'Once Upon a Snowman': Why Telling Olaf's Origin Story Proved Especially 'Tricky' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Directors Trent Correy and Dan Abraham didn't need to build a snowman -- the snowman was already built -- but they did want to build upon Olaf's origin story. In Disney+'s newest short, Once Upon a Snowman, they do just that: Reveal exactly how Olaf became the summer-loving, warm hugs-embracing snowman that he is.
Correy began imagining what happened to Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) in the time between his first appearance in "Let It Go" and when he meets up with Anna and Kristoff during his days working as an animator on 2013's Frozen. Abraham joined Team Olaf as a storyboard artist on Frozen 2, before Disney entrusted the two with the keys to the franchise. ET spoke with the writer-directors about answering Olaf's most existential questions and the musical number that landed on the cutting room floor.
So much has come from asking questions about that first movie: Frozen 2 arose from asking why Elsa has powers and Anna doesn't, this comes from being curious about the first moments of Olaf's life. How do you decide when questions are worth answering in something new versus leaving the mystery?
Trent Correy: There's a delicate balance there, for sure, and I think it really just comes from our own curiosity and our own love of the Frozen movies and franchise. The incarnation of this was me just asking the question of, "What happens in that 20 minutes of film when Elsa creates life and then walks away?" I want to know, like, what are Olaf's first steps like? What is his Bambi moment or his Pinocchio [moment]? And when Dan came onboard, he asked the same questions of, how does Olaf know about summer?
Dan Abraham: We've all seen a lot of prequels that answer questions that we didn't want to know the answers to -- like, we weren't interested in them telling us how something became what it is -- but it's tricky. It's really tricky, because you don't want to screw things up. A lot of times what that does is it diffuses the magic of the character, and so we definitely didn't want to do that. So, there were many discussions on what do we answer and what is OK that is left in mystery? For me, I was always curious about how Olaf knows what summer is and the story lent itself to discovering that moment in a funny way, in my opinion. I was excited about that. It's like, "OK, well, I think this idea is going to work."
Trent, you obviously had started brainstorming idea, and then Dan, you came on and had your own ideas. Do you have to get those canon-checked with Jennifer [Lee] and Chris [Buck]? How does that process work?
Correy: Well, I had pitched the original storyline, which had storyboards [and] some writing, like, "I'd like to explore how he learns about summer." But then it was Dan that said, "Why don't we have Oaken give him this nose that is a stereoscope?" So, we're throwing all those ideas in, and I've got to say, this is a big franchise, Jennifer and Chris and Peter [Del Vecho] are obviously a major role in these movies, they were very supportive -- they were there when we needed them to lean on -- but they gave us free rein to explore this origin story. Of course, they came in and gave notes here and there, but they were just very supportive.
And Josh has become so intertwined with Olaf. Does he then come with ideas of his own of what he wants to see? Or is he pretty hands off until he gets in the booth?
Correy: The short was already storyboarded and written by the time he came in, so he wasn't involved in the early process -- although I'm sure he has great ideas on Olaf's origin -- but then he was able to play with some of our lines in the booth.
Abraham: I think to Trent's point, when he heard what the story was and that, he was just so on board. I think that if we would've had lines for Olaf that didn't ring true or didn't feel like Olaf, I know Josh would have pushed back on us. But what he does is he gives you the script lines, then he just goes to town and he improvs and he puts in little giggles and different things that make that character actually come alive. It's collaborative in that sense too, because I mean, without Josh Gad, you don't have Olaf.
Correy: I remember seeing an early version with scratch voices and animatics, and then to the editorial dailies when Josh Gad was cut in-- It's not a short without Josh. He just brings it to life. Every line gets funnier, everything springs off the page. It's pretty amazing to watch.
How far did you actually get down the road of exploring a song for this before deciding it ultimately didn't work with what you were telling?
Correy: The original pitch had a song. Me and some friends, we actually wrote a little demo just for fun. It was Olaf singing about his love of wanting the perfect nose. [But] in a short this small -- seven minutes -- we didn't really want to overstay our welcome, and the song didn't push the story forward. It kind of hindered the moments we wanted in the story, so we just decided to go without.
Can you serenade me with a little bit of that song?
Correy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Later on. We'll Zoom later.
Abraham: Please don't. [Laughs]
I was happy to see Oaken again. What made you want to bring him back and play him off Olaf?
Abraham: What was fun was that in Olaf's effort to figure out what his identity is, you know, you've got Oaken's cabin, which is right in that area and he's got a fire going, so there's smoke, so you can see how Olaf would just naturally end up there, which worked out so well. Then to think of the near misses that you can have -- Anna's there, Kristoff's in the barn -- there was just so many fun opportunities. And then to bring Chris Williams back as Oaken was super fun. Those are some of my favorite moments inside the cabin there.
Correy: Me, too. And in the early pitch, Olaf walked in Oaken's cabin and Oaken didn't see him, actually. There was no interaction. It was Jennifer Lee who suggested, "Why don't you have those two characters play off each other?" And then when Dan came onboard, he storyboarded that section and brought that to life.
Should we assume his family is schvitzing in the sauna throughout the short?
Correy: Oh, yeah!
Abraham: They're still in the sauna!
It's very sweet seeing Olaf claim his name and discover his love of warm hugs. What were the conversations like amongst yourselves in finding that ending?
Abraham: I remember that so well. Working on any shorter film or anything at Disney is so collaborative, and once you've got something in place, you bring in other people to hear the pitch and to get notes and to see what lands and what doesn't. And we were struggling a little bit with the construction of how that was going to go, and it was Nicole Mitchell, one of our storyboard artists, who said, "What if Olaf doesn't actually figure out what his name is until the very end?" Because we had him figure it out earlier, so then he was trying to just find the nose and find out where he belonged or whatever. And when she said that, a bell rang and a light turned on and we saw that moment. Who knows if we would have gotten there without her, but she brought us that gem.
Correy: That moment, more so than any moment I think in the short, was so collaborative. We had ideas on how the read might be, but Josh Gad brought a sincerity that we didn't expect but we loved. And then Nathan Engelhardt, one of our animators, gives a note saying, "Why don't you have Anna and Elsa's little kid voices come through in the sound?" And then Christophe Beck polished it off with the score and then the lighting, you see those pinks come in and the sunrise before he goes to join Anna, Kristoff and Sven. So, it's a combination of all those departments and voices that really made it what it is.
We got Frozen 2 last year, now we're getting this short. Is there a sense at Disney of how best to space out Frozen content so fans don't get burnt out? Or is there no such thing as too much Frozen?
Correy: No. I like to think that it's whenever a story comes around that all the artists here are passionate about. Once Upon a Snowman happened that way. It was a story that people could get behind, and that's how we do things at Disney -- find something that you're passionate about and we'll give it to the world when we're ready to.
Once Upon a Snowman debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Oct. 23.