Though Pixar’s “Onward” is set in a fantasy world, its characters embody real-life qualities and virtues. In the film, out March 6, two elf brothers, voiced by Tom Holland (Ian) and Chris Pratt (Barley), try to use magic to bring their father back from the dead. When the attempt short-circuits, they embark on a journey to complete the conjuring before the 24-hour clock to save him runs out.
While extremely early design depicted a real-world aesthetic, the filmmakers’ brainstorming soon transitioned into a fantasy realm to better support the series of contrasts needed to tell the story. The characters and their journey are a lesson in divergent themes: chaos versus order, adventure versus safety, fantasy versus the familiar. Ian, the embodiment of order, must learn to face chaos and take risks, while Barley, his opposite in everything from look to temperament, serves as guide.
Events surrounding Ian were created to reflect that gap. “We tried to make sure the magic he performs is chaotic,” notes director and co-writer Dan Scanlon.
The filmmakers balanced audiences’ preconceived notions about wizardry with their own designs to give the magic of “Onward” a distinctive look and feel. Scanlon says it was key that every spell include an element of risk “that not only will Ian have to overcome, but even the audience can watch and think, ‘I would do that.’ So suddenly you’re in his shoes.”
Storyboard artist Louise Smythe served on the Spell Squad, a special project team of genre-based aficionados that helped develop the movie’s sorcery. “[Scanlon] was really good at leaning on us fantasy nerds,” she says, noting that he would ask them to consider specific topics, such as the rules of magic to be used within the film. “He would give us open-ended brainstorming exercises to help flesh out the world.”
While an estimated 100 spells were created, far fewer made the final cut, but the Spell Squad hammered out what would happen in the event of success or failure for each enchantment to help the production team fully understand the universe that had been created.
Basic spell requirements were that incantations had to be brief, be easy to understand from their name and not sound silly. For instance, casting “Bridgerigor Invisia” created an invisible bridge so that Ian and Barley could cross a ravine.
Effects supervisor Vincent Serritella was charged with bringing the spells and the magic to life. He notes that specificity was essential to each charm in order to avoid a look of arbitrariness. “Everything from the shape language to the design to the color all supported what [Scanlon] was trying to say in each shot or sequence,” he explains.
Says producer Kori Rae: “You have these rough ideas of what would be cool, and then you try different [things] until you find something that actually works. The connective tissue is really challenging.”
Serritella uses the designing of fire as an example. “It seems very clear until you start doing it,” he says. Then, questions arise: Should it be gas or wood-burning, and how many licks of flame or embers should be included? There are many ways to create the effect. “It’s such an organic thing that they’re tricky to articulate until you start producing something,” he notes.
All of the artists at the studio embedded parts of themselves in the work, and the diversity of those viewpoints helped round out the world of “Onward.” In the scene where everyone arrives at school, for instance, audiences can scan the crowd and spot band members arriving with their instruments as well as characters using sign language to communicate.
“If you have a lot of people in the studio from different backgrounds bringing [themselves into the process],” says Scanlon, “you get a more realistic look at life.”