A Behind the Scenes Look at Forging “Onward:” From the Fantastical to the Familiar

As we detailed in our last installment from our early look at Pixar’s Onward, the upcoming modern suburban fantasy tells the tale of two elf brothers and their quest to magically resuscitate their relationship with their late father when a spell to bring him back from the dead goes half-awry.

Onward teaser poster

To reveal some of the magic that took place off-screen, a host of talented filmmakers from Pixar gave us some presentations on the hard work and creative talent that goes into a feature film like Onward.

In FROM THE FANTASTIC TO THE FAMILIAR, Noah Klocek (Production Designer), Adam Habib (Director of Photography/Layout), Johnathan Pytko (Lighting Supervisor), and Catherine Apple (Editor) took a look at how the departments of art, camera, lighting, and editing combine to create an environment somewhere between familiar and fantastical.

An “Onward” art review, led by Noah Klocek, as seen on November 15, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

In a typical film set in contemporary times, there is a familiar visual language used that is readily recognizable to the average moviegoer.  Different types of people, such as hipsters, are easily identifiable on first glance.  A fantasy movie requires more explanation because we’re not familiar with that world.  Part of the art department’s job then is to help give audiences context for the movie’s distinct visuals in order to help them accept the universe and not meet every scene with questions.

In Onward, the additional challenge is to take the fantasy characters and put them into contemporary settings so that a troll drinking coffee in a cafe is as clearly understood as any hipster equivalent.  To do this, the art department worked hard to create a fantasy world that was both authentic for hard-core fantasy nerds, but accessible for those who are not.

PROGRESSION IMAGE 1 of 6: STORYBOARD – To create a sequence in Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” one of the early steps in the production pipeline is building storyboards. Artists sketch the key beats in a sequence, suggesting possible set positioning, camera angles and character poses. This sequence is called “Conjuring Dad” and shows Ian and Barley trying to use a magical spell to conjure their dad for one day. This storyboard, specifically drawn by story artist Le Tang, is one of approximately 488 boards delivered to editorial for this particular sequence. In total, 97,759 storyboards were delivered for the entire film. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The purpose for having the two worlds intersect was, as is the case for virtually every filmmaker decision, to aid the storytelling process.  The fantasy element was needed so that they could bring the dad back with magic, while the contemporary/scientific element was added to make the boys’ task more difficult.  Having their world largely forgotten about magic forces the brothers onto their journey of exploration.  The two sides are mirrored in our two protagonists–Barley, who is a full-blown proponent of the ancient and fantastic, while Ian just yearns to live a normal, mundane existence.

PROGRESSION IMAGE 2 of 6: ART – Once the storyline for a sequence is determined, concept art is created by the production designer and art department to determine the look and feel of the film. This concept art piece was created by artists Matt Nolte, Bert Berry and Carlos Leon Ortiz, and showcases the exploration of color and design for the characters and new environments, including the character scale and attention to detail within Ian’s bedroom for this important scene. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

On creating the look of Onward’s environment, they initially looked a lot at small towns of the midwest before finally settling on the look of a Los Angeles suburb.  One decision they had to make was how much fantasy and how much familiar made for an acceptable mix?  They ultimately found that a 70:30 ratio of familar: fantasy worked best for them.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Huy Nguyen. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Maintaining the balance proved difficult as the addition of the fantastical characters inhabiting the locations tended to skew everything heavily towards fantasy.  While initial designs for the Manticore’s Tavern were closer to an old English cottage, putting elves and gnomes in it made it overly quaint to the point where it needed to be redesigned more like a TGI Friday’s or Chili’s.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Garrett Taylor. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The Department of Photography then works to take the environments from the storyboards to a 3-D visualization with staging and a virtual camera.  Virtual reality was used to get a good view of the sets and check that proportions look right from the audience’s vantage.

PROGRESSION IMAGE 3 of 6: CAMERA AND STAGING – The Camera and Staging team (sometimes known by its traditional name, Layout) uses the principles of cinematography and film language to translate each moment from the hand-drawn storyboards into the three-dimensional cinematic shots that make up the finished film. This team determines the composition of each frame, as well as the choreography of camera and character movement (known as Staging) within the virtual sets. They work closely with the Director and the Editorial teams to determine the right timing and sequence of shots to best communicate the story. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

To better distinguish between the two brothers’ chaotic (Barley) and order (Ian) characteristics, the camera moves and virtual lenses differ for each of them–Ian is filmed in a more naturalistic fashion that closely mimics regular vision, while a more anamorphic treatment was given to Barley.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” Ian Lightfoot is sweet and determined with the best of intentions, but his lack of confidence and nervous energy trips him up more often than not. Ian is convinced that if only he had his father’s guidance, his life wouldn’t be so complicated and messy. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Moving into editing, the team works on getting the scratch dialogue tracks recorded and coming up with the sound and music that will make the film’s world come alive.  The mix of modern and fantasy even extends to the sound effects, as Barley’s van Guinevere has horse sounds subtly mixed in with the engine noises.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Noah Klocek. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Lighting comes in next, to use light and shadow to add to the tone and setting of each scene and emphasize the different special effects.

PROGRESSION IMAGE 5 of 6: LIGHTING – The Lighting department helps to integrate all of the elements – characters, sets, effects, etc. – into a final, fully visually realized image. The Lighting process involves placing virtual light sources into the scene to illuminate the characters and the set. Technical artists place the lights to draw the audience’s eye to story points and to create a specific mood. The lit images are then rendered at high resolution. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Lighting even extends to the composition of the sky–when Ian is at his school at the beginning of the story, the sky is clear and familiar.  By the time he gets to where he needs to manifest a Trust Bridge over a chasm, there are clouds that help compose the shot with shadows that break up a wide open set piece and serve to heighten the tension.

In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” brothers Ian and Barley embark on an epic quest in an effort to conjure their late dad for one magical day. Among the magical spells they must do within the quest, one of the biggest involves crossing a massive crevasse with nothing but Ian’s own faith beneath his feet. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020.  © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

More to come!

Onward opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020.

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Jeanine resides in Southern California, pursuing the sort of lifestyle that makes her the envy of every 11-year-old she meets. She has been to every Disney theme park in the world and while she finds Tokyo DisneySea the Fairest Of Them All, Disneyland is her Home Park... and there is no place like home.

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