‘Frozen 2’ VFX Pros on How They Iced the Challenge of Animating Water

Disney’s “Frozen 2” may have failed to make the Oscar short list for VFX, but the crew certainly solved its share of technical challenges, most notably in the way the film handled the look of its liquid environment.

Marlon West, co-head of the film’s effects animation alongside Dale Mayeda, says while it’s flattering for audiences to think the movie’s water is so realistic that the team simply filmed it, that’s not the whole story. Part of the test for an animated feature is that every time it creates water, the look is inherently different from what has come before. “[This water] doesn’t look like ‘Moana’ water or ‘Big Hero Six’ water,” explains West. “This is actually very specific to the ‘Frozen’ universe.” 

Stylization is what sets animated water apart from its live-action counterpart. “You really need to follow a shape language and have a visual rhythm, a visual style, that matches the world that we’re trying to create,” says effects supervisor Erin Ramos, whose credits include “Moana.”

Mayeda says the team considers problem-solving from a creative perspective as much as a technical one. “The first comments aren’t‘Did you put X amount of force into the simulation?’ We’re saying, ‘Is this moment feeling treacherous enough for Elsa?’ Every moment, every shot in the film, we’re trying to make sure that we’re telling the story with the effects that are in the scene.”

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For instance, the Nokk is a magical horse that oscillates between water and ice throughout the film. In early tests, its shape was a lot more fluid, says West, but real-world concerns had to be met. “There are very subtle and natural actorly demands that are limited by what a real horse can do, which is mainly doing nostril flares and movements of its ears and narrowing of its eyes.” So the needs of the film demanded that the head of the Nokk keep a certain shape.

But there were other issues inherent in a watery, icy, translucent horse, Ramos notes. “All of a sudden you get these weird reflections,” she says. “And if you can see through his body, then when Elsa’s riding it, you can see her other leg, and it doesn’t look as cool. So technology-wise, we had to modify our rendering technique” for light refraction to eliminate the problem.

The Oscars’ requirements for the visual effects category are listed on the Academy’s website as a “consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.” No traditionally animated film has ever made the cut. (Laika’s 2016 claymation classic “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the only fully animated movie to have cracked the code.) Yet West is happy for “Frozen 2” to be seen as a film that leaves viewers thinking more about animation than effects. 

“I would love to be considered alongside of live-action films,” he says. “If we have something we feel is a great accomplishment here at Disney — if we feel it stands up alongside of what other studios are doing, live action or otherwise — I don’t mind being considered at all. … [But] we tend to think of ourselves as artists.” 

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