Fil-Am environment modeler John Aquino on building ‘Frozen 2’ world

In “Frozen 2,” Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven journey far beyond the gates of Arendelle in search of answers. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

With “Frozen 2” now in theaters, viewers once again are transported to the world of Arendelle and accompanying sisters Elsa and Anna along their new set of adventures.

After the success of “Frozen” in 2013, lingering questions remained, including: Why does Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) have magical powers? Together with Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), and Sven, Elsa sets on a journey that tests the range of her abilities and whether they’re enough for the world. Songwriting duo Filipino American Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are back with a soundtrack full of catchy hits that will stick like the first movie (“Into the Unknown” is easily the new “Let It Go,” for example).  

Walt Disney Animation Studios environment modeler John Aquino, who’s worked on films from “Frozen 2” to “Moana.” | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Beyond the characters themselves, the backdrops of “Frozen 2” are equally as spirited and intricate, in part thanks to the work of an environment modeling team that includes Fil-Am John Aquino.

Aquino served as a senior environment modeler on “Frozen 2,” which entailed building the story locations, whether it’s the kingdom of Arendelle or wherever the storyline takes the characters, such as the enchanted forest and dark seas.  

While the environment of “Frozen” was mostly cool hues, snow and ice, “Frozen 2” presents an enchanted forest during the autumn season, so there are trees with leaves changing colors and falling to the ground and lush hills. Still, this portrayal of fall is underrated and cool, with orange and red hues that align with the “Frozen” palette.

“This time out, Anna and Elsa’s adventures take them outside the borders of Arendelle so I was responsible for building all of the trees, the props, the castle, the cliffs that you see in the movie, huts or houses in the village,” Aquino told the Asian Journal in a recent interview ahead of the film’s release. 

Production designer Michael Giaimo, along with directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, took a trip to Norway, Finland and Iceland to study landscapes, people and cultures that would inspire the story and environments found in the film. 

The photos and notes they took during the trip were then relayed to the environment modeling team to start building.

“I want the audience to be enchanted and enamored by the beauty of the world Anna and Elsa live in and have them feel like this is a real place. With capturing that magical, mystical aspect, it’s something that still resonates once you leave the theater,” he said.

Born in Manila and raised in Southern California, Aquino set his sights on becoming a comic book artist, but was enthralled with the world of film animation. He came to Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1996 as an apprentice after finishing a Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic arts from Point Loma College in San Diego. 

His early work at the studio includes serving as an effects animator on “Hercules,” “Fantasia 2000” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.” He then came into his current role as a modeler, having a hand in films like “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” “Zootopia” and “Moana” before the most recent “Frozen 2”. 

In his 23 years at Disney, technology has changed the way artists and modelers have operated, making more precise and easier in some ways.

“I used to be a traditional artist, drawing effects for our 2D films. When the computer age came for the industry and CG was the flavor for the animation industry, I decided to go into environment building because [to me] it felt more artistic and sculptural,” Aquino said. “Over the years, from ‘Chicken Little,’ which was my first CG film, to ‘Frozen 2,’ there have been leaps and bounds regarding technology,” he said.

“Frozen 2” isn’t just ice and snow — the characters encounter the fall season and venture into the enchanted forest. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

One of the challenges with “Frozen 2”, Aquino described, was the handling of the trees in the enchanted forest since a major element was the mysticism in that setting. 

“We rely on our proprietary software of making trees but we had to go an extra step in order for them to be more dynamic and more art directed and really following design of almost a flat nature,” he said. “But really, also with the environments, we had to go into a little bit more detail in order for us to capture [it]. We don’t want it to look too fantasy, we want it to look like it’s a real place too, a real analog place.” 

Earlier this year, Aquino had the opportunity to step into the director’s chair with his own short, “Lightning in a Bottle.”

A still from John Aquino’s “Lightning in a Bottle” through Disney’s “Short Circuit” program, set to be released on Disney+ in 2020. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Aquino’s creation comes through Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Circuit, a program that allows employees at the studios to pitch an idea and receive studio support to develop an original short film.

The program is similar to Pixar’s Spark Shorts, which included fellow Fil-Am artist Bobby Rubio’s “Float” this year, featuring the studio’s first-ever Filipino characters.

In Aquino’s “Lightning in a Bottle,” the young boy protagonist captures lightning inside a jar that soon mimics his own actions. He must then decide whether to keep it or release it back into the sky. 

For this, Aquino studied electricity and weather patterns to help develop the lightning character.

It was one of six new shorts that debuted at the “Short Circuit” panel at D23 Expo in the summer and screened at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Though, we’ll have to wait until it drops on Disney+ sometime in early 2020.

“As a Filipino American, I want people to know that we have a voice in the animation industry. It takes a village to raise a child as they say, and in this case, I used to think animated films were just done by one person. It’s actually done by multiple people coming together, collaborating, and Filipino Americans are part of that,” Aquino said. 

He added, “It’s an exciting time for Filipino Americans at Disney Animation. We are being recognized for our hard work and have been given opportunities for the first time in directing and telling our stories, whether it’s with me directing ‘Lightning in a Bottle,’ or Josie Trinidad being selected as a director for a Disney feature film.”

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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