A Behind the Scenes Look at Forging “Onward”: Magical Characters, and the Character of Magic

As we detailed in our last few installments 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

We continue on with the Onward presentations by the animation wizards at Pixar.  To help explain the process of developing the fanciful and mundane characters that come to life in Onward were Jeremie Talbot (Characters Supervisor), Ana Lacaze (Character Shading and Groom Lead), Allison Rutland (Directing Animator), and Sequoia Blankenship (Crowds Supervisor) in CREATING THE WORLD OF ONWARD.

The Onward Long Lead press days, including Ana Lacaze, as seen on October 30, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The Character Department joins the visions from Story and Art to create the final character designs for the film.  The first step is to take 2-D drawings and put them in the computer to give Art a chance to check out the proportions from all angles and redraw when necessary.  Resculpting is done any number of times until a look is achieved that fulfills the character’s needs.  Ian went through a number of design changes to give him both the awkwardness and elvish-ness that characterizes him, as well as increasing his ability to emote the wide range necessary to carry the story.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Lou Hamou-Lhadj, Ana Lacaze, Kiki Poh, Emron Grover and Matt Nolte. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Changes are often made of minute details to increase the specificity of the design.  One note asked for the cuffs of Dad’s pants to be raised a bit to reveal more ankle, as that’s all with which Dad has to act.

The “Onward” art gallery and atrium art as seen on October 28, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Characters nearing final design then go through Shading and Grooming, in which they are given textures and surfaces that give them the look of something real.  Fabrics and materials for their clothing as well as hairstyles and the quality of their hair are created here.  While the appearance needs to support the characteristics of each creature, it also needs to change to support the evolution of each creature throughout the film.  The Manticore initially wears tighter, more restrictive clothing with her hair tied back to signify the constrained nature of her current life.  Once she remembers who she is and recovers her true identity, everything loosens up and her hair becomes as free as the rest of her.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Zaruhi Galstyan. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There were altogether thirteen species created for the film:  Elves, manticores, centaurs, cyclops, sprites, goblins, satyrs, unicorns, trolls, gnomes, mermaids, pegacorns, and a pair of pants.  They made 240 different characters, with another 100 variants to support the different transformations.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Maria Yi, Grant Alexander and Matt Nolte. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For Colt, the brothers’ centaur step-dad, he had to combine the confidence and swagger of his role as a police officer, with the awkwardness and size of his equine bottom half.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Chris Sasaki. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For Dad, they used a lot of reference models like mimes and even Dick Van Dyke to try to get a style of movement that could communicate his responses and reactions to his sons through just his lower half.

Crowds are also an important part of the created world–they serve to give the environment depth and make it seem bigger.  By showing different entities engaging in different background activities they also help to root the main characters in a specific time and place.  In Onward, there was the additional challenge in needing to place huge creatures like trolls around the scenery where they could add to the atmosphere without stealing visual attention away from the story’s focal points, as well as creating a system of movement for tiny characters like the sprites, who need to be able to operate large machinery like motorcycles.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Maria Yi. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Next up was ZANTAR’S LIGHTNING! THE MAGIC OF ONWARD in which Louise Smythe (Story Artist), Paul Conrad (Graphic Art Director), and Vincent Serritella (Effects Supervisor) gave us a look into creating magic from early development to the big screen.

Paul Conrad shows graphic designs during an Onward art review on June 3, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

In order to make the magic of Onward distinct from other movie representations of magic, the filmmakers came up with some rules:

  • Heartsfire:  Every spell requires this–the caster must speak with confidence and assurance and a belief that comes from deep within.
  • Magic Degree:  Mid-level to advanced spells require specific mental or emotional exercises.  The magnification spell, for example, dictates that the wizard magnify their attention on the object.
  • Assist Element:  For very advanced spells, a specific magical ingredient (like the Phoenix Gem in Dad’s spell) is needed for successful execution.

By requiring the introverted and awkward Ian to fulfill these different physical and emotional demands in order to perform different spells, the magic served to get him to loosen up and come out of his shell as the quest progresses.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Matt Nolte. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The language of Onward’s magic also had to be specifically developed.  The rules they finally came up with were that spells had to be short, not too silly, and not complete gibberish–you can kind of tell what it does when you hear it.

In the Graphic Design department, the goal is to decorate the sets and props that make up the world and reinforce the sense of it as a real place.  Signs and logos are all custom designed to give viewers a sense of familiarity with an overlay of the fantastic.  The letter left to the boys from their Dad has to look aged but with handwriting that is both legible and not too fancy.

ONWARD – Visual development art by Paul Conrad. © 2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Quests of Yore” figures prominently in the film as a tabletop role-playing game that is also more or less a historical document of the world of Onward.  Designers needed to come up with the entire look of the game, which would look not only authentic in the context of the film, but would be able to be printed and manufactured for real-world merchandise in support of the film’s release.

“Quests of Yore” book set displayed at the “Onward” press junket. Comes with a wizard staff pen that lights up!

The Effects Department had the daunting task of coming up with the appearance of magic.  Just like the background characters and graphics, Ian’s magic needed to support his character and evolve to mirror Ian’s development along the journey, so that the intensity of each spell changes with the level of difficulty.  Level one spells show a simple design that focuses on just the staff and the object.  Level ten spells might manifest with visuals that occupy most of the screen with wind and camera shake and other effects.

PROGRESSION IMAGE 6 of 6: EFFECTS / SIMULATION AND FINAL IMAGE – All the magical phenomena seen in this final image, such as the flying books, cloth motion, and atmosphere, were brought to life by the Effects and Simulation departments. Effects and Simulation artists create these elements using complex simulation software that models the physics of how certain materials move. These Effects and Simulation elements provide a believable and tangible sense of interaction between the characters and their realistic world, which also helps to reinforce the emotional stakes for the audience. Directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae, “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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