Interview: “Arendelle Castle Yule Log: Cut Paper Edition” Designer Brittney Lee

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ holiday tradition continues with today’s release of the third Frozen-inspired Yule Log on Disney+. This year’s presentation was made by hand by visual development artist Brittney Lee, who also lent her talents to both Frozen films and the VR short Myth: A Frozen Tale. I had the honor of speaking with Brittney about Arendelle Castle Yule Log: Cut Paper Edition, the origins of her paper art hobby, and highlights of her Disney career thus far, which includes a starstruck moment.

(Disney+)

(Disney+)

Alex: How did you get involved with this year’s Frozen-themed Yule Log for Disney+?

Brittney Lee: I was very lucky, I wasn't really part of the initiation of this idea, but I think the creative legacy team at the studio was sort of brainstorming ideas for the third iteration, and the Visual Effects (VFX) supervisor who works in creative legacies' name is Darin Hollings, and he was a facilitator of my training group when I was a trainee at the studio. And we worked together throughout the years and really enjoy working with each other. And I think he pitched at that time, "What if we do something more stylized? What if we asked Brittney to do a cut paper version?" And I guess the powers-that-be liked that idea, then they came to me and said, "Hey, how would you feel about doing this?" And I jumped at it because I love all things Frozen. I love being in the Frozen universe and I love the idea of getting to reinterpret our characters and in a different format. So, so it was a very fortuitous experience.

Alex: You've spent a lot of time in the Frozen world as a visual development artist on both of the Frozen feature films, plus some of the shorts and the VR experience, which really had your style and your stamp all over it. What were some of the things that were important to you to include from Frozen in this new Yule Log?

Brittney Lee: Because the Yule Log is sort of meant to celebrate the holidays and generally the idea that people would gather around the Yule Log and be together, the feeling of family was really important to me to convey in this. And so, I did a few initial iterations that had different degrees of including mainly the sisters or the whole gang. And I think everybody was sort of feeling like it's important to have everyone in the gang included. So Olaf, Sven, and Kristoff are all there too, and that feeling of magic and warmth was important to me because, for me, Frozen is all about snow, but there's something so warm and feels like home about it as well. So those are my key factors in trying to retain while working on this piece and coming up with something that felt a little bit different and new.

Alex: The Frozen films are computer-generated and the previous Frozen Yule Logs have been too. Your Yule Log involves your passion for paper art, which also has to loop for three hours. How do you do that with cut paper?

Brittney Lee: Well, so we sort of thought about it in pieces, I think. I composed a picture and the real element that we needed to time out and figure out that would need to, for sure be looping for that amount of time, was our fire. And so our amazing effects artist, Dan Lund, did the first pass digitally of fire for us. And then I went and took his frames and cut them out. And I think there were about 20 to 25 in each cycle and there were three cycles to sort of add variation to the fire. And so we cut those out and photographed them individually. So, for the piece of it, that is static, it's a composed picture that's composed out of paper. And then the fire is composited in digitally, but it's all meant to be handcrafted. So it all has that paper, texture paper feel to it because we actually try to make all of it. So there's a little digital help, but yeah, we sort of had to experiment a little bit with how we wanted everything to feel. Cause it's the added element of lighting, too, that I don't normally work with when I'm working in cut paper, so I was messing around with putting LED lights behind the piece to try to get the right glow. And so it felt like a project where we were all sort of holding hands and trying to figure out the best warmest, most tactile, and true feeling for the piece. And I feel like it landed in the right spot.

Alex: How long would you say the process took for you once the concept had been established?

Brittney Lee: So the actual piece, the cutting of the piece, this is it sitting behind me, that probably took me about 50 to 60 hours, I'd say. And then there was a period of time, I probably don't have the right amount of hours in total for everybody else who touched it. So, that was just me doing this. And then once we photographed it, we had digital processing to it to add in, certain little effects and lighting and sound, some very nice sound work, so that, I think took another month to really make it shine. So I think, in total from beginning to end, it was probably a four to 6-month process, but the bulk of the actual creation happened towards the end and was more about a month, month-and-a-half.

(Disney+)

(Disney+)

Alex: I can see the piece behind you, it looks almost like a multi-plane camera with all the planes bunched down. Did you have to take it all apart or did you not even set it up to get everything scanned digitally?

Brittney Lee: Yeah, so the reason it's sitting like that, and it's not standing up to be nicely displayed, is that it never actually was fully glued together. Normally I would be, as I go, constructing a piece so that basically all the pieces support each other, but we knew that we would need to photograph it as a unit, but also photograph it in individual layers in case we needed extra coverage or different perspectives. So right now gravity is holding it together at the moment. And yeah, the idea of the multi-plane is kind of where that idea came from. And I think Darin, our VFX supervisor was the person who suggested this of like, "Oh, hey, how about you construct it so that it's laying flat and from top-down," which helped me a lot because I'm normally also trying to figure out how something can hang on the wall. But this made it far less complicated for us to try to figure out how to photograph it and put it all together.

Alex: What happens to it now? Is the Animation Research Library going to take it? Is the Walt Disney Archives fighting for it? Does it stay with you?

Brittney Lee: That's an excellent question. And I'm very curious about the answer to that, too. I'm working out of my tiny little garage studio and I don't have the space to keep it, so I'm hoping that the ARL or someone will want to take it. I'm assuming I'll probably need to glue it together, make sure that it is reinforced so that it's all one piece now, but yes, I would love for it to have a home. Because I make all of these random projects for different things in the studio and then we never know where to put them. So I'm hopeful that they will take it.

Alex: Do you do a lot of your visual design work with paper, or is this more of a hobby for you? I remember a bonus feature about one of your paper art projects on the Blu-Ray for The Little Mermaid where you made a beautiful Ariel piece.

Brittney Lee: Wow. Oh my gosh. That's so long ago. I really do mostly do this on the side. I look for opportunities where, in the day job, this work could solve problems and when that is appropriate, I sort of will sneak it in. But normally we're working at such a fast pace and need to do things quickly and on the fly. I'm working digitally with Photoshop and working on a screen, so part of why I love working this way is having the ability, especially now that we are on screens all day, every day, having the ability to be away from screens and be touching something that's real and zoning out and looking at something that is tactile and real. And so, it's sort of my therapeutic time and I love it and hopefully will continue to get to do projects like this. But even if I didn't have projects like this, I would probably out here in [my] studio playing and putting together pieces of paper.

Alex: Where did your interest in paper art come from? It’s a niche, but it seems to be gaining popularity.

Brittney Lee: It was a complete accident for me. Back before I started at Disney, I was freelancing for a year and working with various companies, but also what I was doing was going to various different trade shows and things like Comic-Con and WonderCon. And living in San Francisco, there's a convention up there called Maker Faire. And so I wanted to do something that was very handcrafted for that show. And I had bought these very fancy decorative glass lanterns and my plan, and I don't know where this plan came from, but my plan was to paint vignettes on the glass of these lanterns so that they would flow. And I started working with that and I hated painting on the glass of lanterns, painting on glass was just not fun at all. So then I thought, "Well, I've got to figure out something to do with these things that I bought, some way to make them interesting." And I don't know if it was Megan [Brain]'s work, there's another artist named Kevin Kidney who works with paper and he's worked with me a bunch before, but I had seen something online somewhere that was paper and I thought, "Oh, okay. I'll try making paper vignettes in these lanterns and that’ll be my fun little experiment." And I didn't end up finishing anything for the show because I didn't know how long paperwork takes to be fully figured out, but I fell in love with working that way, instantly. And so I've been sort of experimenting and trying to update my process and learn things ever since. So a freak accident, really.

Alex: Well, it's a fun story and I'm glad that you found it because you're great at it. You’ve been with Walt Disney Animation Studios for a little over a decade. What has been the highlight of your Disney career?

Brittney Lee: Oh my goodness. There have been so many, that's so difficult. I feel like I've been blessed in so many different ways and so lucky in so many different ways. I guess I have two, the first was when I was a trainee and I was working on that Ariel piece. I think I had her either in my office or she was just on display somewhere in the studio and I got a knock on my cube door and Glen Keane was standing there telling me how much he loved the piece and that he was going to have to bid on it in the auction. And basically, I died that day. Like that was just the end of me. And he did. He bought the piece. So, the highlight of my life. And then the second was working on Frozen 2. I'm a huge musical fan and part of the reason I wanted to work on Frozen was because of Idina Menzel being part of Frozen and so I had seen her walking through the halls and whatnot, but, such a fan. I had never met her and a documentary crew surprised me and she showed up in my office one day and that I will never forget. And that's on video somewhere, but I hope no one ever sees it because it'll be so embarrassing.

Alex: Did you yell-sing "Fiyero" to her as she walked away?

Brittney Lee: No, I just cried, I just was a hot mess. So she was very gracious and very lovely and I hope to redeem myself someday, but…

Alex: Frozen 3, it'll happen. But with you two side-to-side, she'll have to shadow you and watch your work to make it come to life.

Brittney Lee: I don't trust myself now. I had no idea how basically I would not be driving this when something like that happened, but yeah, it was a good day. Yeah.

Alex: Everyone gets starstruck at some point, but thank you very much for your time. I'm excited to see the full Arendelle Castle Yule Log: Cut Paper Edition and congratulations on not only this, but everything that you have coming up in the future.

Brittney Lee: Thank you so much, Alex.

You can stream Arendelle Castle Yule Log: Cut Paper Edition now exclusively on Disney+, along with all of the Frozen films and shorts, including a fixed-ratio version of the VR short Myth: A Frozen Tale, which also features Brittney Lee’s stylized work.

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