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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.” 

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