Animation Movies

Exploring the Enchanted Forests and Dark Seas 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. Earlier this week, we brought you a look at how the talented team at Walt Disney Animation brought a future classic musical sequence to life. Today, we’re excited to reveal another new sneak peek at the magic to come!

The stakes of following up a blockbuster phenomenon like Frozen are incredibly high. Continuing the story requires making things grander and more epic, without sacrificing the charm and narrative strength of the first film. It’s about effectively evolving your characters, while staying true to them, by expanding the world and testing them in new situations and environments audiences have never seen before. This was the mantra and goal for the talented team at Walt Disney Animation. During an amazing visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios, we got to see a presentation from some of the talented artists and animators who pushed the envelopes of technology and animation to help expand the world of Elsa and Anna, including Trent Correy (Animation Supervisor), Svetla Radivoeva (Animation Supervisor), Erin Ramos (Effects Supervisor), Bill Schwab (Art Director – Characters), Tony Smeed (Head of Animation) & Hannah Swan (Software Engineer)!

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To start things up, Smeed and Schwab introduced us to new characters called The Earth Giants.

“In Frozen II we have some new characters to look at today. We’re going to look at four of them. They all live outside Arendelle in the Enchanted Forest and the Dark Sea,” Smeed began. “Starting with these guys, the Earth Giants. Earth giants are made of rock, and they’re asymmetrical, which makes them very difficult to move around. They’re also super heavy, so we need to factor that in when we’re animating them… in addition to their mobility one of the toughest things to do is make these characters feel like they’re actually living and breathing creatures. If you think about the way we move, when we inhale our stomachs expand and the skin stretches. But with these we can’t stretch their ‘skin.’ If we stretch or bend or twist the rock material, it ceases to feel like stone. So, how we fixed this was we had a really great team, with (animation) supervision by Wayne Unten for the Earth Giants and Chris Pedersen, Rigging Supervisor. Those two collaborated to come up with ways to find natural creases where these characters could bend and move without bending the rock. In fact, they devised a way to just have the rocks slide around rather than bend, which helped us preserve their stone-like feature. This is a fantastic walk cycle on these giants.”

Schwab then continued, “Manu Arenas, who’s a Visual Development Artist here at the Studio was the first artist to start working on the Earth Giants. And he really focused on in on the scale, the enormous scale of these characters and also integrating them into the environment because they are made of rock. So, those are super cool! The next artist on the Earth Giants was Nick Orsi and he really leaned into ‘how much environment these characters be made of?’ and ‘how can we abstract that into a character?’ and again really playing with the enormous scale of these characters. So, at this point, the directors asked me to work on these characters and really try and infuse some of the DNA of the trolls from Frozen into the Earth Giants.”

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Next up, Schwab introduced a new character (which is sure to be the biggest scene stealer of the sequel), called Bruni — a salamander that befriends our heroes in the enchanted forest. “And our goal with this character was to make Bruni as adorable as possible,” he said. “So, that’s some of the visual development. And there he is in his almost final form. So, he’s super cute. And that’s pretty close to how he looks on the film.”

Correy, Animation Supervisor, elaborated further. “When Bruni came into animation, again, we were just working with Bill trying to make this character as adorable as possible. So, we started working on some little tests with him. And tests like these are used early on just to inform the rigging team, working with Bill and Modeling, a lot just to get this character as appealing and cute as possible. At the same time, other animators on the crew are working on things like walk cycles, which is super adorable. This is done by Reece Porter. And I did this rough — slightly less adorable. And tests like these are done early on just to try to help figure out the character. This is another one done by Jeff Williams. And this can help inform the story. It can make its way into the movies in some ways and really helps Rigging and set up the Animation for the character.”

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The team then went into describing the more abstract character of Gale — a wind spirit.

“This was actually one of the first, or the first character that the directors asked me to work on,” Schwab stated about Gale. “And so, my first question was how do you draw wind? How do you draw something that isn’t there? And so, the solution was to think about debris and sticks and leaves and things that might be in the Enchanted Forest that we could actually use to define Gale. There was an idea initially where maybe we would actually form a recognizable character with Gale, which you can see in some of these images. Or even, I really explored the idea of Gale interacting with our characters, maybe mimicking them, as you can see with Olaf there on the top left. Annette Marnat was another artist that worked on this character. And she was really exploring this idea of lighting. How can we use lighting to create the magic of Gale and the beauty of Gale? And then Griselda (Sastrawinata-Lemay) created images of patterning with Gale. Again, just looking for ways to make this character unique and using color and pattern to help define the character.”

Creating a character made of wind, that you can’t see, became a technical challenge for the animators. So they had to consult software engineer, Swan, to help them rise up to the challenge. “We still had the question of what happens when an Animator actually sits down at the desk and tries to get that performance for you to see. So, early on, a bunch of Animators, Software Engineers like myself, and some Technical Directors formed together to talk about how we would animate Gale. And we decided it would be by constructing this path that she travels along… So, we had two major things that we really had to think about for Gale, and that is the shape of this path that she’s on and the timing along it. So, what’s her 3-D position? When does she arrive at that position? And how fast is she going when she gets there? In terms of functionality, we wanted to make it really quick and easy to author a path and to edit it for any story changes that might happen down the road. We wanted to give the artists a lot of control so they could experiment with a lot of different shapes easily and make changes when they needed to. So, we could author a path several ways. You can see two of them here. Up there is forming one in virtual reality. So, you can bring in your 3-D set, put on the headset and draw your path right out. It’s capturing where you are in the 3-D scene as well as how fast your hand is moving. So, you can get full components within there. And then you can also just draw one on the screen. And then we have these powerful editing tools that you can change that shape really quickly, change the timing really quickly. So, again, just to give the artists a lot of control and a lot of room to experiment with that performance. And then this path just gets passed down along the pipeline so they can start interacting with things and scenes so you can see it.”

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In addition to the challenge of Gale, the animators had another major challenge to overcome, with the addition of a water spirit called the Nokk — a mythical Norse water horse. Animation Supervisor, Svetla Radivoeva, went into detail about how they brought the Nokk to life:

“The Nokk is part of Nordic mythology and folklore, and it’s a shape shifter character. The directors decided to keep the Nokk in the shape of a horse. So, the direction was to be as realistic as possible to a horse and have any funny expressions. So, we in Disney Animation love to do research. I studied a lot of horse anatomy, locomotion, quadruped motion, but also we really wanted to go deeper and went to the equestrian center to observe beautiful horses and also talk to a trainer to learn a little more about their personalities and habits. The trainer told us that horses are very peaceful animals. But our horse, our Nokk, is actually a warrior and protector of the Dark Sea. We thought of it as a wild stallion that just hasn’t been yet tamed… We try to use this information throughout the whole process. So, the next step was doing some rough testing with the Nokk. Since it’s made out of water, we were a little worried of how expressive it would be and if we were gonna be able to track its emotions. Even though it’s an animal we still wanted it to feel alive. So, this was very right out of the box without any other department but us (Animation). And we felt very happy about it because we knew the next departments were going to support our performance as much as possible. So, we love to come back to the visual development drawings; they’re so beautiful. One of the things that Bill and his team did was that they made like the hooves kind of break when they take out of the water since it’s made out of water, and it’s running on water. So, this is a 2D test that I did early on. Once I could take the puppet that we animate in Maya, I try to stretch the hooves and make this break. And we gave this to Effects, and they built on top of it. And we were really happy with the result! It kind of felt like the drawing was, so this character is super collaborative. Usually we kinda own 100 percent of the performance in Animation. And with the Nokk we had to share it with three more departments: Effects, Tech Anim, and Lighting.”

Effects Supervisor, Erin Ramos, jumped in to describe the role Effects had in bringing the Nokk to life. “We have this realistic performance from Animation and we have hair from the Tech Animation department. But how do we make this creature feel like it’s made out of water. So, this is a draw-over done by one of our Head of Effects, Marlon West. And he’s exploring ‘what if its mane was a sheet of water’? How much spray would come off of it? So, here we’re just kind of exploring how watery we wanted it to be. We also looked to real oceans and what elements exist in the physical world to see what we would add to this horse to make it feel like it’s part of the ocean. So, we ended up taking the curves from Tech Anim and running extra simulation on them to add spindrift and mist and spray, and all those things that you see on stormy seas. We also added a little bit of undulation to the body so it doesn’t feel completely solid. So, it feels like there’s water flowing constantly on the surface of this horse. And the biggest challenge is always to make sure we preserve the performance of animation. So, we wanted to make sure that its face was clear. You could see its expressions. You could see the ear movement. But we still felt like this character was dynamic.”

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The results certainly speak for themselves, as every scene they showed us featuring the Nokk was utterly breathtaking.


As the highly informative panel concluded, it was clear to see that the animators behind Frozen II were put to the ultimate test with this film. Every creatively brilliant attempt to up the ante from the previous film ultimately lead to a great deal of collaboration and hours of hard work to realistically expand the world of Elsa and Anna in the name of stellar storytelling. That said, after what we saw, it looks like every painstaking minute spent on bringing this world to life was a gamble that paid off, and one that will rock the industry to its core, and push every boundary in the field of animation beyond its current limits.

Soon audiences and fans will see that for themselves, when Frozen II hits theaters November 22, 2019.

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