The Key To Making 'Once Upon A Snowman' Was To "Let Olaf Be Olaf" [Interview]

If you have questions about the Frozen universe, Becky Bresee and Peter del Vecho can answer them. She was a supervising animator on the first film and the head of animation on the second. He is the producer of the entire franchise. Now, she's the head of animation and he's a producer and creative consultant for Once Upon a Snowman, a new prequel short film about Olaf the talking snowman's first day of existence.

I spoke with Bresee and del Vecho ahead of the short's streaming premiere and learned the key to telling an Olaf story, why they had to entirely recreate familiar scenes from scratch, and how the pandemic has changed the animation process. Once Upon a Snowman is streaming now on Disney+.

This is far from the first time Olaf has been in a movie or short film. When you were working on the character in those previous projects, what lessons came through for this short? What were the things you learned where you said, "Oh, we can bring this to this new film"?

Becky Bresee: Well, luckily we know who Olaf is and we know how to animate him. So, in a way, it was nice because we could take different story points and just push into new things in that way because we were so familiar with him. He's a very gettable character, cartoony but sincere, so we had a broad acting range to work with him.

Peter del Vecho: Truthfully, I think we learned [to] let Olaf be Olaf. Yes, he can slightly mature, but don't change him from who he fundamentally is: that innocent child who is exploring the world and can ask questions and question the world around him in a way that we as adults have forgotten to do.

So even though you've grown familiar with Olaf and you know who he is and what he can do as a character, was there anything in the short where you wanted to try something new on an animation level? The way he can move, anything at all – what was something unique you were able to try out here?

Becky Bresee: Our team members were amazing. They're very creative, and they take things sometimes a little too far, and we pull them back. There's one team member, his name is Alex Snow, and I don't know if you remember this part, but when Olaf is being chased by the wolves and he kind of breaks into the parts and he's running on his arms, that's something we never did on any of the other Frozens. That's something fun about going into the dailies room: people are bringing these different ideas to the table. Sometimes it's a little bit much. You'd say, "Eh, I don't know if Olaf would do that," but then some things come out of it where you're like, "Well, that's hilarious. Of course Olaf should do that."

Speaking of that sequence, I wanted to ask you about the legs on the head. There's definitely some unique comedic opportunities with a character like Olaf who doesn't have to rely on human physics to get around. What kind of inspiration do you guys find to push animated slapstick forward? I'm thinking of old-school Disney, but also Looney Tunes. What do you look for in these opportunities to create physical comedy with a character that doesn't have to play by the rules?

Becky Bresee: Your imagination is your guide. You can think of all sorts of different things. I know we have lots of fans of Warner Bros. and all sorts of things like that, so I'm sure there are things taken from different references there, but it really is the creative nature of the team members that really like to come up with these silly things.

Peter del Vecho: I think of Chris Buck, who was obviously a director on the first Frozen and the second Frozen, but he also was a hand-drawn animator. He said right from the beginning, when he originally had the idea for this character in the movie, it's like an animator's dream because you can do all sorts of things. You can pull him apart and put him back together, and he doesn't get hurt. So you just can have lots of fun and put him in all kinds of situations.

Becky Bresee: And I think we have to give a lot of kudos to the storyboard artists, too, because a lot of times they're coming up with the gags, and really pushing. Then [the] animation [department] will work with that and try to figure out how to work those things into their animations.

One of the returning characters, so to speak, are the wolves we meet in Frozen. We get to see a different side of them here. I don't want to spoil it too much, but can you talk about the differences between animating a friendly wolf versus an angry one? In many ways, they're big dogs, and we all know how cute dogs can be. I'm curious: what are the go-to rules for making a scary animal suddenly friendly and cute?

Becky Bresee: I think it's the teeth. (laughs) I think it's looking to reference of wild dogs and domesticated dogs, too.

Peter del Vecho: The eyes and the shapes, you can definitely make it feel – you can go to either end of the spectrum with it.

Becky: What I love is that the wolves get a chance to be understood in this little short. They're just hungry. (laughs)

The whole gist here is that we get to see events from the first film play out through Olaf's eyes. We get to see moments from his perspective, and so many iconic moments play out from the fringes. Was this a case where you were able to re-use pieces of animation, or was this all created again from scratch? How does that work?

Becky Bresee: On this short, we weren't able to just transport everything over from Frozen 2 because it was from the first movie, including the snow. So we had to bring back Matterhorn, which was how they did the snow on Frozen 1. But the scene, especially where they're on the sled and Anna is saying, "You have friends that are love experts?", that had to totally be recreated. Because the rigs are so different now. One of our animators really looked at that scene and recreated it.

That's one of those things that, quietly, I think a lot of people may not notice. Like me, they've never worked in animation, so they go, "Oh, it's the same scene," and don't realize exactly how much work went into recreating that. So that's really cool to know. This is a question for Peter. You've been producing all of these. Watching the Frozen doc, which is wonderful, and seeing you at work, I want to know when you're working on a short film, maybe with those who have worked on previous Frozen films or those who haven't, what lessons do you have to sit down and say, "This is the core of a Frozen story"? You've been so close to it for so long now. What were the laws you had to lay down?

Peter del Vecho: Truthfully, it's being true to the characters – in all our films, it's all about the story we're telling. Everything we do is in support of the story we're telling. So it really starts with the idea, and then making sure we heighten that in every aspect. The good thing about this short is that we all know the world really well, we all know the characters really well. There was also a lot of fun, because we'd just finished Frozen 2. When you finish a film, it feels great to finish because you've been working so hard, but there's a little bit of sadness to have to walk away from characters that you know so well. So this gave us the opportunity to continue working together, continue working with characters we know in the creation of the short. So that was a fun experience for us.

This is probably the question you get asked every time about working in the year 2020. How has your process changed during the pandemic? How has filmmaking changed? What have you learned from all this?

Peter del Vecho: I can speak to that, because the film I'm currently working on, Raya [and the Last Dragon], we were into animation when the pandemic hit, and we had to very quickly figure out a way to continue making the movie, but from home. Thanks to our technology department and the speed at which we were able to transition to working from home – it felt abrupt and there were lots of issues to work through, but it happened relatively smoothly and relatively quickly, to the point where we can finish Raya. Right now we're in the finishing weeks of animation and people are working just as hard as they ever have at the studio. We are using tools like Zoom and other tools to communicate, so we don't get that same energy as walking into the studio, but we do get that same energy of teamwork and working hard to complete the story that everyone's been working on for so long.

And for you, Becky, what were some hurdles you had to overcome during the process of getting this short finished?

Becky Bresee: The short actually was finished before the pandemic happened. I'm actually animating Raya right now. Like Peter said, at first it was like, "How is this going to work?" But then technology helped get everybody up and running. Really, it's the communication that's different, but everybody's working so hard to get this movie done and we're so in love with these characters. It's more about the communication aspect for me. But honestly, it's something everyone's kind of grasped onto and it feels pretty seamless.

Peter del Vecho: What is amazing is that there's such passion at the studio to tell these stories, to create these worlds, to animate these characters, that even despite all the obstacles of having to work from home and the pandemic, that underlying truth is still there. "Necessity is the mother of invention" has never been more true. You find ways to communicate, you find ways to get things done so you can get that story out there.

My final question, and this is required by law, is probably for Peter –

Peter del Vecho: I already know what it is.

Do we have any word on Frozen 3? Frozen 2 is terrific, I love it, but it's also a really great ending. I like how it leaves the characters. How do those conversations even happen? Can you say anything at all?

Peter del Vecho: I'll say what we said when the movie finished. You work so hard and so passionately, you need a little bit of distance from it. We're happy that we can celebrate the Olaf short going onto Disney+. We all currently have other projects in mind. We haven't forgotten the Frozen characters because they are a part of our lives. We love them. But for now, we need a little distance between them. And, like you said, I always feel like Frozen 1 and Frozen 2 sort of told a complete story, so for now, there are no announcements in that regard.