By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer
Brittney Lee was building a fort with couch cushions in her Sharon living room when a movie trailer for “The Little Mermaid” stopped the then 6-year-old in her tracks.
“I remember stopping and staring as soon as it started playing,” said the animation artist and Sharon native who now lives in Los Angeles. “I marched into the kitchen and I said we need to see this movie.”
The very next day, the little girl who had always been interested in art began to draw in earnest.
“I knew that was what I wanted to do,” said the daughter of Paula and Ivor J. “Jimmy” Lee II. “I knew what animation was. I knew it was drawn so I would draw all of these frames. I sent my frames to the Disney Channel and they put them on TV in 1991.”
Disney featured a showcase of kids’ drawings and they showed the precocious Pennsylvanian’s work to a national audience for the first time.
Lee, who graduated in 2002 from Sharon High School and earned a fine arts degree at Rochester Institute of Technology, chuckled when she remembered how proud she was to take the videotape clip of her work to school for a show and tell session with her first-grade classmates.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the present. Lee works for Walt Disney Studios as a visualization artist in Burbank, Calif. She is part of the team of animators, designers and artists who helped to win Oscars for the directors and producer of “Frozen,” the film that won this year’s Academy Award for best animated feature.
Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” the film centers on Anna and Elsa, sister princesses of Arendelle. When Elsa accidentally unleashes an eternal winter upon Arendelle after an emotional outburst at her coronation, she flees the kingdom and Anna sets off to search for her in order to save their homeland and mend their relationship.
“I did a lot of the conceptual work and production design for the movie,” Lee said. “My tasks were to help design Elsa’s ice palace and all of the costumes. I worked on the character design for Elsa and Anna.”
Work that began in February 2012 didn’t finish until last September, just weeks before the movie opened.
“The director of the movie gives tasks to the art director that we work with and we go about visualizing what they need,” Lee said. “If they needed an ice palace, we would give them a bunch of different takes. They would give us notes and we would change things that weren’t working for them or that needed to be changed for the story. We work closely with the director and the story department to make sure all the visual elements of the story work.”
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee – no relation – were at the Academy Awards ceremony March 2 with producer Peter Del Vecho. Lee and her team were at a party at the studio watching and listening with members of the many other departments involved in the project when the original song category came up. “Let it Go,” Frozen’s theme song, won the Oscar.
“When the song was performed, they were using some of my designs on stage for the backdrop,” Lee said. “That was overwhelming for me. I was remembering watching the show on my couch at home in Sharon when I was a kid and thinking, ‘oh, it would be fantastic to see something I had worked on to be part of the show.’ That was really great. The fact that everyone everywhere could see something that I worked on really hit me hard. I was very tearful but laughing. There was so much energy and we were all excited. When we won, it was chaos! Everybody was hugging and crying.”
Del Vecho and Jennifer Lee brought their Oscars to the studio the day after the awards.
“Everybody could hold it and take pictures and get to celebrate it,” Brittney Lee said. “That was fun.”
“Frozen” was the second film Lee was involved with to win an Oscar. Last year, “Paperman,” won the award for best animated short film.
Lee said she was drawn to the movie’s lead characters because she could imagine them as herself and her sister Lainey, a graphic designer for Estee Lauder who also does freelance work in New York.
“Elsa is the older and so am I,” she said. “Anna is bubbly like Lainey. Elsa is more reserved and that’s like me. The part where Anna is knocking on her sister’s door and Elsa won’t come out to play has happened with the two of us.”
Lee said she is grateful to her parents for always supporting her dream to be an artist. Her father, who died when she was 13, was an engineer. She also is grateful to her teachers at Sharon – especially Vicki Lingner (cq) and Sean Enoch – who challenged her to work hard and always be willing to try something new.
“My parents were never anything but very supportive,” she said. “I never felt like I was being pressured to be an engineer or physicist. It was clear from early on that I wanted to be an artist and they took steps to be sure that could happen.”
Her father at one time considered looking for schools in California that taught animation because there weren’t any in this part of the country.
“When my father went on business trips, he would go to galleries and bring me art books,” Lee said. “He would get artists to sign their work to me and he would always tell me that I was already as good as they were.”
Lee said Enoch, a mentor who has become a good friend, sent her a text when “Frozen” won its awards.
“He just wanted to say congratulations,” Lee said. “That was very sweet.”
Another old friend from Sharon is also working on her career in entertainment in Los Angeles. Tara Hassle, who graduated in 2001, is an assistant director in television production.
“We’re Facebook friends and keep talking online about how we need to get together but both of have been so busy,” Lee said. “The city is so big so we just haven’t met up yet. I follow what she is doing and I know she is following what I’m doing.”
Lee said the team has already been briefed on their next project but it’s a secret within the company for now.
“The next film probably will not be released until 2017 or 2018,” she said. “I do know what it is but I can’t say anything about it.”