×

How the ‘Frozen II’ Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

“The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake of movement, and it gets in the way of feeling.”

For Bresee and Smeed, who started with Disney on the same day 23 years ago and share an office, it’s gratifying to see the pieces fall into place as the film’s Nov. 22 release date approaches. The follow-up to the 2013 Oscar-winning smash hit “Frozen,” the sequel reunites much of the team behind the original movie to explore the origins and limits of Queen Elsa’s ice powers. Watching kids replicate moves they’ve animated is satisfying, say Bresee and Smeed, but none of that would exist without the animation team’s imagination and painstaking efforts to bring the characters to life.

“Our most important job is to make the character think and feel,” says Bresee. “Really great animators are able to push emotion — a simple [dart of the eye] can mean something. It’s all those subtleties that really bring the character to life.”

To put the scope of animators’ work into perspective, a good pace is completing one second of the movie per day. With 24 frames per second, that means a 90-minute movie has nearly 130,000 frames. During production, each day includes a two-hour discussion of dailies that comprise only 40 seconds of footage.

As the animators figure out the best way for their characters to express themselves, they rely on a mix of their own hand-drawn sketches of key positions and on acting out the scenes on camera themselves. 

An acted scene isn’t supposed to be directly transferable, though. “You may as well do a live-action version” if you do that, says Bresee. Instead, “you take certain poses, certain expressions and little things that maybe you don’t even realize you’re doing. When you [add it to the animation], it brings the character to life.”

One of those details is to show the characters’ breathing. While audiences may never consciously notice it, “if it weren’t in there, you’d feel like there’s something wrong,” says Bresee. 

Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck noted the importance of breathing as well. Both recall extensive conversations during the first movie about that subtle movement — “particularly breathing while singing and registering where that breath is,” says Lee, who wrote both films.

While it may seem as if the movement should be easily transferrable in a copy-paste approach, that kind of simplicity doesn’t work because of the distinct mannerisms created for each character.

“Elsa walks differently than Anna,” says Smeed. “Elsa’s very reserved, with less movement, unless she’s in action.” Adds Bresee, “Anna might use her whole body to do something that Elsa would do with a blink. Their movements are very specific to who they are.”

A large part of animation is casting the crew, because a scene with Elsa singing could be completed in myriad ways. A team of 75 animators — overseen by additional supervisors — is assigned work based on the members’ talents and preferences, for instance a love of musical numbers. For the new song “Into the Unknown,” Elsa flips her braid over her shoulder. That wasn’t a scripted direction but an action that animator Kelly McClanahan conceived for the character. 

There are a multitude of body control points available to make minute adjustments. “Every figure has three to four different controls for each individual finger,” says Smeed. “You get into the face, and there are tons of different lip controls.” 

Elsa, who has bare feet in “Frozen II,” was designed with controls that animate each joint of each toe so her running would look realistic. The joints can move on a total of nine axes of rotation, scale and translation.

Bresee says the job is all about nuance. One thing to avoid, for instance, is moving the head and eyes in line with each other. Problem is, she says, that’s what the computer wants to do. Another Disney animation trick of the trade: “We have this thing with our characters that if the eyes are centered in the middle of the lids, they tend to look like zombies. So, you try to tilt the head so it’s not so even.” 

More Artisans

  • Will Smith Gemini Man Special Effects

    How the 'Gemini Man' VFX Team Digitally Created a Younger Version of Will Smith

    More human than human — yes, that’s a “Blade Runner” reference — yet it sounds like an unattainable standard when it comes to creating believable, photorealistic, digital human characters. But the visual effects team on Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” set its sights on something even more difficult: creating a digital version of young Will Smith [...]

  • Jest to Impress Cartoon Network Virtual

    New In-House VR Program Helps Cartoon Network Artists Add a Virtual Dimension

    Teams of animators and artists from across Cartoon Network’s numerous properties are getting the chance to expand into virtual reality storytelling via the company’s pilot program, Journeys VR. The work of the first three teams — including experiences based on action, nature and comedy — was unveiled to global audiences Oct. 1 on Steam and [...]

  • Frozen 2

    How the 'Frozen II' Artists Created Believable Emotion Through Animation

    “The more believable you can make the character [look], the more people believe how [it’s] feeling,” says Tony Smeed, who, with Becky Bresee, shared the challenge of heading animation on Disney’s highly anticipated “Frozen II.” “Emotion comes from inside and manifests itself into actions and facial expressions. Anything beyond that is movement for the sake [...]

  • Lucy in the Sky BTS

    'Lucy in the Sky' DP Shifts Frame to Show Inner Turmoil of Natalie Portman's Astronaut

    What drew cinematographer Polly Morgan to “Lucy in the Sky” was how Noah Hawley’s script so clearly illuminated the emotional breakdown of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) in a way that felt very insular: The visual cues were on the page — and conveyed an unusual approach to charting the character’s journey. “When things fall [...]

  • NICKI LEDERMAN and JOAQUIN PHOENIX Joker

    How Makeup, Hair and Costume Team Gave 'Joker' a New Look for Origin Story

    “We’re not in the superhero world,” says Nicki Ledermann, makeup head on Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which reimagines the iconic comic book villain’s origin in an acclaimed performance from Joaquin Phoenix. “This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting.” In this most recent take on Batman’s nemesis — a [...]

  • Exceptional Minds VFX Autism Training

    VES Honoree Susan Zwerman Trains People on the Autism Spectrum for Film, TV Jobs

    Most of those who have earned the honor of VES Fellow in the past decade have been recognized by the Visual Effects Society for on-screen innovation. But this year’s honoree, Susan Zwerman, is equally distinguished by her off-screen accomplishments. Zwerman is the studio executive producer for Exceptional Minds, a visual effects and animation school for [...]

  • Bullitt Rexford Metz Cinematographer

    Second-Unit DP Rexford Metz Took to the Sky and Water for Memorable Shots

    King of the second-unit cinematographers, Rexford Metz is second to none when it comes to getting shots on the ground, in water or high in the sky.  He operated the camera during the famed 10-minute chase sequence in “Bullitt” on the streets of San Francisco in 1968, and it was his coverage of muscle cars [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content