Frozen II: 8 Things We Learned at Disney Animation Studios

A visit to Disney Animation gave us insight into the development and creation of Frozen II.

We’re just two weeks away from the release of Frozen II, the long-awaited sequel to the 2013 surprise hit that became the highest-grossing animated film of all time until it was recently passed by Disney’s remake of The Lion King (yes, that’s an animated movie).

The original Frozen, based loosely on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, set all kinds of other records as well (including best-selling Blu-ray of all time in the U.S.) and became a genuine cultural phenomenon–there was a long stretch of time in which you could not escape the movie’s superb anthem, “Let It Go,” and it seemed for a while that every little girl in the world was dressing as either the loyal, endlessly optimistic princess Anna or her magically powerful, haunted sister Elsa.

A sequel seemed inevitable, but the writing and directing team of Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck have taken their time to deliver one, deliberately stretching out the process so that they could create the best follow-up they could. Because when it came down to it, Frozen succeeded because of the elegance and poignancy of its story, the remarkable depth of its characters, and the sheer beauty of the world and music that the filmmaking team assembled.

Den of Geek traveled on a recent afternoon to the headquarters of Disney Animation for a look at the process behind the creation of Frozen II. While we have yet to see the finished film, we were given multiple presentations on different aspects of the movie by members of the animation, art direction, and production design departments, from whom we learned a string of interesting and thought-provoking facts about the movie.

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1. How the Sequel Came to Life and What It’s About

Work began in earnest on Frozen II in late 2014/early 2015. As the story developed, it settled around answering some of the questions left unanswered by the first film: Why does Elsa have ice powers? Why doesn’t Anna? Where were their parents going when they allegedly disappeared on a stormy sea?

As the story begins, the gates of Arendelle are wide open while Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Goff), Olaf (Josh Gad), and Sven are all happy and content. But Elsa (Idina Menzel) is troubled by voices she hears that seem to emanate from the mysterious lands north of the kingdom. Warned by the trolls that she has somehow awakened and angered the spirits of the northern forest, Elsa sets out to solve the mystery with her sister and friends close behind.

Frozen II is ultimately a mythic fairy tale about home and family, self-discovery, courage, and the power to never give up,” says Lee, who adds that she was “fired” as the voice of Queen Iduna, Elsa and Anna’s mother, so that Evan Rachel Wood could play the role in flashback sequences (Lee had one line as the mother in the first film).

read more: How Frozen II Continues the Story of Elsa and Anna 

2. The Filmmakers Went on a Research Trip to the Top of the World

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In 2016, Lee, Buck, and producer Peter Del Vecho, along with the story artists, took a trip to Norway, Finland and Iceland to gather both creative and visual inspiration for the film. “We were deeply inspired by the beauty of these places,” says Del Vecho. “The fall colors of Norway, the waterfalls, the sort of stark beauty of Iceland.”

“It was kind of a stark contrast between Norway and Iceland that framed the concept for us,” says Buck. “Anna felt at home in Norway with its fairy tale settings, but Elsa felt strangely at home in this dark, mythic Iceland.” Del Vecho adds, “I think that trip not only inspired visuals in the world, but it did something else.  Just immersing us 24 hours a day in that environment, our imaginations truly were piqued. And so a lot of story ideas developed during that trip as well.”

3. The Movie Introduces a Number of New Characters in the Enchanted Forest

Among the fantastical new creatures introduced in the film are the Earth Giants, living beings made out of rock, a Wind Spirit named Gale, a Water Spirit called Nokk, and a salamander named Bruni.

“Earth Giants are made of rock and they’re asymmetrical, which makes them very difficult to move around,” says Head of Animation Tony Smeed. “They’re also super heavy, so we need to factor that in when we’re animating them… one of the toughest things to do is make these characters feel like they’re actually living and breathing creatures.”

As for Bruni the salamander, art director Bill Schwab notes, “Our goal with this character was to make Bruni as adorable as possible.”

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The spirits Gale and Nokk were less about being cute and more about conveying power–in the case of the former, doing so without a clearly visible creature. “How do you draw wind?” asks Schwab. “How do you draw something that isn’t there? 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.”

The Nokk, a horse made out of water, offered a different challenge. “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,” explains animation supervisor Svetla Radivoeva about this protector of the Dark Sea. Radivoeva adds, “The biggest challenges about this one was that we had to make the galloping of the Nokk on top of the moving, raging waves believable, since this is not something you really see in life.”

read more: The Top 25 Best Disney Songs from the Renaissance Era

4. How “Into the Unknown” Could Be This Movie’s “Let It Go”

Songwriters Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez returned to write seven new tunes for Frozen II, including the instant showstopper “Into the Unknown,” the song that Elsa sings as she makes her decision to journey to the North and find her destiny.

Animation supervisor Michael Woodside says he wanted the physicality of the characters onscreen to be as realistic as possible when they sing. “First things first, we got singing lessons for the animators,” he explains. “We brought in a vocal coach; he did multiple lessons, teaching us how to breathe properly and different singing techniques, like where to place a vowel and 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 learn finer details that they could put into the performances.”

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“Ultimately what we’re really trying to do is create a believable performance,” concurs animation supervisor Justin Sklar. “We think that’s about taking all of these little pieces of design and aspects of what would happen in the real world and combining them into this one cohesive performance that on every level, sells all of the information that we’re trying to explain. For us, I think that’s what the magic is and we really tried to infuse that not just with ‘Into the Unknown,’ but also every other song in this movie.”

5. Anna Went Through a Lot of Costumes in Development

One hundred and twenty-two, to be exact. That’s the number of outfits designed for the princess, according to visual development artist Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay. “Designing for Anna is a little bit tricky, because we decided that Elsa will always be in a light color so she looks like ice,” elaborates Lemay. “It’s challenging to find a color that would be brilliant enough, and strong enough when they’re next to each other. The chosen outfit is actually number 122… and, interestingly, this outfit was originally designed for Elsa!”

6. The World of Frozen Changed for the Second Movie

The whole look and feel of the world of Frozen–both Arendelle and beyond–had to be different for the sequel. Co-production designer Lisa Keene explains, “One of the conceits in Frozen was that it’s all covered in snow for the most part. So now we have to take all the snow off and reveal our design concepts underneath…That was something that very early on in our trips to Norway that we took back.”

Keene continues, “In Frozen, we focused around a jeweled palette. That was something that was sort of a winter palette, and it worked beautifully with snow, because snow is a blank canvas and we can put any color of light we wanted onto that. Dealing with fall was a completely different palette for us. When you look at all the fall color range, it’s everything from yellow to dark reds and browns, and it was all on the warm side of the spectrum, which was completely opposite to everything we had trained ourselves to do for the first one.”

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7. The Production Designers Did Civic Planning for Arendelle

“In Frozen, we did use the village, nowhere near as much as we did in Frozen II,” says art director David Womersley. “And when we did, it was isolated areas of the village. In Frozen II, we are going from one place to another, and we’re actually seeing motion from one place to another. So we had to do almost like a city plan to the whole village.”

Head of Environments Sean Jenkins adds, “Early on, we knew that we were going to have a song in the village. And we knew that the song was going to be the characters traveling through the village. So this was a point where we were really going to have to fill in all of the rest of Arendelle and make sense of some of the icons that we had seen before, say like the clock tower and the port, but really give it an overall consistency, a sense of history, a sense of place.”

Many of the new additions to Arendelle will be incorporated into Frozen-themed attractions at Disney parks. David Womersley says about the town in the movie, “It feels so much more now like a real town that you can actually walk around and actually visit, which is great.”

8. Frozen II Explores Whether There is Something Beyond “Happily Ever After”

“Fairy tales are ultimately about taking an ordinary person, putting them in something crazy and unknown, in the belly of the beast, and making great obstacles for them,” says Jennifer Lee. “But you show them how to persevere and come out the other side. The ‘happily ever after’ idea is that [way] of saying you can survive anything. I fundamentally believe in that. But this is saying, ‘Okay, let’s look past happily ever after and explore it.’”

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Frozen II is out in theaters Nov. 22.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye