Earlier this year, ComicBook.com visited the Pixar Campus in California where the magic of Onward is being brought to life. The film stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland as Barley and Ian, a couple of elf brothers eager to spend a day with their late father through a magical enchantment put in place before his passing. Still, more real stars linger quielty behind the scenes. Director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, head of story Kelsey Mann, and story lead Madeline Sharafian came together for a press conference in October of 2019 in which they discussed some of their work, showcasing their humble genius and artist abilities which are sure to build a magical world delivering an emotional gut punch.
The film is a journey into a fantasy realm, filled with unique creatures and vibrant neighborhoods, building on the world with clever details right down to the the electrical boxes on the side of a house being reshaped to match the world's tone. “It’s a modern suburban fantasy film — a new genre for Pixar," Rae points out.
For Scanlon, it is much more than that. The director who previously helmed Monsters University lost his father when he was just one year old. As a result, Onward reflects his own personal journey of longing for that time with a lost loved one. "The story is inspired by my own relationship with my brother and our connection with our dad who passed away when I was about a year old,” Scanlon said. “He’s always been a mystery to us. A family member sent us a tape recording of him saying just two words: ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Two words. But to my brother and me — it was magic.”
"That’s where the idea of magic came from," Scanlon said. "We thought, 'Well, we need to make a movie where that could be possible.' And then the idea was, 'I don’t want to make a period piece in a fantasy world, I wouldn’t feel as close to that,' and then thought, ‘Well, why can’t it be modern and be a fantasy magical place?’ And that led to the humor of, ‘Well, that would be ridiculous and we could do all these gags.’ And then lastly they kind of came together when we realized well, 'Ian is this character who is not living up to his full potential out of fear and comfort, not wanting to explore and take risks,' and the world was kind of mirroring that, too."
As it turns out, building this world -- from start to finish -- has consumed a large portion of Scanlon's life. Day 1 on Onward was on September 17, 2013. This means that in the seven years since the project began in Pixar's offices, Scanlon and the team have been crafting the story, rendering the characters, naming spells, and animating the entirety of this vibrant world.
The process includes members of this team lending their own voices to pre-animated scenes, sometimes consisting of stick figures, as a means to provide a feel for the world to begin the animation process. Get a look at the evolving process in the storyboards seen below.
The project gives a sense of taking over the Pixar campus, which was heavily dressed up with art and statues based on moments and characters from the film. Several of the offices feature the pieces of the film, ranging from storyboards like the one above to white boards covered in ideas for naming spells. A team working on the film volunteered to come together and work up the wording of these spells, which is yet another cog in the impressive, sprawling collaboration of creative minds at Pixar.
“I love that everybody is able to bring something to the film to elevate it. It’s an interesting thing to be a story artist because you have to take the scene, and you have to be like, ‘I’m owning this. It’s becoming a part of me,'" Mann said. "You put so much into it, and then you open it up to the room. You go, ‘Okay, it’s no longer mine.’ We’re making something collectively together, which is a film. So anytime someone gets too precious about their scene, it ends up being a problem. It’s all about how can we take this thing and elevate it to something great.”
Of course, Onward is looking to deliver one of the classic Pixar-gut punches, showcasing some footage and how-it-was-made which sees the brothers coming together to shed their doubts of how magic works. For example, the two had to create what is referred to as a "trust bridge" to cross a canyon, prompting Holland's Ian to step on thin air as a means to get closer to seeing his late father. The scene, now rendered in full, was shown in its infant stages with Scanlon's voice used as "recording scratch" for the animation process and shows how much fun the film will be as the inspirational tale of two brothers brings audiences on what's sure to be a wildly fun, emotional adventure.
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Onward hits theaters on March 6, 2020.