Issue: Edition 1 2020


What do you get when you mix the fantasy world with the familiar? You get Onward from Disney•Pixar. Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), the film, Pixar's 22nd, takes place in a world once ruled by magic that has since become obsolete in favor of technology. It is here that two modern-day elf brothers embark on an epic quest to bring back their deceased father, if only for a brief time.

The adventure begins when Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a high schooler lacking in confidence, receives a special gift from his mom on his birthday. It is no ordinary gift, though: It was left by his late father, whom he has never met, with instructions that it be given to his sons when the youngest, Ian, turns 16 years old. The present contains a magic staff, a rare gem, and instructions pertaining to a visitation spell that will resurrect the boys' father for a single day. 

Older son Barley (Chris Pratt), a history fanatic who is into role-playing, is more brash and daring, and immediately attempts to resurrect their dad, to no avail. Much to both boys' surprise, Ian tries and is successful… sort of. He only brings back half of his father, from the waist down. Thus the boys embark on their journey in Barley's van he has dubbed Guinevere, to find another gem so they can try the spell again before their time runs out.

"It is such a character piece, about two brothers, very one-on-one," says Michael Stocker, animation supervisor. "The pair are in almost every shot. I think there was more dialog between the two main characters than in any movie we've ever done."

Pixar Animation Studios has taken moviegoers under the sea, into space, back in time, and into the toy box. But Onward marks the first time Pixar has explored a world that features all the conveniences of suburbia - except with vermin unicorns roaming the streets. Stocker describes the suburban fantasy world in Onward as a hybrid that's akin to a fractured fairy tale type of fantasyland, which, over time, has evolved into something totally different, something more modern and "human-like," as the creatures find magic too difficult to master and technology much easier to use. However, as the brothers embark on their journey, that world becomes more magical and fantastical.

"Usually fantasy films take place long ago in a very noble time in a very beautiful land," says Scanlon. "There was something unique about seeing these characters in a world that's familiar to us. It's fun to imagine them riding skateboards, taking the bus, watching TV, or playing video games. It's something we haven't seen before - it's such a juxtaposition watching an elf have to take his kid to soccer practice."

The brothers live in the city of New Mushroomton, whose tract-style houses, freeways, and strip malls make it appear like a typical suburban area. Almost. Here, houses are literally shaped like mushrooms. There are the usual locations, like a tavern and the local high school, and the inhabitants have typical jobs and hobbies. Yet, the residents are certainly atypical - mythical creatures who have "evolved" into a more modern-day existence.

While designing this unique world, the filmmakers settled on a ratio of 70:30 in regard to the familiar and the fantastic elements - 70 percent familiar, 30 percent fantasy whenever possible. At times, though, the characters tipped that scale.

Conjuring Up Dad

Onward is filled with all manner of creatures - centaurs, trolls, goblins, unicorns, manticores, pixies, elves, dragons, and a lot more - all with human-like emotions and internal struggles. Characters of every size and shape. Bipedal, quadrupedal, furred, and those that fly. Tools were developed to make the animation controls consistent across all the different body types.

Even dad is quite unusual. "He was one of the most unique animation challenges we've ever seen at Pixar," says Stocker.

Through the magic of the spell, dad begins to appear slowly, starting with his shoes, then socks, khakis, belt… and just as a shirt begins to come into view, Ian is overpowered - and the spell is halted midsection. The boys then build a disguise for dad's missing upper body in an attempt to make him look "normal" while he accompanies them on their journey, dressing him in a hoodie, hat, and sunglasses (think a CG version of the character from Weekend at Bernie's).

Dad, who is missing his upper body throughout the movie, presented a unique animation challenge.

According to character tailoring lead Emron Grover, dad and his upper half was the most technically complex costume ever done at Pixar. "We had a number of requirements to hit when creating Dad's upper half: It had to be funny, appealing, physically plausible, look like a person at first glance, act like a person at times, but also act like a lump of cloth," he says.

Pulling off the look, however, called for a coordinated effort among several departments, in particular, a delicate dance between the animation and simulation departments because the hoodie had to be simulated, but animation would control the movement for the acting, "and it turns out that was really hard to do," Stocker adds.

According to Jacob Brooks, simulation supervisor, dad was his team's biggest undertaking. "He has a stuffed, fluffy pillow top," Brooks says of the character. "Soft layers are always hard in simulation. In order to get dad to overlap properly and move like a ragdoll would, we spent a lot of our time dialing in physical properties to make him feel heavy and floppy. We worked with animation to make sure his funny moments were believable and physical."

Technicians built a system that allowed animation to hit key poses for the character while still achieving the ragdoll physics. The goal, says Brooks, was to "get him to perform in a physical way that was art directed."

The upper and lower portions of dad's body contained two different rigs. In fact, there were two different versions of dad that the animators worked with - the half-guy version that comprised just the lower body, and the full version that had additional controls for the upper body. Depending on the shot, the animators would use one or the other, or even both versions, according to Sudeep Rangaswamy, technology and pipeline supervisor.

Special tools enabled the animators to run simulations at their desks so they could see what the acting would look like. The animators could dial in how much sim and how much animation they wanted. "We could animate the rig fully, and we could dial in between the two, or in pieces or parts, but it didn't have quite the same physics [as a full simulation]," Stocker explains. Ultimately, the final simulations were done by the sim department.

So, for instance, if the animators wanted dad to shake someone's hand, then animation had to drive that action, with a little simulation on top of it. A simulation alone wouldn't achieve that.

However, for the lower part of dad's body, the animators keyframed it within Presto, the studio's in-house animation software. The lower body then drove the upper portion. "So if dad was just walking, we could hit a button for the upper body, and for the most part, the arms would move, the head would bounce, and the torso felt like a stuffed hoodie. But then that hoodie also came with animation controls. So if we then wanted dad to turn his head at a certain point, we could drive that exactly how we wanted to. We could get close, and then sim would take over and honor that."

The legs were animated just like any character, and then the simulation department would run a typical sim to provide movement on the pants. However, the boys kept dad on a tight leash, so to speak, using a retractable dog leash to move and control him so he would not wander off. The leash was tethered to dad's belt; controls helped slide the attachment around the belt for continuity through the sequence.

The group also built controls that could pull the pants so when a character tugged on the leash, that area would pull and "really sell the physicality of that action," says Stocker. While this would move the belt-line and the belt, it would not move the upper body in that particular shot. "So in a case like that, the sim department would have to do some custom work to make the upper body react to the belt-line being moved. Where the hoodie overlapped the belt-line was a tricky area, and for the most part, the hoodie was situated over the top and purposely hid any leash interaction," he adds. "But, there were always times when we had to work to make that connection look natural."

The Dragon

A "larger" animation challenge was the dragon monster, particularly due to its size and complexity. The dragon has a unique design. Its face is flat and resembles the mascot of the school, while its body was formed from the bits and parts of the debris as it wrecked the high school - cement chunks, pieces of metal and rebar, even nearby cars, and so forth. So, its design was fluid from shot to shot. "It goes through a progression. It starts in one state and ends in another state. It required a lot of coordination to pull that off," says Rangaswamy.

The film mixes fantasy (30 percent) with the familiar (70 percent).

Tim Best, supervising TD - lighting, notes that the dragon was especially challenging for the lighters, in part because there were so many different kinds of elements and effects that make up the character.

Then came the challenge of animating it as one coherent object. One more thing, it flies, too. And it breathes fire.

"From a rigging point of view, it was really challenging to build and then animate, but so was  choreographing the sequence," says Stocker. "The tricky part about the animation was that we didn't want the dragon to feel like it was a real animal as it moved, one with muscle. We wanted it to feel like it was more machine-like. Finding that balance between animal and machine was not easy. At the same time, we wanted it to feel menacing and gigantic."

The dragon spanned a number of sequences, culminating in a huge action sequence at the end of the film. While bringing the creature to life, the work of many departments was directly affected by the work of other departments - animation, characters, sets, effects, lighting, simulation. The crew held what they called "dragon dailies," during which the teams examined these dragon sequences at least a few times a week, as all the departments tried to determine how they were going to approach the scenes - what animation was going to do, what simulation was going to do, what effects was going to do. "Because, if any of us was going to change something that could change the set, the others needed to know," says Stocker.

The artists also considered Barley's beat-up van, Guinevere, a character, too. "We treated the van like it's Barley's steed; that's how he treat it, even though it is just hacked together and doesn't work that well," says Stocker. The van had all the physics of a vehicle, but animation bestowed on it a quirky personality, too - for instance, making it rear up a bit when it would take off.

Making Magic

In Onward, effects are also treated as a character. "We wanted the magic to be cool and interesting because it plays such an important role," says Stocker.

A film language was created to keep the magic consistent. "That illustrated the idea that [the magic] was a little chaotic, and for people who couldn't master the magic, it would be a little more wild, but the more advanced they became at using it, the more refined the magic would look," Rangaswamy explains.

Designing the look of the magic, though, was quite an undertaking. Dave Hale, effects lead, calls it "a long, fun, but painful journey."

The team spent time looking at the magic effects in a wide range of films for inspiration. The style couldn't be too young-looking, nor could it be too mature-looking; rather, it fell somewhere in the middle of those extremes, says Hale. Most important, the magic had to fit within the world of Onward - which is more painterly in style than, say, Toy Story 4, which is more photography-based.

According to Hale, the filmmakers determined there would be a spell matrix based on the intensity of the spell and the ability of the wizard. "In that sense, the story magic was almost thought of as a character, a supporting character, for Ian, as it complemented the performances," he says. As the story progresses and Ian becomes better at wielding the magic and is trying harder spells, the language changes, becoming more orderly than chaotic.

The effects play an important role and were treated like a character.

First, though, the magic had to be designed (would it pulse or shoot out a beam from the staff, for instance). And, they had to determine how Ian would react. The group looked at accomplishing this in 3D, but old-school 2D illustrations were the best alternative for providing a sense of timing, size, and scale that the effects department used for their inspiration.

"There's this dance that went on back and forth between [animation and effects] before we got [the final look] right," says Stocker. Using just 2D elements didn't quite fit into the Onward world, and 3D proved a bit too realistic for the painterly style. Rather, a mix between the two proved to be the best choice.

While effects designed the physics of the spells - the shape of the magic beams and so forth -  lighting worked with effects on the color and how they would illuminate the scene. The effects were done within SideFX's Houdini and then rendered through Foundry's Katana.

Dad's staff was just one aspect of the magic. The artists also had to deal with the results of that magic. For instance, there are characters who disappear, and the team had to develop techniques to show how those characters would partially appear and reappear. "We had to figure out ways for them to transition from being fully formed to disappearing, and the timing of that," says Rangaswamy. "The animators would figure out the progression and then work with the effects team to figure out what that transition area would look like."

The magic had a glowing element to it that served as a light source for the other objects in the scene. So, as an object disappears, a determination had to be made as to how much of that transition area would glow, what color it would be, and so on. "That's something effects, animation, and lighting worked on together," says Rangaswamy.

This meant working in tandem, as lighters did their work while the animators did theirs. Meanwhile, effects had to wait for animation in order to finesse their work. "Then the magical effects are driving the lighting, making things more complicated with all the back and forth between the departments," says Best.

Volumetric mesh lights were used on the show, whereby the volume representation of the VFX assets, such as the magic beams or sparks, actually served as the light source - something the lighters were unable to do before, Best points out. "We'd have to use a proxy version of the effect, a geometric meshed version or that sort of thing. The thing is, we have the ability to do things in a very photorealistic way that's physically correct. But the look of the film is fairly painterly; there's a lot of handcrafted shot changes. And it's challenging for the lighting artists to marry those two, but now it can be done in a much cleaner way."

There are many colorful characters in the film, including this manticore.

Without hesitation, Hale points to two sequences in which the magic was especially difficult. The first was when the boys conjure up their dad, partly due to having so many effects working on top of one another. The second involved the dragon.

Throughout the film, Ian is learning different types of spells, but at the end, he must use a culmination of all of them to fight the dragon. "There's a unique look for the different spells, and we had to deal with all the different complexities that we dealt with individually up to this point," says Best. "There were super-heavy simulations, like fire, destruction, and a dragon of red gas. There was interaction with the environment, the dust and destruction on the ground, and every magic spell possible. It's a Level 3 maxed-out version one right after the other, all playing together. There's everything but the kitchen sink."

Hale notes that the formation of the gas's drag and the work on the dragon's wings were very complex, resulting in effects doing some secondary motion on the gas dragon to give it extra weight. "Effects had a big hand in developing and supporting that character, which is not very common for us," he says. "We took all the pieces of the dragon, which is made out of the high school, and made them feel like they had mass. We added lot of scale. We added hanging cables and bits of red rock and stuff falling off the dragon, on top of the gas that was inside the dragon and its wings, and the fire coming out of the dragon." 

Hale adds, "This is one of our biggest effects films for sure."


Ian and Barley’s relationship evolves during their adventure.

Personal journey

 As Stocker notes, Onward is a fantasy story, yet it is a deeply personal one for Scanlon. The film was inspired by the death of Scanlon's father's when the director and his brother were very young, and the siblings' subsequent relationship.  

Initially, the team was unsure whether it was appropriate to offer notes about the story - "it was his, after all," says Stocker. "But Dan is such a giving director. He invited us to really poke at the story and make it better. He would pitch us a sequence and then we would pick it up to animate and brainstorm, then we would pitch those back to Dan. He would decide if they fit or if they were funny or not. It really invested the animators into the movie, to make it better."

As Rangaswamy notes, on previous Pixar movies, there was always a certain challenge that the group had to overcome, whether ocean waves and refraction with Finding Nemo, animation controls for a vehicle in the first Cars, vegetation for The Good Dinosaur, or the world of the dead for Coco. On this movie, however, he believes the challenge was in the culmination of things that demanded their attention.

"We had all those things in one film. There's an ocean and water, characters that are human-like and ones that are furry. There's complex clothing interaction that required a lot of simulation. There's a lot of magic, and the battle at the end is a big effects extravaganza," he says. "We had to do all these things that are really high level."

Indeed, Pixar used a lot of digital magic to bring us this story, which opens our eyes to the little bit of magic in all of us.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.