Breaking the Ice: Evolving the Story of ‘Frozen II’

To countdown to the release of Frozen II, we are providing all of you with an inside look at the making of the movie, as well as interviews with the filmmakers and artists who worked incredibly hard to bring Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and, of course, Olaf to life. Last week we brought you just a sampling of what’s to come with a first look and panel discussion with directors Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and producer Peter Del Vecho. This week we’re excited to reveal another new sneak peek at the magic to come!

During a recent visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios, the Nerds of Color were treated to a panel discussion with key artists and directors to discuss the evolution of the journey audiences first took in Frozen, as well as the major evolution of Elsa and Anna as characters. The panel consisted of  Becky Bresee (Head of Animation), Hyun-Min Lee (Animation Supervisor), Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay (Visual Development Artist), Marc Smith (Director of Story), Wayne Unten (Animation Supervisor) & Marlon West (Head of Effects Animation). Together, they gave us a taste of what they’d been cooking up for Frozen II’s new story, and the journey they’ll be taking audiences through this fall.

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Marc Smith (Director of Story) and Becky Bresee (Head of Animation) as seen during the Frozen II Long Lead Press Day at Walt Disney Animation Studios on Friday, September 6, 2019. Photo by Mark Von Holden. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

To kick things off, director of story, Smith, discussed the origins of the film, and the direction the team decided to take the characters in this second chapter:

“One of the first things we did was just really take a deep dive into the characters of Anna and Elsa, and try to figure out what’s the hard wiring underneath these characters that’s going to not just be part of Frozen… the first Frozen, but also be part of Frozen II. Around the same time, we took a research trip. The first Frozen was very inspired by the Nordic cultures and the Nordic lands. And so we went back there for inspiration. We traveled to Norway and Finland, and Iceland. And here on the left, that’s Lake Inari in Finland. And when we got there, the whole setting just felt like a fairy tale setting. You didn’t wonder why there’s so many stories about forest spirits and magic in those regions, and as part of those cultures. And then on the right, that’s Iceland. And Iceland really felt mythic. It felt like nature was so powerful and awesome, and it could kill you at any second. Like, just make the wrong step and it doesn’t care. So those themes started to bubble up, and we started just thinking about those. But how did they apply to the characters? And one of the writers here at this studio had a saying. And it said, you know, that fairy tales don’t tell us that dragons don’t exist. They say dragons do exist. Fairy tales tell us that we can slay the dragon. And we heard that, we’re like, that’s… that’s Anna! She’s the ultimate optimist! You know. She believes in the happy ending. It was really nice little connection there. And then with mythology, the mythological hero, you know, usually has to take on the weight of the world and to fulfill some sort of fate, or some sort of destiny. And that really felt like it, it lined up nicely with Elsa’s story. Just like, well why do I have these powers, these big, awesome powers of nature, and what am I supposed to do with that? And so that was a really pivotal discovery for us, because now we have our two main characters who have world views that are really completely opposite. And we’re not talking about, like, we were taking a fairy tale, or a myth that’s pre-existing. But it’s more the archetypes of Anna being the believer in the happy ending, and Elsa having maybe a little more of a tragic fate.”

Next, Bresee, Head of Animation, who previously worked as the Animation Supervisor for Anna on the first film, discussed how animation helped the team progress the characters of Anna and Elsa in this installment:

“So, Frozen II goes even further for me personally, and I’m so excited for the world to see it, and to revisit our characters all over again. Our characters have matured, and embark on a journey in this film that’s not only challenging for them, but for us as a team. And it was really exciting to collaborate again with all of our friends in all the different departments to meet these challenges. For instance, effects and animation had a really close relationship on this film, especially since there are some characters that we really had to collaborate a lot in order to make them shine. And the animation department had its own challenges as well. When we left the first movie, we left a family that was just starting, and as we meet with them three years later, they really are acting like a family. They really are family unit. So, in this movie, many of the scenes don’t just have one character, they have many characters in them. And so that’s complex, not only because they all have to have motion, but more importantly emotion. So, that was one of the challenges on this show. And also on this show in particular, there were a lot of really long shots to animate, which is really animation gold, thank you to Marc. But, we really got to dig our teeth in, and work on these long shots. Sometimes there’s multiple characters and a lot of times these longer shots had really deep emotion in them. And that’s really challenging to animate, but also a lot of fun. And, as characters, I relate to both Anna and Elsa, as most people do for different reasons. But I do have a special affinity for Anna, as I was the animation supervisor of Anna on the first film.”

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Marc Smith (Director of Story), Becky Bresee (Head of Animation) and Hyun-Min Lee (Animation Supervisor) as seen during the Frozen II Long Lead Press Day at Walt Disney Animation Studios on Friday, September 6, 2019. Photo by Mark Von Holden. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Lee, taking over the responsibilities of Animation Supervisor for Anna in the film from Bresee, was then introduced. She discussed the differences between Anna and Elsa in this movie, and where their personalities would be changing from where they left off in Frozen.

“So, in this film, there is a little bit of a role reversal between the two. So in the first film, Anna used to be the fearless one, forging ahead. ‘I’m just going to go save my sister. Go ahead. I don’t care!’ And this time Elsa is the one being called into the unknown. And Anna is a little bit more worried and nervous for her sister’s safety,” she stated.

Visual Development Art by Griselda Sastrawinata — Visual Development Artist. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“And the big difference with the first film is that Anna is not alone anymore. She was always playing by herself. She was alone, but now she has her whole family here. She’s playing charades with them. She has her happy moments and she’s loving them and spending time with them, and that’s the source of her strength and optimism. And she definitely doesn’t want to give up that or, see that bliss go away. And, you know, the winds of change are coming and she can feel it, and she’s feeling very, very protective of her people, and the people she loves. And so, she’ll do anything to do the right thing for them, even if it means kicking their butt, and doing all sorts of silly things. And, you know, that’s kind of strength and positive energy that Anna has is part of her charm. And that’s why we all love her. And so we really tried to make sure we explored that a little further whenever we could on this film.”

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Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay (Visual Development Artist), Wayne Unten (Animation Supervisor) and Marlon West (Head of Effects Animation) as seen during the Frozen II Long Lead Press Day at Walt Disney Animation Studios on Friday, September 6, 2019. Photo by Mark Von Holden. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Visual Development Artist, Lemay, next spoke about the development of Elsa in this film, and her new looks and costumes. Lemay went through several looks for Elsa’s new outfits before settling on the final product we’ll see with the film:

“In Frozen II, we started with Anna’s costume with the new Arendelle icon, which signifies the fall season. In her travel costume, we did so many iterations, and exploration, because we grow as the story grows. And designing for Anna is a little bit tricky, because we decided that Elsa will always be in a light value and color so she looks like ice. It’s challenging to find a color that would be brilliant enough, and strong enough, when they’re next to each other. The chosen outfit is actually number 122. And once the design was approved, we started breaking down the components of her outfit, like the dress. And then we go to detail, like embroidery, where the orientation is, seams. And then the process in animation is very collaborative. There’s a lot of back and forth. For example, this cape. Capes usually have a small opening for the arm. But for animation purposes, it needs to be able to have a full range of motion. And, that, that means that we need to open up the opening and make it a lot larger. And by doing that, it creates a lot of challenges in, how do we make it look good? And I think our team did a really great job. And again, this is the final outfit. And interestingly, this outfit was originally designed for Elsa! From early on, we knew that this was going to be an epic journey. So, we shortened her hemline. And then we wanted to show the heaviness of her emotional state, so we gave her a cape that was heavy. But then she stopped looking like the Elsa that we know. The Elsa that we know needs to look brilliant, and bright, and look like ice and feel like ice.”

Wayne Unten, Animation Supervisor for Elsa, who also worked on Elsa in the first film, next spoke to us about the process of animating Elsa’s movements throughout the film:

“After the first Frozen ended, you know, it was kind of hard to say goodbye. It was really nice to spend more time with them on this film. And just really seeing how Elsa has grown and changed during this journey. So, you guys have seen ‘Into the Unknown,’ right? So, that’s a big moment for her where she’s going through a lot of change. It’s this roller coaster ride of emotion for her. And, as animators, it’s our job to make sure that we are clearly communicating to the audience what the character is thinking and feeling. And it’s a challenge because it’s not real… if we do our jobs right, the audience just gets sucked in to the story. And, you know, we craft all the expressions, and the body poses and the gestures. And hopefully they’ll just forget that it’s a puppet, and will just believe in the magic, and they’ll believe that the character is alive!” Unten went on to speak about how Elsa’s choreography in both films, when using her powers, was inspired by the movements of Martha Graham’s interpretive dance, and how the movements of the character allow us to see what’s going on in the character’s mind.

Lastly, Head of Animation Effects, Marlon West, elaborating on what his counter part, Unten stated, spoke to us about the collaboration between the animation team and the effects team, as well as the importance of effects in showcasing Elsa’s powers and the evolution of her character.

“Effects was very, very early on along for the ride as far as developing who Elsa is as a character… Wayne was discussing… really leaning into her magic, getting into her power, having more of a grounded kind of way of being. Because in the first film, she had more of kind of ballet style of dance, as far as pushing her movements. In this film, she’s much more modern…early on we had actually designed some… Elsa shields… But we decided to eventually do something much more forceful, closer to the ice shards she makes in the first Frozen. They’re almost involuntary. But now she’s leaning into all aspects of herself.”

So overall, you can see how much care, collaboration, and thought went into the further evolution of the characters. It’s not enough to just think about where the characters go in animation. A team of talented individuals has to give everything meaning in the context of the characters. From the clothes the characters wear, to the effects and movement of the characters as shown on screen, multiple teams had to work very hard to ensure that Elsa and Anna not only looked incredible, but everything about them and surrounding them in the film had to push the characters forward.

That concludes this week’s wrap up of our countdown to Frozen II. We’ll have more to come, including individual interviews with Marc Smith and Becky Bresee themselves, as the countdown continues. Until then, stay tuned nerds!

Frozen II hits theaters November 22, 2019!