Looking out at the imposing glaciers and stormy seascapes of Iceland, the team behind Frozen 2 found themselves thinking, Now this is where Elsa belongs. The Oscar-winning original, 2013's Frozen, ended with Queen Elsa of Arendelle (voiced by Idina Menzel) assuming the throne, but filmmakers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee realized on that research trip that their ice queen still might not know her place in the world.
"We had to keep grounding ourselves in not trying to make Elsa someone she's not," Lee explained. "Elsa is the perfect mythic character. Mythic characters are magical, and they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. The mythic characters often meet a tragic fate."
Anna (Kristen Bell), on the other hand, is a model fairy-tale character, better suited to the whimsy and wonder of Arendelle. "She’s an ordinary hero. She's not magical," Lee said of the dichotomy. Those opposing world views will come to the fore as the sisters leave the kingdom behind and travel into the unknown in search of answers about their past. If Frozen brought the characters together, Frozen 2 will bring them where they need to be. "We had talked about where we saw the characters at the end," Buck said. "And our ending is very much what we originally talked about." During a visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios, ET sat down with members from each department -- animation and story, visual effects and environments -- for an exclusive look inside Frozen 2.
Elsa and Anna, Three Years Later
"Frozen 2" picks up three years after the events of the first movie, which ended with Elsa's act of true love thawing Anna's frozen heart and the two sisters vowing to keep the castle's gates open for good.
Normand Lemay, head of story: In the first movie, early on there were questions like, "Who's Elsa? Who's Anna?" Those are questions that have been answered. Now it's, "Where are they emotionally now? What's believable? What can be exciting? What's new information, something that hasn't been said, a stone that hasn't been turned over?"
Marc Smith, director of story: You've resolved an emotional story and you don't want to just come up with, "And now the gang has another emotional story that has nothing to do with that first movie!" You want to feel like, "That is a real event that really happened. These are real characters that went through this, and now let's go deeper."
Jennifer Lee, writer and director: I had never gone past the concept of Elsa wrestling with being different. Because the first film was so much about a character who is suffocating under fear -- her own fear and other people's fear of her -- I never thought past that moment when she's accepted. What does that feel like for her? And then the concept that there is more for her out there. Great, now you're accepted, but you have these powers for a reason.
Tony Smeed, head of animation: There's a big difference in the way Elsa is, too. This is three years later. They've kind of settled in and are like a family. There's almost a sense that she's lightened up, just a little bit. She's a little bit more loose and playful, more so than she was in the first one.
Becky Bresee, head of animation: You can see it in her eyes, the look of excitement. In the first one, it was fear, right? It's evolved into now she's excited. She's excited for what's out there.
Brittney Lee, visual development artist: They surprised me with Idina a few weeks ago. I was sitting at my desk, going over the process of designing the costumes, and she came in and I mean, I'm crying at her. And she's like, "I can't wait to see what she'll be wearing!" And I'm like, "You haven't seen it yet?" So I was showing her what artwork's been done, and she was very excited. She actually brought in her hair and makeup team to look at things and go, "Look at that! That's amazing. I love this braid." It was insane. Honestly, I blacked out at that moment.
Jennifer Lee: For Anna, it was so much about someone who had nothing to lose, so therefore she was ridiculously, dangerously fearless. But now she has everything, and what does that mean when you have everything to lose?
Smith: I know for a fact, yes, [the cast] have suggestions, or they'll have line readings or ways to read things. I know Kristen Bell's really opinionated. I think at this point, they all know these characters so well that they can sense if something feels wrong or if they feel like, "I want to push this in a direction." And I know Chris and Jen are really open to that. They're just like, "Yeah, go!" Because you get magic.
Doubling Down on the Men of Frozen
The original "Frozen" quartet remains intact for the sequel, with added screen time for both Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the latter of whom finally gets a full-length solo song, "Lost in the Woods."
Smith: [On Frozen], we learned that Olaf is great comic relief. That cannot be underestimated. It took a while. I remember Olaf not being my favorite character until Bobby [Lopez] wrote his song ["In Summer"], and then it was like, "Ohhh, there's Olaf. That's a character that really is fun to be with."
Bresee: This movie is deeply emotional, so we got to push the characters in that direction. On the first one, we did have a lot of emotion but this one pushes it even further. It feels like they've become more of a family.
Smeed: It's a group of people we know and love, but now they go off in this other adventure and they are confronted with things that change them and they discover things for the first time. They discover loss and how to cope with growing up and things like that, and we get to see it like a new version of these characters that we didn't see in the first one.
Smith: Everybody wanted Jonathan Groff to have a song. Everyone. And that was true with Frozen even, but it's just like, "Story drives it!" And there was no place for it in that one. In this one, there's a place for it.
Brittney Lee: Kristoff's costumes are highly elevated, as well. The fact that we were going on this journey into the woods -- which is a place where he should feel at home because he's a mountain man -- we didn't want to change too much on him. He has a very similar silhouette to what we've seen him in before. But we changed his details to reflect more of Arendelle. It's signifying that he's both at home in the woods and in Arendelle. Then color, so that he can be complementary to Anna, because someone loves a couple's costume.
Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay, visual development artist: I love a couple's costume. Never matchy-matchy but they complement each other. It just makes me happy when I see that, so you'll see some of that.
Sterling K. Brown also joins the cast as Lieutenant Mattias, an Arendelle soldier who's been lost in the enchanted forest for more than 30 years.
Smith: This is about the relationship between Anna and Elsa, and that is how we find new characters. It's like, "Do we want to introduce a new character?" I mean, everyone likes new characters, but unless that character has something to do with Anna and Elsa, they just die.
Lemay: Once it starts being like, "This character's going to stick in here," then the process of casting and the serious look for who is this person going to be starts to happen. And once we have that actor, that's when we've got to go all the way back and say, "Sterling K. Brown, he's amazing. That changes how he's going to react in here."
Smith: We had some very different versions of that character before he came on. I can't even remember all of them. And then once Sterling came on, the dignity of the character took over. He's really bringing a dignified, real dimensional feeling to this. That's one of those things where great actors can do that. You hear their voice and they just bring that sparkle.
An Alluring New World of Magic
Elsa's icy powers have only grown more powerful over the years, though hers won't be the only magic at play. The enchanted forest will introduce four elemental spirits, counting the Earth Giants, Gale the wind spirit and the Nokk, a majestic water stallion that Elsa encounters in the foreboding Dark Sea.
Bresee: We have a few new characters in the movie that were really effects-heavy, so we tended to collaborate a lot more with effects than even on the first one. The first one we did collaborate on Elsa's magic and on various things, but this one, it felt like we were diving into each individual character and trying to put all of our collaboration into those characters on this film.
Marlon West, head of effects animation: The cool thing about doing effects, especially on a film like Frozen, is the effects we do would be effects in a live-action film too. They're magic and explosions and huge water simulations.
Bresee: The character of the Nokk, we had a meeting weekly -- or even bi-weekly -- because we knew what it wanted to be -- we had the visual development artist part, which was beautiful -- but we were like, "Oh my gosh! How do we do that?!" All the departments would be in this one meeting and it was kind of a domino effect of people sparking each other and it was pretty exciting in that way.
Smeed: I remember when Svetla [Radivoeva] came on. She's in charge of the water Nokk, and she had brought in some images of water cascading. It was a very smooth sheet of water that was pouring over and she had it in slow motion. You could see all these little shapes and how the water tears apart and regroups, and that was one of those things that was like, "Whoa!"
Bresee: And we actually see that in the movie.
West: We all worked on Moana together and we had the ocean as a character in that film. And that was just, like, a sock puppet character. It would wave or shake its head, and then it would turn back into water.
Erin Ramos, effects supervisor: I feel like Frozen 2 was, like, take that times 10.
West: Even then, it was a back and forth with our character animator brothers and sisters about how to make this ocean character not look like a gelatinous monster that lives in the ocean, but looked like the ocean. The Nokk is a very actorly character that needed to be able to blink its eyes and flick its ears and still look like water.
Dale Mayeda, head of effects animation: I'm really proud of the whole dark sea sequence, which is in the trailer. It was really exciting for that to be the very first thing that the world got to see. Originally, they were like, "I think we're going to put out the teaser with, like, one shot and then it says Frozen 2," and that was it. And then they were like, "Actually, we're going to do half the sequence and it has to be done by Christmas." [Laughs]
Ramos: Somebody in the hall one day said, "How does it feel knowing that's going to be the first thing that anyone is ever going to see in the world from Frozen 2?" And I was like, "Oh god, I didn't think about it that way. This better be good!"
Venturing "Into the Unknown" With New Music
"Frozen 2" will introduce seven new songs into the canon, including the Idina Menzel showstopper "Into the Unknown" and "Some Things Never Change," which the cast performed live at D23. But the big question is: Which is the new "Let It Go"?
Bresee: We really don't know what that's going to be, only because we didn't even know on the first one what that would be. The songs started coming in and just like this movie, we started humming them and waking up with them in our head and going to reviews and just enjoying the songs, instead of doing our jobs. [Laughs]
Smeed: We didn't know "Let It Go" was "Let It Go."
Paul Del Vecho, producer: What we had to do is go back to the same way we made the first film. Start with the characters, the story we're trying to tell, let the story evolve and tell, you know, what the songs need to be. That takes time so you can't rush that process. And they've come up with seven very different -- from each other-- songs for this movie.
Chris Buck, director: We pitched it to Bobby and Kristen [Anderson-Lopez] and talked about the idea of Frozen 1 and Frozen 2 being a complete thought and almost one movie. You look at Frozen 2, then, as Act 2 of a Broadway musical...and a lot of times in Act 2 of any musical, things get a little deeper, a little more emotional, maybe a little darker.
Bresee: ["Some Things Never Change"] is one of those songs that's a little bit lighter and you're excited to see the characters again. In my head, I imagine that first time you see Elsa again, people will be like, "Yay!" I know I'm going to be doing that in the theater. And then you see Anna and you're like, "Oh my god! Who's next?!" So it was fun to try to brainstorm like, "What could make this scene funnier? What could make this scene more emotional?"
Smeed: And knowing where everything's heading from that point of the musical is also an interesting thing.
Lemay: [For "Into the Unknown"], the first thing I was working from was the demo. It's just Bobby on the piano and Kristen singing, and we just go from there. You're just trying to follow the emotion of the song and trying to figure out like, "How do I evoke those feelings that these lyrics are giving me?" And really trying to take that character from one place to a new place, a change that will launch herself into the story.
Buck: Like the first one, there were a lot of songs that didn't make the cut because the story evolved. The same thing on this one: the story evolved and there were songs that we did love, that we loved in the moment, we loved them for the month or two that they were in, and then suddenly it was like, "Oh, the story we're telling just doesn't support that anymore." So you have to make that painful decision of like, "We've got to take that out." But something stronger always comes in place of that.
Smith: We had a song in this really early on and everybody loved it. They were even starting to animate it, and then it was just, "No, we can't, we can't do that." Everyone's like, "No! We love that song!" I don't know what the plans are for releasing those songs. I hope they do.