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Four things you need to know about new Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee

The Frozen impresario who now takes over all of Walt Disney Animation is far less well known than her predecessor John Lasseter, but there are clues as to what motivates Lee and how she’s likely to lead.

Four things you need to know about new Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee
[Photo: Presley Ann/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images]

This week the long-simmering parlor game over Disney and Pixar’s future was finally resolved when Disney announced that former creative chief John Lasseter would be replaced by Up director Pete Docter (at Pixar) and Frozen co-director Jennifer Lee (at Disney). The two are taking over duties from the Pixar cofounder, who took a leave of absence last fall following allegations of behavioral “missteps,” including unwanted hugs and kisses of female employees. Lasseter is staying on at Disney until the end of the year as a consultant.

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Sources say both Docter and Lee were chosen because of their strong track records as well as their people skills—both play well with others, something that is particularly important given the internal tensions that Lasseter stirred and that have been made public in recent months. Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement that Docter and Lee embody the spirit, culture, and values of their respective studios.

The only question is, will Disney and Pixar’s new leaders have the ability to not play nice when necessary? As one source says, “John could be tough and say, ‘This is not working.’ He pissed people off. Do either Pete or Jennifer have that in them?”

Docter, who is a member of Pixar’s storied Brain Trust, is more of a known entity, or at least has a long track record at Pixar. Exceptionally tall and introspective, Docter was one of the company’s first hires and went on to write and direct Monster’s Inc., Up, and Inside Out. He also wrote the original stories for all of the Toy Story films. Colleagues describe him as preternaturally calm, even in tense situations.

But Lee is more of an unknown, having arrived at Disney later in her career. A trained screenwriter, she is known for being “strong with story” as well as someone who has navigated the politics of Disney and Pixar “with class,” as one source says. Here are the four things you need to know about Walt Disney Animation’s new creative officer:

1. She was the first woman to direct an animated film at Disney

Lee made history in 2013 when she became the first woman to direct an animated feature at Disney; Chris Buck was her co-director. A (very small) smattering of women have directed animated films at other studios: Jennifer Yuh co-directed Kung Fu Panda 2 at DreamWorks Animation, and Brenda Chapman’s credits include Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks) and Brave (Pixar). But Disney was slow to crack open its boys’ club. Lee is also a director on Frozen 2, which comes out next year.

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2. She comes from live action

Unlike most animation filmmakers, Lee didn’t go to CalArts (as Docter did) or any of the other traditional grooming grounds for animators. She was an English major at the University of New Hampshire, and then, after working as a graphic designer in New York in her twenties, got her master’s in film from Columbia where she studied screenwriting. Some of her mentors there were Andy Bienen, who wrote Boys Don’t Cry, and Eric Mendelsohn (Judy Berlin).

In a 2014 interview with Fast Company, Lee joked that she “snuck into” animation when her former classmate Phil Johnston asked her to work with him on Wreck-It-Ralph. That led to Frozen, which was already well into development when Lee came onboard; after turning in her rewrite, she was asked to join Buck as a director. One of her contributions was to make the film more of a musical comedy. “I was nervous about learning animation production,” she has said. “I didn’t go to school for it. But it was actually far more organic than I thought. I was the one in the room who knew exactly what was going on in the characters’ heads.”

Lee still works on live-action scripts—she wrote the screenplay for Disney’s recent adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Though it’s unlikely those gigs (and perhaps even her animation filmmaking) will continue given her new duties.

3. She’s into music

Lee has said that music is one of the things in life that she can’t live without, citing Mumford & Sons, Daft Punk, and U2 as her go-to bands. When she’s in New York she makes mixes because “I love when I’m out on the streets with music playing.” On Frozen, Lee worked closely with the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, telling Fast Company: “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.”

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The three went on to collaborate on the Frozen Broadway musical, which Lee wrote the script for.

4. She’s part of Disney’s Story Trust

After Lasseter and fellow Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull assumed leadership of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, they established a Story Trust of filmmakers (akin to Pixar’s Brain Trust), who weigh in on all of the WDA films and form a de facto leadership council at Disney Animation. Among its members are Wreck-It-Ralph director Rich Moore; Big Hero 6 producer Roy Conli; Zootopia producer Clark Spencer—and Lee.

That Lee already holds a leadership position at the studio means that her transition from filmmaker to executive won’t be quite as severe and that she has already built up trust among her colleagues.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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