The Real-Life Ice Hotel That Inspired Disney’s ‘Frozen’
You've heard the Oscar-winning song all over the place, so there's no doubt you are aware of Frozen, the Disney animated film that captured the hearts of people who delighted in seeing an animated film where some dude didn't have to save the heroine at the end. Although the dude helped. A new definition of true love emerged – the love of family can work just as well as the love of a… well, a lover. That was cool.
Another cool thing about Frozen is a literally cool thing about Frozen – part of the inspiration for the aesthetic of the film came from the existence of a place in Quebec City, Quebec called the Hotel De Glace. It's an ice hotel. That's not to say it's a normal hotel with a cute, icy, wintery theme – it's actually made of ice – special ice that they have to freeze from the inside out to keep crystal clear. A horde of ice sculptors show up every year to rebuild the thing with a unique theme each year – they even hold contests for artists to create differently themed rooms – and at the end of the season, they bulldoze the thing to clear the space for next year's new version of the Hotel De Glace.
Here's a video showing you the dilly-yo with this place.
That's the place to which Disney flew a bunch of us press types last week to help promote the blu-ray release of Frozen this week, so that even we workaday press schlubs can have our pretty princess day. These sorts of excursions are rare, but they're also a nice perk of the job that you remember on the days it's working your last nerve. It's a really beautiful place that feels like you're on another planet. Another Disney-owned planet. Like Hoth.
Technically, you can actually stay overnight in the Hotel de Glace even though they have no heating system, but it's an elaborate process only for the truly hearty, as the only way you can survive the temperatures is to wrap yourself up in a sleeping bag coccoon with only your face exposed, and you warm yourself through your own body heat (or getting yourself drunk at the fancy shiny disco bar or in the jacuzzi). Then there are communal shower facilities in a separate building that do have heat, so you don't have to worry about being carbonite-frozen in a bath tub. I, however, was not (un)fortunate enough to actually spend a night there – although the day I spent there was pretty amazing, even though they put me to work as a receptionist answering the ice phone. A lot of conversations with angry Frost Giants demanding room service.
Speaking of Frost Giants, this year's Hotel de Glace theme was 'mythology, and there was a suspiciously Marvel-looking Thunder God on one of the walls as well.
It's a fascinating construct all around, and while we were there, we met up with some of the creative forces behind Frozen, including directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, producer Peter Del Vecho and art director Michael Giaimo. If you're looking for news about a sequel called Too Frozen or You're Not Putting Me In The Cooler or Always Winterize Your Pipes, you can unbate your breath, as they're not even thinking about it yet.
"Right now, we're just enjoying this ride," Del Vecho said. "We haven't even opened in Japan yet, so we have a lot more to go. It's been phenomenal, the response to the movie, and I think before we even think about what we do next, there's a vacation in there somewhere to reconnect with our own families."
That said, Frozen is going to Broadway, which means some of the songs cut from the film might get some kind of revival. "There were a lot of songs cut, just with the writing process," said Lee. "We cut a lot of scenes and a lot of songs. I don't know if they'll make their way back in because often, they were cut because they don't fit the story anymore."
"Melodies might make it back in," notes Buck, also explaining that they were always striving to find a song for Kristoff. "Right now, he just gets the reindeer ditty, which is great and fun, but Jonathan Groff is such an amazing singer and we were striving to get more of a song in there, but it didn't quite work. So maybe for the stage."
Speaking of Groff, you may be curious as to the extras on the blu-ray, and they're surprisingly light for such a big production, which lends one to think they might be stuffing more features on a later 3-D release or something. There are your deleted scenes, which for animated films are just storyboards and some dialogue recordings, and there's a short doc called "D'Frosted: Disney's Journey from Hans Christian Andersen to Frozen" which explains that even Walt Disney himself had plans to translate Andersen's "Snow Queen" in some form. There's also a cool new Mickey Mouse cartoon called "Get a Horse," which blends old-style black and white Disney with modern CG in a surprising way. Of course, there's a video for Demi Lovato singing "Let It Go" for whatever reason that happened. But there's also a "The Making of Frozen" short that is really just a funny, goofball song and dance number starring Groff, Kristen Bell and Josh Gad working their way through the Disney offices, crooning about "How did we make Frozen?" and ending with a sudden "We don't know." It's a cute joke, but also leaves you going "but… I kinda wanted to know how they made Frozen." "D'Frosted" will have to do.
We did get more information from talking to the filmmakers, though, and the lightness of special features on the disc might stem from the fact that they had a rushed production schedule, which led to some struggles.
"We were originally supposed to come out in November of 2014," Del Vecho said, "and about a little less than a year into the project, the studio asked us if we could move it up to 2013. Well, story is the most difficult part – we had great ideas, but we hadn't really developed the story yet, and we knew, to hit the schedule, we would have to overlap the start of production with story. Whenever you're developing the story at the same time you're having to do production, that's a big challenge. The story, for us, came together fairly late. In February of 2013, its parts were good, but it wasn't adding up to the big movie that we envisioned. It was really between February and June that we put so much concentrated work into the story. We rewrote songs, we took out characters and changed everything, and suddenly the movie gelled. But that was close. In hindsight, piece of cake, but during, it was a big struggle. This is probably the hardest movie I've ever produced, but also the most rewarding."
Part of all those revisions was the role of the trolls. They're these weird creatures that Kristoff treats like family that occasionally drop bits of wisdom, but their whole deal is never really explained – and that was a choice made during the development of the story, according to Del Vecho. They don't want you dwelling on that.
"We had a big prophecy at the beginning, but that didn't work," he explained. "We needed a way, at the very beginning, to set up the fact that it's a magical world, and the trolls helped us do that. We found that the more we tried to explain things at the beginning, the more complicated it got. So where did Elsa's power come from? Now it's handled by the troll's very simple line 'was she born with it or cursed'? Born? Okay, that answers the question, don't talk about it anymore,because the more you talk about it, the more questions come up."
We also learned that Elsa was originally a villain, as per Anderson's original story, but it wasn't until Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the omnipresent Oscar-winning song that the filmmakers had their watershed moment.
"We screen the movie for ourselves every 12 weeks, and we bring in all the other directors and all the other writers, and we're very self-critical of where the movie was at. It was really hard to understand who Elsa was, why she was doing what she was doing when she was a straight villain. Then somebody came up with the brilliant idea – honestly, we don't even remember who it was – 'what if Anna and Elsa were related?' They weren't always related. That was the beginning of finding these characters. And then 'Let It Go' was written as a song, and it changed who Elsa was. It changed her to someone who was driven by fear, ruled by fear, and Anna was ruled by her pure love of other people and her own drive. That song changed so much that Jen had to go back and rewrite the entire first act, and that theme rippled through the entire movie."
Lee concurred. "We loved the scene in the story about love vs. fear, but the minute Elsa became evil, good vs. evil took over and it was really frustrating, and it was really hard for a lot of us to let go of that, no pun intended. Then when we started working with Bobby and Kristen, they said 'what would Elsa's day be like when she can be free? What would it feel like?' And they wrote 'Let It Go,' and it allowed us to show ourselves and all of our story artists and other filmmakers in the studio that there was more to do with Elsa, that it was more exciting when we made her complex and conflicted and not a villain. Everyone heard that song and went 'oh yeah, we get it.' Yeah, we started over in a lot of ways, in terms of her character, but it was in a great way. We couldn't be happier with that."
They're also quite happy with the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, although the buildup started driving them up the wall with anticipation.
"It was a great moment," Buck explained, "but there is this relief because once the nominations are out in January, there's a BIG buildup until the awards, and you kind of feel it every day. You're hoping, but you're aware of it. I don't want to wish time away, but there is that 'when is that date going to come and when are they going to open that envelope?!' One way or the other, win or lose, at least we're here."
"We remember every day of the journey and all of the people on the cast, crew and cast who worked with us tediously and reworked," Lee noted. "So when it finally got to the Oscars, I've never been so nervous in my life. I usually don't let that get into my head, but I think I realized how much it would mean to all these people – and Disney animation had never won. So that day, I could barely talk, which is also unusual. When we won, it was just this wave of joy and relief, because I had all their work in my head."
"It felt like it took 45 years for her to open the envelope," Lee said with a laugh of Kim Novak's presentation of the award. Buck agreed. "She took her time! Then she said 'ooooh! Are you ready?' We were ready! We were ready!"
Then there was Buck's touching acceptance speech, where he mentioned that his late son Ryder, who was killed in a car accident in October, was their guardian angel. "For me, it was a real emotional high and low. Obviously, the movie was getting a great response from the press. It hadn't come out yet, but it was doing quite well, and then this happened. For me, the whole few months was very schizophrenic. I'd go from 'oh my god, the movie's doing this and this and this, it's unbelievable,' but then personally, have this other thing. I hadn't mentioned anything about him at any of the other awards, but then Jen said 'would you like to say something?' and I said 'Yeah, I think I would.'"
"He'd be so happy with this," he said, "and he would've wanted us to keep going, and me to keep going."
Buck has certainly paid it forward with Frozen, as they've heard a story about how it's saved lives – particularly with a woman on Reddit. "I don't know exactly the details, she didn't go into them, but she was having a very, very hard time in her life, and was ready to take her own life, and saw the movie, saw what Elsa went through, how Anna reached out to Elsa, and how there was hope in the movie. That's just a small thing. We've probably all had that, with one Disney movie or another when you're a kid, there's just this little bit of hope that you hang onto. You see that 'I can get through another day, and I can get through that next hurdle.' Even if it's a cartoon character, it's interesting how they glom onto that. This woman mentioned it, a grown woman, it got her through this. So that's pretty overwhelming when you hear those stories."
The creation of Frozen was heavily influenced by the Hotel de Glace, when Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter visited it years ago and insisted that Buck visit, and in turn, Buck insisted that Giaimo had to come to get a feel for the aesthetic presented by buildings made of ice and how it refracts visual images and light. In fact, the Hotel de Glace has some rooms with fireplaces in them, but makes sure they don't give off any heat. They're there for light shows, and to remind you that maybe you should have booked a room where you're not sleeping on a mattress on top of a block of ice.
Then again, you'd miss out on supremely comforting and inviting sleep experiences like this.
Still, it was useful, because even though it seemed like CG would be the best way to do an ice-related film, it wasn't as easy as they'd hoped.
"There's a quality here that you can only observe – you can look at a lot of Google images of ice and frost and snow, but to really see sculpturally what they created here?" Giaimo explained. "We knew it would come in handy, because of Elsa creating her ice palace, to see what artisans do with these materials, because Elsa would have to do the same thing in a magical way with the same materials. We needed to see how they create so we could create. So we realized there were a couple of things that were really, really special."
"One of the artists on my art direction team would pass through a block of ice, and I'd look at her as she walked behind it so we could see the refractive qualities of ice and what happens," he continued. "If you remember, in the movie, Elsa, when she runs up the stairs and you see her behind this huge plane sheet of ice, that's very, very dramatic. That all kind of started here, by way of inspiration. We realized by coming here that it's really the imperfections in the ice that creates an ice look. It's the ripples, the scratches, the air bubbles that make it look believable. At first, we were just doing pure sheets, and when we would do tests at the studio, it looked like plastic. So we realized 'oh, okay, what is it about ice that gives it its intrinsic qualities?' So we took a deeper look. You don't always hit it out of the park. It takes a lot of observation, and if it doesn't work when we show it to John Lasseter, our chief creative officer, he'll say 'It's okay, but it's not great. You guys need to dig deeper.'
"The computer wants to perfect everything and even it out. It looks for perfection and equalization," he told us. "You have to creatively wrestle technology, and as artists, that's what we're always doing. It takes a lot of tenacity, believe it or not, to get designs the way we want them."
They also tried to incorporate the traditional 2-D animation elements into the process as well, by recruiting famed 2-D animator Mark Henn of Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan to do draw-overs of certain frames to give pointers to the animators. "We really wanted that caricatured appeal that we have in 2-D," Lee explained. "So not only did Giaimo art direct it that way with all the color, the vignettes, the design and shapes, but we had Mark Henn come in, and every day, he'd work with the CG animators and help them understand how to bring the classic Disney expressions and silhouettes."
"It had to be done hand drawn first," Del Vecho noted, "because the computer is good at calculating things like they look in nature, but it lacked the whimsy. It lacked the design."
That's why we went to The Hotel de Glace in Quebec City. It's very French there, but it's also really striking.
Oh yeah, and Disney also took us dogsledding, which was, I suppose, a 'when in Rome' activity. So that happened.
I'm still not sure how I feel about that. It was fun, but also I don't know what to make of these dogs' lots in life.
So instead, I'll try to focus on the relaxing tropical Florida room at the Hotel de Glace, with its ice beach chair, and let it go.