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How Pixar Built Onward's Fantasy World

How Pixar Built Onward's Fantasy World


It takes a village to make a Pixar movie. The studio's latest film, ONWARD, about a pair of elf brothers (Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) who set out on a perilous quest to resurrect their beloved father, shows us just how far the company's famously collaborative efforts can take a story. Juggling tone and style with a propulsive narrative and lots of jokes is difficult enough before you consider the complexity of animating an entirely new fantasy world.

With a huge group of artists creating a fantasy world from scratch, leadership was important. In addition to the work of director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, much of the responsibility of guiding the artists who assembled Pixar's unique world fell to Kelsey Mann, who served as ONWARD’s story supervisor. Mann had worked with Dan Scanlon, the director of ONWARD, on his previous feature, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. He's been a key creative voice at Pixar for some time; he helped get THE GOOD DINOSAUR out the door after a massive restructuring. We went to Pixar to speak to Mann about the process of making ONWARD.

A Very Different Experience From Monsters University

Onward was created from scratch

Mann and Scanlon have experience creating colorful fantasy worlds, as their previous collaboration, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, was filled with the level of character and detail we all expect from Pixar films. This experience, Mann said, was quite different.

On MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, the job was more akin to being the custodians of a property. "It was like, okay, here's the Monsters world. It's a prequel. It's in college. Go," Mann said. "It was fun to come back [for ONWARD] and have a blank slate. With that blank slate comes a lot of excitement and a lot of fear. Because we had nothing!"

In between the films he worked on THE GOOD DINOSAUR, which went through a dramatic overhaul, something that he jumped into wholeheartedly "I don't want to be dead and only have three movies on my resume," Mann joked. He knew he would also be devoting time to ONWARD and would go back to ONWARD full time after THE GOOD DINOSAUR wrapped. “I stayed connected to the film," even while doing DINOSAUR, Mann said. “Dan would say, ‘Here’s where I’m at. What do you think?’” And onward they went!

Finding the Tone of the World

Finding the Tone of Onward

ONWARD takes place in a suburban fantasy world — one that is only slightly removed from our own in weird and wondrous ways. And while that is a fascinating concept, the ratio of what the production has referred to as the familiar vs. the fantasy was hard to iron out. "I remember having this idea around the script phase," Mann explained, "Where we had some siren [creatures]. Sirens would always like sing songs to lure sailors in and they would crush their boat and sink them. So we were like, Oh, it'd be really funny, what are modern-day sirens? What if they're selling timeshares, you know, they're calling people in to buy timeshare property."

Mann and his team storyboarded the scene, with the two brothers, Ian and Barley, being lured into a house that would sink into the mud. “Ultimately, we asked, why are [the sirens] doing this? There's no benefit. They're just murderers. It was really too far. It was too much fantasy and not enough realistic modern. It was too weighted in one direction.” And so, the scene (darkly funny as it might have been) was scrapped, and ONWARD went in a slightly more gentle, fantastic direction.

The Importance of Emotions

Building Onward's Emotional World

The story of two brothers who desperately try to bring their dad back is a personal story for Dan Scanlon, who lost his father at a young age. The idea serves as the emotional center for the entire film. Without emotional realism, the fantasy wouldn’t mean anything – the idea is that important.

Scanlon pitched a few possible central ideas to the Pixar Brain Trust — the governing creative council at Pixar featuring many of the studio's veteran filmmakers — and to Mann himself. Mann instantly knew that, for ONWARD, the personal story was the way to go.

"Clearly it’s the one about you and your brother and your dad," Mann remembers telling Scanlon. "That’s the one to do." Mann continued: "To me, it wasn’t about the fantasy and the familiar that was the draw, which I love. Really, it was the heart behind it that sold it for me, [and] for the studio. All these movies are hard, but having that part from the beginning made this experience so much easier than it has traditionally been in the past."

ONWARD is in theatres now!

All images courtesy of Pixar.

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