By Connor Dziawura
Looking back, Disney supervising animator Justin Sklar says his team would not have been able pull off its work on “Frozen II” when the first film was released six years ago.
From improved speed, control and detail in the technology to the animation team now generally being better, more-experienced animators, Sklar notes that the sequel to the beloved 2013 box-office hit would have at the time been a more difficult undertaking.
“I don’t think we could have done most of what we did in this movie, I don’t know, even on (2016’s) ‘Moana,’” he ponders during a visit to Phoenix. “I think it would have been hard for us.”
In “Frozen II”—directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee—Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Olaf (Josh Gad), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven go on their biggest adventure yet. Elsa is now able to control her powers, but Arendelle is in danger. To save their kingdom, the film’s protagonists embark in search of an enchanted forest. On their journey they encounter nature spirits and the perilous wilderness.
Like the first film, “Frozen II” places a heavy emphasis on its musical numbers, from Menzel’s magical “Into the Unknown,” which features Aurora, to the full-cast recording “Some Things Never Change,” which lyrically deals in the film’s themes of growing up.
Such sequences require attention to detail. Sklar says animation requires problem-solving and understanding the mechanics of the film’s characters, as well as how to animate them as best as possible. He likens his trade to solving a puzzle.
“For this movie we spent a lot of time talking about what that means for singing,” he explains. “None of us are singers, but we spent a lot of time talking to vocal coaches and some Broadway people about, ‘What does it feel like mechanically to sing?’ Part of it is solving that and understanding how you, from nothing, build that into a character.”
Sklar says Kristoff’s ballad, “Lost in the Woods,” was particularly challenging to animate. The song and its accompanying visuals hark back to music videos of the ’80s.
“The trick with that sequence was finding a way to balance that aesthetic and that idea with a sincere performance from Kristoff that’s not winking at the camera, because he needs to be emoting in a true and honest way but it still needs to be fun and the audience needs to know it’s OK to laugh at it,” Sklar explains. “Trying to balance all of those things and figure out how we make all of that happen at once and have it be fun and have the singing was hard but fun.”
Because “Frozen II” is a sequel, Sklar notes that he and the other animators had to deal with a large cast of established characters right off the bat—another reason he feels it would have been a challenge to develop six years ago. The film also introduces plenty of new ones.
“You start with six characters, and that’s hard to figure out because you need to not only orchestrate individual performances, you need to orchestrate how does this one character take focus and this other one stays in the background and doesn’t distract but is still alive? And how do you do all of that in a reasonable time period?” he explains.
“Those shots were challenging and take a long time,” he continues. “We lean heavily into very long shots in this movie. There are some shots that animators were on for like three months.”
Since coming to Walt Disney Animation Studios fulltime in 2011, Sklar has worked his way up the proverbial ladder from his initial animation roles.
As a supervising animator on “Frozen II,” Sklar’s position involved working with his team on the characters of Kristoff and Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), from consulting on the rigging and modeling to leading the team.
“What that means is you’re kind of working with rigging and modeling to make sure you have what you need from an animation standpoint, and then figuring out how (the characters) move and making sure that stays consistent and the characters stay looking like themselves over the movie,” he explains.
But it’s also a balancing act, as communication between departments is important. Animating supervisors “help work with the animators and the directors to make sure that what we’re giving the directors tells the story that they want to tell” while also allowing the animators to leave their own personal marks, he says.
This differs from Sklar’s role on the first “Frozen” film, for which he served as just an animator. As he describes, sequences are divided and assigned between animators based on skills. As a supervising animator, he’s now the one who does the assigning.
Despite this important role, a career in animation wasn’t always in Sklar’s sights, he says. Prior to earning an animation degree from the Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, he attended Maryland’s George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a magnet school for gifted and talented students, where he says he focused more on painting and charcoal drawing.
But after seeing his friends’ work with 3D computer graphics around that time, he just had to learn those skills for himself. He eventually earned a stint as a summer animation trainee at Disney in Burbank, California, and developed the short film “Chalk.”
“I feel like my whole life has just been trying to understand how things work,” he says. That continues to this day, as he says animators are always honing their skills.
Since joining the company fulltime in 2011, Sklar has worked on other major films such as “Wreck-It Ralph” and its sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Big Hero 6” and “Zootopia.”
“You kind of have the expectation that you go to a place like Disney and it’s like this well-oiled machine, but we want these movies to be so good that we’re changing stuff constantly,” he explains. “The ground is always moving under you and your job is less, ‘How do I make the perfect version of this?’ than it is, ‘How do I maneuver around everything that’s changing and still make this super great version of something?’
“I’m always looking to find these things that I could problem solve. I think I was surprised at how much problem solving I do on a day-to-day basis, even outside of animating.”
Disney’s “Frozen II,” which stars Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad and Jonathan Groff, is set for a nationwide release this Friday, November 22.