When Frozen hit theaters in 2013, it was a mammoth success. The film scored two Oscars in 2014 for "Best Animated Feature" and "Original Song" (“Let it Go”), earned $1.2 billion globally (making it the highest grossing animated film of all time), sold 4.1 million soundtracks by June 2016 and set forth a princess “Anna/Elsa” frenzy among little girls all over the world. With those kinds of achievements, you would have to wonder how Disney could possibly resist making a sequel. Well, the answer is, it couldn’t! The masterminds behind the film — director/writer/chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, director Chris Buck and producer Peter Del Vecho — have traveled far and wide (literally!) to bring fans more of a very good thing. On November 22nd, audiences will finally be able to head to theaters to see the highly-anticipated sequel,
“We realized there were lingering questions within us,” says Lee. “We wondered what Anna would do now that she has everything she’s ever wanted. We felt there were unanswered questions about their parents and where their ship was going when it went down. And the biggest one: Why was Elsa born with magical powers?”
“There was something about these characters that still was very interesting and appealing to us. We wanted to know more — we felt that their story continued,” adds Del Vecho.
According to Buck, one of the defining moments when the team realized there would be a sequel was when “we were doing the short, and the first time our characters were animated again and we looked at each other and said, ‘We love these characters.’ So that, and just talking about what could be next for them, and getting inspired that there’s more story to tell. There were so many unanswered questions for all of our characters that was very exciting.”
“I remember it was around the holidays of 2014 and we looked at each other saying, ‘Yep, we’re doing it,’” laughs Lee. “We knew it because we couldn’t stop talking about it.”
FOLKLORE, FAIRYTALES & MYTHS
The three filmmakers jumped back in and, joined by production designer Michael Giaimo and director of story Marc Smith, journeyed to Finland, Norway and Iceland for some inspiration by surrounding themselves with the environments and some of the regions’ folklore, fairytales and mythologies.
According to Buck, in Frozen, the world had just opened up for the characters. “They were trying to figure out who they were,” he says. “But it feels like they’ve graduated college now. They’re getting their lives together. We wanted to know what that means for each of them.”
The sequel does, in fact, pick up three years after the conclusion of Frozen. Elsa is queen and Anna is happy to have everyone she loves — Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven — under one roof. The bond between sisters is strong — and anchors the story. But, according to the filmmakers, there is an underlying current of unrest and angst. Elsa is the only one who keeps hearing a voice in the distance, calling out to her through song. Ultimately, it leads to a great adventure for the characters — one that Disney promises will bring clarity to everything we know about them.
Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad return to Arendelle as the voices of Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf, respectively. Evan Rachel Wood (HBO’s Westworld) joins the cast as Queen Iduna, Anna and Elsa’s mother, and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Black Panther) portrays Lieutenant Destin Mattias. Also returning is the hit songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez with seven new offerings, and most of the same creative team from Disney. Lee and Buck have co-directed the film once again, as well.
The demands for this film were high. Animators, visual effects artists, the filmmakers and editor, set designers, etc., all had their challenges. There were new characters to develop, including several that are a bit unconventional, such as a mythical water spirit (a horse) called a “Nokk,” the water itself (beautifully created, yet darker than in Moana), and even the forceful winds named “Gale” that the characters meet once inside a magical, enchanted forest. Even the color palette in the film has changed, since it takes place in fall, leaning more towards oranges, yellows and reds, even showing much more of the village itself, and giving the environment team a few things to think about.
“The challenge was to give the audience something new and exciting,” says Buck. “Once we went with this idea of our characters growing up and maturing, we then went with the idea of setting [the story] in the fall and letting the nature and environment support what’s going on inside our characters, so as the year is maturing with autumn, our characters are maturing also. Even with fall, there’s some grittier feel to it, things get a little more vivid and real, and that’s what was happening to them, too.”
“In Frozen 1, we did use the village, nowhere near as much as we are in Frozen 2,” says David Womersley, art director of environments. “So we had to change the colors. Or we felt we should change the colors because we have these rich alternate colors now with the trees. The original colors we had on the buildings themselves were these very rich jeweled colors.” This, according to Lisa Keene, production designer, looked great with snow, “but didn’t look so great with autumn” (laughs).
“We gave Arendelle, the whole Arendelle, a paint job basically,” adds Womersley.
ADVANCEMENTS IN ANIMATION
The animation team, lead by Becky Bresee (head of animation) and Tony Smeed (head of animation), had a number of sequences and characters to work out for the new film. But advancements in technologies and techniques certainly helped.
“Everything’s gotten better at the studio,” says Del Vecho. “We have stronger technologies, advancements, our artists advance, everything is great. The story [they] came up with expands the world of Frozen. It’s not only a different look, but just the idea that there’s magic in nature and now nature becomes a character — those are all big challenges, one that the crew was very excited about solving. This is a big movie, though, in scope and scale, and it is bigger than Frozen I."
“The thing about animation, the most expressive thing are the eyes and the face and for a writer, the subtext is critical and reading subtext on the faces, the nuances, and the rigs have gotten so fantastic, the subtlety of what they can do, the expressions, it blows me away,” says Lee.
“Things did change, the rigging did get better,” says Bresee. “We had to rebuild all of our characters. There were little things that were hard for us in the first movie, that were helpful to put in the rig for the second movie. It was intended for the characters to look exactly the same, but obviously there are little differences, one of the bigger things was Hyperion, our renderer changed. So, for instance, in the first movie, if there was a big crease when they smiled, you keep the crease, it would have to be defining and crisp because when it rendered, it would soften. So you were always doing rendering tests. On this film, it was kind of the opposite, cause Hyperion did so well in picking that stuff up, you almost had to soften things in order to balance it out. They look slightly different in very subtle ways, but yeah, it’s meant to kind of have a through line from the first movie to the second.”
“Each film builds on the last film, so the things that have happened over the course of the last several films, since Frozen, have become better,” says Smeed. “Things like topology, the way the face is built in the cross sections of the mesh and how it’s laid out on the face. We’ve discovered new ways to make that, make the face flow better when we’re going in and out of expressions. Which is why we had to go back and rebuild the character rigs, because if we put the old rig in this new topology, her face would just explode. Speed wise, our rigs got a lot faster, so better iteration time. But the way we animated the first Frozen is exactly the same way we animated this Frozen.”
According to Bresee, some of the bigger challenges not just for animators, but for the whole creative team, were in developing the new characters.
“They were very heavy in effects and animation, but they involved all the departments,” she says. “Steve Goldberg, our VFX super, was really great about getting all the players in a room weekly or bi-weekly, and all the departments, and have the visual development editor say, ‘Oh my God, this is beautiful, but how do we do that?” And so it was this little playground that we had for all the ideas to come to the surface — the ideas would come from everywhere. It would kind of build and go back and forth between departments which really, makes for a more organic character. It can be very complicated and challenging, but ultimately, the end product is very cool.”
Relying on their own propriety tools as well as Autodesk Maya, which Smeed describes as “an industry standard,” the team focused a bit more on the characters’ breathing in this film. “That’s something we spent a little more time and effort on, this time around,” says Smeed.
“We had that in the first Frozen,” adds Bresee, “but we just pushed it further here. They even brought in people to talk about singing and a singing coach. We were all learning and these are things we can take with us to the next film, too.”
The visual effects team for Frozen 2 was headed up by Marlon West (head of effects animation), Dale Mayeda (head of effects animation) and Erin Ramos (effects supervisor), who stress that the success of Frozen 2 was much in the hands of all the departments working closely together.
“There were so many parties that needed to come together to pull this off,” says Mayeda. “A lot of the performances start in animation, but then it effects us in visual effects and being able to pull all the pieces together and tech animation is involved. We have so many meetings together to really tie all of this together. Figuring out this new workflow and style of collaborating was a whole other level from what we’ve done before. That was a lot of the big challenge, all of us working so tightly together so we can build this one thing.”
West points to the “Into the Unknown” sequence as one of his personal highlights. “Elsa’s magic is being used to create something she’s not in control of for the first time, so it has to look like her magic, and be beautiful and wonderful, and yet hint towards things that will happen later without giving away too much,” he explains. “For me, that’s a nice sweet spot.”
“I really like the dark sea segment, especially since it was the first scene we put out there to the world and it was something that was a big challenge, in terms of, how do we have a character running on a moving ocean?” says Mayeda. “We were working with the other teams, but added the design of Elsa freezing the ocean and creating this kind of barrier that she runs across. We were able to add this style and design against all these threatening aspects. It really was very challenging but it was also really fun. And I love how it all turned out.”
“Especially since it was such a collaboration between so many departments,” adds Ramos. “To get that sequence together, working so closely with animation, and just having that sense of team and getting it done and having it look amazing. I’m so proud of how that sequence came out — especially after seeing the boards and thinking, ‘Wow, this is ambitious’ (laughs). We started it almost a year ago and to be at this point now, is great.”
For editor Jeff Draheim, a 25-year Disney veteran who worked on some of the studio’s biggest films, including Moana, Frozen and The Princess and the Frog, it took a little convincing at first to realize the vision of making a Frozen sequel.
“Oh my God, I was like, ‘Why do we need it?,’” laughs Draheim. “The first one was so great, how can we possibly top it? But I tell you, what changed my mind was, I had a conversation with Peter, and spoke more with Chris and Jen, and they started talking about what the story ideas were, and saying, ‘You know, there are a lot of unanswered questions from the first movie.' And the more they talked about it, I was like, ‘You’re right! We have to make this movie.’ At that point, I was completely onboard.”
Draheim, whose been cutting Disney films on an Avid editing system, says he worked just as closely with the filmmakers on the Frozen sequel as he did on the first film. “We got into that same groove and rhythm again, but this film, I feel like is a little more mature…The characters are older, and I think we were all trying to make sure that we were making a movie worthy of a sequel. I think it’s so easy in a movie like this, to say, 'Let’s just make it an Olaf fun fest.' But we didn’t want to do that…We wanted to make sure we’re really layering in and that these characters have a rich texture to them and a rich background. Really become a good story.”
For Draheim, he says he did feel the pressure of trying to equal the success of the first film. “The biggest challenge for me was just knowing that we had to follow Frozen I,” he says. “We were just constantly, from Day 1, making sure that we had a solid story that was engaging and entertaining. I felt like the world was watching us.”
The hard work, challenges and true team effort appears to have paid off with a sequel of grand proportions...Bigger than anything…Well, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but as Buck sums it up, “Frozen 2 is even bigger and more epic than the first film. But most importantly, in the end, Frozen and Frozen 2 need to work together to form one complete story.”
Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of Frozen 2’s animation and VFX in our Nov./Dec. issue.