×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

Popular on Variety

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

  • VFX Studio Framestore Launches Suite of

    VFX, Animation Studio Framestore Launches Pre-Production Services Unit (EXCLUSIVE)

    Visual effects and animation studio Framestore, which won Oscars for “The Golden Compass,” “Gravity” and “Blade Runner 2049,” and whose recent work includes “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in movies, and “His Dark Materials” and “Watchmen” in TV, has launched FPS, which offers a suite of pre-production services. The move sees the company’s [...]

  • Mark Lanza

    Mark Lanza Elected as New President of Motion Picture Sound Editors

    The Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) has elected Mark Lanza as president. Lanza succeeds Tom McCarthy. He previously served as treasurer to the organization and begins his two-year term in January. Lanza has been a sound professional for 30 years and is credited on more than 250 feature films and television shows including “Born on [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari BTS

    'Ford V Ferrari' Wins Top Prize at 56th Annual CAS Awards

    James Mangold’s “Ford V Ferrari” won the Outstanding Sound Mixing Motion Picture Award at the 56th CAS Awards. The film’s sound mixing team Steven A. Morrow, CAS; Paul Massey, CAS; David Giammarco, CAS;Tyson Lozensky, David Betancourt, and Richard Duarte were on hand to accept the award. Mangold had an extra reason to celebrate the night [...]

  • American Factory

    'American Factory' Editor Had to Cut Down 2,000 Hours of Footage

    Editor Lindsay Utz admits filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert never fully counted the hours of footage shot for the Oscar-nominated documentary “American Factory,” but she puts it close to 2000 hours. Utz pored over the footage that Bognar and Reichert had spent over three years filming and whittled the story down to just under [...]

  • Cinematographer Roger Deakins poses for a

    Roger Deakins Wins ASC Award for '1917'

    Roger Deakins has won the top feature award from the American Society of Cinematographers. The win for “1917” marked his fifth win from the society. The evening kicked off with the ASC Opening reel highlighting cinematography, followed by the first award of the night for Documentary. “Joker” director Todd Phillips presented the inaugural Documentary Award [...]

  • Tesla Movie Sundance

    Five Artisans Talk About Their Work on Buzzy Sundance Titles

    At this year’s Sundance, 118 features will make their debut. Here are five hotly anticipated films that will be in the mix and some of the artisans behind them.  Bad Hair (Midnight) Costume designer Ceci reconnects with Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) on a satirical horror set in 1989 Los Angeles, where ambitious Anna (Elle [...]

  • Joker Movie

    Make-Up Artist Nicki Ledermann on the Stages of 'Joker' Face

    When “Joker” make-up artist Nicki Ledermann came on board, she had some ideas in mind for the film and presented mock-ups to director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix — and both Phillips and Phoenix had already played around with ideas and showed Ledermann photos. “I had to take the design and it was up [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content