‘Frozen II’ Heads of Animation on Sequel’s Challenges & the Story Point That Never Changed

     November 5, 2019

Even though the filmmakers were still hard at work finishing the highly anticipated Frozen II in time for its November 22nd release date, they invited members of the media out to Walt Disney Animation Studios on September 6th to preview various parts of the film, as well as some of the new original songs. Directed by Jennifer Lee (who’s also the Chief Creative Officer at WDAS) and Chris Buck (Tarzan) and produced by Peter Del Vecho (who’s also Senior Vice President of Production, overseeing the production for all of the feature films at WDAS), the sequel to the highest grossing animated film of all time in worldwide box office will see Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) and Sven set out on a dangerous journey to discover the answers to why Elsa was born with magical powers, and they’ll learn whether those powers are enough to ensure their survival.

At an early preview day held at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with Heads of Animation Becky Bresee and Tony Smeed about the long journey of development for the sequel, what they’re most excited about audiences getting to see with the film, the amount of work it takes to get every small detail exactly right, how the throughline of the story stayed the same while things changed around it, how they ended up in animation at Disney, and the presence of Frozen merchandise in their own lives.

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Image via Disney

Collider: Obviously, you’ve been working on this for awhile now. What are you most excited about, with this finally coming out and knowing that people will get to see it.

TONY SMEED: For me, it’s just that. There’s so much about this film that we’re proud of, so to have to wait until November 22nd is painful.

BECKY BRESEE: It’s great that you get to see some of the great work that’s going on, and it’s so exciting to be able to finally share just that, but there’s so much more to it that we can’t wait for people to see. Part of the fun for us is that we have the wrap party and it’s great because we haven’t seen the film yet. We have ways to see the whole movie, but it’s broken up, so it’s great to see it all together and be like, “Oh, my gosh!,” and celebrate that. But what’s really fun is going to the theater with an audience that hasn’t seen it yet and experiencing it with them because you never know what they’re going to react to and not react to, and just to hear that and to see reactions. With the first film, I went to the El Capitan with my daughters, and we were sitting amongst people. When Anna froze, one kid behind me just started bawling, and I just wanted to be like, “It’s gonna be okay.” And we heard the reactions to Hans. There’s just a joy in that, to see how people are reacting to the work because we all worked so hard on this film.

As press, we get to see some of that work and what it takes, but general audiences don’t get to see the amount of work that goes into it and everything that it takes to put something like this out. What would you want them to know about the amount of work it takes and what goes into doing something like this?

SMEED: Oh, man, there are so many details. I don’t even know how to answer that because it’s a broad question. Animation wise, we’ve been talking about how, on this film, we have what we’ve been calling animation gold, which is these long emotional scenes, throughout the film. We don’t usually get that. We get a few, here and there, but this one chock full of just really nice moments that were very still. They’re very difficult to animate because the characters aren’t moving a lot, and how do you keep a character alive and moving enough, but not too much, and keep the emotional tie with the audience long enough, and make it feel spontaneous, even though you’re working on it for months.

BRESEE: Sometimes it’s really just through the eyes, and you think, “Oh, that’ll be easy to animate,” because it’s just a couple of eyeballs. But really, to get a thought through the eyes with very little movement is some of the most fun animation that you can do.

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Image via Disney

SMEED: And the way that the script was written, we always talk about how we go into issuing and we think, “Oh, this is a simple shot. The character just walks from over here to this spot.” And the directors would always go in depth about, “They’re not just walking over there. They’re feeling this way because of this reason. It’s actually a very sad thing, or a very happy thing,” and they would go into the subtext of how the character is feeling, and it would make the shot so much more about the emotion of it, rather than just the action of that character walking.

BRESEE: We’d have issuing meetings that would be between half an hour to an hour and a half, and sometimes even two hours, and we’d go in there knowing that we’d be finding something new out about this moment, or the character, or whatever, and we’d just be like, “What’s gonna happen now?,” hearing them talk. Jennifer [Lee] is the writer, so she has that in her head, as well, but they both have such a great grasp on it that they’d always bring something new to us. It’s fun.

We know that animated movies change a lot, from when they start to when they finally reach theaters. How much has this changed, in the years since you’ve been working on it, and were there any major changes that have happened?

BRESEE: These movies always change dramatically, from beginning to end. I think the throughline stayed the same, on this movie, with the idea of it being a journey to figure out why Elsa has her magic. It’s one of those things where things change around that, and sometimes I’m amazed at how much something can change, but it all comes together, in the end, in this amazing way. They’re both telling the same sort of story, but just in a very different way. It’s amazing how things shift.

SMEED: It’s fascinating watching the director’s work, and Jen with the writing, and the story trust that they have. After every screening, they talk about what’s not working and what’s working, and then they’ll go in and make these surgical tweaks. It seems like small, minuscule stuff, but in the end, it just makes everything mesh together. It’s extraordinary, how they do that.

It seems challenging in the sense that you could animate something really cool that then doesn’t make it and you feel sad about losing it, but at the same time, you’re happy if the movie gets better because you changed something. Is that a strange balance?

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Image via Disney

BRESEE: I love that the teams aren’t scared to make changes like that. It can be difficult, especially if you worked on a scene or a sequence, but ultimately, it becomes this thing that really resonates with people. They’re doing something right. You just have to shift and change with.

How did you each get into animation and end up at Disney? Was Disney always the goal, or was this unexpected?

BRESEE: I’ve always loved art and I’ve always loved Disney. I grew up near the park, so my grandmother took us to the parks, for the first time. Growing up, I would go to the re-releases. I wanted to be each princess, every time I saw one of them. At the end of high school, The Little Mermaid came out. I was in musicals in high school, and I just loved song and I loved Disney, so that spoke to me, in a very interesting way. What’s so fun about our department is that people come from all different ways. The path to animation is not just a direct thing. There can be many different ways that you get there. My path was before the internet, so I was like, “How do I do this?” We both started on the same day, 23 years ago, so it was a long time ago. We were finding our way. I dreamed about working here, and I hoped it would be a possibility, but it was one of those things where I was like, “How do I do this?” We both came in through the training program, actually. It’s a Disney tradition to have trainees and mentors. People that mentored us were mentored by the nine old men. It’s this pass along of information.

SMEED: My path was slightly different. I always loved Disney, but I never fathom the idea that I would ever get to work here. I was very interested in stop motion. When I was very young, my dad showed me how to make those films, on our Super-8 camera. It was crazy because I had my Star Wars action figures, and you had to hit the button as quick as you could, and hope it was only a frame or two. So, I grew up loving like [Ray] Harryhausen films, and things like that. When Jurassic Park came out and I realized that you could do this on the computer, I was blown away. So, I took some courses in that, and when that was over, I sent my reel out to pretty much every movie house on west coast. I wanted to make movies. I wasn’t even gonna send one to Disney because I was like, “They’re Disney. They’re never gonna take somebody like me.” But I sent one anyway, and they were the only one that responded. They brought me in as a trainee with Becky.

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Image via Disney

BRESEE: We started the same day, and have been friends ever since.

SMEED: It’s crazy.

Because the first film was so successful, there’s been endless merchandise that’s come out. Is there a favorite piece of memorabilia that you have or have seen, and is there anything that you’re hoping gets done for the sequel?

BRESEE: Anything Anna, really, is fine with me. What’s fun is that there are all of these little details in these things that marketing thinks up, and I want to buy every single one. My paycheck just goes right back into the company. I don’t know if there’s a specific thing.

SMEED: My daughter, Cora, has an endless supply of Olafs on her bed. She must have at least four Olafs, in different sizes and shapes. For every Disney movie, it feels like one character resonates with her, and then we have to keep buying plushes.

Frozen II is out in theaters on November 22nd.

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