Behind the Scenes of ‘Frozen 2’

Corcoran students previewed the likely winter blockbuster with a Disney animator who created its effects.

William Atkins
Marlon West visited the Corcoran to discuss the process of animating magical worlds. (William Atkins/GW Today)
November 22, 2019
Originally published on GWToday, November 21, 2019

 

Students at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design got a sneak peak of sequences from Disney’s upcoming “Frozen 2” and a behind-the-scenes breakdown of their creation Friday, when Marlon West—head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios—visited the George Washington University.
 

At Disney, Mr. West helps create the worlds that animated characters inhabit, from puffs of dust to streams of pixie dust or wild, stormy seas.
 

“Effects is everything that’s not characters—fire, water, smoke, magic,” Mr. West told an audience of students in a classroom at the Flagg Building. “A lot of what we do really goes unnoticed, unless it’s not there or it’s lousy.”
 

The “Frozen” franchise, which features a queen with magical ice powers, is packed with showy effects. But as magical as they are, Mr. West said, their execution has to be based in nature.
 

As head of effects on the original “Frozen,” Mr. West visited an ice factory in North Hollywood, where he observed the way ice reacts to its environment and how different icy and snowy compositions refract light. For “Frozen 2,” which opens in theaters Friday, Mr. West and his animation team took a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., armed with cameras and a majestic, flowing skirt, which they took turns wearing. They had to know, after all, how protagonist Queen Elsa’s costume would interact with her snowy environment.


Since effects animators for animated film use the same tools and algorithms as those creating live-action effects, though, creating a believable fairytale world in 3D requires a balance of realism and caricature.


“It’s not photo-real, it’s ‘Frozen’-real,” Mr. West said. “We have to play with gravity, scale and turbulence to get these tools that want to mimic the real world to be more caricatured. But you can only go so far [into cartoonishness], because even a baby knows what water looks like—they’ll go, ‘That looks fake.’”


Mr. West and his team were particularly proud of a scene he showed in which Elsa runs over a dark, cold sea, freezing waves to create a path for herself that shatters in her wake. Some members of the team visited rugged Icelandic beaches to prepare for the sequence, and Mr. West pointed to its design as a reflection of Elsa’s “mythic” character.


Mr. West loved movies as a child. “King Kong” was a favorite—“I felt like he was hard done by, you know?”—as was legendary animator Ray Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts.” A scene from the latter in which skeletons spring from the ground particularly thrilled him, even inspiring him to create similar stop-motion sequences with a Super 8 camera and his G.I. Joes.


He got his start animating educational films, music videos and, memorably, the pixie dust in a “California Raisin” commercial featuring Michael Jackson. When he started at Disney, he said, he was a little put out to find himself at the bottom of the ladder—doing color tones and lighting on “The Lion King,” a task he joked was “almost janitorial.”


As he rose to more interesting tasks, the field of animation evolved with him. By the time he was supervising visual effects as well as drawing them, on movies like “Tarzan” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” computer art was an essential part of the animator’s toolbox. The shift from traditional 2D drawings to 3D computer modeling didn’t bother Mr. West: He enjoyed the new tools, and he “wasn’t going to get any better at drawing water.”


But some challenges were daunting. As head of effects animation on 2016’s “Moana,” he had to help create the character of Te Kā, a colossal, volcanic goddess.


“I was very stressed out about that character, and I wasn’t sure how it would come together,” Mr. West said. “How do you have this character that’s 300 feet tall move in a way that isn’t slow motion but also isn’t super fast, so she won’t outrun her smoke plumes and so on? It was months of going back and forth, doing research, trying to figure out who this character needed to be. But the first time I saw a fully lit shot of Te Kā, rearing back, with the lightning flashes—that was pretty cool.”


A giant monster with a sympathetic heart. Would he call it a return to his Harryhausen and “Kong”-loving childhood?


“Back to my roots, yeah,” Mr. West said.