Nothing bad ever happens at Disney. Or, at least, that’s the message the family-friendly company leads people to believe. You very rarely see or read raw, behind-the-scenes coverage from the mega-corporation because everything there is so carefully packaged. And that’s precisely why the new Disney+ show, Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II, comes as such a breath of fresh air.
The six-part, almost four-hour documentary feels as close to a warts-and-all look at the making of a Disney movie as fans have seen in a long time. In the series now streaming on Disney+, the team behind Frozen II say and do things you never thought you’d be able to see. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck wrestle with their story being too confusing, and are forced to cut entire sequences and songs and make decisions on crucial, film-changing plot points with mere months to spare before release. And all along the way doc director Megan Harding and her team captured it all. Well, almost all.
“I think there was an openness to showing the process right from the very start so pushback wasn’t really there,” Harding told io9 over the phone last week. “Occasionally there was caution...but if we could explain why it was important that we have our cameras present, it was a rational discussion [and they went] ‘Oh, okay.’”
It helped that Lee, Buck, and the Frozen team were already familiar with the documentarians, which is how the whole thing started in the first place. Harding and her team from Lincoln Square Productions previously worked with Disney on a 2014 ABC special about the making of the first Frozen. Fast forward to 2018, and on the exact same fall day Amy Astley, VP of Communications for Walt Disney Animation Studios and Into the Unknown EP, had two independent conversations with different people about the same thing: a possible documentary on the making of Frozen II. Those people were Jeanmarie Condon, the Senior Executive Producer of Lincoln Square, followed by the then-president of Disney Animation Studios, Andrew Millstein.
“It was just this sort of beautiful kismet, one day, two conversations,” Astley told io9. “And certainly from the outset, I knew working with Jeanmarie and Megan was completely the right way to go in making a documentary where we did truly want to show the real process behind the scenes. To not make something that would be so glossy that it would be toothless [but] to really have people who are experts in the documentary field come in and do that.”
This, of course, required a huge leap of faith from Frozen II directors Lee and Buck as well as their producer, Peter Del Vecho. “‘This would mean cameras are in your usually very private, creative space, and capturing things [they normally wouldn’t],’” Astley told us she relayed to Del Vecho when pitching the idea. “‘We are looking at doing a true documentary, which means [there’s] going to be some hard stuff shown in addition to the joyous stuff.’ And he was immediately on board and he approached Jen and Chris and they were as well. I think the bravery with which they approached the project is why you see what you see on screen.”
While Frozen II had been in production since about September 2016, Harding and her team were on the ground for only the last year before release in November 2019. They shot 115 days and ended up with about 1,300 hours of footage. Harding explained that while there were some discussions early on that maybe they should’ve started sooner, the fact is, the idea didn’t come up until 2018 and the animation process gets exponentially more interesting as it reaches the end.
“At that early stage in animation, the world is your oyster. You can go any which way you want,” Harding said. “Things start to close in, the further along the line you get. So for us as documentarians, the interesting part is when there aren’t many options anymore.”
Because the team wasn’t going to be there every day, Harding had a rough idea of the schedule and did her best to pick and choose the big events they needed to film. Things like story meetings with other Disney filmmakers, crew screenings, or voice recording with the cast that couldn’t be missed. However, the filmmaking process is so fluid, going off a schedule didn’t always work out.
“Part of [filming] was by keeping your ear to the ground, part of it was the luck of the draw, and another part was very strategic planning,” she said. “And then, of course, [sometimes] we would go up to the studio and discover that nothing planned was happening that day and the whole schedule had changed.”
All the while, almost nothing was off-limits to the crew. Not the Disney filmmakers giving the directors brutally honest notes after a screening. Not the tragic and touching story of Chris Buck’s son Ryder, who died in a car accident at 22. Not even the almost tangible fear and nerves Lee and Buck faced before test screening Frozen II in front of a real audience. In fact, the one thing you don’t see in the entire documentary is the meeting held after that test screening where Lee, Buck, and Del Vecho broke down what regular audience members thought of the film.
“We thought that we could film that meeting, which was why we were there,” Harding said. “And my understanding is that I don’t think that there was anything particularly controversial that happened in that meeting. They needed to get their head clear without the pressure of having cameras. I literally don’t think it was anything particularly remarkable from a story point, but from a creative point they just needed a little bit of space.”
Maybe the most shocking throughline in the film is how everyone, from the story artists and animators to the directors and songwriters, struggled with making the film’s big third act song, “Show Yourself,” work. Throughout the documentary, the song goes through huge changes that impact the quality of the entire film. Things got particularly interesting when the crew was getting ready to film a video meeting between the Disney offices in Burbank, California, and the songwriters, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, in Brooklyn, New York. As the meeting was about to take place, Harding, who was in Brooklyn with the Lopezs, started getting text messages.
“Our crew was in Burbank and they knew that Jen and Chris had been having a discussion about potentially losing ‘Show Yourself,’” Harding said. “They knew that that was going to happen. We did not know that was going to happen, except they started texting us. And obviously, the Lopezs did not know that at the time. So I was incredibly stressed because I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I didn’t know how the Lopezs would take the news at all. It was a very stressful moment.”
In the end, though, the stress all seemed to work out. “Show Yourself” stayed in the picture, the movie was a record-breaking hit, and the team at Disney is happy with how the show turned out. However, according to Astley, there are no immediate plans to do another season for another movie.
“We don’t want to cut and paste this idea,” she said. “We want to really think about each film project coming up and what is the right thing we want to do with that. So there isn’t another Into the Unknown: Making of Frozen II for upcoming features of ours just yet. But we certainly have an eye out for it.”
Then there’s the question everyone wants to know. With their unique insight into the pressures and expectations behind Frozen II, could Lee, Buck, and their crew come back for Frozen III?
“They do not think about the next film, or if there will be a film—I mean a big ‘If there will be a film’—until they’ve had a moment to really digest what has happened on the last one,” Astley said. “They don’t make the sequel unless it’s in their hearts and they’ve got a great idea for it...And I know we say that a lot and people sort of don’t believe us, but that is the truth of it.”
We can only hope, if it does happen, we get another documentary just like this.
Into the Unknown: Making of Frozen II is now on Disney+.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated the cause of Ryder Buck’s death as cancer. Ryder was battling cancer but tragically died in a car accident. We regret the mistake and have corrected it in the article.
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