Onward: How Pixar Made Magic Itself a Character

We go inside Pixar Studios to see how the characters and world of Onward was made... including its unique brand of magic.

Last fall, Den of Geek was invited to Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California to take a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their forthcoming fantasy-adventure, Onward. The tour gave us deep insight into how Pixar’s artists created Onward’s story, characters, and world, which is unlike any fantasy landscape that’s come before it.

The story takes place in a world where magic has been forsaken in favor of technology and convenience. The trolls, elves, and other fantastical beings and beasts decided at one point that they’d rather click a button than cast a spell, which over time turned their reality into one that’s much like ours, replete with bustling cities and sleepy suburbs, though some remnants of the world’s former fantastical glory do peek through all of the concrete and power lines.

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For the artists at Pixar, the key to making this odd cocktail of fiction and reality work was to lean into into the familiar. “The art department’s job is to build a visual language and vernacular that helps the audience accept that world and not ask questions about it in every shot,” production designer Noah Klocek tells us. With their character designs, the team aimed to put their fantastical characters in a modern world in a way that immediately communicates in a glance to audiences just who the character is and what their interests are. 

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The film’s heroes, brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot are both elves, but by using design elements taken from 21st century Americana, the artists are able to contextualize them in a way that’s easily understandable. Barley wears print tees, a denim vest with band patches on it, and studded gauntlets, which clearly conveys a metalhead, tabletop gamer vibe. Ian is more reserved and straight-laced, so he’s naturally more of a low-key, jeans and a button-down kind of guy.

As for the overall look of the world, Klocek recalls Director Dan Scanlon envisioning a “sticker book, Trapper Keeper” kind of fantasy milieu. If you’re too young to understand the reference (cheers), it basically means that the team was going for lots of wacky, kaleidoscopic colors, whimsical designs, and lots and lots of sparkles. What they’ve achieved is truly extraordinary, not just because it all looks so damn cool, but because all of the designs are cohesive and make complete sense despite being built around such a bizarre style clash.

read more: Inside Pixar’s High Fantasy

Driving the film’s design is the story, which has been in the works since way back in 2013. “We spent a lot of time making sure the story was not just good, but great,” says Head of Story Kelsey Mann. “It takes time. We have a pretty high bar here at Pixar, and we always want to make sure that we do something that’s worthy of the Pixar name.”

Before the first Onward drawing was digitzed, the story team spent weeks brainstorming and refining ideas. Then, the other departments were slowly brought in to make the movie come to life.

One of the most entertaining presentations I saw on campus was given by Story Lead Madeline Sharafian, who acted out what it’s like for a Pixar story artist to pitch a scene to the rest of the team. She clicked through a series of storyboards and vocally captured the scene, filling in for the actors. It was a theatrical experience for us, so much so that it is easy to believe Sharafian that pitches often garner a round of applause. The team drew 97,759 storyboards in the making of Onward, which is frankly insane).

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After the 2D drawings of the storyboards and concept art are locked, the 3D animators begin work on all of the characters and environments that will be seen in the final film. Once they’ve made a three-dimensional version of the two-dimensional drawings, they begin sculpting and re-sculpting the designs until they reflect the team’s vision and are ready for the big screen.

One of the biggest misconceptions about CG in movies is that it’s all done by computers and doesn’t involve as much human touch as, say, practical effects. But this couldn’t be further from the truth—Pixar’s animators and artists build each of their movies from scratch, by hand, and a lot of the things they work hardest on are rarely noticed by audiences.

Take magic for example. We all have a general idea of what magic looks like on screen because it’s one of the oldest visual effects in the book. Someone points a wand, their hand, or whatever, and suddenly we see a dazzling light show of sparkles and splashes of color. The folks of Pixar wanted to create a very specific, signature look for the magic in Onward.

“This is the first Pixar film in which the director specifically wanted to treat effects and magic as a character in the film,” effects supervisor Vincent Serritella says. And the magic in Onward does look unique, made up of rich, saturated blues and oranges, and fluttering, twisting strands of energy. “We wanted Onward to have a specificity to it, so that the magic we created is effectively branded in that world,” Serritella continues. “If you were to put the magic in another movie, you’d say, ‘No, that’s the magic from Onward.’”

And these enchantments aren’t just a pretty light show either. There are rules and levels to the spells that Ian and Barley cast, and a specialized team of artists within the studio made sure that there was a method to the magic.

“We got a group together called ‘The Fellowship,’” says Story artist Louise Smythe. “It was people from all different parts of the studio with one thing in common—we all really love fantasy.”

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read more: Tom Hanks on Saying Goodbye to Woody

Together the “Fellowship” laid out sprawling charts to come up with spell names that sounded cool but also made sense, like “Aloft Elevar,” the movie’s version of a levitation spell. They also broke down what it takes for the characters to cast a spell successfully (a dramatic stance and a sense of conviction the artists refer to as “Heart’s Fire” are essential), how the spells would support the story, and what a “Level 1” spell would look like on screen compared to a “Level 10” spell. It was a long, arduous, unbelievably geeky endeavor to design Onward’s magic, but I suspect audiences ultimately appreciate that attention to detail, whether they realize it or not.

It’s no secret that Pixar movies take a long time to make, but seeing just how much thought, creativity, and hard work goes into pulling one of these films off is jaw-dropping. Onward is a love letter to all things fantasy while also offering a new, utterly wacky take on the classic genre like only Pixar can.

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