Creating the World and Characters of Pixar’s ‘Onward’: Blending the Familiar with Fantasy [New Concept Art & Screencaps]

Pixar’s Onward wasn’t always filled with all the wonderful characters and environments. Read all about how the Pixar team created the world.
Ian Lightfoot is nervous at his high school in Pixar's Onward

Pixar films start with a single thread of an idea — an overarching theme which brings forth a flurry of creativity as the world and characters are defined. But, this can also be daunting at times because each character must be crafted from scratch and even the streets they walk on must have a look and feel that is congruent with the story.

In our previous post regarding our visit to Pixar Animation Studios (to learn all about Onward), we shared our interview with Director, Dan Scanlon, and Producer, Kori Rae. This time, we’re sharing additional insights from several teams and artists which worked over multiple years to create a set of landscapes and characters which were not only visually appealing, but also felt familiar to audiences.

Onward New Mushroomton Concept art by Chris Sasaki
Artwork by Chris Sasaki

Let’s play a game for a moment. If you were creating the world of Onward and used the city you live in today as a base, what percent of fantasy-related elements could you replace (or, swap out) without changing the familiar-feel you already know?

It turns out that Noah Klocek (Production Designer) and the team realized that in Onward, the right balance was 70% familiar-elements and 30% fantasy-elements. This was the starting point the team used to craft Ian and Barley’s hometown of New Mushroomton.

Pixar Onward city by Huy Nguyen
Artwork by Huy Nguyen

Boiled down, it’s the process of making a troll, a cyclops, or an elf feel like they’re not out of place in the world they live in.

To make sure the art department stays in sync with the overall vision for the film, Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae meet two times per week with the team (over three years in the case on Onward) to make sure the team is tracking in the right direction.

Pixar Onward Behind the Scenes

As with all art, often times the direction you start heading in isn’t where you end up. An earlier version of the Manticore’s Tavern (shown below) had a more traditional English design, but this felt “too fantasy” when you placed the characters in the scene and was out of sync with the rest of the world which was created. So, they modeled the newer tavern after sit-down chain restaurants (like T.G.I.Friday’s or Chili’s) and it made the visuals feel more balanced (and fun).

A similar thing happened with Ian as well. Jeremie Talbot (Characters Supervisor) noted that as the team was tweaking his character, he started to look “too cool.” This didn’t work because Ian should always have a slight nervous edge to him since that’s the core of his character.

Manticore's Tavern artwork by Garrett Taylor
Artwork by Garrett Taylor

Another element of the film which should be in sync to help you understand the world (in a visual sense) without having to physically express it, is produced by the Camera and Staging team.

Adam Habib (DP Layout) noted that Ian’s character is much more straight-laced than Barley. To support this, the team often used virtual 50mm camera lenses (a lens that is similar to what the human eye sees) when positioning Ian in the frame (and kept him centered in the frame). To “stage” Barley on the other hand, the team used a mix of wide-angle lenses (25mm) and zoom lenses (135mm) along with off-centered framing to make him feel more free-spirited and boisterous with his actions.

It was absolutely fantastic to learn more about the fine details of how each group worked together to visually support the story.

Cosplay Barley from Pixar's Onward

Each department’s work needs to be pulled together and displayed as a whole, so, Catherine Apple (Editor) let us know how her work helped achieve this goal. Onward was edited four times in storyboard form (even before the final vocal actors provide their lines) where she and the editing team insert temporary “scratch” vocals and sound effects on top of the hand-drawn storyboards to see if any area is feeling out of sync.

We already mentioned how camera and staging as well as the design of the characters supports the story, but did you also know that the editors adjust the speed of the cuts as well? Barley’s edits in the film are cut faster, while the moments when Ian is on screen pause and hold for a few extra seconds. Again, this helps us feel that Ian a more structured character while Barley is much more sporadic.

Unless you’re in the film industry and already know how many of these elements interplay, I hope this is as jaw-dropping and fascinating for you as it was for us!

Art team gathers for an art review on Pixar's Onward

When the characters were originally created, artists drew them with realistic shading, coloring, and lighting — but after their character rigs are created in the computer, they look much more basic and “flat”, so two other teams come in to give the characters their signature looks

Ana Lacaze (Character Shading and Groom Lead) shared how her team defined how Ian’s hair moved, how it bounced, and even how smooth or scruffy his skin would look or how his clothes appear.

The lighting team, led by Jonathan Pytko (Lighting Supervisor) also helps shape the characters and bring them to life. Jonathon and the team had to find ways to use light to showcase times of strife (darker or more shadowed) or times of emotional highs (which may be punctuated with warmer, golden tones). But, it was interesting to note that Jonathan shared that the blue-skinned elves provided somewhat of a challenge to the lighting team due to their cooler-toned skin (in finding an appealing look).

Visual Development artwork of Ian from Pixar's Onward

Sequoia Blankenship (Crowds Supervisor) shared that the crowds team is essential to supporting the worlds that the team builds. Imagine a high school scene (like there is in the film) where Ian goes to school, but there aren’t any other kids. Wouldn’t it feel like a Saturday or Sunday (even if they film were taking place on a Tuesday) without there being a lot of other characters in the scene? 

Character Lineup Concept Artwork from Pixar Onward
Artwork by Maria Yi, Grant Alexander, and Matt Nolte

FUN FACT

Allison Rutland (Directing Animator) and Sequoia shared that there were 85 animators on the film and that there were 13 species of elves, cyclops, sprites, satyrs, dragons, bugs, and more which were created to populate 240 individual characters with an additional 100 variants of those characters to support the film. Wow!

Pixar Onward Unicorn Concept Artwork
Artwork by Jennifer Chang and Stanley Moore

CREATOR RESPECT

Starting with a blank slate at the beginning of a film can be intimidating (as Jeremie Talbot pointed out). But, it’s all about diving in and “getting some stakes in the ground” to see what the Director (Dan Scanlon) is connecting with artistically.

What we took away from the artists creating Onward (or any Pixar film) is to bring whatever inspires you to the table at the beginning and see what elements you can build off of. Collaborate with your co-workers and never shy away from changing directions if it’s not working. No department could make a film alone and the excitement and passion we heard from all of the artists has us even more excited to see what the team has created on March 6, 2020 when Onward hits theaters.

What are your thoughts on the world and characters from Onward? Leave a comment below or chat about it with other fans in the Pixar Post Forum thread which looks behind-the-scenes at Onward.

Pixar Post — T.J. & Julie

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