How one Frozen animator is keeping the Disney magic alive from quarantine
Back in February, Hyrum Osmond, the supervising Olaf animator for Frozen, approached Disney leadership with an idea: exploring day-to-day life with the lovable snowman voiced by Josh Gad. "'When he’s not saving the world with Anna and Elsa, what does he do?' was the idea," Osmond, also Moana's co-head of animation, tells EW. The pitch was a hit. With the blessing of Frozen director Jennifer Lee and Walt Disney Animation President Clark Spencer, he set off solo to develop a proof-of-concept and storyboards for episodes that would one day become a series of digital shorts. "I had to do it by myself. There were no resources for me. They said, 'Just go.' And I did."
"Then," Osmond adds, "everything changed."
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States even now, the entertainment industry essentially halted. Productions have been postponed, film releases have been delayed, movie theaters have largely shut down. Not Osmond. The Disney veteran already began developing the concept from home when Americans were urged to shelter in place. The only difference now is that he has a team, all working remotely, to help launch the first of what will be a total of 20 online Olaf shorts, featuring fresh voice work from Gad. Two of them, EW has learned, will be hand-drawn. As the rest of the industry is left wondering when business can return to normal, Osmond's efforts show how the animation sector is uniquely suited to keep on keeping on.
"My workflow at this point is pretty productive," Osmond says. "Occasionally, when my internet stops working on me, it throws a wrench into things, but I'm at least at 90 percent, I’d say, of my production capacity. It’s flowing pretty well."
On March 13, Disney announced that productions on multiple live-action films, including The Little Mermaid and Marvel's Shang Chi, would be delayed due to the coronavirus. Around the same time, films like Frozen 2 and Pixar's Onward were getting earlier home releases through on demand and Disney+, while many other titles were losing their spots in theaters. New stories were becoming fewer and fewer. Osmond says it was about two weeks ago that Lee, who also serves as Disney Animation's chief creative officer, called him up to circle back on his Olaf idea. "There’s just a real desire to put a smile on kids’ faces," he says. "I told her, 'I’ve actually been developing these.' At that point, she gave me a crew, which is awesome, and we’ve just been moving ahead."
There's not much to the shorts themselves. They're more vignettes that show Olaf twirling on the ice or going fishing or playing catch with sentient snowball pals. As the character often expresses, he loves making friends. The shorts are "sweet and calming," Osmond says. And his kids agree.
The biggest hurdle, besides the aggravation of a dropped wifi connection here and there, was adjusting to life on a smaller screen. At Disney studios, animators have access to larger equipment, including monitors, to better eyeball the animation design. At his home, Osmond operates day-to-day off of two Mac laptops. "The screens are maybe a fifth of the size of what I’m used to," he notes. "It makes it a little tight with all these different windows you’re trying to navigate through and animate with, but it works pretty well."
When Osmond started out by himself on the Olaf shorts, he had to be creative. "Alone in the Forest," featuring Olaf's ballet routine, took him approximately one week to make. Without the backup of other animators, he decided to repurpose scenes from the Frozen movies to help streamline the process. That's why viewers might notice how, in the first installments released this week, the backgrounds look the same.
It also took coordinating with Disney technicians to ensure Gad himself had everything he needed to record his voice part at home. The actor, admittedly, isn't a tech wiz, but the post-production crew delivered equipment to Gad's home. Video chats with Osmond also helped. "Normally the way we would do things is he’d come in [the studio], he’d sit in the booth, we’d talk back and forth, we’d go through pickups," Osmond explains. Now, Gad has "a little setup at his house that he would then record to his computer. We could hear what he was doing over video [chat], but then he would send those files onto us. We could listen to it, really, and say, 'That peaked a little too much. Let’s go back and have him do it again.'"
Now that they have a team of animators and artists working on the shorts, later episodes will feature more attention to "lighting and more variety with environment." Plus, Osmond adds, "I don’t have to take on the load of animating this all by myself. I love animating Olaf, but we have such an amazing crew for them to get involved and add their touch to things."
What Osmond and his at-home team have done signals larger implications for the animation industry. Where live-action productions just can't go, animators have found various ways to adapt to the environment.
The Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez described to The Hollywood Reporter how he's been able to continue work on his Netflix animated series Maya and the Three from home. Big Mouth co-creator Nick Kroll revealed a video clip in mid March of his cast's virtual table read for the new season coming to Netflix, and the streamer is also preparing to drop the animated series The Midnight Gospel in the coming weeks from podcaster Duncan Trussell and Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. Other studios, including ones behind Fox shows, Nickelodeon, and Warner Bros. Animation, are said to still be in development on multiple animated projects in various capacities.
"What I do see is that the technology is there and available, and [there's] the possibility of very much being able to do this from home in a lot of ways," Osmond says. "That’s the thing which I found really great about this. I got going doing this by myself, but once a team got involved, I saw that they also were able to do what they needed to do from home."
That includes Disney's technical support crew. Osmond notes how the troubleshooting process is still the same. "When I was working at a studio, I would have technical issues and would shoot off emails to production support for help. Typically, those would all be resolved online anyway. It's the same method right now." Hardware glitches lead to "trickier" workarounds, since no one can just pop over to his desk to triage situations. But he says it's manageable.
"Because we’ve had to deal with this and try to make this work, I think we’ve discovered very quickly how to fix certain problems and expedite how we work from home," he says.
Now, let's see if animated feature filmmakers are able to do the same. Currently, the Disney Animation technology team have allowed for all of Disney's artist to operate from remote locations. "It’s a very interesting time right now," Osmond adds, "especially with four kids running around, it can get a little loud and distracting. But it is working and I’m grateful for that."