On a recent visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA, I got an early look at Frozen II and some of the sources of inspiration behind this new story. Among them were ancient folktales that have been passed down for generations. “I read a lot of old Norse sagas, went back to Hans Christian Anderson, but even deeper into some of the old folklore, some of the Sámi stories that were indigenous to Scandinavia,” Co-Director Jennifer Lee explained. “The Nokk stood out a bit because the Nokk had come from old Norse myths and the wind spirit from Sámi and all Scandinavian culture. The fire spirit… had come from that, and then when we were walking in Norway the concept that there were earth giants throwing rocks around.”
All of these legends found a home in the sequel to Frozen, but audiences start to get some foreshadowing during Elsa’s first big song of the film, “Into the Unknown.” You get a peak of it in the trailer, where Elsa’s ice magic takes the form of some creatures she’s never met before. Dale Mayeda, Head of Effects Animation, shared some insight on this moment. “Elsa actually becomes surprised and intrigued when her magic is taken over by some other force. And in order to help convey that story point, we started to change the direction of the snow magic and the movement and the speed and the color to help convey that idea that something else has taken over her magic. It was really important to the directors that at this moment, you don’t think that Elsa is actually conjuring up any of these ice visions that she’s seeing.”
In this article, we will dive deeper into some of Elsa’s ice visions and the spirits she and her friends will encounter in the Enchanted Forest on this new adventure coming to theaters November 22nd.
Gale – The Wind Spirit
Art Director of Characters Bill Schwab recalled his first day on the project with Gale. “This was actually the first character the Directors asked me to work on in the film and so my first question of course was ‘how do you draw wind?’ I had no idea what to do. So we started using debris, leaves, sticks – things that would be in the forest to help define this character.”
“Gale especially was one of the biggest challenges because, as you can imagine, you’ve got a character who is using nature’s elements to describe itself,” Co-Production Designer Lisa Keene shared about bringing a wind spirit to life in the film. “How do you get Gale, who’s made up of something that is in the environment, to show off of the same environment? So, that was a challenge, and that’s where we were splitting hairs often, hue wise, to get that character to perform so that we as an audience could see it.”
Due to the technical complexity of animating Gale, legendary hand-drawn animator Mark Henn was tasked with creating some test animation that could be used as a reference. In collaboration with Effects Animator Dan Lund, the two were able to create a visual language for Gale that the computer animators could use. But first, some R&D was needed. Software Engineer Hannah Swan had the solution and a new animation tool called “Swoop” was developed to bring Gale to life.
“We can animate Gale by constructing a path that she travels along,” Hannah explained about using Swoop. “We have two major things that we have to think about and that is the shape of the path that she’s on and the timing of it. So how fast she’s going along that path. In terms of functionality we really wanted to make it quick and easy, both to author the path and to edit it so the Animators can really play around with that design space and get the performance, if they want, and be able to edit the performance. So we can author path several ways.”
Known as Landvættir in Norway, Earth Giants are spirits that appear as a gathering of rocks or clumps of land. “These guys are made of rock and they’re asymmetrical which drastically affects the way that they move,” explained Head of Animation Tony Smeed. “They’re also super, super heavy so the animation has to convey both their size and weight.”
“One of the most challenging things about these guys, aside from the mobility, is how do you make a giant creature made of rock feel like it’s living and breathing?” Tony continued. “If you look at human beings when we breathe our chest and stomach expands and our skin stretches. But with these guys we can’t stretch anything. If the rock stretches or if it bends it’s going to completely ruin the whole feeling of it being made of rock. So in order to pull it off our Supervising Animator, Wayne Unten, along with Chris Pedersen, Rigging Supervisor, had to devise ways and try to think of ways to automate slippage of rock rather than bending of rock.”
When you see them on the screen, you won’t have to think as hard about the physics of Earth Giants as the animators did. “In the end, we still had to do a little bit of management with just placement of rocks and got a lot of help from Tech Animation as well, but all that work that those guys did ahead of time really helped us concentrate on the performance of the Earth Giants, instead of managing the rocks,” Tony Smeed concluded.
Water Spirit – The Nokk
The Nokk goes by many names in different cultures and even takes different forms depending on the region. But in Scandinavian myths, the Nokk is a shape shifter who most commonly appears as a man. When taking animal form, it typically manifests as a horse and that is how Elsa meets the Nokk in Frozen II.
Character Designer Annette Marnat was the first artist tasked with creating a version of the Nokk that felt at home within the visual language of the Frozen world. She answered some important questions, including what a horse made of water looks like and how much water was the right amount.
“The Directors decided early on he’s going to have a constant shape of a horse, the direction for him was to be as animalistic and realistic as possible,” Animation Supervisor Svetla Radivoeva shared. “So we weren’t going to do any cartoony funny expressions. We were going for an animal. So we had to do a lot of research on quadruped motion, locomotion, horse anatomy. We watched a lot of video clips, but also we like to go a little deeper with research. So we went to the Equestrian Center and spoke to a horse trainer and she talked to us about how horses are very peaceful animals. Our water horse was supposed to be a warrior, a protector of the Dark Sea, so we thought of him as a wild stallion that had not yet been tamed.”
“Something else we learned about the Nokk was that with horses you don’t really see their eye direction, but you can kind of cue where they’re looking at and where their attention is based on which direction their ears move,” Svetla added. “So the ears show that a lot; they can also show emotion. If the Horse is angry the ears will be down. He also can show whether he respects the rider or not; if he’s listening to the rider and the ears are towards them, they respect them. If not, probably not. So we try to use this knowledge throughout the movie.”
Because the Nokk is made of a substance that is typically handled by the Visual Effects Department, the Nokk is one of the most collaborative characters the studio has ever done. Effects Supervisor Erin Ramos shared her experience with the Nokk. “We have a realistic performance from animation and we had hair that moves like hair from the Tech-Animation Department, but when it comes down to it this is a creature that’s still made out of water. So it’s up to the Effects Department to make it feel like it’s a water creature.”
“In the end there was a lot of elements that we added to make the Horse feel like it’s part of the ocean and we took inspiration from the things you actually see in real life,” Erin Ramos concluded. “Like mist and foam and spindrift, which is the water that blows off the top of waves when the seas are very windy. We incorporated that into the effects for the Nokk too. So it really feels like it’s part like the Dark Sea, making the surface of his body is not solid, it’s constantly moving. It’s flowing as if it’s made out of water.”
There was one elusive spirit that Jennifer Lee mentioned during my visit that the presenters remained silent about. If you go back to the top of this article, she mentioned it and then caught herself and said very little about it. I take this as a clue. After all, Elsa has ice magic and nothing fights ice like fire. I guess we’ll all have to wait until November 22nd to learn more about the mysterious fire spirit and to watch Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven find out if the spirits we just met are friend or foe in Frozen II.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.