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January 02
2020

ISSUE

Winter 2020

Jennifer Lee: Creating New Animated Classics that Inspire the Imagination

By TREVOR HOGG

Jennifer Lee, CCO at Walt Disney Animation Studios. (Photo: Ricky Middlesworth. Copyright © 2019 Disney)

A scene from Wreck-It Ralph where Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and Ralph (John C. Reilly) are in the video game world of Sugar Rush. (Image copyright © 2016 Disney)

“[Increasing the number of female directors] is about access. We’re making huge changes here. I’m no longer the only female director. We’re working hard to find that talent. There are great filmmakers out there.”

—Jennifer Lee, CCO, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Born and raised in Rhode Island, Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee has fond memories growing up in a small state with hundreds of miles of coastline. “It has a lot of blue-collar towns, hard workers and beautiful beaches. I spent a lot of time on the water. You didn’t have to have money to do that.” Lee showed an early interest in drawing, which was encouraged by her salesman father, Saverio Rebecchi. “He would provide me with a lot of art supplies.” The matriarch of the family, Linda Lee, was a nurse and supported her “wild creative mess” of a daughter. “My mother was a huge reader, and my sister Amy, a straight A student, would read to me all of the time. Growing up I had a ton of books.”

Seeing Star Wars at the age of five, Lee developed a love for the science fiction genre. “I constantly drew stories. Cinderella was my favorite by far. It got me through bullying and things like that. As I got older, I became a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and Toni Morrison.”

An interest in literature led the undergrad student to earn a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of New Hampshire. “I never considered myself a writer. I had an incredible English teacher in my junior year who saw that I had a passion and deep understanding of literature. I loved Shakespeare more than anything else at that time. To have someone acknowledge that I had something to contribute meant a lot to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew that I loved stories.

Film wasn’t an option for me at that point. Where I grew up I didn’t know it was possible, and books were something I always knew. I went on to study English while I was painting on the side and doing art classes. It was a strange combination that would come together, but I didn’t know it then.”

After graduating, Lee became a graphic artist designing audio books for Random House in New York City. “My biggest reason for getting that job was because I got free books! It was during the transition from analog to computers. I understood computers and shifted into the graphic arts side. It also led to video. I started putting the pieces together in my twenties that I was visually telling stories all of the time and had a visual sense. But it wasn’t until screenwriting when I realized that was where I belonged. Screenwriting was like someone gave me a translator for what was in my head.”

Two major incidents led Lee to develop an interest in filmmaking. “I heard someone say something outrageous and I turned it into a scene. I had never done anything like that before. I quickly took a screenwriting class at NYU and wrote a whole script in six weeks. My husband at the time was working at The New York Times on Saturdays, which meant that I had the day to myself. So I started going to see movies at the Sony multiplex and Lincoln Center. I realized that part of me was waking up and I started doing experimental videos.”

On the cusp of turning 30, Lee decided to apply to Columbia University School of the Arts to get a Master of Fine Arts in film. “It had the program that for a minimum of three, if not four to five years, you would go broke but get to do everything in film. For two years you have to direct, produce, write and act as well as go from short to feature filmmaking. You were completely immersed and forced to understand the collaborative nature of it by being put into teams.”

The Ice Castle is in the distance as Sven transports Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) in Frozen 2. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

The aspiring filmmaker formed a creative partnership with a fellow classmate who would later call her to join him at Walt Disney Animation Studios to co-write Wreck-It Ralph. “The first day of film school, Phil Johnston and I were thrown into a group together. We were turning 30 within a couple of days of each other, both were married, and came from completely different backgrounds and sensibilities. Our collaboration came organically. Phil and I would work on each other’s films. I never tried to rewrite him. I was trying to support his work and vice versa. At the time I was doing socially conscious and science fiction films while Phil was doing hilarious comedies. Even after graduation, we met every week, shared pages and forced each other to keep working. We formed a trust and understanding of each other’s writing that made our collaborating on Wreck-It Ralph possible.”

Working on a Hollywood production meant dealing with studio executives and a large production crew. “Getting involved with something this collaborative was one of the biggest and most rewarding challenges,” notes Lee. “You’re not in it alone. Everyone is giving their best. The best idea wins. Your job becomes being able to filter the good and bad and protect the project, but be flexible. Wreck-It Ralph was a different boot camp of learning how you work in an environment where the ideas and criticisms are always flowing, and know what to listen to. Navigating it was about sticking to the craft that I learned. I started to see that my job was not to stifle ideas but to protect the journey as a whole.

“Coming in here as a writer before becoming a director really helped me. I had a focus, and with the support of Phil, Rich Moore and the whole team, by the time I finished Wreck-It Ralph I understood the process.”

With the release of Frozen, a retelling of the Snow Queen fairy tale, Lee became the first female director of a feature film at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the first of her gender to helm a feature that grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

“I was initially asked to join as a writer and said ‘no’ because I had seen a rough cut of a different version and didn’t see a story in it. But then I spent a week with Chris Buck, Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some other directors to brainstorm a new version, and by the end of it I was madly in love.”

Lee is also involved with live-action filmmaking, such as co-writing the script for A Wrinkle in Time with Jeff Stockwell. (Image copyright © 2017 Disney)

Zootopia’s first bunny officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) finds herself face to face with the fast-talking, scam-artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman). (Image copyright © 2017 Disney)

“I was initially asked to join [Frozen] as a writer and said ‘no’ because I had seen a rough cut of a different version and didn’t see a story in it. But then I spent a week with Chris Buck, Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some other directors to brainstorm a new version, and by the end of it I was madly in love.”

—Jennifer Lee, CCO, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Anna (Kristen Bell) and Olaf (Josh Gad) venture far from Arendelle in a dangerous but remarkable journey to help Elsa find answers about the past in Frozen 2. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

Elsa encounters a Nokk, a mythical water spirit that takes the form of a horse, who uses the power of the ocean to guard the secrets of the forest in Frozen 2. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

Providing the comic relief once again are the duo of Sven and Olaf in Frozen 2. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

As the production progressed Lee became a co-director with Buck. “When John Lasseter asked me to direct with Chris, it allowed us to divide and conquer. It was a challenging schedule. I was intimidated by the production side here because I hadn’t done it in animation before, but I knew the story room well. Chris and I could stay connected, but if he needed to go to environments or effects or character, I was running the story room. It had a more organic feeling than we thought it would. Because of that process I did join in the production side. I got nervous as to what I had to offer, but then realized I was working with the best in the world, and what I had to bring to them was the motivation, intentions, needs and wants of the character and story, and they knew what to bring back with their incredible skills and artistry.”

Frozen 2 provided an opportunity to expand the world and characters from the original movie. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

Lee went on to co-write and co-direct the short film Frozen Fever, provide the story for Zootopia, and co-write A Wrinkle in Time. “I had different roles on those. With Zootopia I was in the story room keeping the story evolving, and working in the edit room. It was a supportive role. That skill was part of what led to me becoming the Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

“With A Wrinkle in Time being live-action, the writing process is different. You’re not in the room every day. I got to work with Ava DuVernay, which was extraordinary. But I realize the incredible way that we work here [is vital], where everyone stays connected to the whole process. Then coming to Frozen 2 – Bobby, Kristen and I also [collaborated on the] Broadway [adaptation] together. Doing a sequel is so incredibly challenging in its own way, but what we do have is a lot of trust, respect, and a rhythm to how we work. There is even a rhythm in production with the same crew for the most part, because they wanted to come back. We have been surprising each other with what we’ve been able to do. Frozen 2 let us expand on what we had done as opposed to make a big change. It felt like we were growing.”

When Lasseter was displaced as Chief Creative Officer for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pete Docter was appointed CCO of the former and Lee of the latter. “What I love about Pete is that he has been involved with so many films. I was struggling with a part on Frozen 2 a few months ago and called him. Pete said, ‘We’ve been through that and this is what we did.’ He has so much experience with problem-solving and is so generous. Pete is busy too. He is directing at the same time. A lot of time we will call each other to commiserate and ask, ‘Did you sleep this week?’ We brought Frozen 2 up there [to Pixar] a few times. They come down here with their films. It’s such a pleasure to get to work with him.”

Lee has been open about her battle with self-doubt, which is a common attribute for writers. “We have a joke about that. When the actors come in it’s the most fun day. When the writers work together it’s miserable because we’re so critical! I fundamentally believe when I struggle with self-doubt that I bring it back to the work. I’ve learned now in my older years to ask for what I need rather than fault myself for what I can’t do.”

As to the issue of increasing the number of female directors, Lee remarks, “It is about access. We’re making huge changes here. I’m no longer the only female director. We’re working hard to find that talent. There are great filmmakers out there.”

Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios have screenings of each other’s projects to assist with the development process, as was the case with Frozen 2. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

A flashback scene in Frozen 2 featuring Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) with her daughters Anna and Elsa. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

“I realized I was working with the best in the world, and what I had to bring to them was the motivation, intentions, needs and wants of the character and story, and they knew what to bring back with their incredible skills and artistry.”

—Jennifer Lee, CCO, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Frozen 2 reunites original blockbuster directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho, voice cast members Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

In Frozen, Elsa wondered if her powers would be accepted by those around her. In the sequel she has to use them in order to save the world. (Image copyright © 2019 Disney)

Jennifer Lee (Photo: Ricky Middlesworth. Copyright © 2019 Disney)

For Lee, the project dictates the audience. “I don’t believe that anyone here feels that they only make stories for kids or families directly. It’s for everyone. We tell stories that matter to us. We weren’t thinking about an age on Frozen. There is something to how we do our films that there are always things to contemplate. They’re evocative, emotional, entertaining, and there’s hope and joy. Part of that is ingrained in the people who want to make these films. What I do like is the opportunity of experimenting with the short form and always growing the artform. There is definitely a huge energy for that now and we support it 100%. To look at who we are and how we make our films is timeless, timely and resonates with all ages, but at the same time what we have never done is turn down a fascinating idea and say, ‘It’s not young enough.’ We go with what inspires us.”

Virtual and Augmented Reality have had a major impact on the animation process. “We have a whole group working on VR and had the short film Cycles last year, which was amazing,” remarks Lee. “Cycles wasn’t a straight narrative, and you’re in tears at the end. It was powerful. We’re continuing to do that work and announcing more stuff in that area. I love that I’m learning a different method of storytelling. Even on the new projects that we’re working on right now, VR allows you to tell stories in a different and more visceral way and not necessarily in a linear manner. It’s important for us to stay involved because VR makes us better at our craft, but also gives us opportunities to keep growing in how we bring stories, emotion and imagination to the world.”

Lee has developed a philosophy towards writing and directing. “You become the audience and ask, ‘How do I feel?’ Then you become the characters and ask, ‘Do I believe them?’ We ground it by asking, ‘What is this experience and is it moving me the way that it should?’ If you keep it at any greater distance than that, you won’t have something that resonates.”

Unlike live-action, everything in the world of animation needs to be created from scratch, notes Lee. “Animation is the one area where every single thing that is there has been built from the imagination, and there’s so much that we can do with it. There’s this energy now of experimentation, exploration and technology catching up with the imagination and inspiring it to go to new places. That is what I find to be exciting.”


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