The world of Onward has roots in the ancient. The mythical creatures of yore still exist, but they’re watered down versions of themselves. There is no myth or mystery in the quaint little town of New Mushroomton. In this world without magic, Ian and Barley venture to reclaim it. But first, filmmakers had to create the magic that the two brothers set out to find and master.
One group at Pixar was formed for the sole purpose of bringing authentic fantasy to the film. They were called The Fellowship. A deep love and knowledge of the genre led them to meet frequently and share their favorite things about fantasy; things they wanted to see in Onward and others they were happier to leave out! One of the Fellowship members who led a presentation last fall at the studio was Louise Smythe. She’s a story artist with boundless enthusiasm for fantasy that hasn’t left her since childhood. As a story artist, she works with Dan Scanlon to develop the script.
There was one crucial question that guided the script wrting and drawing process:
What is the Onward and Pixar version of magic?
The answer lay in three components:
- Every spell must originate with heartsfire, a fancy magical term for self confidence. You can’t cast spells without it!
- The higher level spells have magic decrees which require a certain mental/emotional state in order to work.
- The most advanced spells require the above factors and an added assist element. An example is the phoenix gem that’s used to conjure Ian and Barley’s dad.
Spells in Onward all incorporate emotions, materials, movement, and verbal commands. As always, everything in the film serves the characters and stories. Ian’s character development was influenced by magic. The crew wanted to draw him out of his comfort zone, so the gangly, awkward teenage elf would have to do really awkward poses. He’d even grit his teeth and strain to complete spells. That was fine, but it didn’t provide much of an emotional response. The solution to that arrived in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, where Ian has to take a leap of faith, quite literally. That’s when the audience is meant to become even more invested in his journey.
In addition to the Fellowship was the Spell Squad. They were tasked with naming the spells. Dan had a couple rules they needed to follow:
- Each spell had to be short and to the point.
- You can guess what it is by hearing it.
- No gibberish.
The magic of Onward doesn’t only concern the spells, it even functions as a character. It’s meant to support Ian, echoing what we learned about his character development. Effects supervisor Vincent Serritella approached the task of personifying magic by studying magicians whose tricks are invisible. Visualizing the magic onscreen was informed by its size – the larger the spell, the more screen space it inhabits. When the boys conjure their dad, you can see how powerful it is because it disrupts the environment. Certain spells were also strong enough to affect Ian and Barley’s performances by the animators.
Since Onward is also inspired by the aesthetics of roleplay fantasy games- most notably in Barley’s passion for them – it was a really fun exercise for art director Paul Conrad and the graphics department. The artists in this department will often sneak in a good chunk of Easter eggs. They’re also responsible for decorating the sets and creating the world’s logos and brands. Graphics contribute another layer of authenticity. Moviegoers may miss some of the details embedded within the film, but they will notice the little ‘magic touches’ in the designs. You’ll note one detail on the parchment below – see how aged it looks?
What I found cool about this particular session was learning about Barley’s beloved Quests of Yore book. It doubles as a game and a historical document. It might even be actual merch! The book was designed for 3D and it has no blank pages.
Ultimately, what the filmmakers really wanted to create is a version of magic that would be as memorable as Tinkerbell’s pixie dust.
You’ll be able to see for yourself if it reaches that high standard when Onward hits theaters tomorrow!