Lino DiSalvo is probably one of few people who would apply the term “dangerous” to the blockbuster Disney animated feature Frozen. He was animation director on the film, and it casts a creative shadow he has to deal with as he makes new movies.
The 1990s-era Vancouver Film School graduate is settling into a new role as creative director for Paramount Animation, a relatively new operation. As he goes forward with a mission to nurture feature animation there, he says he is mindful of the risks of falling back on what was done in Frozen. “To me, Frozen is Frozen. It’s its own thing,” Mr. DiSalvo, 40, told The Globe and Mail during a visit to Vancouver this week.
Mr. DiSalvo is the son of Italian immigrants, and says he was expected to take over the family’s restaurant business in Brooklyn, but pursued an interest in animation to Vancouver Film School in the 1990s. He remembers coming home to his West-End apartment to a message on his answering machine: Disney wanted to interview him. He was hired as a junior animator.
Over 16 years, he worked on such films as Chicken Little, Bolt and Tangled. Then came Frozen, which was released in November of 2013. Based on Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, the movie is the story of royal sisters Anna and Elsa (who can lower temperature) and the struggles for Elsa to accept her gift. It earned $1.2-billion, making it the highest-grossing animated film of all time. It won two Oscars, animated feature and original song. That would be Let It Go, the anthem of millions of children.
Mr. DiSalvo says he left Disney for Paramount this summer partly because the gig included the opportunity to direct his own film. In the meantime, Paramount’s will release SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, in 2015.
Were you surprised at the box-office numbers for Frozen?
When we started getting updates on numbers. I was like, “Holy cow. This movie could be big.” You work so hard on every film. You want them all to succeed. You’re never quite sure at the end of the day, “Is the audience going to be into it?” We were doing legitimate singing characters. That hasn’t necessarily been done in a while to the extent and refinement of Frozen. Amazing things happen when people believe in themselves. Frozen was that example.
Is it scary in the sense that as you work on other films, you may be thinking, “That worked in Frozen,” and trying to repeat it?
It’s dangerous. It would be very dangerous to try and fit that Frozen template. To me, that movie was so organically born that you could aim to try and get that cool performance, and great subtext. That is a dangerous thing, trying to fit, “Let’s do it like Frozen.” To me, Frozen is Frozen. It’s its own thing.
Do you have a reminder to veer away from that?
The phrases I always repeat are “truth in emotion,” and “is the character rootable? Do we want them to succeed?” Those are the things I keep going back to. It’s not about Frozen or a template. It’s about how do you get that thing Anna wants of meeting someone and being stuck in that castle. There’s a feeling she’s evoking there that you can relate to. As long as a character has that unique feeling of wanting something that’s very, very important for them, then you’re on the journey and I think you end up with something that’s very unique and honest to that script.
What do you think when you hear those Frozen songs?
Watching the Let It Go sequence was the first time in my career where everyone in that room just had this super-emotional reaction to it, like, “Oh my God. This is special.” We had goose bumps. I remember watching Lion King and there were moments in that film where it was so real. It was one of those few moments where it was like, “Gosh. I think this is working.” We all felt there was a special thing happening. That was pretty cool.
There was, I read, a lot of revision to get it right. What do you remember about that? What did you learn from that?
It’s very normal. The film that you go watch in a movie theatre today is the best version of that movie that has evolved over a couple of years. The first version of a screening is very loose. There’s many ideas. You keep refining, And there’s that thing that happens where the movie shows itself and what it wants to be and you support it. In animated films, you’re iterating like crazy from character design to the subtext of the film to the narrative of the film to the theme of the film. A lot of animated films feel very enjoyable as a whole. I think it’s because that storyboarding process is an integral part of getting it right before you really put that mouse down or that stylus and you start animating the scenes. It’s to know this is where we’re going. With Frozen, the journey wasn’t that much different from other animated films.
What was the most technically difficult shot in that film?
The Let It Go sequence. You have a character that is finally breaking out. You have a character that is finally getting comfortable with who they are as a person. We wanted to do that correctly and properly and really give it weight. So how Elsa looked in the castle when we finally see her embrace who she is as a character? It was a huge thing for us to photograph that properly. We treated the singing like dialogue, like these are things she believes in, things she’s saying. When we built up the crescendo, we’re building up because she can’t hold it in any more. Once we embraced and attacked the sequence that way, it was like, “All right. That’s it. That’s great. Let’s go that way. Let’s put emotion behind it.” I think we redid that sequence three or four times just trying to get it right. “Let’s do it over. Let’s do it over.”
You’re from Brooklyn. How did you come to be studying at VFS?
I actually went to community college in New York at Nassau Community College for criminal justice. I figured I’d be a cop. During my classes there, the art electives I was taking really made me feel like, “I have to switch majors and I have to get into art.” I ended up going to the New York Institute of Technology, taking animation classes there. I was still hungry for more. At the time, Vancouver Film School was one of the few schools that had a two-to-one ratio – two students per computer. Back then in the nineties, they were super expensive. So then I made the decision: Vancouver had the setup I was looking for. I came out here. One thing led to another. Here I am.
Did it seem at the time a long way to go?
Most people from New York think you never have to leave New York because everything is there. I was one of those guys spreading that word. But when I found the school in Vancouver, I was like, “I’ve got to do this. I’m going to the opposite side of the country and then into another country.” I didn’t mind it. Actually, I think that was what helped me focus was being so far away from friends and family. It was about a year [program,] and rapid-fire. You get in there and crank away on assignments and really get deep in the trenches and learn by doing, which is cool. As ignorant and naïve I was back then, I wanted to work at Disney. Disney hired me out of school.
What did you learn from the controversy about your 2013 statement that animating female characters is difficult because they have to go through these ranges of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty?
This is how that day, that situation went. In animation, we have something called a model sheet – examples of who the character is and different angles. What we also have is a range of emotion model sheets showing the characters in different states of intensity – sadness, surprise, angry. Translating that emotional range onto a CG character is one of the most difficult parts of the process. Male. Female. Snowman. Animal. Everything that was taken out of proportion was taking what I just said there and being misrepresented as only female characters have emotion so it’s difficult, which was totally bogus. If you see the movie, it’s obviously not correct. The really sad thing is people took that, had that catchy headline and they just repopulated it everywhere. People didn’t get back to me for comments and the sad thing is that’s the way the internet works. They don’t want the truth. They want this catchy kind of headline instead of if you were in the room and you saw the images I had behind me of Kristoff going through his emotional range. That is a difficult part of the process. It’s not difficult because they’re girls. It’s difficult because when you’re exploring animation and getting characters to look unique like Olaf, doing that range of emotion test and trying to identify what that emotion is is very, very difficult. It’s what the DNA of the character is. It’s what’s going to make that character unique to other characters.
Is there more weight on animated films than live-action films in terms of these issues of gender and other issues? It seems like animators, more than live-action filmmakers, face scrutiny on this.
Like live-action film, when we’re designing and creating the characters, they have to feel like they fit and live in that world. When we were working on Bolt and designing Bolt and Mittens and Rhino the Hamster, there are certain design elements you want to incorporate in there. Frozen being about family love and not romantic love and not about damsel in distress. To me, it’s more important that the message is strong and not so much about over-analyzing the exact design of the character. It’s a difficult thing. You want to make a character that fits in the world that you’re building. Kristoff – we had many different costume changes for him. He started off wearing a very long coat and then we wanted him to feel like [he was from] the mid-1800s in Norway and feel like a guy that lived off the land, so we roughed him up a bit. That kind of helped sell where the character was in the film. All the characters go through that iteration. They have to feel like they are honestly living in this world.
What advice would you give someone near the end of high school who wanted a career in animation?
Take acting classes. Take a lot of drama classes. Learn and study what makes great performance great performance. I am a very strong believer that great acting is great animation. Great animation is great acting. Take a lot of life drawing classes. Watch a lot of animated films. Watch a lot of musicals. By the time you’re in your first year in college, you’ll be far ahead of the game.
What advice are you giving to students coming to the end of their official training?
Never stop animating. Even as your portfolio is out there and you’re waiting to hear from companies, you have to continue to animate. I feel strongly that you have got about 100 bad scenes in you and you have to get those out of your system before you can really start reaching your potential and start refining. Even though I got that offer from Disney, when I went back to New York, as I was waiting to hear where I was going, I was animating. I was doing my own animation tests. I was still drawing a lot. I was still sharpening that knife so that when I was thrown into a scenario where I had to work on a film, I was ready to go.
What do you see when you look at the animation scene in Vancouver?
It’s amazing. Most of the major studios that are in Southern California have some kind of representation up here. It’s really cool. It’s really fresh. Between Sony and ILM and even the smaller studios, it’s really great for the city that there’s a larger presence, a population. They’re building their own culture, animation wise. That’s rad.
Might we see Paramount Animation come in?
Anything is possible. Right now, for the time being, we’re really working on bringing in the right people to build the company and make the art the greatest it can be. That’s all happening in Hollywood on Melrose at the studio lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.