Whenever a new movie comes out, there are featurettes that show us generic footage of the cast and crew in production, whether it’s on-location or somewhere on the studio backlot. There are interviews providing vague information about the story and characters along with some sneak peeks of the movie we’ve yet to see. Even the traditional special features included on home video releases of movies don’t often dig much deeper than that. But Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2, a new documentary series available exclusively on Disney+ starting on June 26, provides an unprecedented look at the creative process of making a Walt Disney Animation production, showing the challenges of making a movie that is being anticipated by millions of fans around the world, including moments where production doesn’t always go so smoothly.
Disney+ has been offering a weekly chronicle of the making of the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian with a documentary series where each episode focused on a different aspect of production. And now there’s Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2, a six-part documentary series from director Megan Harding that goes behind the scenes of Disney’s high profile animated sequel as the crew works toward the film’s premiere with only 11 months left in the production schedule. There’s a lot of work left to be done on the film, and only about 20% of the movie is completed.
The in-depth series follows the evolution of the movie as it continues to slowly come together, from the writing and recording of songs by married songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, to the progress of animators’ individual scenes overseen by directors Jennifer Lee (who is also the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation) and Chris Buck. The series focuses on cracking sequences that just aren’t working, not to mention screening the movie for Disney’s brain trust of animated filmmakers over and over again. There’s even time spent on some of the personal trials and tribulations that unfolded during the year leading to the film’s premiere.
The process of making a Disney movie isn’t too far removed from that of Pixar Animation. It takes three to four years to make a feature length animated movie, and it’s always changing along the way. That’s largely thanks to the movie being screened every now and then for fellow Disney filmmakers, a gathering of some of the brightest minds in animated storytelling. The directors and writers of movies such as Moana, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, The Little Mermaid, the upcoming Raya and the Last Dragon, and more all come to Disney to watch a rough, unfinished version of the movie comprised of storyboards, animatics, songs, dialogue, and whatever else is available in its current form. After each screening, this brain trust gives raw, honest feedback about the movie, telling the filmmakers to their faces what works, what doesn’t, what’s confusing, what needs improvement, etc. Nothing is off limits. Then Lee and Buck take notes and go back and make improvements to the movie until the next screening. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
But that’s just the surface-level explanation of how Frozen 2 marches towards the big screen. Where this new documentary series surpasses other previous sneak peeks behind the scenes of blockbuster movies is the time spent with filmmakers as they make key decisions in the evolution of the story. The series provides several ongoing narratives (at least in the first three episodes provided to us in advance) that reveal the collaborative nature of animated filmmaking, with each person playing a key part in how a movie like Frozen 2 comes together.
One thread follows animator Malerie Walters as she works on several shots for the movie, each requiring their own special touches as Lee and Buck guide her in giving them what they need for the movie. She begins with a shot during Elsa’s big musical number “Into the Unknown” and moves onto another from Kristoff’s big 1980s-inspired rock ballad “Lost in the Woods.” Cameras follow Walters as she sits at her animation station and slowly modifies the shots she’s assigned, along with guidance from the animation supervisors. You’ll watch as she pays attention to every meticulous detail on screen for what will amount to only a couple minutes of footage. She changes Elsa’s steps so they don’t seem so clumsy, and gets a little embarrassed when she shows how she utilizes several different amateur recordings of herself to assist in blocking part of a musical sequence involving several singing reindeer. It gives a whole new appreciation for just a single moment of animation, and even Idina Menzel watches in awe at what Walters is working on in a charming, candid moment.
Meanwhile, the biggest hurdle Lee and Buck face through the first three episodes of the series, other than finishing the entire movie, comes from the sequence involving the song “Show Yourself.” It’s one of the most perplexing and difficult parts of the entire production, mostly because they haven’t yet figured out who or what is calling to Elsa, which is the crux of her motivation in this sequel. It’s rather surprising that such an integral moment of the movie is still being figured out at this point in production. This struggle reveals how challenging it can be to bridge the story at the center of the movie, which is helped along by storyboard artists and story editor Marc E. Smith. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the frustration that comes from whipping this particular sequence into shape, highlighting just how painstaking of a process animated filmmaking can be, especially on this scale.
But for all the hardship that comes with making a Disney movie, there’s infinitely more triumph. It’s truly awesome watching Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck light up as they see the “Into the Unknown” sequence brought to life with a full orchestra for the first time. It has such a swell of power with all those instruments behind it, and the documentary lets the music shine, playing much louder over the lyrics than it does in the movie. There are also touching and crushingly honest moments, such as when Kristen Bell reflects on how the sequence with the song “The Next Right Thing” helped her deal with her own depression and anxiety, and it’s moving to watch her sing through real tears and she belts out the ballad in the studio.
Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2 is an informative and fascinating glimpse into the making of one of the biggest animated movies ever made. Some may not be captivated by watching footage of meetings between the various creators of Frozen 2 and seeing how the cartoon sausage is made. But for those who have more than a passing interest in cinema, especially animation, this is an eye-opening, satisfying endeavor. Plus, there’s still the usual footage of the cast recording lines and songs, but just with more time to show how long the process can take and how the filmmakers work with them to get what’s best for the movie. It made me wish I could go back and learn all the tricks of the trade to work in animation, so I can only imagine how it will inspire the next generation of animation geeks.
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