Letting Go: Deconstructing a New Musical Sequence for ‘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. A couple of weeks ago we brought you a look at the production design of the film. This week we’re excited to reveal another new sneak peek at the magic to come!

It’s no small feat becoming a timeless Disney musical scene everyone knows. The list of legendary musical scenes is as expansive as the list of legendary films in the Walt Disney Animation collection. And yet, in 2013 every parent could describe to you the exact detail of the “Let it Go” scene because their child played it over 100 times a day after seeing Frozen. And now, just six years later, the scene truly registers as a classic on par with “Hakuna Matata.”

We are just a few short weeks away from the debut of Frozen II. And working on this film for the past few years, the team behind the animated sequel knew very well they had to find a way to have the musical sequences in this installment live up to the very lofty reputation of its instant classics in its predecessor. After all, “Let it Go” not only served as a catchy tune, but it was also an anthem for female empowerment, and a gorgeous scene that progressed the narrative of the story and the development of Elsa’s character. Anything that would need to come after would have to be equally as important for female fans — particularly in today’s social climate. So how do you top it? Where do you take it from there? Well, according to the brilliant team of Brittney Lee (Visual Development Artist), Normand Lemay (Head of Story), Tom MacDougall (Executive Music Producer), Dale Mayeda (Co-Head of Effects Animation), Justin Sklar (Animation Supervisor), and Michael Woodside (Animation Supervisor), the only place you can go is “Into the Unknown.”

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During our lovely afternoon at Walt Disney Animation studios, we were treated to the deconstruction of a key musical sequence within Frozen II, for an Elsa solo-song called “Into the Unknown.” Each of our panelists were on-hand to discuss the origins of the song, and the power of the scene. In particular, Lee went into details about the look of Elsa in the “Into the Unknown” scene, and what it said about her character.

“Costume design the hair design are meant to let you know a little bit more about each of the characters,” Lee started. “And for a character like Elsa who is complex and constantly evolving, we in costume need to constantly be supportive of this narrative and evolve with her… When we meet little Anna and little Elsa, they’re both really bright and effervescent, and as Elsa becomes more secretive, and more secluded, and closed off, so do her silhouettes. She has higher collars, and gloves, and longer sleeves, and longer hemlines, and her colors get darker, and darker, and that’s meant to show you, as the audience, that she’s becoming more and more closed off to the world. But it’s not until she lets go and in ‘Let it Go’ that she returns to form and we see her again in the first colors that we met her in, and with the silhouette that’s more freeing and, and meant to show you that this is the authentic Elsa. This is who she’s meant to be. But when we go ‘Into the Unknown,’ she’s in the darker color again, so what could that mean? There a lot of pieces to that puzzle and reasons why we chose to put her in a darker color for ‘Into the Unknown.’”

She continued to elaborate on the sequence from the sequel. “The magenta and violet were meant to help her fit into the castle in Arendelle because this is one of the first times we’re seeing her sort of cozy at home with her family, and that castle is very rich, and it’s been very much instilled in the world of Arendelle and all of the rose mauling and all of the detailing, so we wanted to make sure that she felt comfortable there, and while at the same time reinforcing the fact that this song does have conflict in it. So the darker colors seem to make sense for that, and also it was gonna look really nice in the dark atmosphere with magic. And with her hair, the same thing. We wanted to be able to play and to change things up with her hair silhouette, but in this particular moment, it was most important to make the audience feel at home with these characters.”

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Lee then handed it off to Lemay to elaborate on the the origins of the sequence. “What we do with the story team is we work closely with the directors and writers, and we’re often the first one to kind of take a crack at how a sequence would play, visually. So we create these sort of rough drawings that will be part of a sequence that we pass onto the editing team. But we’re trying to just convey as much as we want with as few lines as possible and trying, just trying to get to the intention behind what’s been written; what’s been envisioned, and the songwriters, as well- a lot of attention to the lyrics… especially for this song… At this point in the movie, we’ll get what we’ll refer to as an “I want” song, where you can hear the character’s deepest desire or fear. But in this version, it’s a bit tricky where Elsa, as a character, has been pushing down what’s inside of her. She’s been shying away from what she truly feels; truly wants, and that voice calls her, brings it out of her.”

Lemay then showed us the impressive storyboards of the sequence, and summarized the expressions and emotions conveying the thoughts and emotions Elsa has during the sequence, and how that will progress her character in the film. He wrapped up stating, “What we’re trying to do with storyboarding is to create prototypes of the sequence, as much as we can, we’re trying to visualize and create and evoke as much emotion as we can, or trying to portray the visions of the directors in those simple drawings that will then be translated into the beautiful, finished scenes that all the other departments will touch on.”

As the Executive Music Producer, MacDougall elaborated on how this specific musical sequence would affect Elsa’s character, and what it means to the film overall. “So the best musical moments are moments where you have a character in a certain position when the song starts and when the song finishes, they’re in a different place, that you have more information; you have a deeper understanding of that character; the plot; their motivations; anything like that. So when, we started to talk about this movie as a musical, of course, we got excited about some of the opportunities for areas for characters to sing,” he started.

“So Elsa’s a great character — great singing character. As you remember in the first movie, we had ‘Let it Go,’ so that’s a song that’s introducing you to that person in their situation. So if you think of that song, you’ve got a character that’s been told to conceal and don’t feel and even the first chorus of ‘Let it Go’ is very peaceful and quiet, and you can see her sort of evolve into, to gain control of who she is. And by the end, she’s singing in full voice in saying the cold never bothered me anyway. So, that’s a great musical moment for us. In this movie, we had our songwriters Bobby and Kristen Lopez back from the original movie come in. And when we looked at this movie, again, we know who Elsa is; we know what her situation is, but we don’t know why she has these powers, and then we introduce in the story that there’s a literal voice calling to her which makes her think about- is this voice maybe the answer to these questions I have? Should I go find this voice? Should I repel this voice? And as you see in this sequence, much like Let it Go, it sort of evolves where it starts with her hiding under the pillow, saying that I don’t wanna deal with this, you know, I’m literally blocking out the call. But then she gets almost excited about it, and then propels herself — the character, physically and emotionally through this scene until, you know, again, a big final note. And for us, it’s a different metric where if you could magically somehow identify the what the best possible song is, and if we put that song in this movie, and it didn’t help Elsa, it didn’t help propel the story or your understanding of what she’s going through, we wouldn’t use that song.”

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MacDougall passed things on to Mayeda, who then discussed how the effects animation  added to the overall narrative importance of the musical sequence. He elaborated saying, “We want it to seem that like everything — every direction that she looks and everything that she’s reacting to are things that, that are surrounding her, so it feels really immersive. And then in this last shot, Elsa goes into this vision that’s getting created of this kind of mystical, mysterious, and misty sort of environment, and she decides to go straight into it. And this is kind of foreshadowing for some of the, the things that she starts to see later on in the film. This next clip is kind of an insight into some of what we do in kind of some of the early phases with the effects department. We have an effects designer named Dan Lund, and he did these drawings, and this is kinda taking some of the storyboards that we saw that Norm had presented us, and starting to visualize how is this gonna move in time and how do we really account for every single musical beat because the effects are such a huge storytelling part of this, we need to make sure that all the visuals are telling all the story points, and also that it’s a musical sequence, that we’re hitting every single musical beat of that.”

Sklar and Woodside then began to discuss the power that animation brings to musical sequences. Sklar began by saying, “One of the things for us that we feel like is really great about really good animation is that it just feels like magic. It feels like something impossible is happening and for us similarly when you watch a live performance of somebody singing, like this clip of Jodi Benson, it also feels like something impossible is happening. When you see a really great live performance, it can be powerful; it can be earnest; it can be vulnerable; we feel like there’s kind of its own kind of magic in that.”

Woodside then began describing efforts to learn how to animate music and how it started with the animators having to take singing lessons. “It’s actually one of the reasons why I wanted to work on this film, to try and find a way to blend the magic that you have in a live-action performance that you might find in, in the booth or, um, on a Broadway stage, and couple that with the magic of a Disney animated film, and present that for an audience of today. So that felt like a, a fun challenge to try to figure how to decode. So first things first, we got singing lessons for the animators. We brought in a vocal coach; he did multiple lessons teaching us how to breathe properly and singing- different singing techniques- where to place a vowel- things that we hadn’t thought about before. Some people were actually so inspired by this, that they went and took personal classes with him, just to get better along the way and, where in finer details so that they can put that into their performances. In animation, since that is sort of creating the illusion of life- that’s, that’s what our job is, and breathing is life, so we figured we might as well start there. ”

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Sklar continued by saying, “Breathing is a great way to, to show power and energy. Um, in this shot that was animated by Philip To you can see it’s really important that we push these kind of big notes that Idina’s hitting, but it’s also really important for us, that we’re really setting that up with a big inhale.”

To which Woodside elaborated, “And it’s not just breathing. We are progressing other things, as well. There’s tension in the body, there’s the size of the gestures; there’s the speed of the movement which is important. You can see that she’s more soft at the beginning, and then there’s quicker movements at the end. But most importantly, the audience is really looking at Elsa’s face; at her eyes, and trying to understand how she feels about this new moment- this, this new, experience for her. We hope you can actually see that in this image, even without the audio. We love this song, but our job as animators is to help portray that through the physicality of the characters and let their bodies and faces really tell the story, as well. And then when you couple that with an amazing song like, ‘Into the Unknown’, that’s the Disney magic.”

As the panel concluded, every reporter in the room was absolutely floored by the power of the scene, and the gravitas of the strong song that they were left humming by the end of the day. While the world may not know it yet, I think it’s safe to say, given the amazing work of the team at Walt Disney Animation, “Into the Unknown” is definitely looking like the next legendary Disney musical sequence, that audiences will come to remember for years to come.

Frozen II hits theaters November 22, 2019! Advance tickets are now on sale starting today!