Animation Movies

Interviewing the Crew Behind ‘Frozen II’

Well folks, after a month-long countdown on our site, we are in the homestretch leading up to the release of Frozen II, and we’ve only just begun to break the ice (Wow. That was bad. Sorry.). I would like to extend my humble thanks to everyone who counted down to the film’s release with us, and we have a couple more surprises in store for you Frozen fans this week! For one, we had a chance to talk to the Heads of Animation for the film (Becky Bresee and Tony Smeed),  as well as the Head of Story (Normand Lemay) and Director of Story (Marc Smith) about the evolution of the project. Here’s what they had to say!

One of the big takeaways I got from the presentations was how collaborative this was. Moreso than most movies that you guys have worked on, you’re pulling in every team together. Were there challenges with working with those teams in terms of challenges to the scope, responsibility or vision?

Smeed: Uh. Actually all of those (laughs). A lot of the collaboration in the past is usually a central point of reaching out to other departments. Whereas for this one, from beginning to end of the production line, it was ‘these people are now here, and now over here, etc,’ and everyone is on top of it and working at the same time to create one thing. And so, it’s sort of an accumulation of ideas and thoughts along the way that got us to the point where we got. But in the end, because of that… it zigzagged all over the place over the course of months and months and months.

Bresee: Our visual effects supervisor Steve Goldberg was really great about bringing the players to a meeting. We had weekly and sometimes bi-weekly meetings for each specific character. The Nokk for instance… We’d have the visual development first, which was like “Wow! That’s so beautiful!” But then it was like “how do we do this?” And ideas would feed off of other ideas. It was great because no one said “This is what it’s going to be,” it was “what could it be?”

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Did the impact of the first film, and the iconography of the characters, affect where you wanted to take them from a story-standpoint this time around? 

Smith: It’s definitely something we’re proud of, and the fact that it connects with people is a gift. So I think there is a responsibility to not dishonor the characters… It’s something we cherish and protect. But just as you grow and develop in different stages of life, there’s always challenges… We just look for the natural evolution coming out of this. We just want to continue with that responsibility and be true to the characters.

Lemay: It takes place three years later. Those characters have grown up, and our audiences have grown up with them. And they’re now facing challenges that are a bit more mature. Or they’ve reached a point in their lives where they’re facing decisions that are deeper and asking the biggest questions in life.

When you think about creating characters from scratch, you have these abstract concepts that no one’s ever thought about coming to life. Can you talk about the challenges of designing these characters and bringing to life something no one has ever seen before?

Smeed: A lot of that was, we’d go into a meeting, and someone would say “We have to create a Wind Spirit.” And it’s like “How do you draw wind?” And I think when that question is posed to anybody, especially the team working on it, everybody’s imagination goes off. Everyone is thinking something different… It gave everyone an opportunity to explore where their mind went to, and let those great ideas rise to the top. So it was a slow build over many months.

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What’s the collaboration process like in terms of working with Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck in terms of evolving these characters? 

Lemay: Jen and Chris will always be the source of vision. And what they set out to do with this movie was answer a few of the unanswered questions from the previous movie, such as where does Elsa’s power come from, and where doe she go from there? Where do we take characters afterwards?… There’s always a script ahead of time, but we [the story team] jump in a bit early. And there’s a back and forth about how we can say something visually versus how we say it with dialog. So it works together instead of being just one or the other.

Smith: All directors are different. But Chris and Jen are extremely collaborative… they’re very open to ideas… they understand that the more voices you have — from different perspectives, cultures, or sexes — the more you have the stronger your film is going to be. And the stronger you’ll be able to represent the world we live in, the more the film will speak to more people… The process is usually around long conversations like therapy sessions…We just talk about life and experiences and things we’ve gone through. And that starts to make its way through the writing of the film and storyboarding of the film. And once we start boarding, the collaboration goes to the story team, and Chris and Jen sit in a room and we all look at a boarded sequence together. And everyone gives notes together, and you hear ideas. I think live-action is typically a medium where more directors will go “it’s my way or the highway.” But one of our strengths here at Disney is that we have a lot of voices and talent that are always considered.

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One of the things I loved in your presentation was when you all went on the field trip to Iceland and Norway. And you all thought about the mythical nature of Iceland for Elsa, contrasting with the fairy-tale nature of Norway for Elsa. Was that something you thought of at all in the previous film?

Smith: No. I think it was inherent in the character, which was one of the fun parts about the discovery. Boy, fairy tale. That’s really Anna. That’s Anna all the way through the first movie. She was positive, and believed in the happy ending and got it. That was nice that this was part of it. Whereas Elsa, in the first movie, was a more tragic figure. But coming into this, once we got it, and once we realized that totally fit within both of them, that gave us a guidepost to go forward… Anna does believe in happy endings and is positive, but she’s not naive. She has to work to be the positive person. And sometimes that’s harder. And I think that’s a real interesting dimension that we explore in this one.

Frozen is inherently a movie about sisterhood. When you think about the first movie it’s changed the entertainment industry in the sense that, young girls will look at Elsa and Anna and say “we want to be that character.” Having that influence from the first movie, did that affect the way you guys did your jobs in the animation department in terms of how the animation forms the characters since they are now cultural feminist icons in a time we need them?

Bresee: We are really driven by the story and the fact that we know these characters inside and out. That’s what is most important to us in terms of having them act believably as Anna and Elsa.

Smeed:  That’s the essence of animation. How is the character feeling in this situation and how does that feeling manifest in an action or oppose an expression… Anything beyond that is movement for the sake of movement.

Bresee: What’s fun is that we know these characters so well…And because we have that basis we’re able to go in and push them further in a believable way because we know them so well. They’re changing and maturing. That was part of the challenge but also the joy of our jobs.

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Smeed: The themes too are what they come in contact with. How they change. How they mature. How they learn about their past. How they deal with loss. Those are very relatable. And those are things they’re dealing with in this film.

Bresee: Another part of that too is like, one of the reason we do this, is because we know these characters sometimes change people, and make people think they really touch them. So we know that. And we feel passionately about bringing them to life so people can feel.

Now you’ve spent two movies with these characters, plus two shorts as well. There was a lot of development after the first film to create Frozen II. Having almost wrapped this one, are there still lingering threads you have that you would potentially want to see explored in potential sequels, like a Frozen III?

Lemay: Just making any movie is so hard and challenging. We’re so proud at the end of what we achieved in creating something satisfying narratively and emotionally, that we just want to put our pencils down and enjoy!

Smith: (laughs) It’s like asking a marathon runner on the last mile when their next marathon is!


Stay tuned nerds! We have more coming this week, including our coverage of the press conference with the cast and crew!

Frozen II hits theaters this Friday, November 22!

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