Frozen comes out soon and with it, I think, a reboot for Musicals. I liked Tangled a lot but the songs in Frozen are, to my taste, much stronger. Growing up with Aladdin and The Lion King… animated musicals have a lot to live up to with me, but I think Frozen was definitely a step in the right direction and it’s comparable with Beauty and the Beast. I love animated musicals… not for every single animated feature, it’s great to have seen the medium pull away enough to try other things, but there’s plenty of room to go either way now that we’ve cleansed the pallet for a few years, if they’re done properly. (Actually there’s even room to diversify further in animation but that’s a different blog post.)
The songs in Frozen were largely memorable, well performed and integral to the story. I didn’t know much about the film when I arrived in the theater so it was a bit of a shock when the first story based songs started. But once you realize what you’re watching it’s pretty good. The film does skew towards a young female audience, but that’s ok. This is definitely feeding the Disney Princesses franchise.
I actually wanted to make my short film, ‘Devils, Angels and Dating‘, a musical. I was about a year into production and the importance of trying to sell the characters inner thoughts was a big issue. I’d ruled out dialogue earlier on. I was confident about the characters performance range with the rigs, and the animation quality I was aiming for. But there was so much resting on the ability of the audience to understand what the characters’ were thinking about each other that it was a worry that weighed on my mind. When I saw ‘Dr. Horrible’ for the first time it just clicked and I realized that songs would be a great way to voice the characters’ inner thoughts without turning it into a full dialogue based film.
When a character breaks out into song in a film you’re basically reminding the audience that they’re being given a little more information than they would really get if this was happening for real. It’s a bit like a side step from reality. This is also one of the reasons musicals fell out of fashion as they can take you out of the moment. But in this case that’s a useful film-making device as it allows us to tell the audience exactly what the characters are thinking while continuing to allow them to exist in the same space and not hear each others thoughts. I.e. the audience hears their thoughts, but the characters don’t hear each other despite the fact they are voicing them right next to each other.
I reached out to a number of musicians, composers and song writers back in 2009/2010 and met some very interesting people including one of the original song writers for some of the Peanuts holiday specials. But it was a hard sell to someone that didn’t know me, to prove that I could get this film made without any funding, and most people in the music world had very little knowledge of CG animation and how long it takes, so it wasn’t an easy start. To most, I’m sure it looked like a lot of work, with no guarantees (or pay) and a very long wait before it turns into something. Eventually I came across two talented song writers that were interested in working with me. Larrisa Ness and Andrea Perry both brought a great deal to the project at different points and in different ways and we created a number of tests, including an animated Devil singing one of the lines. Michael Covey and Kyle Robertson also helped us perform, record and mix the tests.
Ultimately we didn’t make the film a musical. Larissa made some great short pieces that we used to help make the podcast more professional. While Andrea created a track for the film that we liked so much we ended up using it over the credits. Later it would prove very popular on YouTube, with regular requests to make the track available for download and she eventually adapted a version of it for her new album.At the end of the day it’s hard to pin down the main reason for not going down the musical route. Probably the biggest factor was that the song writers would have preferred to have been more creatively involved in the story writing at the early stages. But I already had the concept and story locked down with a large team of people already creating assets. So we couldn’t change it much. It was more like we were presenting it in a different way, but that probably wasn’t enough for everyone involved. So the enthusiasm waned. Combine that with the fact no-one other than myself knew it would ever get finished and other life priorities inevitably took precedence (I’m putting myself in their shoes, they were too kind to ever say it). Things took a long time to get done and eventually I had to honor the ever growing visual side of the team that were making good progress. So I had to take the painful decision to abandon the idea of the film being a musical, in order to get it actually made.
In many ways making it a musical was the missing piece that I felt would have brought it all together, but if you’re not Disney, with Disney dollars and Disney reputation it’s a hard road and one that we had to abandon. Later on I’d use a narration to help resolve the issues I was most concerned about, but it wasn’t the same.
I’d actually wanted to make a musical of my student short way back in 1998, inspired by ‘What’s Opera Doc’. My, then musical collaborator, Craig Bradbury created other styles of music for the film but resources were even thinner on the ground… it was just the two of us, and there wasn’t much of an internet to reach out to for help.
So it’s been a long time passion of mine to create a thorough-bred musical at some point and hopefully it’ll happen. Of course I worked on Happy Feet, but I wasn’t animating performances or getting involved in the film-making side of things so I don’t feel like it counts. I animated on one of the Happiness Factory short film musicals which was a great experience but that only lasted a couple of months. It remains an un-scratched itch. I continue to keep my fingers crossed and maybe I’ll find the right collaborators to create a new project from the ground up as a musical. It should be a lot easier this time around.I’d really love to see a different flavor of musical. There’s a very valid place for the princess led ‘I want’ songs, and I love them. But I can see a great value in bringing other musical flavors to the screen. An animated Phantom of the Opera seems like it would have some amazing potential, especially with a little fantasy imagination applied to it. Perhaps the Phantom conjures up imagery in his mind outside of the realm of possibility that would take full advantage of the strengths of the animated medium? Batman the Musical anyone? Super Heroes the Musical even? Too much spandex perhaps? Actually I’ve had an idea in mind to make a musical themed game for a decade or so. There’s still tones of potential for new ways to spin the animated musical.
In the mean time let me take this opportunity to introduce ‘Love in the Time of Advertising‘ from my friends David Bokser and Matt Berenety. They came up with the song for this film way, way back when they started the project and probably had no idea how many years it would be before they finished it. But it’s a spectacular film and I’m really rooting for their success. It’s not a pure musical as the characters don’t break into song, it’s the narrator that sings, but it’s a fantastic spin on the genre.