Producing A Movie The Walt Disney Animation Way – With Frozen's Peter Del Vecho

frozen charactersMy love for Frozen really can't have gone unnoticed by regular readers. Really regular regulars may also recall that, over the summer, I sat down with the film's producer, Peter Del Vecho, for a chat.

We caught up again just before the weekend, and I tried to dig a little deeper. I was interested in the particular role he played in this film, and how the Disney system works, with its vertical integration, producers collaborating with directors, and – in this instance, at least – a crunch to make a tight schedule.

Here's some of my conversation with Peter. I held back a few spoilery things and pieces about other Disney movies for another, more appropriate time.

BC: How hands on are you as a producer?

PDV: I think very hands on. I'm at every story session, every recording session. I have several parts to my job so I try to get to each department approval session though, a lot of times, while the directors are doing animation approvals, I may be off doing marketing or other areas of my job. But for the true development of the story, I'm there every step of the way.

BC: So give me an example of how this might be manifest in your day.

PDV: It's a two and a half year process for me, so it changes depending on what phase we're in. In the beginning a typical day would see the first two hours spent on a video conference with Bobby and Kristin, our songwriters, along with Chris and Jen [the directors and co-writers] talking about character, talking about character arcs, story, about what it is we're trying to do with this movie. This is long before they write any songs. Then that evolves when Jen writes a script or they write a song. Let it Go is a good example. When Bobby and Kristin wrote Let it Go, it finally told us a lot about Elsa as a character and Jen then had to go back and rewrite the entire first act. There's a lot of collaboration, a lot of back and forth in elevating the movie.

Now, we screen the movie for ourselves every twelve weeks, as a storyboard, and we'll bring in all the other writers and directors at the studio to watch it with us and they'll give us notes. We always say it's like we've dismantled the movie, then they all leave and we have to piece it back together again.

BC: Let's think about one of those video conference calls as an example. Can you clarify exactly what you're doing as opposed to what Chris and Jen would be doing at that point.

PDV: My job is to make sure that the vision Chris and Jen have for the movie gets up on the screen. That can take many forms. It can be about putting the right team together, including Bobby and Kristin as the songwriters; it can be making sure that everyone in the room is contributing in the right way. But I also have my own opinions and Chris and Jen welcome that. They understand that they are the directors but they have an opinion as to what I think works or doesn't work in the movie and I voice that on an equal level with them. It's their job to decide what they want to do from there, but we're very trusting of each other. It's a very safe environment in which we talk about everything.

The only thing I will override on is if I think something is going too far for the brand or isn't going to represent Disney well.

BC: And where's that line?

PDV: It's not about what's right or wrong, it's about how we always want – and this is something they [the directors] would agree with, but sometimes in the heat of things, you forget – you always want the humour, for instance, to come from the character or come from the situation, not come from a cleverly written line that references pop culture.

BC: Sure. That's what those other guys over there do, right? Leave that to them.

PDV: Occasionally we'd have a very funny lyric that Bobby or Kristin would write and you'd have to say "Ah, it's too suggestive" so they'd rewrite it. And then they'd usually come up with something even better so it's not like that's problem that comes up often. But it is part of my job.

And really, it's about it hiring the rest of the staff that's going to help make the movie that they want to get up on the screen.

BC: Do you think about the MPAA rating at all?

PDV: No. Not really. We're clearly making a movie for everybody, so the scene has to play on multiple levels. When we're even just reading the scene it should play for kids, it should play for adults. If it doesn't, the scene isn't working and we'll go back and rewrite it until it is playing on those multiple levels. But if a movie ends up with a G rating or a PG rating – in this case, in the United States it's a PG rating – we're fine with that. Obviously, we don't want to cross the line into anything higher than that. This is a film that should play to anybody who comes into it. They should love it and enjoy it and be able to feel good about it.

BC: It seems vertically integrated at Disney Animation, different from Disney live action not to mention other studios, and it reminds me of the old studio system.

PDV: And that, I think, makes us unique. I think being vertically integrated is what allows us to make a movie like Frozen. I mentioned that our time frame was relatively short on this movie. Two and a half years is a really short amount of time and, in my opinion, the only way you can [make a film in that time] is if every member of the team knows what is happening in the story room at every step of the way, and they can already be changing how it is they approach their part of the job. If you start to separate that out, the communication breaks down and that ability to be plussing the movie goes away. That's how I think stories could somehow fall short.

BC: That's two and a half years counting from what exactly?

PDV: From the time I joined the project. They already knew they wanted to make a movie and a script had been written, and John Lasseter said "I want to make that movie." So now I hired the story artists. Everything that comes after that, from beginning our internal screening process to completing the movie is two and a half years.

Now, originally, we were supposed to come out in 2014 but the studio asked us part way through if we could be ready for 2013. Frozen is the first [Disney animated] movie to come exactly a year after the last, Wreck-It Ralph. Before that, it had been a two year space but now they want to start doing a movie every year so we were asked to truncate our schedule and come out for 2013.

BC: And what was the hardest part of that tight schedule? Where did that extra crunch really get you?

PDV: In the overlap in trying to develop the story but also being in production. Normally, the overlap is such that there's a lot of story done before you start production. When your time frame shifts, the overlap is more and what's difficult  about that is that you're making changes to the story while you're making the movie. So your communication has to be really fast and really good, otherwise people are wasting their time doing something that has now changed. That was the biggest challenge.

BC: Has that resulted in more deleted finished animation from this film than would be typical?

PDV: No, actually. We were very, very fortunate. I think the songs helped a lot with that and there were some songs, like Let it Go, that we knew were going to be in the movie even though we were rewriting the entire first act. We could put that song sequence into production with confidence and they were animating that. A lot of it had to do with holding hands and saying "This part of the movie, no matter what else, we're going to hold to."

BC: Another thing that sets Disney Animation aside is that your films aren't just compared to all of film, people look at them in a bracket. Every Disney film is compared to all the other Disney animated movies and there's an awful lot of it going on. "It's like Tangled," "It's not like Tangled," "It's the best one since…" and all that goes on. How does that look from the inside?

PDV: You know, and this is honestly true, obviously you're aware of the legacy that Disney has and you're aware that you're trying to create a story that will live up to that legacy, but once you've started working on the project, your sole focus every day is in "How do we make this movie as great as it can be?" and you're not thinking about "How does this relate to Tangled? How does this relate to Wreck-It Ralph?" You're just thinking "What is it we're trying to say? Are we saying it well? Is the movie compelling?" and it takes a long time to get the story working. So your focus is on that, not on the externals, and I think that if we worried too much about how a film compares to something else, or even the legacy before us, we'd get overwhelmed with that.

BC: At that moment you joined up, those two and a half years ago, did you have an option? Was it this or something else?

PDV: Um… yes…

BC: So, why this one?

PDV: Several reasons. I always like to be involved in what I think is going to be a big movie and the most challenging to me, and any time you're trying to incorporate scope and scale. For us, this is a very big, complicated story. We have a lot of plot but also a lot of subplots going on. And Chris Buck had a really good idea of how he wanted to end the movie and that resonated with me. Then on top of that, the idea of bringing Bobby and Kristin in and making it a musical. I love big challenges.

BC: If they said to you a week before release that something had gone wrong with all of the cinemas in the world and you could have an extra six months would you have said "We've wrapped it" or would you have said "Okay, what can we do with this time?"

PDV: The film has really evolved into something bigger than we imagined and it's done that on every level from story to the way it looks. Would we keep working? Yes we would. But we're really happy with the way the movie has turned out. There's nothing now that I think we would say we'd go back and change, we really like the way it's turned out, but that said, we work every single moment to plus everything until we can't any longer. I'm sure there's something we'd keep tweaking.

Thanks again to Peter for taking the time to speak with me. Frozen is screening now across the UK and the US and it comes fully recommended.