This interview features Justin Sklar, supervising animator on Frozen 2. who supervised and directed the characters of Kristoff and Lieutenant Mattias.
Sklar joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2011 and has worked on Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 7, Zootopia, and Moana. He was promoted to supervising animator in Ralph Breaks the Internet, a role he continued in Frozen 2. He sat down with Rotoscopers to discuss the transition from animator to supervising animator, working on a sequel, and the unique challenges the animation team faced in Frozen 2.
You became a full-time animator on Frozen, so Frozen plays a really big part in your career. Can you share a little bit about what that means to you?
Justin Sklar: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because when we were working on that movie, it was not what Frozen is, so for me it was just kind of like, “Cool, they’re letting me animate real stuff now.”
And I mean, I got a lot of opportunities on that movie. Like I was very lucky with how I got cast. I think, I, weirdly, I have a lot of like the mannerisms that make sense for Elsa. I was just like the guy who’s doing this a lot in the movie. And because of that, I know Wayne, who was the supervisor for Elsa on that movie and this movie, just ended up casting me a lot. I just got a lot of super cool opportunities, so it worked out very well for me that Frozen very well. But I think, I don’t know, that was a movie where I grew a lot, because I think they would give me something and then I would do well on it, and then they would give me something bigger and that kind of progressed through the movie, so that was good for me.
What are some of the high-level differences from your position as an animator on Frozen to supervising animator of Kristoff and Lieutenant Mattias on Frozen 2?
The main difference is I don’t animate as much as the supervising animator. But basically what I’m doing is I’m keeping track of how each of my characters is supposed to behave, and the case of Mattias, trying to really define how he moves. In the case of Kristoff, it’s trying to distill what we did in the first movie into something that we can communicate to the animators.
And I’m working with other departments to help set up sequences, and then working with the animators and directors to really build the final performance; where as an animator, you get shots, you animate the shots, and then people cast you onto different sequences based on what they think you’re good at.
What are some of the highlights of being a supervising animator?
I mean for me, most of the reason I’m in animation is because I like to solve problems and puzzles. And animation, just in general when you’re animating a shot, is a lot about understanding how something works and understanding how you can organize all of these little pieces in such a way that it tells the story and is emotional and is appealing.
As a supervisor, I’m doing the same thing, except kind of on a bigger level. There’s a lot of managing how we’re going to do stuff and how we’re going to approach problems, so this is a lot of fun for me.
You said that you’re not doing as much animating. Is that sad or are you good with that?
I mean, I’m okay with that. I think we definitely have the ability as supervisors to cast ourselves in more things if we want. For me, I feel like I’m most impactful when I can help other people raise the level of their animation and help the other animators interact with directors, so I’m fine not animating.
When you were going back to these characters for Frozen 2, did you have to basically start from rigging and everything from the beginning or did you have something as far as that you could pull over?
Frozen is an interesting one for that because since we’ve done a couple shorts in the meantime, we’ve iterated on them each a little every time. We’ve upgraded their models a little bit and made microscopic changes that we like, but that no one can see, and we read on the rigs a couple of times.
I think on Frozen as compared to something like a Ralph Breaks the Internet. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, we had to start from scratch because we hadn’t touched those characters in six years. With these, I think we had something close, but we definitely [had to go in and re-rigg]. Like I helped set up Kristoff and it took us three or four months to set him up, even though we had already done him once.
It just becomes easier because you know what the goal is much sooner, but it’s still plenty of work to make everything the latest and greatest and do what we need to do at this point.
Kristoff’s song, “Lost in the Woods”, is an amazing sequence in the film, not only musically but also because the visuals take it to another level. What were some of the big, fun things out of that sequence that you were able to handle?
That sequence is really interesting for us, because our instinct as animators is to do the craziest version of that. You want to go full 100% cheese ridiculous in every shot, but I don’t think that sequence works if you do that. We were trying very carefully to balance, how do you make it so it’s fun and it’s cheesy and it does all of the things that you want to do with this 80s vibe, but also Kristoff kind of has to be sincere about it. Kristoff’s not winking at the audience, so how do we balance letting him be fun and letting the sequence be fun and funny and give the audience permission to laugh. But also how do you keep Kristoff in a space where he’s genuinely expressing his feelings through this song? That was a tricky one for us to balance, and it changed a little bit along the way.
Since Frozen wasn’t yet the phenomenon when you worked on it, obviously you had no expectations. I mean, everyone has expectations, but not to the extent that it became. Was there pressure that you and the team felt going into the new one?
I don’t think there was any. I mean for us there wasn’t any more pressure than any other movie. We want every move we make to be great. Especially in animation, there’s this thing where, I imagine this is the experience that you have when you’re an actor in a live-action film, where you spend all time trying to understand how this character works and what it means to be this character. And we spent a year doing that and then the movie ends and then you’re like, “I figured it out!” And then you can’t do anything with that.
Being able to jump back into that with all of the knowledge that we already have makes things, A, a lot easier for us because we kind of understand where we need to go. But it’s fun because it gives us a chance to improve on this stuff rather than spend a whole movie trying to figure it out.
In Frozen, snow was one of the big technical advances, but what were some of the technical challenges in Frozen 2 ?
I think the biggest things in this movie were probably the water. There’s a lot of water and we’re doing a lot of things like a horse made of water interacting with water. That stuff is very complicated. We learned a lot from Moana, which we brought into this movie. Gale was a big challenge for us because we had to figure out how do you animate wind, which is not a thing that you can see?
Right! So we did a lot of work to figure out, A) what is the thing that we’re actually going to animate? And we have a rig that basically is what Gale is, but you don’t end up seeing on screen. Then figuring out, B) how many leaves do we have to hand animate in the shot to make it clear what we need so that effects can reproduce them and make the full scope of Gale. And just how are we going to work as a bunch of departments to build this character?
Our readers love Easter eggs. Are there any hints to Easter eggs that we can look for?
I think there are some, but I would be lying if I told you I knew where they were there. The way that we’ve done it in the last couple of movies, it’s just people kind of sneak stuff in, and so those people know where it is. And then I usually find out when somebody makes a list of them like, ah, there they are. Cool.
So do you think we’ll get a Frozen 3?
If the directors have a story for it, then we’ll get it a Frozen 3, but I don’t, I think right now they’re pretty happy with Frozen 2.
Frozen 2 hits theaters November 22, 2019.
Thank you to Justin for the interview and to Fingerpaint Film for the opportunity!