It’s not often that design helps drive the narrative in animation, but when production designer Michael Giaimo had a brainstorm for the four elemental spirits of fire, earth, wind, and water in “Frozen 2,” it altered the animation and led to the ultimate transformation of Elsa (Idina Menzel) as the Snow Queen.
“From the very beginning, there was this idea of Elsa connecting with the elements of nature,” said Giaimo, who was nominated for his work on “Frozen 2” by the Art Directors Guild Awards. “But it was actually slow in growing, narratively, that there would be four elements and how they would be described. It wasn’t a given at the beginning that they would be exemplified by living creatures. But it all evolved. And I would say the art department played a major role in helping to develop that elemental narrative.”
It began about two years ago, when Giaimo came up with the idea of developing iconography for the four elements, not in terms of characters but as a graphic design. But he had to put it on hold until directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck had a better idea of how the spirits figured into the story. Then, six months later, during a discussion about a shawl worn by Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), the mother of Elsa and Anna (Kristen Bell), it all began to click. “Iduna is so connected to nature with the Northuldra tribe of the Enchanted Forest,” Giaimo added.
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“I said to the directors that designing a symbol of the elements could be used on that shawl and could somehow be leveraged later on. The directors were open to it. That’s when we designed the four diamond shapes and the other symbols on that shawl. Because of this design on the shawl, we created the diamond as a framing device. And from there, with our art department, we put it on the monoliths when you enter the Enchanted Forest, and they became the shards of ice that fall on Arendelle at the end of ‘Into the Unknown.'”
The symbols eventually helped shape the spirits of nature, particularly Bruni, the salamander/fire spirit, which has diamonds on his back. “This was such a thrill for our art department,” Giaimo said. “We often don’t have an opportunity to lead a bit of the narrative theme. Our job is to take the narrative and support it the best we can. Here, we actually came up with a couple of ideas that inspired Jen to further create characters for these elements. She not only plussed it, she made it resonate as something much bigger than our initial graphic thought.”
This diamond iconography extended to the color hues for the spirits, which ranged from blue to purple, and culminated with the creation of Ahtohallan (the ancient river that holds the answers to the past), where Elsa becomes fully transformed into the Snow Queen. The art department created Ahtohallan as a magnificent, ethereal glacier comprised of several chambers, casting diamond shapes, which refracted the light, and revealing Elsa’s memories and experiences as holographic images.
“The directors liked the idea that the diamonds follow her into the chambers and that she orchestrates the four large diamonds on the ice floor into forming her new look as the Snow Queen,” said Giaimo. “And, in her physical transformation, we knew right away that her final dress would be white.” That’s because if you combine all the colors of a rainbow, they form white light.
“And, with each of the four large diamonds, smaller ones rise up and form, in an organized fashion, the diamond patterns on that dress,” Giaimo continued. “If you look more closely, the dress fabric contains diamond shapes and symbols of the four elemental spirits. But it’s not about the dress, it’s about her connection with these four elements. We found a visual way to show that she is now one with those four elements.”