Buck: And you’re right. You don’t throw out what isn’t perfect… Everyone loves Olaf because he’s so flawed, and it’s interesting to see how that developed. I knew with a snowman like that — one that could fall apart and come back together — and coming from my hand-drawing background as an animator, I knew that was animation gold… Omigosh, that’s incredible. So I knew visually we had something, but it was all about finding believability and flaws and something interesting about the character that the audience can find joy in — whether they connect emotionally, or laugh at it. Whatever it is that has that thing… something unique and not generic. If we find our characters are too generic, we have to work to find something unique about them. Either personality-wise, or looks-wise, something that only THEY can be that way, or act that way….
I think the best characters — and we try to do this with ours — the best characters have flaws. So they are just like us and none of them are perfect.
Ex-Press: Well, that’s a challenge because the catalogue is so big now. What’s left?…Have you ever felt you were bringing something novel to it just for novelty’s sake? Ever gone too far?
Buck: Of course. We do that all the time. In fact, it’s part of our training: Go too far with anything and everything. Push it. Break it. Because you can always come back. But there is nothing worse than not having gone far enough. It feels like you didn’t mine it for all it could be. So whether it’s a scene or personality, you have to go too far. We’re lucky we have the time to go too far, off the cliff… and come back again.
Ex-Press: So in the context of Frozen, how far was too far?
Buck: An example of going to far was making Elsa a villain [as she was in the original treatment for Frozen]. She had spiky blue hair and she had coat that was made of living ermine… and she would order these ermines to crawl up and down her body and give her living fur coat. It was cool, but went too far… It was just creepy. And that was our own staff and our own crew saying that maybe we had gone too far. But you have to keep pushing it, especially if you think it’s good…. And if it’s not, you go out there and try again.
Ex-Press: Sounds like a good Disney movie to me.
Frozen II opens in theatres in North America November 21. Main image (above): Frozen II co-director Chris Buck speaks at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University, October 26, 2019. Photos by Katherine Monk.
THE EX-PRESS, November 21, 2019