By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
This is the first article in a three-part series about how the Disney movie creative process could be adapted to improve course development.
I love “Frozen II.” This statement might sound funny to movie lovers, but I like “Frozen II” better than the original “Frozen” movie.
I have seen this movie around a dozen times with my kids since the pandemic started, and I have grown to appreciate the storyline, the songs, and the overall breadth of the film. “Frozen II” took a lot of risks with a complicated story, dealing with indigenous rights and colonialism. It also has a soundtrack that draws from ‘80s music, rather than the typical Broadway style that almost all animated movies draw from.
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I recently watched the Disney+ documentary, “Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II,” which was about the creative process behind “Frozen II.” The part that really stuck out to me was the dailies meeting where the animator Malerie Walters had her section of the movie played for the directors and other animators.
The Significance of Dailies in Collaboration and the Creative Process
In a ScreenRant article about the documentary, writer Q.V. Hough says that “In a ‘dailies’ meeting, Walters and Lee discuss Elsa’s movements during the ‘Into the Unknown’ sequence, and how they could become more believable.” This quick observation does not fully describe the scene, however. In that daily, Malerie Waters has her fifteen seconds played for directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, her supervisor, other animators and a bunch of other people in the room.
To provide better context, authors Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi talk about the importance of dailies in an interesting book about the process of producing animation. They note: “Once animators complete their shots and have their supervisor’s approval, they are shown to the director. These reviews can be handled either individually on a monitor or with a group of animators in what is typically referred to as a dailies review session. A group session is a very beneficial process, as artists have the opportunity to hear the various critiques and feedback from the director and to learn from their colleagues.”
When creating art, especially in a group, feedback is important. It is vital in the creative process and ensures that the end product is what the directors envision.
The Sweatbox Provides Collaboration Opportunities
In another section of the book by Winder and Dowlatabadi, they talked about the sweatbox. The authors note, “Though the director and respective department heads have already seen and approved individual departments’ work in dailies, it is during the sweatbox sessions that all existing levels are combined so that the reviewing group can see how the shot works as a whole. Generally present at the sweatbox sessions are the director, the producer, department supervisors, associate producer, production manager, and APMs/PDMs. During sweatbox, the director evaluates how the shot works in terms of acting, compositions, and camera movement in continuity with other shots.”
The sweatbox, called that because animators would sweat because of the nervousness, is a way to see how individual parts of film created by different animators come together to create a unified work of art.
Why the Dailies and the Sweatbox Are Important Parts of the Collaborative Creative Process
In the documentary, the stress of the dailies and the sweatbox is discussed briefly by Malerie Walters, but you can really see how stressful they are by just watching her. This is especially true when Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the directors, discuss how Elsa moves during the climax of the song “Into the Unknown.”
Later in the documentary the scene that Lee and Buck criticized was created by Walters after she recorded herself. Her movements, which she was proud of, were thrown out. She then had to use the suggestions of Lee, Buck, and others to make movements better and to fit the flow of the scene and the climax of the song.
The benefits of the dailies and the sweatbox for an artist are immense. Not all types of art have this type of collaboration and it seems that animation, especially on large projects like “Frozen II,” require a great deal of collaboration.
Because the flow of the film has to make sense and be consistent, the animators have some creativity. But at the same time, they have to follow the expectations of the project, the director and whoever originated the artistic concept.
As an artist, the initial stress of the dailies and the sweatbox take some getting used to but once you adjust to the collaborative environment, the benefits are immense. Being able to get feedback from others, especially from the likes of Lee, Buck, and other leadership who have years of experience, would help you improve your technical skills in a way that would be impossible if you were just animating by yourself.
Feedback Works Best When It Is Direct, Understandable, Constructive and Friendly
The feedback and criticism given to the “Frozen II” animators is direct, understandable, constructive and friendly. Why does feedback need to be direct and understandable? If leadership did not like what they saw, they have to give actionable feedback that the animator could use to go back and improve the scene. If they gave vague feedback, then the animator would be in the position to guess or try to read the mind of leadership…something that never works and creates an environment of confusion and more stress.
Why would the feedback also have to be presented in a constructive and friendly manner? It would have to be constructive, because the end goal of the feedback is to improve the film and the flow of the scenes. Multiple animators help in creating just one minute of the film, so creating a consistent look, feel, and character movements is the goal of constructive feedback.
In addition, presenting the feedback in a friendly manner is always more beneficial than the opposite. If you are criticized in a harsh and dismissive manner in front of leadership and your peers, that is devastating. Providing people with friendly feedback helps facilitate a creative and trusting work environment and helps employee morale be positive (even at places like Disney, they have employee morale surveys).
How the Creative Process of ‘Frozen II’ Could Be Adapted for Course Development
In Part II of this series, I will talk about collaboration and how the dailies meetings can be incorporated into higher education course development. By having these types of collaborative meetings, courses can be created faster. This method of course development also facilitates innovation, allows for easier quality control and creates a curriculum that will focus on student learning.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
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