When you watch the trailers for Disney's Frozen, the absent-minded Olaf the Snowman looks like he could get seriously annoying. But when you actually watch the film, Olaf steals the show. How did the comedy side character become the best part of Frozen? We talked to voice actor Josh Gad about the process of creating a cartoon character with the spark of life.
I don't know how much of your face is in the face of the snowman, but I do know that Disney records your face while you're reading lines for inspiration. So what's it like seeing your face and voice coming out of a snowman?
Josh Gad: Oh, it's surreal. When I first started the project, I got a chance to speak to the animators. And I got a chance to record some of my stuff for them and show them my physicalization. They do always have a camera on you when you're doing the voice, and then to see that translate into the character... Here's how I know it's accurate, I took my daughter (when she was about 2 and a half) to go see Monster's University (her first film) and attached to that movie was a teaser for Frozen. Within the first ten seconds she turned to me and goes, "thats Dada!" She knew immediately, it's incredible. I have my own Disney character. There's nothing cooler than that.
And he's kind of the face of Frozen.
It is weirdly the face of Frozen, which is amazing to me. I'm so honored to be a part of something like this. Having just seen the film for the first time, myself I can't get over how good it is. It really is a classic Disney film, It feels bigger than life. It's so wonderful.
You kind of steal the show a little bit, but Olaf the snowman is a side character. There's a long list of amazing Disney side characters, who are your favorites and how do you think Olaf holds up to the past characters?
I think what makes him so nice is, yes, he's essentially a side comic relief character. But he also represents the innocence of the girls. Which I think is an amazing quality. He is that vestige of their childhood (without giving too much away about the film) that they both kind of cling on to as a time of lost innocence.
But to go to your question, growing up I was obsessed with Robin Williams performance as the Genie in Aladdin. I was obsessed with Nathan Lane Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumba in Lion King. I was obsessed with — I forget the actor's name — who played Baloo in Jungle Book [Phil Harris]. To be a part of that long line of storied characters who do provide, not only the comic relief, but in a way that beating heart. That moment that I remember of Baloo is him standing over and watching Mowgli go. To have the pathos as well in a character as rich as this, it really is a dream come trull Because I was obsessed with these films. I watched them over and over again — we had to get like three VHS tapes of Jungle Book. Those are kind of my favorite characters. And of course Sebastian.
Speaking of Robin Williams, he did a lot of improv which is fairly difficult when you're doing animation. There's this cadence or a little riff that you do in one scene with the "yeah why, yeah why," that I thought, no way that was scripted, did you do a lot of improv?
A ton of improv. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck [the directors] we were actually talking about this yesterday and I forgot, the first time you meet Olaf, that was the very first thing I ever recorded. It was almost recorded (and not an audition) — but it was an audition for the character himself. To see where we were going to go with him and what the rhythm of that would be. That very first scene you see of Olaf, is literally the very first take we ever did of it. And they kept it in the film, and it was just them letting me play and getting a feel for what this guy was. I think even "the funky looking reindeer" that was all improv. It was really fun to see the animators take this goofy little sidebar stuff, I'm doing it to make the creative team laugh, and all of a sudden it makes it's way into the final film.
But it's one thing to have other actors you can bounce off of, what's it like just riffing alone in a room?
There's something very liberating about it. Although I've never been diagnosed, I'm pretty sure I've got ADD. So for me just going into a room and talking to myself over and over again and just scream into a microphone it's a perfect form for my insanity. I love it. I love working with actors. But there's something about the challenge of only having your voice as an asset. About telling a full slate of emotions, a full story, creating a fully bodied character with nothing but the tone, the cadence of your voice. So to me, there's something really exciting about that. There's also something doubly exciting because it's also an opportunity for me to sing, which is something I've never had a chance to do on film before. I did in Book of Mormon I've worked with Bobby Lopez before, but to go and create this character that also has this amazing song in the film, I was pinching myself.
Let's talk about the relationship between you and the past Book of Mormon songwriters [Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez] who created the songs for Frozen. What's the difference between singing on stage for these people you know versus singing for Disney? Is it easier having someone you've worked with before or harder?
Well, there are a lot less F bombs in this particular production. I was actually involved with Frozen before Bobby was. I did the very first reading before Book of Mormon even existed. The movie was called, at that time, Anna and the Snow Queen. It was completely different. And I thought the project was dead. Then I find out that Bobby's doing it three years later, and they come back to me and I'm doing it again. When Bobby called me about the song that we're going to do… Bobby understands my voice probably better than anyone else, so he knows some of the goofy elements. And I don't know that anyone else would have written it to have this sort of operatic ending that it's got, which is so bizarre and funny. But he knew the quality of my voice and the goofy things that I do. So he was I able to pull from that.
So singing for a Disney movie, again you play these images back in your head. I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes video of Robin Williams singing "You Never Had A Friend Like Me" and so to then to be in that room, to do that. To have a full orchestra creating that Disney sound. And knowing that kids are going to forever have that, cause God knows that kids can't sing "Man Up." I can't tell you how exciting that is.
How much did Frozen change? How different was your character and the other characters?
From when I first started? Completely different. In the very first reading I did, we had Megan Mullally played Elsa. That alone should give you an idea. She was brilliant, but it was a completely different story. The whole thing took on a life of its own once this creative team came on board. Even during the process of the second incarnation, the version people are seeing now, it kept changing. And it kept getting better, and better, and better as the project went forward. They're not afraid to understand when something's not working and to say "ok we gotta go back and change this." They would bring me back in and I would say, "oh what happened to this scene?" And they would say, "well you know what, it just wasn't tracking with the rest of the story so we're going to start from scratch." "Don't you guys have like five weeks left to animate?" But that's what they do. It's incredible.