Jennifer Lee is changing the face of Disney animation, as she becomes the first female filmmaker to direct a Disney movie as she has teamed up with Chris Buck for Frozen.
Frozen is the fifty-third film from Disney animation studios and is based on the well known tale The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson; Lee has also penned the screenplay for the film as well as being in the director’s chair for the project.
As if being the first female director wasn’t enough, Lee has also broken more new ground by becoming the first writer to make the transition into the director’s chair.
And while Lee may be blazing a trail for other women to follow her example at the studio, she admits that at the time she did not know that she was making a little bit of history with this film.
“I wasn’t aware, which is probably a good thing. I think that the press brought it to our attention several months in. I was more overwhelmed at becoming the first writer to become a director at Disney; usually you are a story artist or an animator and then you work your way up and I came from a very different side of it.
“What I appreciate is how much the crew just embraced my perspective and me coming from a writing background and Chris did as well.”
Disney is one of best known and most loved animation studio that has been making movies for decades, and many make ask why it has taken fifty-three films to finally see a woman at the helm. Moreover, Lee says while there are still fewer women working in animation, in recent years there has been an influx and things are starting to change.
“There were definitely fewer, but that is changing and that is why you are starting to see a change. There was just one woman in Chris Buck’s class at CalArts, and now it is just over half - just to use CalArts as an example.
“For us, there are more and more women in the story room and in the animation process. I think that it does help for a balanced voice. There are two other female directors at Disney and they are working on great projects. I think that it is just a sign of things to come.”
In fact, Lee is not the only woman who has been making waves at Disney, as Lauren MacMullan is another name to watch out for in the coming years.
MacMullan is behind Get A Horse, the Mickey Mouse short film that is playing in front of Frozen in cinemas. Get A Horse not only celebrates Mickey Mouse’s eighty-fifth birthday, but MacMullan is the first woman to solo direct any sort of Disney project.
While Lee’s work on Frozen has been whipping up a storm, she was not originally intended to be in the director’s chair at all. Lee had penned the script for Wreck It Ralph - a Disney film that was released earlier this year - and she was brought on board to help pen the screenplay.
Co-director Chris Buck has originally pitched the idea of Frozen to Disney five years earlier and was keen to explore the theme of romantic vs. real love; a theme that Lee admits that she was totally drawn to.
However, she was also excited about going back to the original story of The Snow Queen and really developing further some of the messages and themes of Hans Christian Anderson’s work.
“That is what drew me to it and what Chris was going for I supported 100%. Looking at love in a different way was something that was so compelling. Then we went back to the original story and we really looked at the message of that story is.
“Even though the Snow Queen is evil, the message of that story is fear vs. love and the power of love over negativity and fear; we had never done that before as a theme. We did change it quite a bit to support that theme, as we didn’t want to add the good vs. evil quite as much.
“With Elsa, in the original Snow Queen you don’t know anything about her apart from the fact that she is evil. There is also this little boy called Kai that a little girl is trying to save from this curse of negativity. We said ‘what if we give Kai’s qualities to Elsa and make them sisters?’ These are two characters that matter to each other; Anna represents love and Elsa represents fear.
“Once we did that we felt very free to build the story as it needed to be. I would constantly go back and re-read the original just looking for anything; there is a lot of Norway in there and a lot of symbolic details that we kept such as strong female characters. It was a wonderful resource but it is such a different type of material than the film, so we felt very free to do our own.”
While Lee does come from a writing background and is making her directorial debut with the release of Frozen, she feels that her writing experience really has helped her in the director’s chair.
“I think that it always informs you as you are always building as storytellers and pushing yourself. I am always working to create stronger characters and better stories. Wreck It Ralph certainly helped me a lot with Frozen because the writers are in the room with the actors and the editorial rooms.
“So I was working very closely with Rich Moore and so I knew his process. That really helped when I joined Frozen because I knew what I was getting in to, in some ways. For me, it is definitely helps you build on what is possible and pushing what we could push and always trying to challenge yourself.”
Frozen has been winning over critics left, right and centre since it hit the big screen and has been doing the business at the box office; it really does look set to become one of Disney’s most successful films.
We are also heading into awards season and the movie has already picked up a whole host of Annie Award nominations; including Best Picture. Could it be battling out for the animation Oscar at the beginning of 2014?
As for Lee, she really has paved the way for women to take up the director’s chair at Disney and it looks like we may be seeing more and more women at the helm over the next few years. I am excited to see what this writer/director does next.
Frozen is out now.
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