Pixar’s Onward: From Day 1 to Now – Our Behind-The-Scenes Interview with Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae [Audio]

Pixar’s Onward kicked off on September 17, 2013. After 6 years, we went to Pixar to dive behind the scenes and learn all about the making of the film.
Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon at Onward Press Event

Just three months after the theatrical release date of Monsters University on September 17, 2013, Director Dan Scanlon officially began work on his next film — Onward. Generally speaking, when a Pixar film begins there are usually only two people tied to the project, a director and a producer. In the case of Onward, a familiar trio of Kelsey Mann (Head of Story), Dan Scanlon (Director) and Kori Rae (Producer) joined forces and began to set forth on a “grand and glorious quest.”

Below, we share some of our favorite moments from our conversation with Dan and Kori, as well as a story session featuring Kelsey Mann and Maddie Sharafian. Read more and be sure to listen to the complete interview with Dan and Kori in episode 70 of the Pixar Post Podcast (details and podcast player included after the behind-the-scenes look and concept artwork).

If you recall, Kelsey, Dan, and Kori each reprised their respected roles, just as they did working together on Monsters University. During our recent visit to Pixar Animation Studios to get a behind-the-scenes look at Onward, the team shared a photo showcasing Kelsey, Dan, and Kori holding a “DAY ONE” sign dated September 17, 2013. Now, after 6.5 years and 97,759 storyboards under their belts, Pixar’s 22nd feature film, Onward is set to release in theaters on March 6, 2020.

Kelsey Mann History of Onward

The research that goes into each Pixar film is astounding. Pixar fans certainly know the level of detail in a Pixar film is immense and the technology used may sometimes even be groundbreaking. Sometimes, that research can get a little silly as well.

You haven’t lived until you have seen the hilarious footage of Dan Scanlon wearing a ‘green man suit’ and a pair of khaki pants, flailing around with his arms behind his back, mimicking the movements of Wilden Lightfoot’s legs that have come to life. We’re hoping this makes it to the in-home release “Extras,” but Dan did this for animator reference footage — so the team could digitally remove his “green-screen” torso after the fact and see what legs would truly look like moving on their own.

Barley and Ian Dance with Wilden

That portion of the research may have been humorous, but the story of Onward is also deeply personal — and the raw truth of life helps audiences connect with the story on a more personal level as well. Dan wrote the film based on his experience of losing his father at a young age (Dan was one and his brother was three years old).

“I think it’s great that Pixar wants to tell personal stories… at least stories that started off with a seed of truth and honesty… and maybe dramatized after that. If something has happened to you and you have questions about it, chances are people are going to have similar questions — even if they don’t have the same story. “ 

Dan Scanlon
Onward concept artwork of Blazey, Ian, Barley, and Laurel

During our 1-on-1 interview with Dan and Kori, we expanded on the brotherly (and personal) connection and asked Dan what feedback or input his Brother offered regarding the story. Dan noted that he has purposefully not shared too many details with his brother as he wants him to be surprised when he views it for the first time. Seeing as the storyline mirrors the Scanlon brothers’ life, we found the surprise element to be a touching and wonderful tribute that they’ll be able to share on release day.

Pixar Onward concept artwork color script

Dan continued to share some of his personal thoughts about his Father such as, ‘who was he’ and ‘how am I like him?’ Those questions may seem small in size but the answers to such questions are beyond meaningful, especially when you yearn to know the answer to them. Any little piece of information is gold to someone who you know very little about.

The idea of the Lightfoot brothers spending one more day with their dad was the origination of the film having magic and being held in a fantasy-themed environment. Dan noted, “I didn’t want to do a period piece in a fantasy world because I wouldn’t feel as close to that and then we thought, ‘why can’t it be modern and be a fantasy/magical place?’ That led to the humor of ‘that would be ridiculous and we could do all these gags’.” 

SIGGRAPH Pixar Quest for Magic Presentation

Dan and Kori were quick to note that their knowledge of fantasy elements was less than plentiful, so the team created a “Fellowship” of filmmakers from various departments, who just so happened to be savvy with fantasy-lore and played a fair amount of role-playing games. This helped bring a deeper level of authenticity to the film that otherwise couldn’t have existed.

Not only was the “Fellowship” an important group to gather notes and ideas during the production of the film, but early production screenings and Braintrust meetings continue to prove to be very important. Story is hard and it can take a lot of re-working and problem-solving to make sure the film stays true to itself. As Kelsey Mann noted, “We get notes from two major places, the first is a Braintrust session. What the Braintrust is, you’ve probably heard of this, it’s a collection of directors, writers and producers that take a break from their day and what they are doing and they come and help each other on their project to help make it greater.”

As you can see from the photo below, the Pixar Braintrust has grown in size with the familiar faces of Domee Shi, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter gathered around the table (among others). Kelsey shared that each Braintrust meeting typically lasts about 2-hours and is full of problem-solving ideas from fellow filmmakers, “It’s such an awesome thing and I love to be in every single Braintrust meeting I get a chance to be a part of.”

Secondly, Kelsey noted that the team will also gather in the large theater to showcase the film on-screen to fellow Pixar employees, “We do this every 3-months, where we look at the film, we call those Braintrust screenings. What we do is we have people come see the film, people who are on the crew and people who are on another movie – cause we love having the fresh perspective of somebody who had no idea what the movie is about.”

Pixar Onward Braintrust Meeting

In any Pixar film, there’s always a question regarding easter eggs hidden throughout the film. Of course, the filmmakers never divulge the exact details but, Dan did note that he has a favorite one hidden in the film but that it may be too obscure for anyone to notice. What about the next Pixar film, Soul? Kori confirmed that there is a nod to Soul hidden within the sets of Onward and she said she was really impressed and thrilled with how they pulled it off.

We did chat further regarding the Easter Eggs hidden in the film and some connections between Dan’s dog (Carol) and Blazey (the Lightfoot’s pet dragon) in our 1-on-1 interview. You can hear more of those detail in our Podcast (listed below).

Onward Concept Artwork looking at the Galaxy


Listen to the episode using the embedded player below or subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyYouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Be sure to share your thoughts on everything Onward with other Pixar fans in the Pixar Post Forum.

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