27 June 2014

The stylized and holistic world of Frozen

Earlier I promised I would write about more examples of participation, but since I haven't had time to make an in-depth study, I thought I might as well tie the discussion into Frozen. After all, it's been over half a year and the hype still hasn't died down, and little girls are still singing "do you wanna build a snowman?" in the middle of summer.

Not long ago I was talking to a dad who watched the movie, and he told me that he never cared for musicals but greatly enjoyed Frozen. He's not the type who appreciates characters randomly bursting into song, but he could still tell that Frozen was "done well". I found it fascinating that he could inherently recognize a well done musical despite his dislike for them. But isn't that the mark of any good work of art? You can dislike the circus and yet be amazed at the incredible sense of balance it takes to walk a tight-rope. Any genre, when expressed in its' purest form, has a peculiar way of transcending itself to the point where it is no longer exclusive to a specific target audience but rather becomes a universal statement about the world at large. It's that point of self-transcendence that every good artist should always be striving to achieve.

That isn't to say that everybody loved the movie. Some say that Disney is lying through their teeth and sneaking in uncouth messages.  These conclusions, I believe, are not the result of going deeper, but the result of not going deep enough.  The extensive work put into developing the world of Frozen far exceeds the average animated film, and I think it deserves more credit than it has been given. As a shameless lover of the animated fairy-tale musical, I'm making it my personal goal to convince you, regardless of whether you liked the movie or not, that Frozen was not another thoughtless princess movie.  And if this doesn't convince you, go read "The Art of Frozen" by Charles Solomon. These "art of" books are great and I swear they're worth the read.

Often times, people regard live action as the "real movies", but CG animation actually requires more multidisciplinary collaboration than a live action film, specifically because there is literally nothing in it that happens on accident. Every hair and cloth and building and plate and leaf has to be created, and you can't afford to make mistakes, because the tiniest decision has a butterfly effect in every department of the production pipeline. For example, if the animators don't coordinate with the effects supervisors, then they won't know to make the characters respond a blizzard that the effects team will be adding in three months later.  But with a musical of this scale, the amount of coordination is tenfold.

A big instrument in that coordination for Frozen is the art director, Michael Gaimo. Giaimo's vision for the film was to create an atmosphere where the "environment and the characters talk to each other and share a mutual design language." What's a "design language"? It's basically saying as much as you possibly can without using words. One of the biggest challenges in "book to movie" adaptions is that the cinematic storytelling medium does not respond well to narration. It's boring, and it's hard for the audience to remember. You have to compensate by translating those words into their visual equivalent. Here I'm going to talk about four of the basic design languages in Frozen, and note that none of them contain the word "dialogue".

Color schemes 

Eons ago, back when I was making movies, I wrote about the color conspiracy. When it comes to film, color is almost as powerful as music. It's a visual orchestra that represents specific emotions. In fact, color is so important in animation that it's standard for design artists to write what is called a "color script", so other departments can see the mood progression as a whole. This is a color script of the montage scene "Married Life" from Up.

You can see this in a lot of movies but it's particularly caricatured in Frozen, making bold use of the three primary colors. You probably noticed the use of that hot pink/red when chief troll warns Elsa that "fear will be her enemy".

But this wasn't just for dramatic effect. It was the introduction of a theme. For the rest of the film, red is Elsa's enemy. Whenever she is frighted, you can be sure that purplish red is somewhere in the picture. This is one of the reasons why the movie works without a stereotypical villain: the concept of fear itself plays the villain.

But what's a villain without a protagonist? We learn from 1 John 4:18 that the opposite of fear is not courage, it's love. Love casts out fear, so for love we get the opposite color: green. Interestingly, both these colors are introduced in the opening sequence, where the ice-harvesters sing the words...

"Strike for love...

And strike for fear."

It's clear the Anna is the opposite of Elsa in practically every sense of the word. When Anna confronts Elsa in her ice castle, she tells her "you don't have to protect me, I'm not afraid!" Seeing that Anna is not dominated by fear, should we be surprised that green is her primary color?

This is what Giaimo means by the characters and environment talking to each other. Anna is a young dreamer waiting for adventure, so her world is dominated by bright, organic, outdoor colors. Elsa is more proper because she has been groomed her whole life for the day she would inherit the throne, so everything about her is associated with muted, reserved, more royal hues.

At first, Anna's colors and Elsa's colors are clearly separate. But in Act II, they begin to clash to the point where it is hard to tell which dominates. By the end of Act III, the outdoor colors and the royal colors make peace with each other as the sister's relationship is redeemed.

Shape languages

Looking at these pictures side-to-side, you may have also noticed a very deliberate use of symmetry.

Frozen isn't a "big musical number" in the sense that there are huge groups of synchronized dancers, and that's because they aren't needed. The stage itself is dancing and revolving around the characters. In some cases, it's literally pointing at them.

There are two main shapes in Frozen: the crocus and the basic hexagonal snowflake.  The snowflake takes the stage for the first and last shot of the film, giving the movie a well-rounded, storybook feel to it.

The snowflake is uniquely Elsa's signature, and her entire castle is a celebration of it.

If you look closely, you can see the outline of this snowflake in the iris of Anna's eye when she is finally turned into ice.

In the end, Elsa breaks her snowflake, sharing her gift with the rest of the world.

The filmmakers chose the crocus because it is a rare flower that blooms while snow is still on the ground. It is the symbol of rebirth and spring. It's Arendelle's official crest, but more importantly, it symbolizes Anna, because she is the one who ultimately brings summer back to Arendelle.

I know it's hard to see here, but the crocus symbol is actually on the wallpaper in the left picture, and the snowflake is lining the top of the church during Elsa's coronation.

Once again, these symbols seamlessly merge when the sisters interact. Here you can see crocuses embroidered on Anna's dress and the snowflake design on Elsa's door.

Are you sufficiently blown away yet? If not, don't worry. We're not done.


By now you should be getting that sense of "participation" that I talked about in my previous blog series. When the dad I mentioned earlier saw that Frozen was "done well", he was responding to a congruence he found between the holistic world of Frozen and the mechanics of the real world. Obviously we don't have our own personal color scheme following us around (or do we? That's for another post) because the level of participation is much more large and complex in the real world. Frozen is simply a scaled-down version of that idea.

Because Frozen is really an imitation of the real world, the artists do not fail to acknowledge the physics of it, but only to the extent that it supports the story.  In geology, the amount of reflection/refraction of a surface is measured in albedo, which is Latin for "whiteness". It's measured on a scale of zero for total refraction on a black surface to one for total reflection on a white surface. In other words, black absorbs light, white bounces light off.

However, snow and ice have the elusive dual nature of both refracting and reflecting light, so has interesting philosophical implications. The general rule is that the warmer the temperature is, the more refractive the surface. When Elsa and Anna first play together as children, Elsa's ice rink is literally crystal clear, because her spirit is crystal clear. She has nothing to hide. She lets the heat and warmth soak in.

But following the accident, Elsa's ice begins to turn into frost...

And that open, refractive vulnerability closes off, shutting her in a world of fear and shame.

(Wait, isn't there a crocus on Elsa's cape? I thought that was Anna's symbol! Yes it is. Hold on.)

When designing Elsa's castle, visual development artist Jim Finn says "We'll have areas we want clear, so the audience can see distorted images or reflections. There'll also be frosted parts we don't want the viewer to see through. Sometimes it depends on how cold we want it to be. When it's colder, you don't see wetness or reflections. It's going to reflect the story and how we want it to feel."

Sooo...her ice castle is a combination of reflections and refractions. Perhaps, maybe, it is a world that only lets the red wavelengths in and keeps the green wavelengths out? Possibly.

While Frozen has it's fair share of visual dazzle, it's clear the artists were not just showing off.  The effects are purposeful and character-driven, grounded in scientific fact yet maintaining a distinctly fairy-tale quality.

But you might have noticed something fishy here.  Here Elsa breaks away from the frost into the warmer, refractive layer while singing "Let it go". This seems like a contradiction, because she is celebrating the warmth while her song is glorifying the cold. But remember, the environment is always in step with the emotional beats of the characters, and you can't just register them on opposite extremes of the albedo scale, because, well, emotions aren't always black and white. To understand this, we have to go even deeper.


You've probably noticed by now that these design languages are cumulative--they build off each other and intertwine with one another.  It's a lot harder to isolate them than you'd think.  As I was taking the screencaps for this post, it took a lot of willpower not take a screencap of every freaking frame of the movie, because it all happens so fast and it's all happening at once.  The best example of that amalgamation of languages is Elsa's dress.

When designing her dress, Michael Giaimo intended it to suggest a "beautiful ice crystal".  He explains that she is a "walking effect in the way those colors reflect and refract."  Combining her that dark mauve cape with her warm blue dress, that's exactly how her costume responds to light: reflect and refract.

The dress is her personality. The blue says "reflect! Conceal, don't feel!" and the mauve says "refract! Let it go!" It seems that when Elsa sings about being "one with the wind and sky" she isn't speaking in metaphors. She was designed to belong in that world. She is, quite literally, one with the wind and sky

Maybe it's just me, but I think that's just brilliant. Her costume brings color, shape, and effect all into a single harmonious moment.  But here's the really brilliant part: Remember that the cape is the part that has Arendelle's crocus stitched into it? Well, when Elsa sings "let it go" she casts away this part of her costume, the part that absorbs heat and light. After all, the cold never bothered her anyway. 

So although Elsa thought she was finally free, she was really letting go of everything that made her free, and she is also letting go of Anna. Ultimately her actions froze all of Arendelle in eternal winter, and Anna brings attention to this misconception in her reprise:

Elsa: Yes, I'm alone, but I'm alone and free
Just stay away and you'll be safe from me.

Anna: Actually, we're not.

Elsa: What do you mean we're not?

Anna: I have the feeling you don't know!

Elsa: What do I not know?

Anna: Arendelle's in deep, deep, deep, deep, snow...

There's loads more, but I want you to read the book yourself.  Frozen may not be perfect, but there is a unique hand-made element to it that is rare in the world of assembly line productions.  In fact, the only thing that does not fit into this beautifully crafted and stylized world is the screenplay itself.  Here's an interesting little tidbit: in the original design packet for "Frozen Anna", Anna's pupil actually contracts to the point where Elsa's snowflake takes prominence over her entire eye. But in the final film, her pupil size stays the same. Why?  The book never says why, but I have a feeling it has something to do with a point I made in the post "why Frozen is so appealing". Anyway, I could really go on forever about this, so I think I'll stop here. Thanks for reading, as always.

-The Minstrel Boy

24 June 2014

07 June 2014

Misfortune Cookies

You know those times when your life is going down the tubes and suddenly one day you read a fortune cookie that just fits you perfectly and you're like "OHMYGOSH. HOW DID THEY KNOW." And then you have a double-take and realize that it was so vague that it literally could have worked for anyone, in any situation. It's always something like "you will fine inner-peace in unexpected places" or "do your best and reap the success" or whatever. Actually, nowadays you're more apt to find advice rather than fortune (probably due to lawsuits when the fortunes didn't come true). The advice isn't much help either--they're always telling you to shoot for the stars by being yourself and living life on the edge. They also love flattering you too.  Sometimes I wonder if people just go to Panda Express to bolster their self-esteem. And it's cheap too. You can live like a slug and still feel good about yourself.

Well anyway, I love fortune cookies. But sometimes I think they're not really being used to their fullest potential. I'm half-Asian, so I think I could convincingly pull off starting a Chinese restaurant, maybe calling it Half-Foods (like Whole Foods, except...you know...) and the first thing I'm doing is writing some real hard-core fortune cookies. Things that get straight to the point. These'll heat up any dinner conversation, while I in the meantime sit back and artlessly watch the disastrous results unfold. Here's a few of my ideas:

-Sometimes you just gotta count your chickens before they hatch and go for it.

-When it comes to women, you should always do the first thing that comes to your mind.

-Taking your children to R-rated movies makes them well rounded.

-You may think the waitress is cute, but she's really just fattening you up to eat you.

-In life you should only look ahead, and never side to side. The same applies for crosswalks.

-It is polite to ask the patient's permission before doing CPR on them.

-You still have your good looks. Flirt with everyone.

-Everything will be alright, as long as we keep dancing like were... TWENTY TWOOOOOOOOOOO

-While listening to advice may be prudent, it makes for lousy campfire stories.

-You will ace your final exam based off of pure instinct.

-You will ace life based off of pure instinct.

-Before using bear spray, it is humane to try it on yourself before trying it on the bear.

-Only sissies use parachutes.

-You will find confidence in your incompetence.

-You will never stop going to Panda Express in a last-ditch effort for a cheap dinner. Never.

-Give up. You'll never find your car keys. You needed a new car anyway.

This is what fortune cookies are here for folks. I mean, I don't know about you, but I would totally go to this restaurant. I thought of some other ones, but I wisely decided not to make them public.

-The Minstrel Boy