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How Frozen Was Created: ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

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Frozen is the most popular animated movie of all time. What's the creative secret to this amazing hit? How do you come up with a brilliant idea like this: a movie about female empowerment, based on the classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no single person had this idea. Frozen didn't come from the big insight of a genius creator. In fact, the first script was completely different from the final movie! The 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 reporters that the original script was very different; 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 have been known for a while. But last night on ABC, fans learned many more details. For example, when the songwriters submitted the lyrics to "Let It Go," an anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, the directors weren't expecting what they got; they ended up rewriting the script again to align better with the song's lyrics. The ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns. For example, 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.)

Creativity research shows us that this kind of creative process 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. Just like with Frozen, 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:
  • Pixar 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.