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Frozen 2 Interview with Disney Animator Nara Youn

On Instagram you made a comment that Show Yourself really connected with you on an emotional level. Why do you think it made you feel that way?

It gets me really teary-eyed listening to it! I watched the Korean dubbing of the Show Yourself sequence and the translation in Korean made me more emotional than the English version. I think the reason why also is the connection with her family. Since high school I’ve lived away from my parents because they were diplomats and were always traveling. When I was in high school we were living in Russia, and once my dad’s work was done in Russia he had to move back to Korea. I had to stay behind to finish off school because I was getting ready for college. Then I came to America to study art. I’ve been living away from my parents for a long time. I’m very close with my mother and my father and I have one younger brother. That whole familial love – I feel like I’ve always kind of wished I had more opportunities to be closer with them. I think the older you get, the more you reflect on that. You see your parents getting older every year; things like that. So, having Elsa feel that desire for closeness was super emotional for me as well.

The music is just brilliant.

Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez did a beautiful job with the music. While we were working on it, I would hear animators animating Into the Unknown on one side and I’m animating Show Yourself and I’m just like, man, this is so good! As we’re animating we are all becoming fans too, humming along to the music. I remember working on the last sequence after work, just constantly humming, and my wife would be like, “What are you singing?” and I was like, “No, I can’t say!” (laughs).

It was such a beautiful process to work on; falling in love with the music as we’re working on it. It really helped bring that extra layer of emotion out from us.

What considerations do you take on board when you are animating for a musical sequence and how does that differ, if at all, to scenes without music or without music in the foreground?

We always have music. It might not be the final recording, but we work with what’s called a “scratch sound”: Bobby Lopez will generally send us a piano version. The full orchestra version does not happen until the very end, but we do get to listen to the temp music with the Idina Menzel’s voice. 

I frequently get the question: “Does the animating come first or does the voice acting come first?” The voice acting always comes first because the voice dictates the action of the scene. We very, very rarely have actors dub over what we animated because it’s usually not the same performance. So, we do listen to the music and we talk to the directors a lot about what each scene represents in the song. For example, what does Elsa go through in this moment of the song? 

We also did a lot of musical training for Show Yourself, including contemporary dance training with a specialist from the Martha Graham dance company. The movements learned in that training inspired Elsa’s powers and the way she conjures her magic. We also received training from musical experts. Patti Murin, who performs Anna on Broadway, taught us what happens to her body and her posture when she sings. She also talked about what she is thinking in terms of breaks, high pitch, low pitch, etc. A lot of preparation goes into these musical scenes.

How do you characterize the drawing aesthetics of the characters in Frozen 2? Do you use live action reference to help bring them to life? 

We want to embrace traditional drawing aesthetics of our characters.  They are more stylized, and caricatured.  We try to bring out the essence of our characters and not copy realistic movements, so the characters tend to be slightly more exaggerated rather than realistic. We may take inspiration from a live action reference, though some animators don’t even shoot reference.  It all depends on the individual. I always like to use live action reference just to help me visualize and identify whether some of the ideas in my head are working, or to see if there is something my body is subconsciously doing that I didn’t even think of in my head. It’s a quick way to get my idea out there and allows me to make improvements to the acting. My workflow is a lot of acting it out myself, drawing on top of it and eventually working with the 3D model to bring the essence of that character out.

What sequences did you work on for Anna?

I animated Anna in the ship sequence as well as the scene where while she’s leading the giants to the dam. The dam scene was one of the first sequences I animated and it is towards the later part of the movies. 

So, animators don’t really animate in chronological order?

No. The dam scene is one clear example where I am animating one of the ending sequences as soon as I start working on the film. That was a little tricky because at that point there was no way for me to know what Anna had already gone through. I had to dig in deep and asked the directors, “What is Anna feeling?”  They give me a list of emotions; she is really determined but a little bit scared for her life. I take all those notes into consideration and try to get myself into that head space.

You work backwards to some extent.

Yes. It’s really rewarding when you see it at the end with everything in context and I think, “Oh that is what the directors are going for!” You see it in a new light at the end, which is really cool for us.

Do you get a chance to explore the earlier storyline and then go back and make any changes to your animation in the later sequence?

That is entirely up to production. We do go through story changes quite a bit throughout the process. Though it’s never like “this is the movie we’re making start to finish.” That would be awesome! But 9 out of 10 times, it doesn’t work like that. There are always changes. There are always efforts to make our characters better. And if it’s a dramatic enough change, we will reanimate a shot. For example, when we have new dialogue, we’ll have to reanimate the shot because the performance has to change as well. This is all part of the editorial process. Whatever it takes to make the story stronger and better is what we strive for.

What did you find most challenging about working on Frozen 2?

I think one of my main challenges was animating Anna running in heels (laughs). I had never animated a character running in heels before. A real blessing for animators is that we get to be and perform anything and everything. We get to be salamanders. We get to be magical floating wind. We get to be a female character; we get to be a child character. And this was a personal first for me where I get to be Anna running around in heels. I wore cowboy boots because they were the closest thing I had to heels. I wore those for reference – this is how she would run; this is how she would stop running. What is her posture? My back is arched more when I am wearing cowboy boots or heels, etc. Taking all of these things into consideration was a personal challenge for me in this film. It was fun though! The story team had given so much heart to these characters and that was super inspiring.

What did you find most rewarding about working on the film?

My most rewarding experience working on the film has to be Show Yourself. I have never animated a scene where I felt emotional animating. Having it watched in theaters and seeing people burst into tears or applauding – woah. It is the most rewarding feeling for an animator when your performance is affecting people. Frozen 2 has already touched so many people and it is going to be an animated Disney film that is going to be in people’s thoughts for a really long time. Having contributed to that is the most rewarding aspect for me.

You said in a previous interview that you think it’s always good to have someone to push you to help you achieve your full potential. Who were some of the people that pushed you on this film?

I’m very close friends with Hyun Min who is the supervising animator for Anna; she always pushes me. She has a very good 2D animation aesthetic and being able to tap into that keeps me learning. I feel like I’m constantly growing as an artist. Tony Smeed is one of the heads of animation on Frozen 2 and he is one of the animators I respect the most. Looking at his shots and realizing that I need to make mine consistent with his level of animation was a great learning experience for me. Those two people are amazing animators, along with the rest of our peers at Disney animation. Everyone is at such a masterful level that I am so inspired to be among them and working with them. It really does make you feel like a student all over again – you are constantly learning.

Nara Youn
Nara youn

What do you hope fans and viewers get out of Frozen 2?

I really hope that they connect with it. One of the things I love about Disney films is the timelessness of them. I can be 50 years old and still enjoy watching a Disney film. The Little Mermaid; Beauty and the Beast – I really hope Frozen 2 brings out the emotions in people that I always feel watching these classic Disney films. I hope they can connect with it for the next 100 years. That would be what I would love most for fans to take from Frozen 2.

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