Frozen: A Song of Doors and Windows

There’s a lot to love about Frozen, but for me, the part I always come back to is the way the movie uses doors and windows to express the inner lives of its leads, Elsa and Anna.

It’s symbolism, but not the kind that makes you step back and remove yourself from the narrative. The imagery connecting Anna and Elsa to the doors and windows in their environment feels natural, driven by the emotions and actions of the characters, and works to reinforce a central theme of the movie:

Do you open yourself up to others, or do you shut them out?

Crafting a story for children isn’t just about telling the story on its own, but working to teach children about how stories work.

With Frozen, the filmmakers reveal just a little of the mechanics of this process, while still keeping the story unpredictable and engaging, through how they use doors and windows in four songs.

Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?

After seeing the traumatic separation of Anna and Elsa by their parents after Anna’s injury from Elsa’s ice powers, the audience is introduced to Anna’s desire to reconnect with her sister.

Anna knocks on Elsa's door and asks "Do you wanna build a snowman?"

It’s a simple request, and it sets up the main relationship of the song: Anna and Elsa’s door. Through the years the song depicts, Anna directs all her attention and affection in vain at Elsa’s closed door.

In this shot, Anna bursts in from the left of the frame, stopping in the middle at the door. This focuses our attention in the center of the frame, giving what happens there a strong feeling of central focus.

But notice how the scene is shot at an angle, with the wall and door at a diagonal compared to the frame itself. It suggests that the dynamic of what we’re seeing is somehow off-kilter or skewed.

The song starts with an entire verse of Anna singing to the door, giving the audience multiple shots of the door from different angles and a chance to internalize the way that Anna’s relationship with her sister has become one-sided.

Anna at Elsa's door: "Come on, let's go and play."
Anna at Elsa's door: "I never see you anymore. Come out the door."

These shots are head-on, with wall itself visually balanced. Both sides of the door show equal portions of the red wallpaper and the frame around the door. This echoes how Anna is trying to bring a sense of order and normality back to her relationship with Elsa.

When Elsa finally replies to Anna, the audience doesn’t get to see her, keeping the audience in line with Anna’s perspective. We are denied a look at Elsa the same way Anna is.

As Elsa replies, the shots return to the off-kilter framing of the initial shot, relating to the refusal of Elsa to come back and return things to the previous natural order of her relationship with Anna.

When we are given a look at what’s happening behind the door with Elsa, it’s on her own terms. She’s trying to get a view of the outside world, but only through the glass over her window.

She’s looking for a connection to something outside, but she’s still kept separate. Isolated.

Look at how the first shot frames Elsa directly from behind, but when her powers accidentally discharge, the framing cuts to a diagonal echo of Anna outside her door.

When characters are emotionally off-kilter, so is the framing of their world.

Note the repeating triangular shape to the window panes. And consider the way that Elsa’s accidental ice discharge creeps up the windows, reminding us of the similar appearance between ice and glass.

And pay attention to how we’re seeing this window from the inside looking out. It’s isolating. A barrier, even when it’s transparent, is still a barrier.

Throughout the song, we get more of these shots where doors and windows are prominently featured in the background, highlighting the characters’ isolation and how they’ve been sequestered away from the rest of the world.

As she gets older, Anna continues talking to Elsa’s door, trying to lure her out. Again, the shot frames the wall at an angle, using that off-kilter diagonal.

When Anna begins talking to the art in the gallery, note the closed door behind her. She’s bouncing off the walls with energy, but kept contained in the space.

The room is framed at a slight diagonal, which mirrors the way she describes her actions and emotions as feeling off center and irregular.

As Elsa’s parents try to calm her down, the ice creeps up the wall onto the locked door behind her.

And there’s that diagonal framing again, with the corner of the room placed almost center in the frame.

We should have a quick sidebar about mise-en-scène (the arrangement of actors, objects, and the camera within a shot).

All these arrangements of characters and objects within the set are intentional, and the choice of where to frame them is intentional, as well. Think about how when working in a computer-generated environment, the possibilities of how to arrange space are nearly limitless.

You can’t run into a room that already exists and throw down a camera haphazardly to get the shot quickly and move on. Each element is created for a purpose.

So the choices about what to leave in focus near the characters, like the doors and windows, or how to arrange the characters and the “camera” in the space (including the angles of the shots) are done with what appears to be deliberate attention to keep the closed/locked doors on the periphery of the action as much as possible. There’s a desire to remind the audience of how these characters are kept apart from each other and the rest of the world.

And over the passage of time, Anna has come to accept the idea that this door will remain closed. Years have passed, and nothing will convince her sister to emerge.

Her intense energy as she slides past the door is cancelled out by the static shot and the straight-on framing. She’s full of motion and energy, but she’s trapped in an orderly, unchanging box.

And the framing of this moment is now directly pointed at the door, balanced with the rest of the frame. It tells the audience that Anna realizes the closed door is what counts as normal now.

Also note the direction of her slide: from the right side of the frame to the left. Think about the way that the way a culture’s language reads on the page influences the way they “read” an image.

When language moves from left to right on the page, like with the English-speaking culture that produced this film, the progression of objects within a frame from left to right feels more effortless and fluid. Moving from right to left feels like it takes greater effort; like it’s going against the grain.

This strain highlights Anna’s thwarted desire to make Elsa go against her established pattern and come out. Anna doesn’t even try.

The only thing that forces her to make one more attempt to break through to her sister is the death of their parents.

The tight focus of this shot gives way to a shot framed further away, drawing attention to the shadows in the room, but also a source of light behind her. Anna is isolated in the dark, reaching out to her sister.

The next shot reveals the source of the light —

It’s the window across from Elsa’s door. The outside world is trying to let a little light in to the moment, but they’re both trapped inside, in the dark, apart from each other.

And then the cinematography and set design sets us up for a dramatic, heartbreaking moment.

Anna slides down the door, bracing herself against it. It’s an unnatural choice for support, since a door could technically open, but she knows this one has been shut to her for so long. It’s as solid as a wall to her.

But it’s also the closest portal to her sister, and the closest she can come to actual contact with her.

Notice how the camera drops down with her as she slides to a seated position. She curls up into a near fetal position and makes herself small.

Just like when she was a child outside this same door. She brings herself down to that child’s view of the space right before her song reverts to a child-like plea for connection.

By moving in close at this moment, the audience is moved from the impression of reverting to a child-like attitude to confronting the raw despair on Anna’s face.

She’s confronting a future without her parents as well as without her sister. She feels more alone than ever before, and she’s desperate for any connection.

Which brings us to this amazing tracking shot —

The camera passes through the door to reveal to the audience that the sisters are closer than they think.

They’ve both lowered themselves to the floor — Putting themselves at a child-like height from back in the time before they were separated.

They are both hurting, but mirror images of each other, looking in opposite directions.

However, given the orientation of objects we’ve previously seen in this sequence, we know that they are both sitting with their backs against the door and facing out toward a window.

This placement of the two of them creates a declaration of the tension for the rest of the film:

How do we break the barriers between each other and the rest of the world?

Then the camera pulls back to show Elsa’s room, frozen in anguish. Flurries drift down in the frame, and ice radiates along the floor and the walls from her body. Her grief made manifest.

And as the camera pulls back from Elsa, it dissolves to a similar framing of Anna.

Two sisters sharing an emotion, but not sharing the same space.

And after we fade out, time passes, and we move ahead to the next major event in their lives that forces them together.

For The First Time In Forever

That’s right, Anna.

And what’s the first thing we see Anna do after she realizes that it’s Coronation Day?

She bursts out of her bedroom door. We get to see the door open, signaling a change from doors as a static presence to doors as an active portal.

Also, look at the way the dark hallway is brightened up as light spills out from Anna’s room when she opens the door. The pool of shadow is erased on the floor. It’s already suggesting the possibility that openness and connection are a way to erase despair.

In fact, the act of opening doors and windows is so important to Anna that she’s going to sing about it!

The subtext of the previous song becomes the text of this new song: There’s a tension between things that are open vs. things that are shut.

And there are just so many doors and windows to open in a castle.

As the castle staff marches in with plates, where I they coming through? Why, it’s a doorway!

And how has the camera been framing these moments? Lots of diagonals at first, but also pans that change the framing between diagonal and head-on. And then the shot with the plates comes in, and we’re locked down in a straight-forward composition.

A new order is arriving for this castle, disrupting the solitude of the past.

Anna runs past a hallway full of shut doors as she sings about lonely halls, then slides through a doorway into a ballroom. Her kinetic frenzy is in sharp contrast to her earlier moment where she ground to a halt in front of Elsa’s locked bedroom door.

Think about how many lines of this early part of the song are devoted to a reverie about opening doors. Anna has internalized the idea that a shut door is a bad thing.

And as she sings about how excited she is for things to change? She sticks her head out of an open window —

— and then climbs right out through it. She’s breaking through. Crossing over the threshold of what used to be a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

She moves from this off-kilter, diagonal framing into —

A head-on shot framing her swinging in front of a window.

She’s on the outside, looking further out. This is what feels normal to her, and she’s relishing every moment. She’s Swinging, as if to build up momentum to launch herself away from the castle and away from her lonely past.

And again, look at the way a door opening up brings light into a space:

Anna’s portrait gallery, full of her “friends” from her childhood, now brighter than before as she swings the doors wide open and lets the light in. Now the room is shot straight-ahead, highlighting the orderly corners and framing of the door and pictures on the wall.

The end of Anna’s confinement connects to a return to her sense of order and ease, and the framing of shots while she sings reflects this.

But what about Elsa? How’s she dealing with the excitement of Coronation Day?

She’s still on the inside, looking out.

Not only is she separated from the rest of the world in this shot, but the window pane frames her in within the frame. She’s boxed in; constricted. Even her body language and hair suggests someone tightly squeezed into their role.

And while the shot pushes in toward what looks like a straight-on composition, it’s still slightly off-kilter. Vaguely skewed.

And as she looks out the window at all the people preparing to enter the castle, she sings about not letting them see.

We get her reflection in the window, creating a double, divided image of Elsa. There’s the Queen-to-be who must be in view of her people, must be among them, and there’s the Elsa frightened of her power and her secrets, wishing to stay inside.

And then comes a lighting round of back and forth shots of the sisters.

The same line (“It’s only for today.”) delivered in two different tones: Elsa’s resignation as she stays locked up inside her room contrasts with Anna’s joy as she bursts through yet another door.

Elsa prepares herself for going out in public by putting on her gloves. She’s replacing the security of hiding behind a door with the less complete security of hiding her hands, believing that this will keep her powers locked away.

Look at the way she’s framed tightly with a darker background, keeping back from the light of the outside.

Anna rushes out of the castle, skipping and gleeful.

Both of them sing the line “It’s agony to wait.” with alternate, negative and positive takes.

And then a truly big moment —

Elsa finally opens a door.

But notice the difference with this shot versus the many, many shots of Anna opening the doors. There’s no light spilling out. It’s still dim. Elsa is still mired in the negative emotions that kept her locked away.

But she commands the opening of more doors. She’s not going to do it herself, but she’s going to allow it to happen. There’s a disconnect between the new openness of the palace and Elsa’s desire to continue to keep herself at a remove from it.

And this next shot steps back to reveal more of the hallway to Elsa’s room, showing that there is some light coming in from the windows in her hall, but reinforcing this idea that the shadows are still around her. She’s still in the darker world of despair.

Cut to Anna at the gate:

And there’s that contrast again: The shadowy world of the palace sees a crack in that darkness split open by the light spilling in from the giant door in the center of the frame. And Anna is right there, rushing out toward the light.

She bursts through the gate into the bright, open world, surrounded by the citizens of Arendelle.

The composition is diagonal, chaotic, and features two lines of motion. The citizens and guests are moving from left to right into the castle, while Anna moves from right to left, against the flow of traffic, out of the castle.

The people are moving into the castle for the coronation with ease and joyful anticipation, while Anna’s joy comes from escape. Even in a small way, she’s still struggling in this shot to move away from the place that kept her shut away for so long.

And where’s Elsa?

Making a slow procession, in the dark, toward a small sliver of light from a window. The composition is straight-forward, with Elsa also moving from right to left (connecting to the effort she’s exerting to maintain control).

Compare the surrounding people in the two shots, as well. There’s a disorderly crowd surrounding Anna, whereas Elsa’s hall has a few still, silent servants standing at attention.

Kinetic joy vs. restrained order.

When Elsa finally opens a door to a brighter view, she pairs it with the old reminder, based in her fear of failure and revealing who she is:

It’s a reminder that she sees masking her powers as a moral choice.

She’s supposed to be a good girl, and good girls don’t have magic. Good girls follow tradition, uphold rules, control themselves. Her powers are something unruly and that create a sense of difference.

This isn’t just a reminder that she has a duty as the queen-to-be, but that she sees herself as inherently flawed. She fears the world seeing who she is, because she has become convinced that who she is is wrong.

And these shots frame her in straight-ahead, level angles, showing her forcing herself into this mold. She must present herself as part of the natural order. She must present herself as an orderly part of this composition.

And when she steps outside, she stays up high above it all on a balcony. She’s still removed from the people of her kingdom, even at a moment when she’s stepped through a doorway into the light.

She’s removed herself from her captivity, but not from her isolation.

And through this song, we’ve taken the basic thematic elements of doors and windows and expanded on them, going so far as to comment on them within some parts of the song.

But now that all the doors in the palace are open, surely the movie is going to discard this thematic device and move on to something more relevant.

Love Is An Open Door

But you saw that coming, right?

When Anna and Prince Hans begin talking outside of the party, look behind them:

There’s one open door, and a closed door behind it.

Sidebar: Prince Hans Was Always The Bad Guy And This Shot Is Giving That Away

Open doors equal openness and intimacy. Closed doors mean concealing something, either affection or truth.

As Anna opens up to Hans, there’s an open door and a closed door behind them, one just behind the other.

Anna’s openness can only go so far, and there’s something Hans is concealing about his true intentions.

Why have two doors visible in one doorway? One door per person. In a relationship, both “doors” need to be open if that relationship is going to be honest.

“I would never shut you out,” he lies, lyingly.

End Sidebar

This film’s thematic work is being shown in the conflict between closed and open doors. Here we see one of each, prepping us for the topic of the song to come.

Anna starts singing and goes beyond the literal descriptions of action in the previous song into the realm of metaphor.

It’s not just about the excitement of open doors and what that openness can mean, but about how she sees her entire life to this point as being defined by being shut out and locked away.

And it’s not just about the doors being shut, but about how those doors have been shut at her. She, specifically, was being kept out.

So when we get to the hook of the song, it makes total sense for her to treat the moral of the story this way:

And we not only open a door on the word “door,” but the camera pulls back and up into the air, soaring out. It’s a big, sweeping camera move to echo the feeling of freedom that comes from escaping a space you’ve been trapped in.

Since the text of the song is all about love being an open door, and Anna feeling like she’s falling in love with Prince Hans, their musical number takes them through many doors throughout the castle and its grounds.

But look at how we have a skewed, diagonal composition as they sing “With you” to each other. Something’s up, and the visual language is clueing us in to the potential for shenanigans.

Even when they’re not going through doors, there are doors in the frame with them, like the doors these mechanical figures emerge from in the clock.

Or when they dance on the lighthouse, and we see them on the outside of a window, lit from behind. It reinforces the idea that windows are another type of enclosure, but that when you’re on the outside of them, you’ve passed through. You’re free.

And the light of the lighthouse echoes the bright spaces from the previous song, suggesting that openness and love can erase the shadows of despair.

Even in this quick Scooby Doo moment in the stables, light shines out as Anna opens the doors.

So, we get it. Open doors are about love and intimacy. Closed doors are about concealment and fear.

So what happens when we get a moment where there are no doors? Wouldn’t that mean a sense of total openness and freedom?

Let It Go

This shot of Elsa on the mountain after she’s run away from the castle acts as a reversal of the swooping shot from the last song. Instead of bursting out in joy, it circles around her, swooping in, like a bird of prey.

Watch as Elsa not only trudges uphill, but from the right of the frame to the left of the frame, accentuating the difficulty of her journey.

And while we can see a clear sense of the direction she’s moving, the curving path of the camera keeps things off-kilter. We’re not viewing this from a diagonal angle, but a continuously shifting diagonal, straining toward order.

She’s out in the open now, but she’s also alone and in the dark. This isn’t a positive kind of openness because we’re not seeing the other signifiers that have come along with the open doors and windows of previous songs: Light, vibrant kinetic movement, or other people.

First off, game recognizes game: That was a sick pun, Elsa.

Think about the way in which this moment in the song recontextualizes the way isolation has been depicted so far in the movie. Instead of being shut away, she’s exposed, but still alone.

And here we get a reminder that our focus on Anna’s feelings about being shut out has its polar opposite (intend your puns, cowards). For Elsa, it was never about keeping Anna locked out, but keeping herself locked in.

Being out in the open feels like a failure to Elsa, because her one goal was to stay concealed.

Again, Elsa feels that there’s something distinctly wrong with her; that her very existence is somehow a moral failing. She’s been raised to believe that she is flawed, and that the only way to deal with that is to let people believe she’s something that she’s not.

Normal. Following the rules and traditions. “Good.”

And she’s reached the point, up on this mountain, where she sees this worldview crumbling. There are no doors to hide behind anymore. There’s no reason to conceal her true nature, since she just showed it to the entire kingdom at once.

She can’t take those moments back, and she can’t lie, so it’s time for a change.

And as she removes the glove she’s been using to contain her powers and conceal her identity, the camera pulls up into the sky, soaring away, much like when Anna had a similarly powerful declaration to make.

This is where we need to talk about “Let it Go” as empowerment anthem.

The song is bold. It’s got a meaty hook, built for belting out in sing-alongs. It’s pulsating with 1.21 gigawatts of pure, raw emotion.

But it’s also sad, and ambiguous, and frightened.

Elsa starts by popping little flurries from her hands, and then she builds the thing that Anna begged for all those years ago: A snowman.

It’s like she’s a printer that was just reconnected with jobs left in the queue. She’s rebooting herself, and remembering what it was like to be a child and take joy in her powers.

This is positive growth for her. So it’s all good! She can keep moving forward and —


Turn away and slam the door

Elsa, you are on a mountain. There are no doors here.

You’re contradicting the visual signaling we’re expecting where this open space is now being verbally tied to the restrictive notion of closed doors that the movie established in its previous songs.

And turning away and slamming the door isn’t necessarily an empowered move, especially when your life has been defined by shutting doors to hide behind them.

This song sends plenty of contradictory messages.

Elsa lets go of a restrictive, concealing cape, shrugging it off and allowing it to fly away, but she does so while singing about letting the storm rage on.

The storm sparked by her fear. The storm generated by her powers when she lost control.

She’s not reveling in the possibility of healing brought about by accepting and acknowledging her powers openly. She’s refusing to be responsible for them.

The cold never bothered me anyway” could just as easily be read as “All this ‘eternal winter’ sounds like your problem, not mine.”

Elsa looks positively joyful, but once again, she’s moving from right to left. There’s difficulty and struggle here.

This line suggests that she’s gaining a sense of new perspective, potentially one that could promote healing by recognizing her problems aren’t daunting and insurmountable after —

And there goes that possibility.

She walks backward, again from right to left, singing about how she’s escaping from her fears. Not conquering them.

She’s literally moving backward in her emotional journey, deeper into the darkness.

She’s balancing these positive couplets that sound empowered and resolved —

With couplets that make her sound like she’s just further separating herself from other people.

Elsa goes full Magneto, declaring herself beyond the moral policing of mere mortals, as she builds a magical staircase to ascend higher than everyone in her kingdom. She wants them to seem even smaller to her.

She wants to be so high above their judgement so that she never feels like she is wrong or immoral again, instead of interrogating those morals that were forced on her by her family and their fear.

When she yells “I’m free!” you need to question the motivation behind the declaration: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As she runs up the staircase, the song ascends with her, and she makes what sounds like a positive declaration of being “one with the wind and sky.”

She sees herself as a part of the natural world. She isn’t an aberration. She isn’t a defect. She’s not bad and wrong.

At least, that’s what she’s trying to convince herself of.

Elsa still wants to be hidden away. She still feels broken and scared, even if she consciously knows she shouldn’t. She fears the judgement of others.

Again, the camera soars up high on what’s supposed to be a positive, strong declaration of emotion. Elsa is taking a stand. She’s using her power to claim a place for herself.

But the way she claims that space highlights how much further she needs to travel on her emotional journey.

Because what is this business all about?

She’s rising up and building something out of ice for herself.

Something that she’s filling in with doorways —

Oh no.

No, Elsa. Don’t do it.

As the roof freezes into place, it’s entirely clear what’s going on:

Elsa is building herself a new place to lock herself up inside.

She hid from the world in her family’s palace before, but that’s not an option this time. So she’s building a new palace to shut herself away in.

Sure, she’s taking her hair down, but it’s still in a tightly controlled braid.

Everything around her has gone dark again, and all of this reinforces that while she’s singing about letting things go, she hasn’t actually let go of her fear, or her internalized self-hatred.

Because no costume change or fun new hairdo can change the fact that she’s walking through a doorway —

That she’s stepping out onto a balcony, just as she did before on coronation day.

She’s out in the open, but she’s not out in the world. She’s above it. Sequestered from it.

But she’s moving from the darkness toward the light, and we’ve associated that with positive emotions for several songs. There’s still hope that Elsa is going to move away from despair and toward —

Nope. She built herself a door just so she could shut it.

She retreats out of the sunlight, back into the shadows of her freshly chilled castle.

She still has a long way to go on her emotional journey.

So what does all of this matter?

This is how symbolism works when it works well.

The symbolism helps clarify the theme for the audience, and the theme is posing a question instead of making a declaration. The story is there to work out an answer to the question over the course of the full story, instead of using each moment of the story to hammer home a single answer.

But it’s not just the appearance of a single, repeated symbol that does this work in telling the story. All the other elements of craft that go into filmmaking must support the idea if the audience is going to come away with a clear sense of what they’ve seen and what it means.

The door as a symbol doesn’t earn its place until we’ve gotten used to the idea of the door as a natural part of the conflict at the heart of the character’s lives.

Without Elsa hiding in her room from Anna, and without Anna’s persistent attempts to get Elsa to open her door, nothing that follows would work.

The emotions of the characters as they play out the drama of their separation give the door a tangible thematic resonance.

Think about it like a magic spell placed on a lamp so that every time the lamp is touched, it burns brighter.

The more times that lamp is touched, the harder it is to ignore whenever you see it. And the brighter the lamp glows, the more its light reveals to us about what else is nearby.

One-time symbolic gestures don’t grow in influence over the audience. It takes a steady introduction and re-introduction of something useful to telling the story for that object’s thematic and symbolic weight to reach its full potential.

After we’ve seen the use of these doors play out over four songs, we get a sharper sense of how they relate to the overall story, and the way that it’s all about a question of if you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, or if you instead close yourself off.

The genius of the door as a thematic device is that it doesn’t act as some kind of didactic “Open good. Closed bad.” metaphor.

Anna is all about openness, leaving her vulnerable to Prince Hans and his plot to take over the kingdom. Elsa is constantly closing herself off, but that prevents her from seeing how she can solve the problems caused by her magic and her fear, or from seeing the importance of her relationship with her sister and how the two of them can help balance each other.

And this dual nature of the problems reminds us why a door is such an excellent choice: it can be either open or closed.

A door needs to be either/or. If you just have a wall, nothing can pass through. If you just have an open space, anything can pass through at all times.

The door allows you to choose whether it’s open or closed, but it also allows you to choose to change your mind.

Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

New Words, New Perspective

When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.

In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:

”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

The Words Themselves

Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.

The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.

The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.

Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.

  1. “board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
  2. “sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
  3. “restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.

Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.

Introducing the Words

Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.

C’mon, Moana. You’re a Disney protagonist. Did you really think you’d finish this story with your mom and dad AND grandmother all surviving?
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.

Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.

Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.

Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.

The First (Several) Repetitions

After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.

During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.

The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.

She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.

Delivering the Words to Maui

When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.

He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.

Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —

Maui: Hero of men.

Moana: What?

Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.

Moana: I am Moana —

Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.

Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.

When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.

Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.

So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.

I don’t know what we did to deserve a collaboration between Alexander Hamilton and The Rock, but it exists and we are better for it.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.

Once More With Feeling

After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.

Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.

Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.

Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.

The Words Lose Their Power

The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.

After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.

Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.

But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.

The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.

To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.

Changing the Words

In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):

“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.

And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.

I came here to wreck lava monsters and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.

Arc Words

Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.

The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.

But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.

The Words Carry the Theme

The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.

  • Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
  • Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
  • Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
  • Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
  • Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)

Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.

Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.

However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.

She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.

And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.

Seabase Alpha

The Hydrolators. A row of specially designed, retro-futuristic elevators ready to take guests under the ocean to visit Seabase Alpha. I held my father’s hand and waited for my family’s turn to board. I tapped my feet, eyes darting over the crowd of sunscreen-scented tourists, cameras at the ready. They went inside the Hydrolators, the doors closed, and a minute later, another group would board.

I was ten years old, and I wouldn’t put my head underwater in a pool unless suitably bribed. During the swimming lessons my mother insisted I take at the YMCA, I clung to whatever flotation device I was offered. That pool, with its dim, sickly green lighting, appeared bottomless. The instructor said I could float on my own if I just laid back and trusted the water to hold me.

But I knew things could sink. Water swallows them up. I kept my white knuckle grip on the kickboard.

My parents and I entered The Living Seas pavilion mostly knowing what to expect. There was a short movie about the ocean and a ride that took you around a coral reef. Yes, water and I didn’t get along, but there was a fight going on inside me.

I was the kid who told his preschool teacher that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and then had to explain what that was to his classmates). I was the kid who checked out every Isaac Asimov branded book about space from my elementary school’s library, one by one. I was the kid who wanted to spend a big chunk of our trip to Disney World going to as many of the attractions at Epcot as we possibly could.

That was the battle: Science is cool! vs. Your watery death is an inevitability.

The crowd thinned out and we waited to move up. I started sniffling. Impatient twitching turned into fearful trembling.

I knew that Body Wars didn’t really shrink my family down and inject us into somebody’s body to swoop around inside their capillaries. I knew that when Pluto snuck up behind me at breakfast and put his gigantic mouth on top of my head, it was just a person in a suit.

But an elevator? Those are real.

One of the Disney World employees saw me and came over to talk. She asked what I was scared of and I told her that I was afraid of going down so deep.

She could have taken us to an exit. She could have said it was alright to pass on something you were scared of and left it at that.

Instead, she showed me a door. She lead my family off to the side of the Hydrolators to a door marked for staff use only and pushed it open for me to look through.

I saw the other side of the Hydrolators. They didn’t go anywhere.

The Epcot employee explained to me that there were a lot of effects that happened in the Hydrolators to make it feel like you were moving, but it was just for show. Something they did to make the ride feel more special. And then the doors on the other side would open.

She asked if I still wanted to go on the ride, and I nodded. She pointed to the line of people getting ready to get into the cars that would take us all around the reef and said we could head right over.

But I wanted to go back and see the Hydrolators. I wanted to see the bubbles. I wanted to feel the shaking. I wanted to see the rock walls moving behind the elevator glass to simulate sinking deep into the ocean.

I wanted to learn how this whole exhibit had made me ignore all the obvious red flags that a science-minded kid should have recognized (Such as “How would they build an undersea base in Orlando, which is in the middle of Florida’s peninsula?”). I wanted to laugh at myself for being afraid of this magic trick.

Peering through that door opened up worlds to me. That moment carried greater resonance when I got around to reading Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard. The memory was sitting in the background as I watched Jurassic Park and thought about how maybe paleontology wasn’t for me, but there might be something to storytelling and film. I still think about that moment in a more literal sense, like when my wife and I went to Universal Studios, and I spent time on the rides looking for the tricks. Trying to spot the seams of the illusions. That moment even crept up during my first encounters with Buddhism.

But maybe the most important part of that moment for me to remember is the compassion of the employee, and how she did more than just try to calm me down and keep the ride going. She showed me that there could be joy both in being tricked and in discovering how it had happened; that skepticism and wonder don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Digging for the Story’s Core: Pixar’s Brave

Picture your first draft as the Earth. Deep below the surface, there’s liquid magma, hidden from view. In editing your script, you drill down beneath the surface, looking to break through all the layers of character, plot, and visual imagery to get to that core.

That’s where the unifying ideas are. Once you’ve broken down into the core, you’re allowing that magma to rush up to the surface, passing through all the other layers. A strong core idea is already buried inside even the first draft of a script, and only by searching inside what’s already there can you find it.

Unlike the digging in this analogy, the actual act of searching for the core is about making new connections. Looking at ways that character, plot points, dialogue, etc. can connect to each other, and what lies behind those connections.

Take, for example, the movie Brave.

In this scene, Merida acts on her plan to win the archery competition, defeating her suitors and avoiding an arranged marriage.

This is not a movie about a princess who doesn’t want to get married, as many of the trailers made it appear to be. This is a movie whose core idea is about repairing a damaged relationship between a mother and daughter, and this idea comes across in all aspects of the scene.

First, there’s the content of the scene’s conflict. Yes, the archery contest decides who (or if) Merida will marry, but the tension of the scene is not based on if she is skilled enough to succeed. We have seen in previous scenes that she has a Gladwell-worthy amount of practice with her bow, and that it is a prized possession. We see that she has chosen this competition with the intent of winning it, and her confidence further suggests that the tension is not about if she can win, but if she will choose to win. Pushing the idea that this is about her choice to the fore front is where the tension in the scene actually comes from: Merida continuing to fire arrows as Elinor rushes toward her, telling her to stop.

There’s also the visual elements at play in the scene. In order to get the freedom of movement she needs to fire the arrows, Merida tears apart the seams of her dress. This is a dress that was put on her by her mother in a previous scene (in which Elinor ignored Merida’s complaints about how it was too tight). Not only is this dress a physical representation of Elinor’s control over Merida, but its tearing also represents Merida’s desires to escape from that control, even by careless, violent means.

This tearing of fabric to represent a damaged relationship is further strengthened in the next scene, where Merida slices through a tapestry of her family, cutting through the portion of the image where her and her mother are shown holding hands. This echo of the ripping fabric connects it to the core of the story about mending the relationship between Merida and Elinor.

There’s more that can be teased out of this scene. Consider how Merida and Elinor are together on the dais, but on opposite ends, separated by Fergus. When Merida chooses to transgress against the spirit of the competition and against her mother’s will, she disappears from the dais and moves away from her mother. As her mother tries to get her to stop, she moves closer to Merida, attempting to close the distance. Fergus himself is used as a battleground for the conflict between mother and daughter, as Elinor tries to keep Fergus from laughing at Merida’s jokes about the suitors.

This scene is one example of when a story’s core bubbles up through all the other aspects of the writing. There are strong connections between individual actions and details, all relating to a central idea. At the same time, these connections don’t all immediately draw attention to each other, as they’re grounded in character relationships and natural logistics. The core idea is there for the audience to discover, but not at the expense of leading them to stop paying attention to the dramatic action.

Keep those things in mind when looking for how to bring out the core of your own writing. Don’t just look for what best represents a theme, look for elements that are logistically and dramatically necessary to the plot, or that already exist as an aspect of the characters that can be focused on. Look for existing elements that have some kind of connection to each other or echo one another and find ways to make that stronger. Look for the foundation that already exists and build from there.