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Omaha native film editor goes from ‘Frozen’ to new Disney film ‘Moana’

Omaha native film editor goes from ‘Frozen’ to new Disney film ‘Moana’

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Jeff Draheim

Jeff Draheim, an Omaha native and film editor, spent three years working on the animated movie "Moana," which opens Tuesday.

When The World-Herald last spoke with Omaha native film editor Jeff Draheim, he was about to see the release of Disney’s “Frozen,” a film he’d spent nearly four years cutting.

At the time, Draheim said he’d lost all perspective on the movie, as he had seen it more than a hundred times. Still, he was pretty confident that it was a good film and that people were going to like it.

“Frozen” went on to earn $1.27 billion (one of the highest grosses of all time) and earwormed America on a mass scale with a song some still haven’t let go. For Draheim, it had been an opportunity to leave his mark on one of the most popular films of the decade.

Three years later, Draheim and Disney are back with 
“Moana.” The film, which Draheim has been working on since “Frozen” wrapped, opens nationwide Tuesday night.

And what’s his prognostication for Disney’s latest?

“I’ve got to say the same thing,” said Draheim, 53. “I am so close to this movie that I can’t see the forest for the trees. None of us can predict how these films are going to do. We’re just hoping for the best. We’re very, very proud of this film, and we can’t wait to share it with the world.”

“Moana” is about a young woman who sets sail for an island of legend with the legendary demigod Maui in tow. Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho provide the voices. “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed original music.

“Moana” follows a steady string of commercial and critical hits from Walt Disney Animation Studios, where Draheim has worked for 22 years. Disney’s been on a hot streak with its computer-animated films since the mid-’00s, with a consistency of quality that rivals that of the Disney-owned Pixar — offering titles like “Bolt,” “Big Hero 6,” “Tangled,” Wreck-It Ralph” and, of course, “Frozen.”

Each film has been a whopping success, a few winning Oscars for best animated film (“Frozen,” “Big Hero 6”) and a few clearing $1 billion at the box office (“Frozen” and this year’s “Zootopia”). With the ecstatic reception for “Zootopia” and the equally strong reviews “Moana” is getting, Disney will likely have two features up for the motion picture academy’s animation category next year.

Suffice it to say, Disney is killing it right now.

“The bar just seems to keep getting higher and higher,” Draheim said. “The attitude is ‘I want to make sure the movie I do after “Frozen” is just as good if not better.’ I feel like that for the studio this is just a golden era of movies, one after the other.”

Draheim, who lives in Valencia, California, with his wife and two teenage children, said his past two decades at Disney have blazed by.

He joined Walt Disney Animation Studios as a lead editor for the Florida division in 1994, creating animation for commercials, documentaries and theme park presentations. From there he gradually worked his way up to animated shorts and then features, working on movies like “Brother Bear,” “The Princess and the Frog” and the Oscar-winning 2014 short “Feast,” in which a food-obsessed Boston terrier learns the importance of sacrifice.

“When (Disney) hired me it was one of the greatest days of my life,” Draheim said. “I have them in order: the day I got married, the days my son and daughter were born, and No. 4 is definitely the day I got hired at Disney.”

Before going to Disney, Draheim worked at Morin Advertising and KPTM television in Omaha and did video postproduction at Avid Inc. in Orlando, Florida. He studied film and broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Southern California.

The process of editing for animated movies at Disney is much different from editing live-action films. Typically in a live-action film a film’s editor goes to work after or sometimes alongside the shoot. He or she gets the footage and puts together the film based on the director’s vision.

In animated films the editor starts sooner and stays longer. “We’re one of the first ones on a project and the last ones off,” Draheim said.

The editor begins before a single frame of film has been animated. With “Frozen” or “Moana,” artists started out making storyboards of the screenplay, which Draheim would cut together, using temporary dialogue, music and sound effects. Gradually more people come into the process, seeing what works and what doesn’t, revising some scenes, tossing others.

“Rewriting, reboarding, recutting,” Draheim said. “We just do that for the first year and a half, just getting the movie put together, trying to see what’s working.”

This is why Draheim and many of his fellow filmmakers will spend three or four years on one movie.

All films are hugely collaborative efforts, but computer-animated ones especially so. The time and complexity that go into such features often result in dual director credits. “Moana” actually has four directors — Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams — and eight writers.

Everyone wants to help refine the movie, Draheim said. “Everyone just wants to make the best movie possible.”

It’s more than a little satisfying when they all finally get to see the movie with an audience. After years of pressing their noses up to the finer details, they get to see the effect of the whole piece.

Draheim recently got to see the film through the eyes of his wife, Adrienne. They went to the “Moana” premiere screening and “she was just in tears for the last 20 minutes of the film,” Draheim said.

“That gave me goose bumps,” he said. “I was, like, ‘Wow, OK, good. It’s working.’ ”

micah.mertes@owh.com, 402-444-3182, twitter.com/micahmertes

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