It’s a sunny November afternoon in Phoenix, and Frozen II supervising animator Justin Sklar is seated in a massive downtown conference room. “I feel like the Wizard of Oz in this room,” he says, gesturing to the frosted glass door. “You can’t see what’s behind the curtain until you get in here, and then it’s just me.”
With Disney’s hugely anticipated sequel looming on the horizon, Sklar is in the midst of a whirlwind press tour, but the packed travel schedule doesn’t seem to have impacted his energy — in fact, the native of Owings Mills, whose credits include Frozen, Zootopia and Moana, is practically bursting with enthusiasm as we shake hands, make introductions and get comfortable around the enormous wooden table that spans the length of the room.
[Editor’s Note: this conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity]
I’m sure it felt like shaky ground to go back and revisit the world of one of the biggest animated films of all time. What was the pressure like to make sure you delivered something that lived up to, if not surpassed, the original?
Justin Sklar: I mean, there’s pressure on every film. Honestly, I think we were just excited to get back into these characters. For animation, you spend time with characters the first time you make it, and by the end of that movie you’re like “yeah, I understand all of them, I understand how to make every choice in this world.” And then you don’t get to animate them ever again, so that knowledge just lives in your brain and you can’t do anything with it. So getting to make a second movie, where you already have that figured out, ends up being super cool because then we can just start from this place of knowledge, instead of what we normally do, which is spend a year figuring it out. For us, it’s just cool to get to do it again.
Something I really appreciated about this film were the new environments — there’s so much more to explore, there’s a much broader color palette. Were you excited to open things up and experiment with new locations and new techniques?
Justin Sklar: Yeah, I think the opening up of the world, to not be “everything is covered in snow all the time,” meant that we could make a lot of choices that we just couldn’t make in the first movie. The cinematography in [Frozen II] is super cool, and I think the lighting technology has come a long way since the first movie. For sure, Design and Art played a lot with the colors of things, and how we could really push the relationships of things over the course of the movie.
I have to ask: whose idea was it to stage Kristoff’s big musical number, “Lost in the Woods” like an 80s music video?
Justin Sklar: I don’t know if that came from the directors, or if that came from Bobby and Kristen, but I do know the idea has been around for awhile. The versions of Kristoff’s song were always kind of big and crazy, and I think as soon as they landed on this version — that it was kind of an 80s power ballad — it was that for a long time. There was iteration on it, about exactly how crazy we were going with it, and the version we ended up with is pretty crazy, but meaningfully less crazy than the first version.
When you have an idea like that, something that’s so off the wall, how exciting is that for you as an animator?
Justin Sklar: It’s interesting, I think that sequence was really hard for us, because the animation instinct is to go fully to the wall with insanity — and we’re really good at that. I supervised that sequence along with one of the other animation supervisors, and one of the things we were concerned about is even though it’s this departure from the rest of the movie, Kristoff has to be kind of sincere. He has to mean this, he can’t be winking at the audience through the whole song, so a lot of what we spent time doing was trying to figure out how do we balance the fun craziness of it, without breaking Kristoff as a character.
The song needs to do something for him, so trying to figure out how we can be sincere and how we can have fun at the same time, but also how do we give the audience permission to laugh at this sequence? It can’t be Kristoff being sad while the movie makes fun of him, so it was a big challenge for us to figure out how to coordinate all of those things.
Taking the experience on both films as a whole, what was your favorite sequence to work on?
Justin Sklar: You know, “Lost in the Woods” is probably my favorite, but there are definitely other sequences in the movie that I love. The first movie inspired me and a couple of other people to really dig deep into how musicals work in animation, so I’ve been lecturing and educating the studio for the last four years about how we need to animate these performances, and what it means to animate a musical. So getting a chance to supervise that sequence where we can really dig into the physicality of singing was super cool — and also, just getting to give Jonathan Groff a song. His voice is great and he’s super fun, so that was a really exciting sequence to work on.
Let’s say you have the opportunity to select any Disney property from the past, and you’re free to do something new with it. Which property do you choose, and why?
Justin Sklar: That’s a hard question. I like those things the way they are, I don’t want to mess with them. I love 101 Dalmatians, but I like seeing the version they intended the first time. It has all of those design choices and is what it needs to be, so I’m just gonna leave it alone.
For more on Frozen II, click here to read our review.