Throughout two Frozen films, an animated film short, a holiday special, and a series of digital shorts, Olaf (Josh Gad), the overwhelmingly sweet and warm hugs loving snowman, reminds us about the power of remaining hopeful and optimistic during challenging times. That is especially true during this ongoing pandemic where friends and family have socially distant themselves for the past eight months. And now, we get to see where his eternal optimism and endless sense of hope comes from in an all-new Disney+ digital short, ‘Once Upon A Snowman.’
‘Once Upon A Snowman’ centers Olaf, a childhood snowman who was built and unknowingly brought to life as Elsa (Idina Menzel) was singing “Let It Go.” What happens next can only be explained as a series of madcap adventures that help him discover his identity through a series of hilarious mishaps, heartwarming moments, and a memorable song. Along the way, he will run into some familiar faces, face off against some vicious hounds, and eventually meet Anna (Kristen Bell) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).
ThatsItLA had a chance to talk to the creative team behind Once Upon A Snowman to talk about the short’s inception, what Olaf means to them, animating during a pandemic, and finding the fun Easter eggs hidden in the short.
As with any Disney film, the production team is like a family. So, they get to know a lot of the characters they are animating intimately. This made it easy for longtime ‘Frozen’ producer Peter Del Vecho, along with ‘Once Upon A Snowman’ directors Trent Correy, the animation supervisor for Olaf on ‘Frozen 2,’ and Dan Abraham, a story artist who plotted Olaf’s “When I Am Older” musical number in ‘Frozen 2’ to make that transition,
For Correy, the idea started its inception in 2012, when he was working in the training program at Disney. “I actually found sketches last week when I was moving of original ideas from 2013, little deep boards and writing and ideas of Olaf taking his first steps and learning about who he is. Cut to last year, Jennifer Lee, our fearless leader, stood on stage and said, we’re going to be partnering with Disney Plus. I thought right then that this is the perfect opportunity to have this short come out eight years later and that’s when I got to work with all these fine folks, Peter, Becky and Dan,” he said.
But for the artists working closely on the film’s animation, these characters are so much more than family. They are the symbol of it. Head of animation Becky Bresee’s love for Olaf isn’t just sentimental because she’s worked on him since the first Frozen. She sees his spirit as the embodiment of Anna and Elsa’s sisterly love. “Well, when I started on the first ‘Frozen,’ I was really in it for the fairytale of it. I’ve always loved fairytales, Disney, art, and that all, it spoke to me,” Bresee said. “And as well as a princess. And I wanted to be a princess. But after a while, it started to become a sister story. And then it spoke to me in a very different way because I have sisters. And more so, I have daughters. And they’re my little Anna and Elsa. So, I was more invested now, even more so than before. So that’s what drew me to the project. And what’s wonderful about Olaf is he’s a reflection of the love between these two sisters. He’s just such a wonderful character.”
So, even though Once Upon A Snowman keeps the giant ‘Frozen’ snowball rolling, the team loves to revisit these characters. But unlike the previous shorts, sequels, or holiday special, ‘Once Upon A Snowman’ “ties everything together from those first moments of Olaf, it’s a really unique way to revisit the scenes and think about the people who animated the scenes on the movie and then how it all ties in,” Bresee said.
And the production team works closely with each other as well, so much so it’s like they are family as well. “We know each other so well, and it’s setting, it’s kind of like family. And so, it was, this extra little bit of time to spend with each other and with the characters, so I was very excited about it,” Bresee said.
Correy echoed Bresee’s sentiments. “You get to the end of these productions, and there are a lot of work as you saw in the making of Frozen documentary,” he said. And, but you get to the end, and you’re like, ‘Oh no, I actually don’t want it to be over. I want to keep it going.’ So, we kept it going. And then, I think towards the end of our short we’re like ‘Anyone, any other ideas? Let’s keep it. Let’s keep this moving.”
And just because this is a ‘Frozen’ short, doesn’t mean you will see just things from the kingdom of Arendelle. There might be a few Easter Eggs from other films that you may recognize. “There are other little Easter eggs within the cards that Olaf looks at in the stereoscope,” producer Peter Del Vecho said. “There a few different shots in there that people might be keen on from other films in that.”
But the Frozen team weren’t the only ones to return for another visit to the Frozen franchise. ‘Once Upon A Snowman’ gives fans another chance to hear Gad reprise his role as the beloved Olaf. “He understands the process better than any of us. He understands the collaboration, and he seems just always thrilled to play the character and find new things to bring to the character. And I think he found some little unique things to bring to the short.”
Although, the short didn’t come without its production challenges. Even though the character designs were already established from the first film, there were unique design challenges specific to this short, especially when it comes to Olaf’s nose. “We’re building off a lot of work from a lot of many talented artists throughout the studio that has worked with the Frozen franchise for eight-plus years,” Correy said. “Hiram Osmund was the original Olaf supervisor, and ‘Frozen.’ He and the team discovered things like ‘If we don’t bend Olaf’s arms, he’ll move a little more like a toddler, so he doesn’t have elbows.’ So, really there’s a lot to build off of, design-wise. And, for the nose, in my original pitch, it was actually a fish nose that he has for most of the short, and then I pitched it to Dan, and he’s like, ‘Huh, hang on a minute.’
“The fish is now on there for a few seconds, and it’s sort of just a funny gag,” Abraham said. “But when he’s running around with a fish on his face for several minutes, it’s too much. It just doesn’t it… And Olaf is being chased by wolves. And to me, I’m like if he was being chased by cats and he had a fish on his nose, that story math adds up better for me, but since it was wolves, I’m like, ‘Well, what if we make it a sausage? What if we make it meat because wolves and meat, that math adds up better?'”
But since the short is mainly from Olaf’s perspective, it meant that we had to see some of those familiar scenes from a new angle. “The whole project was neat in that we know who animated the first moments and then seeing those moments from a totally different angle, it’s just so interesting because I have it in my head who animated the shot, the movements they did, the acting and you have the insight to what’s happening next and before and all that,” Bresee said. “So, it’s just really fun to see it all connect. Anna and Olaf narrowly miss each other. Except that all that gets smashed by the door, so she didn’t miss him. She got him. But yeah, it’s just neat to see these moments play out in a different way.”
And those scenes had to work their way into the story organically, and not contrived derivative “So, the story of what Olaf was trying to accomplish and discover who he was and all that sort of led us to these different locations,” Bresee said. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh my … You know what’s happening right here at Oaken’s right now?’ So, it sort of guided us. When we knew the story we wanted to tell, the story took us to these places and the sort of behind the scenes, putting the camera in a different place, it just mostly worked naturally, really.”
‘Once Upon A Snowman’ makes its streaming debut exclusively on Disney+ on October 23, 2020.