A Day in the Life: Disney's Jennifer Lee Reveals How They Made Movie Magic Happen From Their Living Rooms

When COVID sent Disney staffers home, nothing was in production for their latest release Encanto. Disney exec Jennifer Lee told E! News how they managed to conjure up a surefire hit anyway.

By Sarah Grossbart Nov 22, 2021 5:00 PMTags
Watch: "Frozen" 6 Years Later: E! News Rewind

Some people have jobs so cool we'd actually enjoy attending their marathon Zoom meetings. Even the ones that could totally have been an email. 

Not to say we don't cherish our all-important responsibility of bringing you every last piece of need-to-know information about the casts of Bridgerton and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, but we don't have our own glam squad or a Rolodex filled with famous names, now do we? 

But the impossibly cool people we'll be profiling in E! News' latest series totally do. Plus access to things like private drivers, designer garb and the type of professional titles we'd drop with wild abandon at parties, dinner dates or while chatting with the barista at Starbucks. Welcome to A Day in the Life...

As the force behind Disney's insanely popular Frozen franchise, writer-director Jennifer Lee helped the company haul in billions at the box office, two Oscars and a slew of devoted "Let It Go"-singing fans of all ages. 

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And yet asked to name her proudest accomplishment, Walt Disney Animation Studios' Chief Creative Officer might just point to shepherding Encanto, the brand's latest singalong masterpiece, onto big screens while most of the company's staff was working out of their living rooms. 

Because when COVID shut down Walt Disney Studios in early 2020, Lin-Manuel Miranda had written exactly one song for the animated charmer about a magical family based in an enchanted town in the Colombian mountains. And "there was nothing in production," Jennifer reveals to E! News. "Everything was everyone from all over the place finding a way to make it cohesive."

It's a feeling that hit her 15 days before the film's Nov. 24 release as she took the stage at their final company screening. "It's where the whole studio comes together and it's before the movie goes to the world," she explains. "It's the last moment it's ours and we get to celebrate each other and the work and the memories—good, bad and all the struggles that everybody went through."

Kevin Winter/Getty Image

Those were certainly plentiful as they found a way to piece together their latest offering through Zoom meetings and familial interruptions (even now, with daughter Agatha away at college and actor husband Alfred Molina on a shoot, Jennifer remarks how quiet it is in her Los Angeles-area home where she's "alone except for a loud cat") and, occasionally, a joint session in an editing room, for a small, masked group. 

Trying to get through her remarks to the crowd at the screening the talented scribe "was losing my words," she admits. "The emotion was coming. It was, like, relief to see them. It was joy. It was sort of exhaustion, like, what have we been through together? And just wanting to sit down and go, 'Who else wants to cry?' And just pride, too. You're like, 'We have been apart and we cohesively created this from nothing.'"

And now, of course, they're ready to conjure up some more content. As she celebrates their latest success, Jennifer and her team are already turning their charms to future offerings, including their animated features for 2022 and 2023, plus the Disney+ revival, Moana, The Series. She shares a bit of the magic with E! News. 

8 a.m. (PST) No need for bluebirds to sing her awake. After years as more of a night owl, "I seem to wake up at 6 now," Jennifer reveals. She suspects it's a holdover from her Frozen days when she'd write from 5 a.m. until she headed to the office four or five hours later. "It's kind of that post-dreaming brain before the chatter of the day," she says of doing her best work before the sun comes up. 

Even now she packs the first half of her day with the more "deep, creative work," which this morning means a meeting with the group behind Iwaju, a sci-fi series set in a futuristic version of Lagos, Nigeria, that has Disney+ partnering with entertainment company Kugali. With their team based in England and Nigeria, notes Jennifer, and some of the designers abroad elsewhere, "There's sometimes five different countries represented in one Zoom meeting, which is really thrilling."

As was the work accomplished in their hour-long session that saw them officially put two scenes into production ("Which means we've blessed those storyboards, we've blessed the script, the dialogue and they're going to go start building it in layout and setting the camera angles in the CG world") and go through rewrites for two other episodes. 

10 a.m. Into the unknooooooown! Following her thrice weekly check-in with Walt Disney Animations Studio president Clark Spencer and the rest of the studio's leadership ("We talk about anything going on and it's just so we always stay really connected," she explains), Jennifer hops on a call with the production team tackling their 2022 feature film. 

"They just came off of a big screening," she says of the process that ends with the studio giving their notes. "But then Pixar saw this one and gave notes. And we met with the steering committee from the studio. So they had about three days of notes from all over." 

A lot of their discussions narrowed in on one character in particular, who's sure to get attention in future follow-up meetings. "This is that critical stage for them," says Jennifer, "where we've taken the car apart and we're putting it back together."

Courtesy of Ricky Middlesworth

11 a.m. The Disney exec's fourth meeting of the day sees her diving back into the story of Moana and giving notes on the first episode of Disney+'s Moana, The Series. For these sorts of editing sessions, Jennifer gets the script 48 hours ahead of time so she "can really spend time with it" before the meeting. 

"It's always a discussion, too," she insists. "So it's not just me going, 'Change that,' you know." And, mostly, it's a thrill, she says, "having Moana on the page again."

E! Illustration, Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

12 p.m. "I do get lunch!" Jennifer insists of her 90-minute break from Zoom. She makes the most of it by squeezing in a quick treadmill workout before eating. If she has a lot of time, she'll jump in the pool for a swim. But "we have bears running around right now so it's not swim time these days," she shares. "We're infested with about five bears who have decided to move into our neighborhood."

Following her not-so-wild workout, she looks over the remarks she'll give at that evening's Encanto screening. 

1:30 p.m. The happiest work place on earth? Jennifer's two-hour afternoon meeting sees her and her team wading through the 121 submissions for the second iteration of the Disney+ Pitch Program.

During the last go-round anyone who works at the company was able to submit their idea for a short. "It was all blind and we narrowed down to our favorites and then we found out who those folks were," she says. For anyone who had never worked on the creative side of the brand "it's more mentorship. But they get to be a part of the process. If they have a lot of the main directing skills, it's an opportunity."

This time, the submissions were for long-form stories. "So this meeting was the group of us who had read them all, we got together and we scored them," she says. Having chosen those who will move onto the next round—support from the development team—she's eager to reach out to the winners: "You get so excited for them!"

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4:30 p.m. Following a check-in with the team on the 2023 feature film, it's time to get glam for the Encanto screening-slash-wrap party. For March's Raya and the Last Dragon, they held a remote event. "I will say, they did a fantastic job with Zoom breakout rooms and DJs and stuff," says Jennifer. But this time around, "because it was outside and because of where we are in the pandemic, we got to come together."

5:45 p.m. Get her to The Greek—L.A.'s Greek Theatre, that is. "I think this one was so profound because the last time we actually were able to get together was for the Frozen 2 premiere," she says of the evening two years in the making. 

Over the course of the night, she hugs people she hasn't seen in 20 months, meets employees hired since the start of the pandemic ("There's always the moment where they go, 'You are a lot shorter than we thought you were,'" she jokes) and enjoys every last fruit of their long, arduous labor. 

"When you sit together, you remember—not for everyone, every moment, but collectively—what went into everything and the complexities," she says of taking in their finely polished work. "And sometimes the crew will laugh at a shot and it's not a funny moment. It was like, 'Oh, they're laughing because they remember the 60 people trying to get this one thing and the moment they broke through and who said the funny thing.' So there's this added energy, which is the understanding of every layer to actually get to the final result."

Mostly, though, she's ecstatic that they can all share a space again "and to do it with a film that's so full of joy," Jennifer says, "I was like, 'Okay.' It felt like the sky cleared."

E! Illustration, Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

12 a.m. Entirely wired from her evening out and, admittedly, stressing over whether she said everything she wanted to say, "I probably just, like, fell asleep with an old episode of Friends on," Jennifer muses. "Something that is comforting, that calms your brain."

Right now her thoughts are dominated by just how stoked she is for the world to see Encanto and Disney's next sure-to-be-an-earworm-of-a-song, "Dos Oruguitas."

Asked what she's most excited for people to experience, it's a struggle to narrow it down. Certainly the music is up there, thanks to the genius that is Miranda and composer Germaine Franco. "Her score, in some spots, I was like, 'I haven't heard anything like this before,'" Jennifer muses. "You feel it." And then there's the celebration of family and the Colombian culture. "Everyone of us will find ourselves," she says. "You know, you'll be like, 'My sister's Luisa. My brother's the Camilo.'"

But mostly, "It's a really joyous movie. It's very funny and very fun, but very emotional. It's family. I mean, we've all been through a lot with family, so I think there's a lot of relatability with that," she sums up. "It's just a celebration."