Roy Conli interview

Don’t call Olaf’s Frozen Adventure a short film. “Technically, it’s a featurette,” according to producer Roy Conli. Whatever you’d like to call it, the 21-minute animated story is set to play in theaters before Pixar’s upcoming Coco. The “featurette,” which is directed by Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton, centers on Olaf, the childish and joyous snowman from Frozen, as he learns about the holiday traditions of the citizens of Arendelle in an attempt to give Elsa and Anna a tradition of their own after the years they spent apart. It’s a fun continuation of the Frozen narrative and a nice return for beloved characters from the 2013 smash hit.

A few weeks ago, I visited Walt Disney Animation and sat down with producer Roy Conli, who told me about John Lasseter‘s involvement, a rejected alternate idea for the special, how the featurette’s music could possibly follow the mega-hit “Let It Go,” and more.

Here’s the trailer for film, and you can find a brand new clip embedded at the very bottom of this article.

Back in the ’90s, I feel like a movie like this might have been a direct-to-DVD, feature-length project. But this is an animated short, so I’m wondering –

Technically, it’s a featurette.

Ah, all right.

In a weird way, it hearkens back to the ‘50s and ‘60s when they used to do long-form featurettes before the film.

Gotcha. So how does the development of something like this come about. Does Disney say, ‘Hey, we want to do a featurette’ and the story follows that, or do you – or somebody else – come in and pitch them with the idea, and they say, ‘Let’s turn this into a short’?

From the very [start], John Lasseter wanted to do a Christmas special using Frozen characters. It’s interesting: Frozen really isn’t a Christmas show, but people affiliate it with Christmas because it’s winter and it’s beautiful. So there was an idea from John that we’d like to do something surrounding Olaf, and he went to [co-directors] Kevin [Deters] and Stevie [Wermers-Skelton]. The way things work in feature animation is that it goes to the directors. The directors are the brains behind the story. They’re the ones who develop it and then they present it, and then if the idea gets approved, I come in and I start helping shape and create the team.

One of the directors in a Q&A right after our screening of the featurette mentioned a few crazy alternate ideas you all had for the premise of this piece. Can you elaborate and tell me what some of those were?

One of my favorites was, they literally looked at every Christmas television special that had ever happened, going back to Perry Como specials and Osmond specials, and Bing Crosby specials. So they looked at that and said, ‘Could we do kind of a variety show on this?’

With Olaf as the host?

Olaf as the host. But it really pulled us out of the world. I think it’s a world that people really embrace, and to do that would have been fun, but it didn’t make sense within the world.

Can you talk about the pressure to live up to what has to be one of Disney Animation’s best songs, “Let It Go”? On the music side, what was that like?

It was great, because once [songwriters] Kate [Anderson] and Elyssa [Samsel] came on and started writing, literally for me, “When We’re Together,” the last song [in the featurette], when we heard that song, the pressure was off. Because they somehow captured such an emotional core to what we were trying to achieve. What I love about the featurette is that it has not only humor, but it has a lot of heart. That’s the core of it, in a sense. I think Kevin and Stevie set out not to just make a little piece from Frozen, but to further that world and get deeper into the characters. With Kate and Elyssa’s songs, I think we did that.

How do you guys go about figuring out where the line is in terms of ‘How sad is too sad? How sad do we want to get in a featurette like this?’

I think the line is how you feel. You’ve got directors who are very emotionally connected to this stuff.

There were kids next to me who were gasping and reacting to some of the sadder moments. I was just wondering if you had some sort of testing process where someone says, ‘Oh, maybe this is a little too far’ or ‘This is just right.’

The great thing is that all of us who work at Disney Animation are emotionally somehow between six and thirteen years old. (laughs) So we kind of get that within our peers. I think it’s important that kids experience emotion. That’s the wonderful thing about film that I remember as a kid. It’s something I’ve never wanted to pull back on. When I did Big Hero 6, we were dealing with some pretty deep stuff. But these are things that kids understand. Essentially, you want to take them for a ride.

Olaf's Frozen Adventure

You mentioned John Lasseter earlier. What is his involvement in this on a day to day level? It was his idea, but does he say, ‘You guys go and do this, and then come back to me’?

He came up with the concept of, ‘We want to do a Christmas piece.’ He turned to Kevin and Stevie, who obviously had worked on several Christmas pieces and were well aware of this format [they previously directed the Prep & Landing Christmas shorts], and he said, ‘Go and bring me ideas back.’ Really, we see John maybe once a month and we present the work. It’s weird, it’s not even right to say we present the work – he comes in and sees where we are. We don’t get him much more than every four weeks. But he’s always a great guide. He has such a great finger on the pulse of the American public. And he’s an emotionally fun guy. He’s really a true inspiration to us.

So what does your involvement look like in terms of shaping the featurette as we know it? A producer on a live-action film is responsible for management, getting everyone where they’re supposed to be. Is it the same thing here?

It’s that, it’s marketing. But it’s also from the development of it, getting the writers in. I helped with the finding of Elyssa and Kate. Producing an animated film, the one thing you don’t have to do, because you have Disney behind you, is raise money. But you do pretty much everything else that a producer would do on a live action shoot. You help develop the piece, help bring it out of development into production, you channel it through post-production. I’ll be with this all the way through until it goes into release on home video.

You mentioned in an earlier Q&A that you showed this a while ago to an internal group and the decision was made that this was going to be paired with Coco. How long ago was this finished?

We do what is known as story reels, where it’s actually static drawings that are edited and set to a soundtrack. It was finished actually back in June, that was when we did our final mix. But [that earlier audience] saw a set of static images moving, kind of like an animatic.

I know you previously worked with Byron Howard on the underrated Tangled, which is a fantastic movie, by the way.

Underrated? I would not call it underrated! $650 million dollars?

Hey, I love the movie, I just feel like it’s not always in the same conversations as a lot of the other movies and I feel like it deserves to be up there! I’m doing my part to spread the word.

(laughs) That’s funny. That’s good. I’m glad to hear it, because I bring it up [all the time]. I bring that up and I bring Big Hero 6 up.

Are you and Byron working on a feature next?

Byron is in development right now. He just finished Zootopia about a year ago. He’s in development right now. I’m not working with him at this moment. I would always love to work with Byron.

What are you working on next?

I’ve got several projects in development right now. I’m also working on some DisneyNature stuff, which is a gas. So it’s weird. I had, at one point, four projects going on simultaneously with this, with another project I have that I’m hoping to get approved which I can’t talk to you about, and then two other nature projects that moved forward.

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And finally, here’s the new clip:

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure arrives in theaters with Coco on November 22, 2017.

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