Send help, I am watching Frozen 2

It's bad.

Art: Sisters, Mary Cassatt, 1885

I am normally normcoreishly against passive screentime for kids, but all rules have gone out the window during quarantine, and we now watch a movie every night. Sometimes it’s the charming (but very creepy?) Soviet claymation version of Wizard of Oz, sometimes it’s the Bremen Musicians, sometimes it’s 1990s Disney, which I have a very big soft spot for.

But lately, in a moment of desperation, I decided to reveal that there is more than one Frozen, and so we’ve been watching Frozen 2 for the past week.

Let’s get the truth out there: Frozen is bad. It is an attempt at a movie about empowerement that really ends up being a very flat melodrama with very, very irritating songs. Elsa is perhaps, to me, the most unlikable character because she is just so selfish. Reddit agrees with me, so I must be right. (I think Moana follows the same message but is just a much, much better movie. )

I also don’t get the economics of the movie.

Anyway, I’m not the target audience, so my opinion is wrong. Disney, of course, realized this and created Frozen 2 to cash in. And, they were successful, because it became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, despite it being even worse than the original. Kristoff is unlikeable and whiny. There are way, way too many winking references to the first movie. Elsa becomes even more selfish, and Anna, in spite of saving everyone, is never the main heroine. And there is a lizard that, like the trolls in the first movie, was put in for no apparent reason.

Of course, my daughter loves it, in the same way that I suspect many kids across the country are now loving it, and it has become the soundtrack of our days under quarantine.

Maybe, I hope, all they’ll remember is Frozen 2. My 5-year-old industriously reproduces the scenes from the film in washable marker, taping them to every living room wall. My 2-year-old wants to hear the songs so often that I teach him to summon them from our smart speaker. Elsa’s newest, unsettlingly relevant anthem—Into the unknown! Into the unknown! Into the unknooooooown!—starts to form our official coronavirus soundtrack. For six weeks, my children shriek this at inopportune moments as they march circles around our kitchen. It is playing when I watch our governor announce that schools will not reopen for the rest of the year. It is playing when I read that 40 percent of the people who live in my city no longer have jobs. And it is playing when I learn my mom has tested positive for COVID-19.

What really struck me, though, was the animation quality.

Disney has gotten very good at making computer-animated movies, but the detail and crispness of the movie blew me away, and I became interested in how they did it from a technical perspective.

While they may look like the characters you know and love at first glance, if you zoom in on their clothes, you'll see how they're different. In the update, you can now see three-dimensional jewels, the stitching, and even the finest of threads.

 Anna's hair was based on programs used to make the hair in "Moana." For "Moana," they developed a software called Quicksilver, which allowed them to create realistic hair that could react to forces like wind, water, and intense action.

According to technical animation supervisor Christopher Evart, Moana's hair came with a lot of tight coils, while Anna had a lot more individual hairs for them to maintain.

A new software, called Beast, allowed them to simulate more and more hairs per frame, and at a much faster rate

Meanwhile, you can now even see all the little stitching on Anna's cape. And in this shot, where Anna and Olaf are enjoying the warmer weather, you can really see every little thread in Anna's dress.

They also focused on animation details of the characters themselves. For example, here’s how they animated Elsa:

One of those details is to show the characters’ breathing. While audiences may never consciously notice it, “if it weren’t in there, you’d feel like there’s something wrong,” says Bresee. 

Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck noted the importance of breathing as well. Both recall extensive conversations during the first movie about that subtle movement — “particularly breathing while singing and registering where that breath is,” says Lee, who wrote both films.

While it may seem as if the movement should be easily transferrable in a copy-paste approach, that kind of simplicity doesn’t work because of the distinct mannerisms created for each character.

“Elsa walks differently than Anna,” says Smeed. “Elsa’s very reserved, with less movement, unless she’s in action.” Adds Bresee, “Anna might use her whole body to do something that Elsa would do with a blink. Their movements are very specific to who they are.”

And then, finally, there was the water horse. (Spoiler) It blew me away, both technically and story-wise. In this part of the movie, Elsa has to cross the Dark Sea to get to Achtohallan, a glacier where the water has memories of what happened in the story, and where she can use to find out the truth about how she got her magic. A mythical spirit, Nokk, a water horse, comes to stop her, and she tames it and rides it to the glacier. If you don’t watch any other part of the movie, just watch this one.

I’m not sure if a different team illustrated it or what, but this part was the most compelling and beautiful of the movie. And technically, it was an amazing accomplishment.

We had some early visdev that was very ethereal and not tied down at all, not in high detail. It was just this beautiful watercolor. But the thing about the water horse was we knew it would be dynamic. It needed to be moving water. It’s always going to be in motion. You can certainly look at a frame and get it, but ultimately what’s happening with the mane and the tail being made of water, what does that mean? The way all of the water moves along the surface of the horse is a ripple. It all needed to reflect the mood of the horse and support the storytelling.

So, we started out with these very loose ethereal paintings and said, great, let’s hold off on the art direction for a moment. We took a horse from the stock room and said, let’s just start playing with this and see what we get. We put on a main and a tail and we did a test – I call it the fire hose test because the mane and the tail are just gushing. And it’s really interesting to look at, but also this horse had to act. So we went through this big iteration process of, let’s see what we’re going to get through the CG process and then give it back to the art department.

To illustrate waves so realistically that they looked like a video rather than an animation, and then, in those waves, a horse made entirely out of water, and then to have that segue into a beautiful, emotional song, was, for me, the true definition of mastery and artistry.

Of course, the best part of the movie, according to the crowd at home is, “The Olaf song, because Olaf is funny,” which is exactly the same energy as one time when I spent two weeks making a statistical model of customer profiles, checking all the formulas, and creating a beautiful chart in matplotlib and then a C-suite executive told me that he really liked the Venn diagram it took me 2 minutes to make in Powerpoint on the next slide.

So what do I know about what sells well? Nothing, and that’s why I’m not on the Disney executive/brainstorming/Frozen 3, 4, 5, and 6 team.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. There is a subreddit that is just pictures of cozy places and I can’t stop looking

  2. Horror stories from the Webex revolution

  3. Interesting TF retro:

  4. How risky is doing X,Y,Z after COVID

  5. This is a great theory

  6. Data science at Lyft


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.