The fact that Jennifer Lee is a woman isn’t the only thing that makes her one of the most unorthodox directors at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lee, who co-wrote and co-directed the blockbuster Frozen, is the very first female director at the studio. But unlike most of her peers, who earned their degrees at places like CalArts and have spent years in the animation trenches, Lee started out in book publishing before getting her master's in film at Columbia University, where she was more immersed in New Wave and independent cinema than Dumbo or Shrek.
It was this unique background, as well as Lee’s vision for an epic film that is as engaging and sophisticated as any live-action project, that made her perfect for the job and helped Frozen become the highest-grossing Disney animated film of all time with nearly $1 billion at the global box office, beating out the long-reigning Lion King. The catchy musical about two orphaned princesses, one of whom turns the world into an ice tundra, is also up for a pair of Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song (for the show-stopper "Let It Go").
In hindsight, Lee says it was a completely "organic" process that landed her on Frozen, first as a writer, then as a co-director with Chris Buck. (She segued to the film after co-writing Wreck-It Ralph with her friend and fellow Columbia alum Phil Johnston.) But it also has a lot to do with Lee’s abilities as a strong collaborator—key in making animated films, which involved hundreds of artists, writers, and producers, and take several years to complete—who can nonetheless champion her own ideas, many of which were key in bringing Frozen to life.
FAST COMPANY: When you came onboard Frozen in March 2012, it had already been through a series of treatments, but was still trying to find itself as a film. How did you help shape its new direction?
JENNIFER LEE: It was much more of an action adventure, and we really wanted to go more musical, with more comedy. I made a commitment to writing the script with the songwriters, where you’re going back and forth a lot. So we all had to be on the same page and have the same vision. I was getting excited about Bobby and Kristen’s ideas (the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez); they were getting excited about my ideas. Really, it’s just about creating a very powerful, emotional story, but also having it be something that is a lot of fun and actually quite epic, something big.
It’s unusual in animation for a writer to make the leap to director. You also come from live-action. Do you think your background gave you an advantage, in terms of approaching things differently than if you had been more experienced as an animation director?
As a writer, I knew the characters better than anybody. I could talk about their motivation. I could talk about the subtext of a scene. And that's a lot more fun for all the artists here than being told what to do. You know, letting them sort of bring out what you’re saying the essence is—so it actually ended up being very nicely balanced. And then on the technical side, I knew what I would want to do with the camera and the scope, and tell a story in way that was slightly different coming from live action. I think I had been trained to sort of push it in a slightly, I don’t know, just give it a bigger scope.
As both a writer and a director on an animated film, how do you push your vision, given that there are so many other voices in the room?
It’s definitely a struggle at times. It depends on where you are in the process. Certainly, in the very beginning, when you’re starting almost from nothing and you’re building it, it’s very hard to push a vision through. Usually, there’s one idea you’re holding onto, and you have to keep reminding everyone, because you need to be open. But you always have to draw on what moves you, what affects you, what excites you.
So are you saying that you have to lobby for your most important idea, as opposed to maybe the 10 that you have, because you know there’s no way they’re all going to get through?
It doesn’t mean you can’t get all 10, but usually the foundation of a film is on one great idea. I always think if you can’t speak clearly to your vision, then you don’t have it yet. And when you don’t have it yet, you’re going to expect a lot of notes, and you should listen, because usually it’s about honing that idea.
On Frozen, we knew it was going to have something to do with an act of true love. We knew it was going to be a different kind of look at love. We knew the sisters were going to be there, but we didn’t know how we were telling the story.
It wasn’t until I went back to the original story and said, you know, the most exciting thing about this to me is the concept of the power of love over fear. I said, Anna represents love and Elsa represents fear, and this is how we play that out in the film. Everyone got it and everyone was on board. Until I articulated that, there was a lot of: What if? What if?, they’d throw around the room. And then once we said it, we put it up on the board, and we never let it go. So it's about letting it be a little muddy and gray at times, when, you know, you lose all the color, and then you find it again.
Were there times when you had to "kill your babies," as they say in writing? In other words, give up on an idea that just isn’t resonating with others?
It’s funny, I think there are a lot of things where you have to let it go a little at times, kind of let it run its course. But I always think what it means is you have to learn to say it better. I think the best example of that was Anna. I wanted a girl whose only journey was sort of coming-of-age, where she goes from having a naive view of life and love—because she’s lonely—to the most sophisticated and mature view of love, where she’s capable of the ultimate love, which is sacrifice. And that was all I wanted for her. But people really went into more of the dysfunctionality—make her more co-dependent, they wanted to make her a little bit more like Vanellope in Wreck-It Ralph. And I didn’t have a reason why not to do that, I just couldn’t articulate it yet.
But other times you have to know when to let an idea go because it’s just not right. And that’s hard for a lot of people. It’s never easy. But I think there are times where you have to say, "It’s not time yet for that idea. You can’t fit it in this film."
Were there times when you had to say that?
I have to say, nothing major. But I had wanted to show the girls as teenagers and have a little more of a playful scene about, you know, what it’s like to share a dressing room, and the way that we are when we’re alone compared to what the world sees. But it just didn’t work because we needed to keep them separate. Elsa made the decision to shut the door on Anna, we couldn’t have her open it. So I had to let that go.
So how is it possible that in 2014 you are the first female director at Disney Animation? And why do you think you were the one to break through?
It’s so hard to say. I mean, one thing I can say is that there’s a big difference now (in animation) versus when Chris Buck, my co-director, was coming up. When he went to school at CalArts there was only one woman in his program. That was the same class that John Lasseter (the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios) was in. When they started, there were not women co-directing, or there were very few, just in the programs. And now I think CalArts is half women.
So I came in not really aware of it, because I work with a lot of women now. I think it’s a new generation. But it takes a lot of years, usually, to work your way up to be a director. I think it’s sort of a sign of things to come that there are two other female directors here. Lauren MacMullan, who did the short Get a Horse!, and then Stevie Wermers, who worked on Prep & Landing, the TV show, and is working on a film. So I’m seeing it around me a lot more.
And both of them are Disney veterans who worked their way up through the animation ranks. Whereas you—
(Laughing) Don’t let them know that I snuck in.
[Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios]