Why the colour of the elves in Onward caused problems…….

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Director Dan Scanlon’s personal inspiration for the making of ‘Onward’ kicked off development for what would become Pixar Animation Studios’ 22nd feature film. “We started with the characters first,” says Scanlon. “We wanted to tell the story of two brothers. We knew one would be shy and awkward, and we wanted to pair him with a brother with a completely opposite personality—someone who has every intention of teaching him about life but maybe doesn’t really know a lot himself.” While the characters are born of fantasy, it was important to filmmakers that they all have human-like emotions and internal struggles—particularly the main characters. “We wanted to bring humanity to the whimsy,” says character art director Matt Nolte. “We needed to be able to read and relate to their emotions.” Elves offered human features and expressions, but the fact that elves’ appearances are otherwise quite fantastical helped set their visual contrast from humans. “Elves are interesting,” says character supervisor Jeremie Talbot. “We all have an idea of what they might look like, but that is different for each of us. Just coming up with the color of their skin sent us through a rainbow of options—pink, green, yellow, orange, purple— before we arrived at the color blue.” But, says director of photography Sharon Calahan, ASC, the color made the elf characters challenging to light. “Blue skin reacted strongly to colored light sources,” she says. “We had to figure out how to finesse those characters to keep them in a pleasant shade of blue.”

Why the colour of the Elves in Onward caused problems

Filmmakers, of course, wanted the elves to feel real to moviegoers, so artists spent a lot of time contemplating illumination. According to character shading and groom lead Ana Lacaze, in true form for Pixar’s detail-oriented artists, they had to determine how those elfin ears would look with light coming through them. “We decided that the look would be warm,” she says. “After trying different options, it feels more natural, appealing and relatable.” Artists built sculptures of each of the species to determine exactly how the elves would fit into the world. Once they had the language determined, they were able to home in on Ian, Barley and Laurel Lightfoot. According to Talbot, they needed to design the elves to feel cohesive as a species, and ensure that the family shared traits. “We found that if we changed one character, we’d need to make adjustments to another—so Mom has a little bit of Ian and a little bit of Barley in her. Finding the right balance and how they worked together was a bit of a dance.”

Why the colour of the Elves in Onward caused problems

Says director Dan Scanlon, “Usually fantasy films take place long ago in a very noble time in a very beautiful land. 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.” According to production designer Noah Klocek, filmmakers spent a lot of time defining what a modern fantasy setting might look like. “While it’s a fantasy movie, it’s not about being a fantasy movie,” he says. “It’s a story of these two brothers and the journey they 13 go on,” he says. “Where we landed is that it’s the fantastic and the familiar—it’s the balance of those things.”

Why the colour of the Elves in Onward caused problems

Director of photography Sharon Calahan, ASC, kicked off her efforts by embracing the story’s core. Calahan gleaned inspiration from graphic novels and their film adaptations, as well as traditional fantasy artwork and films. Color played a key role in her approach. “We used a limited palette for the sets, characters and props that included a range of values and saturation levels within red, green, blue, orange, yellow and variations on those colors. And we purposely avoided purple except for moments that included Dad’s socks or lighting moments in the film that emotionally call back to Dad. We also used saturated light color often to create unique locations and to introduce more fantasy and magic into the scenes.” With an array of fantasy figures populating the world, many of the sets were designed to provide balance with a more familiar feel. “If you see these sets in plain, ordinary light, they’ll look familiar to our world,” says Calahan. “But if you light them the right way, they can transcend ordinary to feel magical.”

Why the colour of the Elves in Onward caused problems

The world of Onward was inspired in part by the Los Angeles region; filmmakers ultimately decided to locate their fantasy suburb in a fictional location similar to the area. “It’s like Los Feliz of maybe 20 years ago,” says production designer Noah Klocek. “We also looked at Frogtown near L.A. and suburbs of Sacramento, too.” According to Klocek, they set a target ratio with regard to the familiar and fantastic elements. “It’s almost frame by frame,” he says. “The ratio we came up with is 70/30— 70 percent familiar and 30 percent fantasy. It doesn’t work in every situation, and we discovered early on that sometimes the characters would tip that scale.”

Why the colour of the Elves in Onward caused problems

Perhaps one of the most prevalent sets is the one on wheels, Barley’s van Guinevere is more than just a van—she’s his mighty steed! Built from the ground up by Barley himself, the groovy purple van is a bit run-down, but spectacularly decked out with crescent-moon windows and a mural. So, of course, Barley calls on Guinevere to shepherd them on their epic quest. “He built her without a manual or really any automotive knowledge,” says director Dan Scanlon. “And the end result reflects that.” The van features faux wood paneling, posters and stickers. “There are a lot of rugs on the floor and medieval-fantasy-inspired graphics,” says sets supervisor Amy L. Allen. According to director of photography Sharon Calahan, ASC, Guinevere contributed to the lighting effort too. “In addition to her exterior lights, inside she has these little Christmas lights and sconces along with the overhead light,” says Calahan. “Guinevere is a funky beast in that Barley kind of cobbled her together from spare parts, and the gauges don’t all work. Some of the lights sometimes come on, some of them don’t. What started as a continuity mistake on our part became part of her fluky behavior. The headlights flicker sometimes and she’s just barely held together with duct tape.” Habib’s team also wanted the vehicle shots to feel thrilling and authentic to the highspeed action in the van. So they used live-action cameras in an effort to capture the shake and movements of a camera. Filmmakers turned to other resources, too, to get a better understanding of what was possible. “We looked at a few travelling movies to check out pacing and camera angles,” says film editor Catherine Apple. “We wanted to capture the emotion of these two characters without relying solely on close-ups.”

Read our review of ‘Onward’ HERE

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