Per­sonal Magic

How di­rec­tor Dan Scan­lon used some of his own fam­ily’s poignant ex­pe­ri­ences to build the fan­tas­ti­cal world of Pixar’s On­ward.

Animation Magazine - - CON­TENTS - By Karen Idel­son

How di­rec­tor Dan Scan­lon used some of his own fam­ily’s poignant ex­pe­ri­ences to build the fan­tas­ti­cal world of Pixar’s On­ward. By Karen Idel­son

Will Pixar be able to de­liver the usual mix of com­edy and pathos in its 22nd the­atri­cal fea­ture? That’s the ques­tion on many an­i­ma­tion lovers’ minds as they get ready to take in the much-an­tic­i­pated movie On­ward in March. In the movie, two elf broth­ers take on a mag­i­cal quest to try to re­unite with their long-lost fa­ther af­ter a botched bit of wiz­ardry only brings back his lower half. This an­i­mated road pic­ture is Pixar’s first foray into this realm of sto­ry­telling and was in­spired by di­rec­tor Dan Scan­lon’s own ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up.

Like the main char­ac­ters in the movie, Scan­lon and his older brother lost their fa­ther at an early age and al­ways won­dered what kind of per­son he was and what it would be like to meet him and have the kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences most kids have with their par­ents. So, Scan­lon, who also di­rected Mon­sters, Inc., be­gan play­ing with the idea of how that might work in an an­i­mated story.

“It’s a very per­sonal story,” says Scan­lon. “Much like the char­ac­ters in the story, my fa­ther passed away when I was about a year old and my brother was three.

So, as you can imag­ine, we don’t re­mem­ber him at all. But we al­ways won­der, you know, who he was and how are we like him? And I think that ques­tion be­came the seed of On­ward — which is, if you could have one day [with your fa­ther], what would you learn? What would you ask? And, yeah, we added elves and sprites to that in­cred­i­bly sad story.”

Blue Is the El­fi­est Color

Scan­lon started work­ing on the story about six years ago. The script soon be­came about the dy­namic of these two broth­ers — an older one named Bar­ley who was more

rough and tum­ble and leapt into things with­out think­ing too much, and Ian, the younger brother who was cau­tious, more in­tro­verted and anx­ious around peo­ple.

Tom Hol­land voices Ian and Chris Pratt voices Bar­ley in the film. Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus plays their mother. Ali Wong, Oc­tavia Spencer and Tracey Ull­man also lend their voices to the film.

“We needed a way in which the fa­ther could come back to life,” says Scan­lon. “That re­ally is the rea­son be­hind the magic. We could have done, and con­sid­ered, a ver­sion in which the boys were scientists who built a ma­chine that brought Dad back. The magic just felt more ro­man­ti­cized. And we didn’t want to set it in an old timey fan­tasy world, be­cause it’s a mod­ern story. And if these boys had been in robes and their fa­ther had been in robes, it just would have been ridicu­lous. And I think the world mir­rors Ian in a lot of ways. The world of this movie is peo­ple who have just be­come com­pla­cent and are fear­ful of tak­ing risks. They’ve lost their po­ten­tial. Ian is a kid who’s never lived up to his be­cause he’s in­se­cure and fear­ful. So, it’s al­ways nice when the world and the char­ac­ters can mirror that. That and we just wanted to show dirty uni­corns.”

As much as this story is based on myth­i­cal ele­ments, it’s also grounded in what’s real. The cre­ative team be­hind the film ex­plored many dif­fer­ent color hues for the elves and over­all story, ar­riv­ing at a com­bi­na­tion of blue tones and the right il­lu­mi­na­tion that made the elves be­liev­able. The back­drop of On­ward is in­spired by Los An­ge­les and the Los Feliz neigh­bor­hood of 20 years ago. The film­mak­ers wanted a fan­tasy sub­urb where elves could live and that au­di­ences would feel was real some­how.

When they’d de­cided to tell a story full of sor­cery and magic, the fun and the com­pli­ca­tions quickly be­gan. They didn’t want some­thing that had been seen by fans of an­i­ma­tion and mythic tales al­ready. Pro­ducer Kori Rae, who worked with Scan­lon on Mon­sters, Inc., knew the magic had to be spe­cial and fit with the story they wanted to tell. Mul­ti­ple de­part­ments would have to work to­gether to bring Scan­lon’s vi­sion to the screen.

Chaos The­ory of Magic

“The magic was tricky in terms of just a looks ex­plo­ration,” says Rae. “But it was also so spe­cific to the story and Ian’s char­ac­ter. How the magic be­haved was di­rectly re­lated to what we needed for him and it needed to be

‘Much like the char­ac­ters in the story, my fa­ther passed away when I was about a year old and my brother was three. So, as you can imag­ine, we don’t re­mem­ber him at all but we al­ways won­der, you know, who he was and how are we like him? And I think that ques­tion be­came the seed of On­ward.’ — Writer/di­rec­tor Dan Scan­lon

chaotic and it needed to be a lit­tle bit scary. And, from a looks per­spec­tive, we put in a lot of time for de­vel­op­ment. So, it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily new tech­nol­ogy but I think how we ap­proached it was slightly dif­fer­ent. We did some 2D ex­plo­ration just to try to get the look and fig­ure out what it needed to be and then to fig­ure out how do we get that into the com­puter. We spent a lot of time on magic be­cause we wanted it to be kind of chaotic for this story.”

Su­per­vis­ing tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor San­jay Bak­shi and char­ac­ter su­per­vi­sor Jeremie Tal­bot also worked to­gether to have artists cre­ate and model all the fan­tasy char­ac­ters in­di­vid­u­ally, since they were all unique. This gave them a more re­al­is­tic look that was spe­cific to each species. In past films, the team had added con­trols that could al­ter fea­tures, but this time they felt a more in­di­vid­u­al­ized ap­proach was needed.

As the boys quest for the magic to get the rest of their fa­ther back in 24 hours, they’re op­posed by both Ian’s own fears and other fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures. Scan­lon wanted to keep hu­mor in fo­cus even when the bat­tles felt scary and gen­uinely per­ilous. He de­cided to give his myth­i­cal beasts “teeth” but also give them the kind of comic ele­ments that kept the funny tone of the film in place.

“In the ear­li­est days, we had the boys fight­ing a myth­i­cal dragon or some­thing,” says Scan­lon. “And it felt like sud­denly we were in any fan­tasy movie. It wasn’t funny. It just didn’t seem unique. And then we re­al­ized the prom­ise of this movie is that it’s al­ways go­ing to be a lit­tle bit funny or a lit­tle bit mod­ern or silly. And you can still be ter­ri­fy­ing and have those ele­ments. So, we just re­al­ized what­ever we do with the end, it has to be a mix of fan­tasy and the ev­ery­day. It just came down to the idea that mon­sters are al­ways made up of your great­est fears and Ian’s great­est fears are made up of his life as a teenager.”

With a large team on On­ward, Scan­lon and Rae’s big­gest chal­lenge was keep­ing ev­ery­one on the same page through­out pro­duc­tion. And there’s re­ally no app for that. It comes down to the most old fash­ioned way of all — face-to­face com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“All of that in­for­ma­tion is tracked in the data­base as part of our track­ing sys­tem but what it lit­er­ally comes down to is com­mu­ni­ca­tion and get­ting peo­ple in one room,” says Rae. “That’s the only way to do it. No amount of doc­u­ments are go­ing to do it be­cause peo­ple aren’t go­ing to read through them and no­body reads email. So, what re­ally needs to hap­pen is get­ting ev­ery­one in one room — all the dif­fer­ent de­part­ments — and hav­ing Dan there with them, mak­ing sure that they know ex­actly what the story needs for that scene and then just fig­ur­ing out the lo­gis­tics to­gether, talk­ing about the im­ages and look­ing at the im­ages that are up there at least once and maybe twice a day. It’s the best.” ♦

Dis­ney/Pixar’s On­ward is cur­rently play­ing in theaters world­wide. The movie re­ceived an 87% score on Rot­ten Toma­toes and made over $67.1 mil­lion world­wide in its open­ing week­end.

Colt Bronco de­sign art by Chris Sasaki

Miss­ing Fa­ther Fig­ure: Teen elf broth­ers Ian and Bar­ley Light­foot (Tom Hol­land and Chris Pratt) face many ob­sta­cles as they set out on a quest to bring back all of their late fa­ther for one last day.

Sto­ry­board for the “Con­jur­ing Dad” se­quence

New Mush­room­ton sub­urb art by Chris Sasaki

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