The Disney+ docuseries goes Into the Unknown of the making of the biggest animated film of all time.

By Nick Romano
June 27, 2020 at 01:24 PM EDT
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Frozen 2

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  • Movie

Into the Unknown isn't just a docuseries about the making of Frozen 2. It's a peek at the man behind the curtain. In this case, the animators of Walt Disney Animation. It's a look at how that "Disney magic" is created, told through the lens of directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and their team of creatives.

Over six episodes, the Megan Harding-directed series, currently available to stream on Disney+, fulfills many objections. It dazzles fans of Frozen and the sequel with a look inside the recording booth as Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, and Evan Rachel Wood performed their voice roles. It satisfies cinephiles with a deep dive into the process of crafting animation—how much work goes into a 10-second blip of footage. It also illustrates why it takes years to make an animated film of this size.

The biggest surprises, however, come through the intimate moments with the creatives: Wayne Unten, an animation supervisor for Elsa, tearing up while reading meaningful fan responses to how the first movie impacted their lives; Buck opening up about the death of his son; and the subtle impact Lee has by being a female chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the docuseries.

Diary of a Snow Queen

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Before Lee sat down to write a screenplay for Frozen 2, she began with a diary. "I was trying to ground myself in Elsa," she says in the premiere episode, "and so I started to write as her, a journal. And then Chris would read it and be inspired and he would do drawings."

Lee shares an excerpt from her Elsa diary for the cameras, an entry that would give way to the character's "Into the Unknown" musical sequence: "Something happened to me last night. It was the first snow of the season... it fell, it called to me. I think I hid it well. As soon as night fell, I made an excuse to go to bed early and slipped out into the fjords. Nature's snow is more beautiful than mine could ever be."

Buck comes with an animation background and Lee a writing background. Between the diary and the early drawings, Lee says, "You kind of see Chris Buck as Elsa and me as Elsa, one's words and one is drawings."

Story Trust

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There's a benefit to working in the same building as filmmakers who created some of the most iconic animated movies of all time.

Every three months, Lee, Buck, and producer Peter Del Vecho screened Frozen 2, in whatever current state it was in at the time, for directors and writers from across Walt Disney Animation. That included names like Adele Lim (screenwriter for the upcoming Raya and the Last Dragon), Ron Clements (co-director on Moana, The Princess and the Frog, and The Little Mermaid), Byron Howard (director of Zootopia and Tangled), and Josie Trinidad (head of story on Wreck-It Ralph and Ralph Breaks the Internet). What happens in the aftermath is called a "Story Trust."

Disney Animation's Story Trust is a feedback meeting where these creatives from other Disney projects can offer critique. Sometimes the feedback can be brutal, Lee says. Kristen Anderson-Lopez, one half of Frozen's Oscar-winning composer team with husband Robert Lopez, likens the process to building LEGO structures only to rebuild it after someone comes in with a baseball bat.

About 11 months out from the scheduled premiere of the movie, the biggest questions were around clarity of the story. Does the voice calling out to Elsa come from a magical river at Ahtohallan or does it belong to a person?

Movement training

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The magic of animation is that it's inspired by reality. The animators of Frozen 2 offered peeks into how they were able to capture different movements for the characters and, really, everything around them.

Malerie Walters, who worked on a piece of animation for the finale to "Into the Unknown," had her boyfriend ride along on a skateboard and record her movement running and leaping on the sidewalk as research for how Elsa would chase after a glowing light. In a later episode in the series, Alexander Snow records himself dancing in a private studio to learn how the body moves. This was used to inform the movements of Olaf. In another instance, animators gathered to record video of a scarf flapping in a fan's breeze so they could animate the garments forming onto Elsa as she transforms into the Snow Queen.

A song for Kristoff

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The Lopezes heard your criticisms about Frozen, that there wasn't a big musical number for Groff's Kristoff. The actor says he always thought of "Reindeers Are Better Than People" as a song, but the composers wanted to really give Groff, a Broadway star from Spring Awakening and Hamilton, a proper piece.

An early attempt was a song called "Get This Right." In episode 2, storyboards illustrate Groff's recorded performance for how this scene would've played out if it ultimately didn't get cut. The sequence is all about Kristoff anxiously trying to propose to Anna but everything seems to be too awkward. "I wanna get this right," Groff sings as the character hastily uproots an entire rose bush for his love and accidentally sets a candlelit table on fire. "I wanna thrill you in the way you deserve. I wanna blow your mind, darlin'. I'm just having trouble..."

After the scene was cut, the Lopezes promised Groff "an emotional rock ballad." That became "Lost in the Woods." It's "the '80s power ballad we always wanted to write, the kind you sing alone at 3 in the morning after you've had a breakup," Kristen says.

The tragic origin of Ryder

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The story of Frozen 2 is the story of those who made it, which gives Into the Unknown a unique emotional weight. Each creative poured themselves into the work, from the tear-jerking fan letters that fueled the team to balance their personal lives with the demands of the film. By episode 3, one story in particular—the origin of the character Ryder—reveals how Frozen 2 helped Buck cope with grief.

Towards the end of production on the first movie, Buck's son Ryder died in a car crash. "The wrap party was the weirdest thing for me," the co-director remembers. "One moment people would come up to me and say, 'I love this movie,' and then 10 seconds later say, 'And I'm so sorry.' And I got that all night." Buck points to Bell's song "The Next Right Thing," which reminded him to get back up and keep on.

It's not a coincidence, either, that there's a character named Ryder who shows up in Frozen 2, as voiced by actor Jason Ritter. "Jen was the one who... she asked me was it okay if we named one of the character's Ryder," Buck says. "We've given him more to do [in the movie] because he's a very light spirit, he's a very positive character. He's actually really fun; really, like I said, kind of hopeful."

Into the Unknown then takes us inside a backyard concert fundraiser Buck and his family planned to raise money for a music scholarship set up in Ryder's name.

Audience previews

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The Story Trust screenings brought high pressure to the team, but the first audience preview exceeded that.

A few short months before Disney Animation was to unveil Frozen 2 to the world, the studio set up a test screening in San Diego. They brought in various adults and children, as young as 6 years old, to come and see the movie. They didn't know what it was—not even that it was a Disney release—until they settled into the theater. Afterward, they filled out a survey to let the directors know what worked and what didn't. After that screening, everything changed. Well, not quite everything. But a lot.

Del Vecho puts it in terms of numbers: the animators had to come up with 61 brand-new shots and redo 35 others, while Lee had to go back and rework the script. The biggest takeaways were, again, around clarity. Adults seemed to like it, but kids didn't fully understand who the voice was calling out to Elsa and what the transformation meant in the end. Some other learning moments: they needed to add more comedy, everything involving Olaf killed with children, and it was the first time they learned that the fire salamander, Bruni, should be more prominent because he's just so cute and adorable. Many viewers wrote in, unprompted, that the salamander was their favorite character.

And when it oftentimes takes weeks to come up with mere seconds worth of animation... yeah, there's pressure there.

Another good thing that came out of this, though, was Olaf's dramatic recap of the first Frozen movie. "We had all this exposition of grown-ups going, 'Why are you here?' So now we gave the expositional stuff to Olaf," Lee says. And we have Snow and Olaf animation supervisor Trent Correy to thank for the brief moment of the snowman dressed as the troll Pabbie.

"Show Yourself"

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It's not a surprise that a lot of work went into the climactic musical number of the whole movie, but it was still being tinkered with close to the 11th hour.

It goes back to a question that popped up in the earlier Story Trust: who is the voice calling out to Elsa? Everyone agreed it was an entity, but they had long debates about what or who it was. A few months out, they decided the voice would belong to Elsa and Anna's mother, voiced by Wood. Once that was decided, they were able to link it back to the melody of Queen Iduna's lullaby from the beginning of the movie.

Then comes the animation hurdles. The team worked for months developing this floating glacier that would become Ahtohallan, from individual ice structures to how Elsa's transformation sequence would play out. With about four months to go, production designer Michael Giaimo explains to Lee his idea to have the four elemental diamond shapes rise up to become Elsa's dress and complete the culmination of her journey into the Snow Queen, the fifth element. Dan Lund, an effects designer, then had to figure out how that would happen exactly through the animation.

Pieces of this process are sprinkled throughout the entire docuseries and goes to show how ever-shifting the filmmaking process is, especially with animation. It's not until four years after work first began on Frozen 2 that the film was finally locked.

The magic touch of improv

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Just as tweaks to the animation are often done on the fly, so too does are tweaks to the voice work. Gad shows just how much improv in the recording booth plays into the development of Olaf's character.

"Improv has been such an essential part of my journey in creating Olaf," he says. "And from the very first scene in the original Frozen, 'Hi, I'm Olaf and I like warm hugs,' that came from play. That came from Jen and Chris saying this character represents youthfulness and naivety, and those two words allowed me to just explore and find these nonsequiturs that made the character spark."

In the case of Frozen 2, it happened when Gad was recording dialogue for Olaf's introduction to the Northuldrans. The line was meant to say, "You've never seen a talking snowman before." "But what's the not obvious version?" Gad asks Lee and Buck. "I'm guessing you've never seen a naked snowman," Lee replied. So then Gad riffed, "Oh yeah, sorry. I just find clothes restricting."

The art of foley

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Foley artists don't get a lot of credit these days, but these legends of Hollywood offered some of the final touches to Frozen 2.

Odin Benitez and Jeff A. Sawyer from the Disney Animation sound department recorded the sounds of actual rocks grinding up against each other to create the audio effects for the rock giants, but most of the other pieces were farmed out to foley artists at Skywalker Sound, part of Lucasfilm. Into the Unknown goes inside their studios to see how Shelley Roden used the sound of gloves on dirt to create the effect of Bruni walking towards magical lights in the sky.

Animation, as Del Vecho says, starts out as a silent film before these folks put their magic touch on it.

Cutting room floor

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In episode 5, Leah Latham, a story production supervisor, shreds pages upon pages with all the different iterations of the movie developed so far. It's a physical manifestation of everything that is left on the proverbial cutting room floor and there's so much that wasn't touched upon in the docuseries.

What was were moments like "See the Sky," an entire musical number sung by the people of Northuldra and the Arendelle soldiers trapped there after Elsa reveals her magic—meaning Brown, who voices Mattias, would've had a song to sing if it hadn't been edited out.

Correy also reveals that, after the audience preview, eight of the shots he created— two months worth of work—were cut. Those scenes involved Elsa bringing Olaf back to life at the end of the movie. We see close-up shots of water droplets levitating off of leaves and transform into snowflakes before the wind spirit Gale carries them to Elsa. When moments like these are cut, Correy says, "It's not just me, it's the story artists, it's whoever rigged these plants or the drops, it's the lighters, the tech animators. When you're cutting a shot, you're cutting a dozen people's shot." But, he agrees, "If it's gonna make the story better, I'm all for it."

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Frozen 2

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  • Jennifer Lee
  • Chris Buck

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