Mike Giaimo work on the art department for such films as The Black Cauldron, The Brave Little Toaster, Ferngully and Pocahontas. He took an extended break from the Walt Disney Company before returning to work on the visual development for Disney’s newest animated feature Frozen. He spoke to the press about the project at a recent junket.
Question: How did you get involved in the production?
Mike Giaimo: This has been truly a passion project for all of us, a project that I’ve been working on for four years. I came back to the studio four years ago after an extended absence. Chris Buck, the co-director, asked me back, and asked if I would work on this show, and I was thrilled. He and I were together at Cal Arts, along with John Lasseter, Tim Burton and a lot of other folks like that. I’ve been in the business a long time, and for some reason, working on a classic tale like this, always sort of eluded me. So here was an opportunity, and I really wanted to take the ball and run with it.
Frozen has been a very dense show, art-direction-wise. It’s based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. When I was asked to be a part of this project, I read the book, and looked at a lot of illustrations from various versions. Most of them tend to riff off Scandinavia in general, so I thought, “well, Scandinavia will be kind of the general take-away for the art direction.” Once the story started honing in, I realized that just a generalized Scandinavia just wasn’t going to cut it. So I started looking at some of my past research, and realized that a lot of the visuals that really inspired me were actually from Norway.
What followed was a trip to Norway; we always take trips like that for our films to really immerse ourselves in the visuals. Just soak ourselves in it all. We ended up with three big takeaways.
The first is the fjords: these massive vertical rock faces that just shoot up into the heavens. We’d never seen a Disney kingdom in that environment, so it formed the basis for our kingdom here.
The second big take-away was the stave churches: really country churches. They were built in the 12th century and some are still standing. I think about 40 of them still exist today. They’re made entirely of wood, and they have the most intricate, beautiful rooflines; the shingles create such a beautiful light pattern when the sun hits them. We combined the two together, and took them as inspiration for our castle compound. Then we set it in the fjord for what we hope is a really, really dramatic effect. Most Disney castles sit up on a promontory, and they look down on a valley. We came up with this conceit, which I think is really, really unique for a classic tale
The third big take-away that was really important for us was a small thing, but a big thing. It’s the idea of rosemaling: rustic painting in Norwegian, which really translates to basically folk art. And it can be found on anything. Clothing; embroidery; architecturally it can be found on ceilings, walls, columns, wood trim, furniture, anything you can imagine.
So we thought in Frozen it would be terrific, not only to decorate it architecturally, but control it through grid patterns: having a lot of negative space, and breathing room. But the other thing that was truly exciting for me was to not only have rosemaling here architecturally, but to have it on our characters, too, so that these two things have a conversation with each other. It creates kind of a total world. So all our characters will have this kind of detailing. It’s the kind of lavishness that, that truly has not been done in a CG world before with this kind of decorativeness, and exploitation of it.
Q: How does that come together?
MG: Well, we all double check one another, as you’re designing. David, our production designer, basically designed that castle, the ice castle. I would come in and say “David, can we push that roofline? Let’s see how, how long we can make it.” You push things sometimes until they break. David has the great ability, and not a lot of production designers do. He loves design, so he knows how control it for the narrative. And we all double-check each other. I’ll say, “Maybe that column’s too wide at the base,” or this or that. The narrative always comes first, though. As much as we love design. If it was another kind of project that didn’t have to have a lot of authenticity, you could take more creative license. For this kind of full-on narrative where the audience has to be fully immersed in that world, and buy it every second, then you have to have a system of checks and balances. How far do we push? That’s something we ask ourselves every day when we step into the workplace. That goes with architecture, with lighting, on the costumes, everything. John is so good with that. He knows how far we can go. He said, for instance, that he loved the rosemaling idea, but that we needed to make sure these characters don’t look like walking doilies. That’s why, when you look at Anna or other characters, she has a lot of detail, but it breathes, and it doesn’t look fussy or old maidish or anything like that. We hope that comes across in the whole film.