Very rarely do filmmakers know they are working on a big hit while they’re working on it. Everyone hopes for that, of course, but unless your movie is called Batman or Star Wars, odds are its financial prospects are a question mark right up until opening night.
In 2019, however, you can probably now add Frozen to that list. Frozen II opens on November 22 and if ever there was a sure-fire hit coming, quality be damned, it’s the long-awaited, highly-anticipated sequel to one of the biggest animated films of all time. But back in 2013, the original movie was not that. At all. It even took a few weeks to pick up steam after opening weekend. So, earlier this fall, while talking with the Frozen II filmmakers (who also worked on the original), we were curious just what it was like to see the movie about snowfall snowball into the biggest animated hit ever.
“It was crazy,” Frozen II co-production designer Lisa Keene told Gizmodo. “We were a little team that was not really much of anything. We were in the back working on this little project that the studio tried to get off the ground many times and then couldn’t. And so we were on the task of giving it another try. ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ And I don’t think anybody was paying much attention.”
“I don’t think there was the biggest of expectations for what we were doing initially,” added art director David Womersley. “I think as it went on, as soon as some of these songs came in and some of the visuals kind of appeared, [that changed].”
To that point, everyone was in agreement. Throughout the process, people at every level of the production, from sets, to costumes, animation, and more, all knew it was a good film. However, as things got closer to completion, certain pieces just started to click.
“There was a narrative concept that kind of turned the corner for the whole movie which was ‘What if they were sisters?’” Keene said. “Up to that point there was a snow queen and then Anna was another kind of character or daughter or something. But when they became sisters that changed the whole dynamic of the film.”
“When it started to become a sister story and the songs started coming into play…they were really good songs,” head of animation Becky Bresee told Gizmodo. “We’d be humming them and going to meetings where we’re supposed to be looking at specific pieces of the artwork that are our specialty. But you’d get wrapped up in just watching the sequence.”
“You never know until it’s out in the world,” Breese added. “And it was so exciting to see like the validation of ‘Oh my gosh. What we felt was really true.’ It was something very, very special.”
Special almost doesn’t even cover it. Frozen went on to gross well over a billion dollars worldwide and win multiple Oscars. But beyond money and awards aside, Frozen hit the culture on a whole other level.
“We started slowly seeing how people reacted to it,” visual development artist Brittney Lee told Gizmodo. “It was amazing because we loved working on it and it was wonderful to have this sort of worldwide reinforcement that there was something special about it…So it was crazy to see all these videos showing up and these Marines on YouTube shouting ‘Oorah!’ at Elsa and these full classes of little girls dressed up as Elsa. I don’t think anyone could have ever anticipated that response. So it was just very fulfilling and rewarding to have something be responded to that much.”
Now, coming back, everyone knows this isn’t just any sequel. It’s Frozen II. There’s pressure to succeed, but the filmmakers are less scared of that and more excited about the journey—something they describe as being closer to a family reunion rather than a film.
“I don’t feel like nervous describes it,” Breese said. “We were super excited when we found out [the directors] had a story to tell and that we were going to be helping them with that. And I don’t know. It’s been an exciting journey up until this point.”
“We talk a lot about how, in animation, we get very used to these characters and we love these characters,” head of animation Tony Smeed told Gizmodo. “This goes on every show that we work on. When it comes to an end you feel like you’re losing a best friend or something. So to have the opportunity to jump back in and revisit these characters and do a new adventure with them, it’s super great for us.”
“We know them,” Breese said of the characters. “We know them now and it’s just fun that we get to push them just that much further.”
We know them too and we’ll see that push when Frozen II opens December 26.