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– by James Burns

Burbank, CA. The unknown calls to us… Our curiosity gets the better of us. As an audience, we crave mystery in our films like we do popcorn or soda. For me, it started at a very young age. Right off the 134 freeway in Burbank, there sits a giant-sized, blue and white Wizard Hat made famous by one Mickey Mouse. We lived here in the valley for a short time when I was only nine-years-old. A fan of the Disney even back then, I would watch as we passed the same Wizard Hat and a building that read “Animation” in big bold letters, and wonder what unknown stories were being cooked up inside. Well, it took twenty-one years, but I finally got to find out when LRM Online was invited to a special behind the scenes look at Frozen 2.

I was reminded of the old show Walt Disney Presents when the friendly security guard at the gate instructed me to “park in the Zorro parking structure.” I used to love to watch Zorro, along with the rest of the vintage Disney lineup, on the Disney Channel as a kid. It would come on late at night and was a Godsend when I couldn’t sleep. This place is AMAZING, I thought as I parked my car and marched passed a Cars-inspired fill-up station. After a short walk, I was right underneath that big, blue hat I had only ever seen from the freeway.

Inside, I was greeted by the always friendly Disney staff and ushered down a long corridor lined with production art, sketches, and imagery from some of Disney’s most famous animated films. I climbed the steps and came to a very trendy hospitality area, complete with its own coffee shop, a library filled with old Disney Books, and some delicious breakfast prepared for me. The walls were decorated with beautiful Frozen 2 concept paintings filled with sweeping landscapes, glowing magenta, orange, and blue colors. Fall in full effect. Very different than the original Frozen, I said to myself. 

When Frozen debuted in 2013, it largely reflected the icy ideas that might accompany a movie named Frozen— cool tones, snow and ice, despite the fact that it took place during summer. But Frozen 2 is rooted in change, so production designer Michael Giaimo embraced the idea. “Anna and Elsa go on very specific journeys in Frozen 2, and they both grow and mature in the process,” said Giaimo. “Little by little they each peel back layers, revealing more and more depth and dimension in these characters. For me, that meant removing the layers of snow and getting down into the earth.”

Once full on oatmeal and gorgeous art, I was taken to a small theater back on the bottom floor of the building. There I was shown footage of Giaimo, who joined directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, producer Peter Del Vecho and director of story Marc Smith on an epic trip to Norway, Finland, and Iceland to study the landscapes, people and cultures. They spoke to historians, authorities in the local customs and cultures, and environmental experts and botanists. And naturally, their trip was scheduled during autumn—but it was more than the changing leaf colors that had an impact on Giaimo. “The height of the trees is incredible—and that works so beautifully in the Frozen language, which is based on verticality,” he said. “It was truly striking.” 

David Womersley, art director of environments, explained that since Arendelle was designed for a mostly winter environment, his team had to ensure it would look good in autumn. “When buildings are covered in snow, it creates a specific graphic look with cool colors,” he said. “Some of the buildings were originally designed to look good against snow and ice. Not only did we have to remove the snow from those we wanted to reuse, we had to adjust them to look good against a new backdrop that included not just trees and leaves, but fall decorations.”

According to Giaimo, the new palette in Frozen 2 embraced the colors of autumn, which is often symbolic of change. But traditional colors seemed counter to the whole Frozen world. “A fall palette means an incredibly vibrant environment with striking colors that I was initially concerned that it would pull focus from our characters, or look like a new place and time,” he said. “But we were able to create a Frozen version of fall that still felt cool. We minimized the yellows in favor of oranges, orange-reds, and red-violets. It’s distinctive to our world.”

The film is set, in part, in an enchanted forest—a location filled with foliage, but underscored in magic. “It is a beautiful place that’s entirely surrounded by a wall of mist,” said Giaimo. “There are people there who’ve been trapped for decades. We differentiate what fall looks like inside the enchanted forest versus outside—there are no blue skies in the enchanted forest. And since there is a wall of mist, there are deep layers of atmosphere that are filled with mystery.”

Finally, directors Chris Buck,  Jennifer Lee and producer Peter Del Vecho took the stage. Also shown was an extended version of the footage which I described in my D23 coverage a couple of months back. It began to become clear the themes and motifs of this sequel, a sort of darker approach to the fairy tales we’ve seen before.

“We realized there were lingering questions within us,” said 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?”

Said Del Vecho, “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.”

According to Buck, in Frozen, the world had just opened up for the characters. “They were trying to figure out who they were,” he said. “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.”

“If Frozen was happily ever after,” said Lee, “then Frozen 2 is the day after happily ever after. Life gets in the way. It throws you curve balls. So, this is about learning to fight for your place in the world, do what’s right, all of the grown-up things you have to do. There’s still fun and humor, but it’s a deeply emotional story about finding out who we are meant to be.”

“Elsa hears a calling that no one else can hear,” continues Lee. “She tries to block it, but it won’t stop. It shows her pieces of the past. It promises answers about why she is the way she is, so she’s compelled to find that voice.”

There’s that calling again. The mystery. The same thing which had drawn me to Walt Disney Animation seems to be calling Elsa to find out more about her destiny. But  “the answers promised by the calling also threaten her kingdom. Together with Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven, Elsa faces a dangerous but remarkable journey into the unknown to the enchanted forests and dark seas beyond Arendelle. In Frozen, Elsa feared her powers were too much for the world. In Frozen 2, she must hope they are enough.”

Much like the first film, which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 fairy tale The Snow Queen, Frozen 2 embraces the tenants of fairy tales, mythology and similar stories that were often written to explain the inexplicable. The all-new story takes place three years after the conclusion of the first movie: 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 that ultimately leads to a great adventure—one that will bring clarity to everything we know about these characters. “Frozen 2 is even bigger and more epic than the first,” exclaimed Buck. “But most importantly, in the end, Frozen and Frozen 2 work together to form one complete story.”

One of the most interesting aspects of everything we were shown of Frozen 2 was its darker tone. The trailers we have seen so far haven’t shied away from that, either. And, although there is humor in the film, I think it’s important to note that this may be The Dark Knight to Frozen’s Batman Begins. What sets Frozen 2 apart is its ability to lean into more myth than fairy tale. The filmmakers explained “We realized that in the first movie, we unknowingly had both a myth and a fairy tale going on at the same time,” said producer Peter Del Vecho. “Elsa was definitely a mythic character, which generally carries the weight of the world on their shoulders and does things the rest of us can’t. They also typically suffer a tragic fate—which might have happened to Elsa in the first film were it not for Anna.”

Director Jennifer Lee explained that Anna is the fairy-tale character. “She’s the optimist,” said Lee. “These characters are only human. They’re not magical, but often enter into the dangers of a magical world. They go into the belly of the beast, suffering hardship and loss with great struggles, yet rise triumphant.”

“Elsa is the perfect mythic character,” Said Lee “Mythic characters are magical, but it’s not aspirational, it’s about the hard answers and truths that we face. There can be a tragic aspect, too, so in that way, they teach us about ourselves.”

But what about the supporting cast? Footage was shown showing a scene where Kristoff–ready to take the next steps with Anna– attempts to propose and fails. “Anna and Kristoff fell in love at the end of the first movie,” said Del Vecho. “In Frozen 2, we get to see how their relationship evolves.”

According to Del Vecho, Kristoff’s efforts to pop the question go awry—often because Anna is distracted by what’s happening to Elsa. Anna loves Kristoff deeply, but is completely unaware of his plans for the future. And when Arendelle is threatened, Kristoff doesn’t hesitate to be there for Anna and Elsa as they journey into mysterious lands that even this well-traveled iceman has never seen.

Returning is everyone’s favorite, goofy snowman, Olaf, now with a “permafrost,” courtesy of Elsa’s magic, so he can finally enjoy summer. And Kristoff’s trusted reindeer, Sven, just as lovable as we remember him, and more a confidante than ever to Kristoff, as he struggles to pop the big question. One returning character is even getting a new voice: Queen Iduna, mother of Elsa and Anna, now voice by Evan Rachel Wood “There was something about Evan’s voice that we really zeroed in on,” said Del Vecho. “Her voice sounds like there’s something underneath it—something hidden from the past.”

Some new characters are joining the fray as well. A press release states “For years, Lieutenant Destin MATTIAS loyally protected his homeland of Arendelle, against their enemy, the Northuldra. But, in doing so, he became trapped in the enchanted forest, where he’s been for more than 30 years. He’s never forgotten his sworn duty to Arendelle, but the arrival of Queen Elsa and discovery that she has magical powers is just the first of many challenges to his long-held beliefs.”

Filmmakers called on Sterling K. Brown to provide the voice of Mattias in Frozen 2. Said Del Vecho, “We have always admired his talent and having Sterling work with us to develop this character has been a dream. We couldn’t be happier.”

For me, the most intriguing of all the new characters were those of the Enchanted Forest. Characters like the larger-than-life  Earth Giants who reside in the land, “The Earth Giants are made of rock and asymmetrical which affects the way they move.  They’re super heavy and this has to be conveyed through the animation.  Their size and their weight has to be conveyed through the animation.” explained Tony Smeed, Head of Animation

Or there’s Bruni, a cute little salamander whom I’m sure will be a new favorite and move merch quicker than your kid can blink. Art Director Bill Schwab said, “our main focus with this character was to make him as adorable and cute as possible.”

And boy did they succeed. 

Another interesting insight came when Gale the Wind Spirit was introduced. Filmmakers even had to invent new tech for Gale.  Schwab mentioned: “this was actually the first character the directors asked me to work on, on the film and the first question I asked myself was what does wind look like because we can’t see it.  And so we started to explore what might Gale move around. Leaves, sticks, debris and even thinking about Gale taking the form of an active character, using the environment to create that and also interaction with our character.”

Hannah Swan, Software Engineer, invented what they are calling “Swoop”, basically what looked to be an Oculus or PlayStation VR. “So a bunch of Animators and Technical Directors and Software Engineers like myself got together to talk about Swoop, which is that tool that you see over there. So basically, the idea was that we animate Gale by animating a path that it travels on.  We had two major things that we thought about in the making of this tool: the shape of the path and its timing along it. So, where it is in the 3D world, when it gets there, and how fast it’s going when Gale gets there.  In terms of functionality, we wanted to make it really quick and easy and hopefully fun both to author her path, to drop in the computer first time, and to edit it. The animators could really experiment with lots of different shapes and timing and then animate on those easily,” Swan said.

“Why Swoop,” you ask? Said Swan: “the tough thing was that we were animating individual objects one at a time. We could be animating 20-30 leaves in a scene; beforehand there was no tool that builds a simple path that is easy to manipulate. And really Gale is the interaction with a character, so if we had Gale wrapping around Elsa’s arm, and we receive a note to change (the motion of) Elsa’s arm, you also have to redo the path that Gale traveled on until there was Swoop.”

Gale is one of the spirits encountered, but the most impressive was the Nokk, which is a mean-looking water horse. “The Nokk is inspired by folklore and mythology from the Nordic region.  It’s a shapeshifting spirit but the Directors had decided it’s going to have the constant shape of a horse and the direction was to be as realistic as possible and to not have cartoony, funny expressions,” explained Svetla Radivoeva, Animation Supervisor.

Disney doesn’t hold back on research. Radivoeva even went to the Equestrian Center to watch horses. “The Trainer told us that horses are very peaceful animals and in the Dark Sea, the Nokk is a warrior.  It’s the protector of the Dark Sea and it will allow only someone that is worthy to pass by so we thought of the Nokk as a wild Stallion that has not been tamed.”

Erin Ramos, Effects Supervisor said, “The Nokk lives in the Dark Sea which is another environment that we visit in our movie.  So like the Enchanted Forest, we want it to feel mysterious but while the Enchanted Forest is enchanting, we wanted the Dark Sea to feel more dangerous and treacherous.” The dark sea has already been made famous by that epic first trailer featuring Elsa making a giant ramp of ice to combat the waves, only to have it crush and crumble, leaving her fate uncertain.

It’s in the Dark Sea that Elsa faces the Nokk in a mythic battle– Oh, the mystery! The questions unanswered! What will happen next? Ramos continued: “We had to find a way to generate waves that were big enough to feel like they’re a threat to Elsa.  So the first thing we did was some research.  We did not go to the Equestrian Center, but there are a set of equations that are out there that are used to model the motion of waves.  So we used that to drive our simulations and then plugged in different values for amplitude and wavelength, and ran random simulations and see what we got.” 

So much intelligence and artistic talent goes into making these films, which really are a labor of love. Each crew member I encountered at Disney gave me the impression of genuine passion for the project. Perhaps they too were once little kids who seen Disney animated films or passed the animation building and wondered what was inside. “Well, obviously we’re fans of a lot of these movies,” mentioned Tom MacDougall, the studio’s Executive Music Producer.

It was also announced that Kristen Anderson-Lopez  and Robert Lopez have returned for Frozen 2, writing seven all-new original songs that capture the emotion, fun, and intrigue in a compelling and forever-contagious way. They credited their daughters for inspiring a lot of the music in the first film, and it seems that perhaps some things never change. “The girls—Anna and Elsa—are growing up,” says Anderson-Lopez. “And our own girls are growing up, too. Our daughters are around the same age as Jennifer Lee’s daughter. They informed the choices we made with Frozen, and have also informed the choices we made with Frozen 2. As the girls get more independent and have to walk their own paths and face their own moments of crisis without us there to protect them, it’s ushered in a new era of parenting for us, which also made its way into the film.” 

Said MacDougall “Bobby and Kristen are certainly well-versed in the Disney animation catalog.” Adds Lopez, “The epic tone of the new movie was something we wanted to hit right from the beginning. So, the lullaby, ‘All Is Found,’ that Queen Iduna sings to her young daughters is meant to be a road map to the mythology of the story.”

The Animation Department is then tasked with building the final character performances and the final character acting for all of these scenes. “When you see a great live musical performance, there’s power in it, and there’s vulnerability and all of that feels super endearing which we think is its own kind of magic,” said Justin Sklar, Animation Supervisor. Michael Woodside, another Animation Supervisor noted: “So our question for Frozen 2 was how do we find a way to blend the magic of a live-action performance, whether that’s in the booth or on a Broadway stage, and combine that with what we know to be Disney magic and put that all in a way that the modern audience can appreciate it in a new fresh way, so one of the new things we tried on this film was bringing in a musical director, a vocal coach to come in and actually work with the animators in multiple sessions.  They often learn how to do breathing techniques to put it in their bodies.”

Sklar added: “Ultimately for us, what we’re really trying to create is this sense of believability.  For us, we think that’s about combining all of this design and all of this energy and building all of these tiny little pieces with some sense of the truth and what happens in the real world to create this magic that we’re trying to bake into, ‘Into the Unknown’.”

So, that was it. That was my day at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. And sorry Once Upon A Time fans, don’t expect Elsa’s run on the hit ABC show to be used as canon. When asked, Lee quickly said “No, that’s not canon.  We didn’t see it.  So I kinda made a point of certain things not to see so it wouldn’t affect us that way.  Frozen 1 and Frozen 2 to me are one complete story and that’s really where we stay.”

I’m excited to have Elsa’s mysteries solved and discover what happens to all our favorite characters when they travel into the unknown. Disney has sure succeeded in blending heart and humor– all while committing to the dark tone — in an action-packed adventure, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019.

As always, let us know how you feel about Frozen 2 in the comments! And for all things House of Mouse, keep it right here at LRM Online!

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