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Every Disney animated film seems to top the last one in terms of artistry and technology. Once you’ve created Frozen and Moana, where else is there to go? That’s where Frozen 2 went. One artist who worked on all three films compared Frozen 2 to getting beaten up by the other two films! 

Frozen 2
Elsa, Anna and Kristoff in Frozen 2 | Disney

Marlon West was head of effects animation for Frozen 2, Moana and the original Frozen. Having worked on all three films, he said one scene in Frozen 2 was like all the hardest parts of all the other films.  Effects Supervisor Erin Ramos was also a lead effects artist on Moana and backed West up on those challenges. Frozen 2 is in theaters now.

How ‘Frozen’ and ‘Moana’ ganged up on ‘Frozen 2’

Frozen pioneered the ice animation and Moana took ocean animation to even higher levels than the Finding Nemo/Dory movies Pixar made. One scene in Frozen 2 combined them all.

“This sequence was like Frozen and Moana got together to gang up on a brother,” West said. “It was deeply challenging. I won’t say nightmarish but I did lose sleep.”

That scene was when Elsa faces the Dark Sea. She uses her ice powers to create steps to leap over the giant waves and into the sea to meet the Nokk.

Elsa and the Nokk in Frozen II
Elsa and the Nokk in Frozen 2 | Disney

“We had to actually create these waves for Elsa to run up against, to swim through,” West said. “ We had to actually create this water horse that exists underwater, that can kind of evaporate and reappear.”

‘Moana’ + ‘Frozen’ = The Dark Sea

The beaches in Moana were peaceful. The artists had to take those waters and churn them up for Frozen 2’s Dark Sea.

Moana - Disney
Moana | Disney

“Back on Moana, the water is clear, there’s minimal foam like you can see some of the caustic lighting reflections in the water that make it look really warm and inviting,” Ramos said. “So here’s a Frozen 2 shoreline. It’s rough, it’s raging, there’s a lot of foam, the waves are crashing right on the beach. You have all the elements in there that you find in a stormy ocean, like spindrift mist, and foam.”

Ramos’s team did computer simulations where they could adjust the amplitude of a wave and the depth of the ocean to make the waves tower over Elsa.

“You can see how the sudden change of depth in the ocean floor changes the break on a wave that’s the same amplitude and wavelength so you get very different results,” Ramos said. “We’re basically changing the amplitude values to try and get bigger and bigger waves. We’re starting to get waves that are three to four times her size so kind of like getting in the ballpark of what we need for this sequence.”

‘Frozen 2’ found one problem Elsa couldn’t solve with ice alone

Frozen 2‘s Dark Sea presents Elsa’s most formidable challenge yet, freezing an entire body of water. She can’t cover the whole sea with ice, but she can pick her most advantageous spots.

“Elsa makes this huge ice shape here really, really quickly, almost offscreen,” West said.  “She’s very, very much in tune with her magic in every way.  Elsa makes this gigantic ice slide and we actually worked with camera to kind of create this slide really, really quickly and has to happen very fast on screen and give you this since that Elsa has kind of solved this by making this huge kind of ramp.”

Elsa’s magic doesn’t always work in Frozen 2. Where would the fun be in that?

“Then we had to break it up when things don’t go her way,” West said. “We had to simulate this big wave, had to start to break up this ice slide. Then we went back, added more little tiny pieces of ice, actually more of a water simulation to actually make it a whole believable scene.”

Ramos and West had to create the sea before the animators could even figure out how Elsa interacts with it. 

“One of the challenges was that Elsa had to be running on top of this undulating water surface,” Ramos said. “We had to get in even before Layout to give them like some early water simulation so Animation had something to animate on.

Under the sea got even more challenging

The Nokk is the equine warrior whom Elsa convinces to guide her on the rest of her Frozen 2 journey. Horses have proven challenging for animation from Pocahontas to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Now add water.

The Nokk in Frozen II
Visual Development Art by Annette Marnat – Additional Visual Development. | Disney

“It was a big challenge to actually create a character that feels both like a character that has to be animated but to an audience, feels like it’s an underwater element,” West said. “This dance of how to make something actually believable underwater but still hold true to the character performance where you would still be able to see the expression on the characters face. Maybe even just its eye line just changing a bit but still have the body be warping and look like it’s underwater was definitely a big challenge.”