“Into The Unknown” is just one of seven songs that will be featured in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming Frozen 2. Sung by Idina Menzel, it is an extraordinary ballad that is paired with a stunning sequence that is perfectly choreographed and staged. We got a small one-look sample of the sequence during the D23 Expo, where it was met with a huge amount of applause.
During our recent sneak preview of Frozen 2, Geeks of Doom and a select group of journalists learned about what goes into making a visually stunning musical sequence, including the costumes, hair design, effects, and more.
Check out how visual development artists, the story team, music producers, the animation team, and what the effects artists had to say about what it takes to put a musical sequence together below.
Frozen owes much of its success as an animated musical to Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the EGOT winning musical writers of all of the songs of the original. Now the two are back with seven original songs, with one of them being “Into The Unknown,” a powerful ballad that is sung by Menzel.
Co-director and writer Jennifer Lee said that if the success of the first Frozen was to be replicated, they had to bring a lot of the key people back. This meant bringing the same working relationship they had from the first into the sequel.
“We made a pact. When we connected with Bobby and Kristen, we were just about a year out and didn’t know that it would be picked up by later generations. We are still naive in that sense. But we made a pact that we would build the second one in the same way as the first, and not let that pressure into the story room because every song has to come from the story, just like it did before, and every moment has to be true. Any time any one of us was nervous like, ‘I heard this. I heard that’ we would just ground each other. I think we had to, or else it wouldn’t be an authentic story. I think in many ways, at the end of the day, just like we didn’t know what the world would think of Frozen, we can’t know, but we can know that we did build this in a way we believed in and there’s a lot of real emotion, and real shared experiences, and real story that was driven that the first one was.”
One thing that motivated co-director Chris Buck to come back was the audience’s reaction to the first. He said:
“The response from the audience was actually very exciting because the audience loved the characters as much as we did. We wanted to tell more story and the audience wanted to know more, and that propelled us and kept us going.”
Each of the leads will have their own songs, with Elsa having two. We’ve already heard the one, “Into The Unknown,” which sees Elsa acknowledging the distant voice that calls out to her while simultaneously denying that she will answer it, only to then realize that the distant voice may provide the answers to her questions about where she belongs. This second song, will appear later on during the film.
Though they could not elaborate on these songs, Lee said:
“We can’t tell you what they sing. I actually think that they are all really powerful songs in a sense of not only do I think they drive the story forward, but I think Bobby and Kristen really outdid themselves. It’s extraordinary music.”
After our talk with the directors, we were taken to another part of the animation studio where we talked to the artists and animators about what goes into building a musical sequence like “Into The Unknown.”
Visual development artists are largely responsible for designing the film and the design’s role in the film. They are also tasked with inspiring and supporting the story of the film and trying to infuse as much narrative as they can into the film and in animation. “In everything that you see, we’re trying to infuse a little bit of information to help the audience process the story and try to support the journey that we’re building,” visual development artist Brittney Lee said. “For a character like Elsa, costume and hair design are important because she’s very complex and constantly evolving, so we are really trying to help that journey along through what she is wearing, trying to infuse narrative in her costuming form the very beginning.”
In Frozen, we first meet Anna and Elsa as young girls who are bright and effervescent. However, as Elsa gets older, she becomes more secretive and secluded. Her silhouettes change and she becomes more restricted. Her gowns and dresses get higher collars, her sleeves and gloves are longer, and her hues deepen. And it is not until “Let It Go” that we see Elsa become her most authentic self.
However, those same darker colors will reappear in “Into The Unknown.” The stage for the song is set when Elsa and her friends are playing charades during family game night. The time of this is important because the audience will see that
Elsa is wearing a nightgown, and not a dress. “It’s an Elsa nightgown, so it can be pretty glamorous and that’s the fun with Elsa is that because we know that she can create her clothing via ice magic as she’s done in the past,” Lee said. “We’re not beholden with her after ‘Let It Go’ to restrict her materials to the real world materials that would be available in the Nordic region at the time.”
Lee added that the etherealness of the fabrics in the nightgown will help support the idea that she is this magical being. They also knew that they had to continue to stay on the cool side of the color spectrum for her nightgown, because if they went too warm, then “you inherently feel like something’s wrong.”
They ultimately went with a magenta and violet hue because they wanted to reflect some conflict in “Into The Unknown.” These color choices would also help reinforce the idea that Elsa is unsure about what lies beyond. “She’s a little bit reserved, at least to begin with, and so a darker deeper hue hopefully helps to support that,” Lee said.
Unlike “Let It Go,” “Into The Unknown” will take place within the castle walls of Arendelle. The castle itself is very rich and has deep dark hues, and it’s very cozy. Additionally, we see her interact with her sister and with Kristoff and Olaf and Sven in the Charades scene, so Elsa had to be cozy, which in turn would make the audience feel cozy and to help bring them all in and make you feel like you’re at a slumber party with Elsa and her friends.
Not only are we getting comfortable, but we are also re-familiarizing ourselves with Elsa. Audiences may notice that in this scene, her hairstyle has not changed. There was some discussion as to whether or not they should change those iconic braids, but the animators decided that it wasn’t right for the sequence because they wanted the audience to feel like they knew who these characters were.
Every single detail, no matter big or small, is looked at. From the last bit of embroidering and every thread to every bead and every sequin. The idea is to utilize every frame and every bit of the frame we can to tell the story. Hopefully, this will reinforce who she is and what she’s going through at any particular point in time. And you can see that in the little snowflakes that are infused in the nightgown. She is being her true self because snow is a part of who she is.
But there is this voice that no one else can hear, which keeps calling out to Elsa. And at some point during the film, she will finally call out to it. It is “their ‘I Want’ song,” as head story artist on Frozen 2 Normand Lemay puts it. So what makes “Into The Unknown” different from “Let It Go,” is that Elsa is doing the opposite. “She’s trying to not let it out,” Lemay said. “She’s trying, she’s shying away from what she truly feels. Those deep down, deeper questions that she has.”
However, that voice will continue to call out to Elsa. It is an outside force that will, bit by bit, get her to acknowledge the answers to her questions. But Elsa doesn’t want to have to do anything with this voice. In fact, she will do everything she can to block out the sound, including using everything around her like bed sheets or pillows to kind of just cover her ears and block it off.
Soon she finds the time to finally be alone so that she can address her current situation. And she does so in song. Lemay said:
“It’s about her inner conflicts. It’s about that back and forth. These deep questions are inside her that she doesn’t have an answer for. In fact, this voice is trying to let her to get them out, so I used a lot of self-reflection visuals, like mirrors or water. She’s pacing into the hallway still questioning herself.”
Like the Gale, this voice is an invisible character. But the challenge for the animators was to have this invisible character connect with Elsa. So they accomplish that through the idea of an invisible eye watching her in these shots. This invisible being continues to call out to Elsa to a point where the queen has to leave the castle, go to the fjords, and travel as far north as she can.
She is at emotionally vulnerable stage because she admitted to her friends and the audience that she’s not quite sure if she is where she’s meant to be. She’s also questioning her ice powers. Again, we don’t know the full extent of her powers as they have not been fully explored in Frozen or any of the subsequent shorts. “She can’t quite get herself to accept that she might not be where she’s meant to be,” Lemay said.
Though she tries to hide, block out the sound, or ignore it, the voice gets to her and it creates visions of what’s beyond the gates of Arendelle, where an enchanted forest lies. In this sequence, the audience sees that Elsa is seeing animals, visions, and memories, all of which to kind of strike some things that she’s heard of before, but at the same time that feels brand new to her as she sees them. Her reaction is to show off some of her powers, and the more she unleashes, the more the outside force and voice shows her.
It’s at the place, outside of the human realm, where magical things exist, and where the echos of the spirits of nature call out to Elsa. And during the progression of this sequence, Elsa’s body language and demeanor start to change. Because now she is listening. Once she was unhappy that the voice called out to her, but now she is smiling. She even finds herself trying to pursue this voice. Once she fully connects to it, the audience will see a big explosion of like little mini iced crystals with symbols that will have a big change in the story.
Elsa is surprised and even intrigued that her magic is taken over by some other force. But in order to convey that co-head of effects, Dale Mayeda and the rest of the effects team needed to change everything the audience knows about Elsa’s snow magic, which includes its direction, speed, and movement so that they know that an outside force has taken over.
With Frozen 2 being an animated musical, the goal is to inform and entertain the audience. So when a musical sequence does start the character is at one particular point, and at the end of that song and the audience will have new information or new understanding about that character.
Looking back at Frozen‘s “Let It Go,” the audience hears about how Elsa was taught to “conceal” and “don’t reveal” at the start of the song. But towards the end of it, the audience hears her screaming at the top of her lungs, even declaring the cold never bothered her anyway. This is the kind of transformation that the animators want the audience to see again in Frozen 2 with “Into The Unknown.”
Again, she has this voice that keeps calling out to her, but she doesn’t know how to connect with it, how to find it, or what it is. At the same time, she has these lingering questions about her ice powers. This would be the basis of musicalizing a sequence. So the animators will work together with the writers, directors, and story team to come up with pages to look at to see what the storytelling component of that moment is and then how to musicalize that. It is then sent to Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who will write the music and process a rough demo.
It is then up to executive music producer Tom MacDougall to work with the rest of the team to figure out how to imagine what it’ll be sounding like when it’s in theaters. They need to know how the song will help the movie. “If someone magically delivered us a song that was determined to be the greatest song that was ever written, if we put it into the movie and it doesn’t help make the movie better, we’re not going to use that song,” MacDougall said.
While this outside force or voice has shown Elsa some visions, they will eventually start to fade, which gives Elsa the opportunity to inject some of her own snow magic during the musical sequence. These ice visions start to form this kind of mystical magical misty sort of moment. This gives the team a chance to do some foreshadowing as Elsa decides to join and go inside, into the unknown.
Now that the effects team has a slight idea of what they want to do in order to move Elsa’s story arc forward during the musical sequence, they must figure out how to show it within the motion. They also have to figure out some of the beats, because it is important that the story is told through the effects, and makes sure that each effect will be synced to every musical beat.
Though Frozen 2 is a CG animated sequel, the effects team has quite a few artists that originally started doing 2D hand drawing effects. Those artists are especially helpful when it comes to trying to choreograph the style and the motion.
From there, effects lead Alex Moaveni uses an animation package called “Houdini’” to look at all of the elements, figure out how they can bring them to the screen, and recreate some of those visuals and bring them alive.
Animation supervisors Justin Sklar and Michael Woodside are responsible for building the final character performances and the final character acting for all of the scenes in the musical sequence. They need to know how to blend that live-action performance, whether it is in a booth or on a stage, and combine that with what we know to be Disney magic and put that all in a way that the modern audience can appreciate it in a new fresh way.
One way they did that was to bring in a vocal coach to work with animators in multiple sessions. They often learn about the breathing techniques that singers and performers put into their bodies. Taking what they learned, the animators would work on some of the finer details of the film, and maybe learn how to sing along the way. But those breathing lessons proved to be a very important thing to have in animation as breathing is a lot about generating power and energy.
“It’s super important for us to see Elsa push through these massive notes that Idina is hitting, but equally important for us is that anticipation and the setup with the inhale because we feel like that ends up making everything feel a little bit bigger in large part because breathing is about showing effort and when you show effort, you can show something that feels, again, vulnerable,” Sklar said. He added that this helps support the idea that “something impossible is happening.”
The animators also learned about the differences between a low breath and a high breath. Sklar said a proper singing breath is a low breath. “It comes from closer to your stomach,” he said. “It’s about inflating your ribs and not moving a whole lot of your body. Not introducing a whole bunch of tension into your body because once you’ve introduced tension, you sing worse.”
Sklar also talked about the importance of relaxation and control in most songs. The “big belty songs” end up by the end in something like a high breath which involves a lot more chest, a lot more shoulders, a lot more tension. The emotion and energy of the song overwhelms the singer’s ability to control it, and it becomes more about just how they will get air in their body so they can sing the song.
During the Elsa’s indecisiveness portion of the song, the audience will hear a lot of controlled low breath. It is only towards the end, that they will hear Elsa being more open and free. From there, we learned that it will go into a high breath because we can see a lot more shoulder and a lot more body involved, which will help create a physical trajectory that helps support the emotional trajectory across the sequence.
Of course, there is more than just breathing. There’s also tension in the body, the speed of the gestures, and the size of the gestures to consider. Most importantly, since this is Elsa’s song, we have to consider her face. As aforementioned, the song has a voice that is calling out to Elsa, who is not at all interested in acknowledging the voice. But by the end of it, all she is interested in is the voice.
The animators hope that the audience will see the characters realize the lyrics they’re about to sing before they actually sing, and then react to them after they sing it because this is new information to them that they’re just discovering on their own. “Something great about animation that I can just bring up as an aside is that we’re not really limited by real-world physics,” co-animation supervisor Woodside said.
Because if this were to be shot in live-action, having Elsa run up a hill and sing would not sound as beautiful as it does. However, because animation isn’t limited to real-world physics, they can build something that feels magical and feels more true than the truth. So while the actors aren’t filmed in motion-capture, animators have access to their recordings. They also take what they learned from the vocal coach. Because there’s a fair amount of translation that needs to happen between a performance that you’re doing in a booth and something like animation. Because the singers in the booth are focused on how to get the voice in the microphone, it is different from when the singer is on a stage.
Now that we know what goes into one song, just imagine that being down for six other ones. As you can see, there is a lot of collaboration between different departments and teams. Luckily, each of them can refer back to the recording booth footage and audio, vocal teachers, and even Bobby and Kristen-Anderson Lopez. Because there is a lot that goes into making something look as magical and powerful as a Disney animated musical sequence.
Frozen 2 opens in theaters on November 22, 2019. Click right here for trailers and more.