How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.

Ed Catmull and the Secrets of Pixar’s Creativity

You’ve seen his face staring at you from the cover of the April 2014 Fast Company magazine as you pass the airport bookstore: It’s Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, behind the words “How to Unleash Creativity”. Anyone would love to have this kind of news coverage: He’s called “A great leader” and “The master” (and that’s just the magazine cover). The issue contains excerpts from Catmull’s new book, Creativity, Inc. It’s a great title. (But it’s been used already: it’s the title of a 2003 book by Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization. I have a copy and it’s a good book. But kudos to Catmull for creating a new a ten-year statute of limitations on book titles, I’ll support that.)

I’m a huge fan of Pixar’s innovative processes, culture, and leadership, so I’m going to buy Catmull’s new book no matter what it’s called. Inside the magazine, Rick Tetzeli calls it “the most thoughtful management book ever” and “a deeply realistic philosophy of how to best manage a creative organization.”

Here are the excerpted passages from the book that stood out for me:

Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments… This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad…it has a way of reasserting itself….You don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out.

Early on, all of our movies suck. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.

People need to be wrong as fast as they can….People say they want to be in risky environments…But they don’t actually know what risk means, that risk actually does bring failure and mistakes.

At some point, with any film, the idea you started off with will not work.

In my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, I use Pixar as one of my case studies, to make this same point: that creativity always takes a wandering, unpredictable path (the “zig zag”) and that successful innovators know how to trust in that improvisational, emergent process. My book gives advice for how to learn to succeed, and Ed Catmull understands the same core principles of creativity and innovation.

Group Genius at Pixar

Inside of Pixar, whose creativity is responsible for great movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, and now WALL-E?  Turns out it’s no one person–it’s everyone, working together.  Pixar’s success is based on a special kind of collaborative magic. I just read a great article in the latest Harvard Business Review, by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, titled “How Pixar fosters collective creativity,” and it seems to me they’ve figured out the secrets of group genius.

It’s been obvious for a long time that no one gets very far in the movie business believing in the myth of the lone genius “artiste”.  For example, in my book EXPLAINING CREATIVITY, I wrote that most Hollywood movies have not one author, not two, but as many as ten different authors working on the script.  (Almost all TV shows are the same way.)  And Catmull starts his article dispelling the loner myth in strong terms: “Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems…A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas.”  Depending on one brilliant creator to come up with all of those ideas just wouldn’t make any sense; “every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”  (This is the central message of my book GROUP GENIUS.)

Although each movie has a core team who are responsible for the coherence of the overall product, everyone is expected “to show work in an incomplete state to the whole animation crew” so that “people learn from and inspire each other”.

Pixar believes in the power of what I call “collaborative webs”–networks of expertise that extend beyond the boundaries of any one organization.  For example, their artists are encouraged to publish their research and talk about it at industry conferences, rather than to guard it as a trade secret.  Why?  “The connection is worth far more than any ideas we may have revealed.”

And finally, Pixar’s office space is designed to foster “maximum inadvertent encounters,” just as I advise in Group Genius.  The central atrium contains the cafeteria, bathrooms, meeting rooms, and mailboxes, and Catmull writes “It’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”

I’m delighted to hear it when an organization really believes in the power of group genius, and designs everything from top to bottom to make it happen!