Creating the World and Characters of Pixar's 'Onward': Blending the Familiar with Fantasy [New Concept Art & Screencaps]

Ian Lightfoot is nervous at his high school in Pixar's Onward
Pixar films start with a single thread of an idea — an overarching theme which brings forth a flurry of creativity as the world and characters are defined. But, this can also be daunting at times because each character must be crafted from scratch and even the streets they walk on must have a look and feel that is congruent with the story.

In our previous post regarding our visit to Pixar Animation Studios (to learn all about Onward), we shared our interview with Director, Dan Scanlon, and Producer, Kori Rae. This time, we're sharing additional insights from several teams and artists which worked over multiple years to create a set of landscapes and characters which were not only visually appealing, but also felt familiar to audiences.

Onward New Mushroomton Concept art by Chris Sasaki
Artwork by Chris Sasaki

Let's play a game for a moment. If you were creating the world of Onward and used the city you live in today as a base, what percent of fantasy-related elements could you replace (or, swap out) without changing the familiar-feel you already know?

It turns out that Noah Klocek (Production Designer) and the team realized that in Onward, the right balance was 70% familiar-elements and 30% fantasy-elements. This was the starting point the team used to craft Ian and Barley's hometown of New Mushroomton.

Pixar Onward city by Huy Nguyen
Artwork by Huy Nguyen

Boiled down, it's the process of making a troll, a cyclops, or an elf feel like they're not out of place in the world they live in.

To make sure the art department stays in sync with the overall vision for the film, Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae meet two times per week with the team (over three years in the case on Onward) to make sure the team is tracking in the right direction.

Pixar Onward Behind the Scenes

As with all art, often times the direction you start heading in isn't where you end up. An earlier version of the Manticore's Tavern (shown below) had a more traditional English design, but this felt "too fantasy" when you placed the characters in the scene and was out of sync with the rest of the world which was created. So, they modeled the newer tavern after sit-down chain restaurants (like T.G.I.Friday's or Chili's) and it made the visuals feel more balanced (and fun).

A similar thing happened with Ian as well. Jeremie Talbot (Characters Supervisor) noted that as the team was tweaking his character, he started to look "too cool." This didn't work because Ian should always have a slight nervous edge to him since that's the core of his character.

Manticore's Tavern artwork by Garrett Taylor
Artwork by Garrett Taylor

Another element of the film which should be in sync to help you understand the world (in a visual sense) without having to physically express it, is produced by the Camera and Staging team.

Adam Habib (DP Layout) noted that Ian's character is much more straight-laced than Barley. To support this, the team often used virtual 50mm camera lenses (a lens that is similar to what the human eye sees) when positioning Ian in the frame (and kept him centered in the frame). To "stage" Barley on the other hand, the team used a mix of wide-angle lenses (25mm) and zoom lenses (135mm) along with off-centered framing to make him feel more free-spirited and boisterous with his actions.

It was absolutely fantastic to learn more about the fine details of how each group worked together to visually support the story.

Cosplay Barley from Pixar's Onward

Each department's work needs to be pulled together and displayed as a whole, so, Catherine Apple (Editor) let us know how her work helped achieve this goal. Onward was edited four times in storyboard form (even before the final vocal actors provide their lines) where she and the editing team insert temporary "scratch" vocals and sound effects on top of the hand-drawn storyboards to see if any area is feeling out of sync.

We already mentioned how camera and staging as well as the design of the characters supports the story, but did you also know that the editors adjust the speed of the cuts as well? Barley's edits in the film are cut faster, while the moments when Ian is on screen pause and hold for a few extra seconds. Again, this helps us feel that Ian a more structured character while Barley is much more sporadic.

Unless you're in the film industry and already know how many of these elements interplay, I hope this is as jaw-dropping and fascinating for you as it was for us!

Art team gathers for an art review on Pixar's Onward

When the characters were originally created, artists drew them with realistic shading, coloring, and lighting — but after their character rigs are created in the computer, they look much more basic and "flat", so two other teams come in to give the characters their signature looks

Ana Lacaze (Character Shading and Groom Lead) shared how her team defined how Ian's hair moved, how it bounced, and even how smooth or scruffy his skin would look or how his clothes appear.

The lighting team, led by Jonathan Pytko (Lighting Supervisor) also helps shape the characters and bring them to life. Jonathon and the team had to find ways to use light to showcase times of strife (darker or more shadowed) or times of emotional highs (which may be punctuated with warmer, golden tones). But, it was interesting to note that Jonathan shared that the blue-skinned elves provided somewhat of a challenge to the lighting team due to their cooler-toned skin (in finding an appealing look).

Visual Development artwork of Ian from Pixar's Onward

Sequoia Blankenship (Crowds Supervisor) shared that the crowds team is essential to supporting the worlds that the team builds. Imagine a high school scene (like there is in the film) where Ian goes to school, but there aren't any other kids. Wouldn't it feel like a Saturday or Sunday (even if they film were taking place on a Tuesday) without there being a lot of other characters in the scene? 

Character Lineup Concept Artwork from Pixar Onward
Artwork by Maria Yi, Grant Alexander, and Matt Nolte


Allison Rutland (Directing Animator) and Sequoia shared that there were 85 animators on the film and that there were 13 species of elves, cyclops, sprites, satyrs, dragons, bugs, and more which were created to populate 240 individual characters with an additional 100 variants of those characters to support the film. Wow!

Pixar Onward Unicorn Concept Artwork
Artwork by Jennifer Chang and Stanley Moore


Starting with a blank slate at the beginning of a film can be intimidating (as Jeremie Talbot pointed out). But, it's all about diving in and "getting some stakes in the ground" to see what the Director (Dan Scanlon) is connecting with artistically.

What we took away from the artists creating Onward (or any Pixar film) is to bring whatever inspires you to the table at the beginning and see what elements you can build off of. Collaborate with your co-workers and never shy away from changing directions if it's not working. No department could make a film alone and the excitement and passion we heard from all of the artists has us even more excited to see what the team has created on March 6, 2020 when Onward hits theaters.

What are your thoughts on the world and characters from Onward? Leave a comment below or chat about it with other fans in the Pixar Post Forum thread which looks behind-the-scenes at Onward.

Related Posts:
- View even more Concept Artwork and Behind-the-Scenes looks at Pixar's Onward
First Look: Check out Ian and Barley Lightfoot From 'Onward' as They Will Appear in Disney Parks
Pixar's Onward: From Day 1 to Now – Our Behind-The-Scenes Interview with Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae [Audio]

Pixar Post - T.J. & Julie



22,7,22 Against Earth,1,22 vs Earth,3,4K Ultra HD,9,A Bug's Life,6,A113,4,Aaron Hartline,4,Adam Burke,1,Adrian Molina,27,Alan Barillaro,12,Albert Lozano,1,Alex Mandel,1,Alex Marino,1,Allison Rutland,1,Alonso Martinez,1,Ana Lacaze,1,Andrea Warren,9,Andrew Gordon,3,Andrew Jimenez,1,Andrew Stanton,55,Angelique Reisch,4,Angus MacLane,34,Animation Podcast,7,Annie Awards,1,Aphton Corbin,4,App Review,7,Apple Watch,1,Armie Hammer,2,Art,37,Art of Animation Resort,5,Artists Help Japan,6,Austin Madison,4,Automaton,1,Awards,103,Axel Geddes,1,Bao,12,Barney Jones,1,Beth Sullivan,1,Bill Hader,1,Bill Watral,1,BIlly Crystal,4,Bing Bong,2,Blu-Ray,58,Bo Peep,21,Bob Pauley,1,Bob Peterson,25,Bob Whitehill,2,Bobby Podesta,5,Bobby Rubio,4,Bobs Gannaway,2,Book,9,Book Review,54,Boundin,1,Box Office,4,Brad Bird,57,Brave,144,Breaking,6,BREAKING News,59,Brian Fee,26,Brian Larsen,4,Bryn Imagire,2,Bud Luckey,1,Burrow,1,Buzz Lightyear,32,Buzz Lightyear of Star Command,1,Car Toons,2,Carrie Hobson,1,Cars,77,Cars 2,19,Cars 3,94,Cars Land,37,Cars Toons,12,Chris Chua,1,Chris Sasaki,1,Christina Faraj,1,Christine Freeman,1,Clip,4,Coco,106,Contest,11,Craig Foster,2,Cristela Alonzo,2,Cruz Ramirez,13,Custom Pixar Gear,6,Cynthia Slavens,1,D23,36,D23 Expo,10,Dan Scanlon,111,Dana Murray,12,Daniel Arriaga,4,Daniela Strijleva,1,Danielle Feinberg,6,Darla Anderson,27,Dave Mullins,14,David Lally,10,David Munier,2,Dean Kelly,4,Deanna Marsigliese,1,Deleted Scene,6,Denise Ream,5,Detroit Auto Show,1,Dia de los Muertos,7,Dice Tsutsumi,8,Die Cast Cars,23,Digital,2,Director's Commentary,9,Dirk Van Gelder,1,Disney California Adventure,43,Disney Cruise,3,Disney Infinity,43,Disney Infinity 2.0,6,Disney Infinity 3.0,15,Disney Infinity Next,1,Disney Interactive,1,Disney Movie Club,1,Disney Movies Anywhere,4,Disney on Ice,1,Disney World,68,Disney+,37,Disneyland,32,Disneyland Paris,8,DisneyPlus,26,Domee Shi,17,Dominique Louis,1,Ducky and Bunny,4,Dug Days,4,Duke Caboom,5,Dylan Sisson,1,Easter Eggs,44,Ed Catmull,28,Edna Mode,1,Edwin Chang,4,Emilie Goulet,1,Emron Grover,1,Enrico Casarosa,30,Erica Milsom,6,Erik Langley,1,Erik Smitt,1,Everett Downing,1,Exclusive,24,Fan Art,34,Farhez Rayani,2,Finding Dory,101,Finding Nemo,24,Float,4,Forky,20,Forky Asks A Question,7,Forum,3,Fran Kalal,1,Fun Facts,8,Gabby Gabby,1,Galyn Susman,7,Garrett Taylor,1,Giggle McDimples,2,Giveaway,5,Google Hangout,5,Hawaiian Vacation,2,Hidden Items,4,Imagineering,3,Incredibles 2,106,Inside Out,153,Inside Pixar,2,Interview,43,Jack-Jack,1,Jackson Storm,10,Jake Monaco,4,James Ford Murphy,13,Jamie Roe,1,Jason Deamer,1,Jason Johnston,3,Jay Shuster,3,Jay Ward,10,Jeff Danna,4,Jeff Pidgeon,1,Jeremie Talbot,1,Jerome Ranft,1,Jessica Heidt,1,Jessie,3,Jesus Martinez,2,Jim Capobianco,4,Jim Morris,7,Joe Ranft,2,John Goodman,2,John Lasseter,69,John Ratzenberger,3,John Walker,4,Jon Reisch,3,Jonas Rivera,31,Jonathan Pytko,2,Josh Cooley,52,Jude Brownbill,3,Juliet Roth,1,Katherine Sarafian,1,Katy Wu,1,Kelly Bonbright,1,Kelsey Mann,14,Kemp Powers,13,Kerry Washington,2,Kevin Nolting,2,Kevin O'Hara,1,Kevin Reher,3,Kitbull,6,Knick Knack,2,Kori Rae,25,Krissy Cababa,3,Kristen Lester,8,Kyzysztof Rost,1,La Luna,18,Lamp Life,7,Laura Meyer,2,Lava,21,Lee Unkrich,77,Lighting McQueen,39,Lightning McQueen,1,Lightning McQueen's Racing Academy,2,Lightyear,2,Lindsey Collins,9,Ling Tu,1,Loop,6,Lou,17,Lou Hamou-Lhadi,1,Louis Gonzales,2,Louise Smythe,1,Luca,22,Luxo Jr.,5,Madeline Sharafian,1,Mahyar Abousaeedi,1,Manticore,1,Marc Greenberg,1,Marc Sondheimer,5,Mark Andrews,39,Mark Nielsen,8,Mark Orton,1,Mark Walsh,35,Matt Jones,3,Matt Nolte,1,Matthew Luhn,2,Merida,15,Michael B. Johnson,2,Michael Blackmon,1,Michael Comet,2,Michael Fong,3,Michael Frederickson,1,Michael Giacchino,27,Michael Warch,1,Michael Yates,2,Michal Makarewicz,6,Mike Venturini,1,Mike Wazowski,3,Mike Wu,1,Miss Fritter,1,Monsters At Work,14,Monsters Inc,50,Monsters University,177,MontaQue Ruffin,1,MotoExpo,1,Motorama,3,Movie,1,Movie Review,21,Municiberg,1,Mychael Danna,6,Natalie Certain,3,Nathan Farris,2,Nathan Fillion,2,Newt,1,Nick Pitera,1,Nicole Paradis Grindle,4,Nona,2,Onward,50,OUT!,5,Owen Wilson,2,Party Central,12,Partysaurus Rex,50,Patrick Lin,2,Paul Abadilla,8,Pete Docter,132,Peter Sohn,33,Philip Metschan,2,Piper,16,Pixar Animation Studios,187,Pixar Archives,2,Pixar Artist Showcase,2,Pixar Canada,14,Pixar Concept Art,34,Pixar Fest,7,Pixar In A Box,2,Pixar in Concert,1,Pixar In Real Life,3,Pixar Internships,2,Pixar Minute,4,Pixar Pier,9,Pixar Pipeline Project,8,Pixar Place,1,Pixar Popcorn,3,Pixar Post Book Club,12,Pixar Post Record,1,Pixar Putt,2,Pixar Shorts,145,Pixar Studio Story,2,Pixar Toys,68,Pizza Planet Truck,3,Podcast,74,Poster,12,Presto,4,Products,284,Products - A Bug's Life,10,Products - Brave,29,Products - Cars,39,Products - Cars 2,10,Products - Cars 3,21,Products - Coco,13,Products - Finding Dory,10,Products - Finding Nemo,11,Products - Incredibles 2,21,Products - Inside Out,17,Products - Luca,1,Products - Luxo Ball,1,Products - Monsters Inc,20,Products - Monsters University,24,Products - Onward,6,Products - Ratatouille,10,Products - Shorts & TV Specials,58,Products - Soul,6,Products - The Good Dinosaur,7,Products - The Incredibles,13,Products - Toy Story,44,Products - Toy Story 2,9,Products - Toy Story 3,5,Products - Toy Story 4,19,Products - Up,10,Products - WALL-E,10,Purl,7,Radiator Springs,7,Ralph Eggleston,11,Randy Newman,6,Ratatouille,23,RenderMan,4,Renee Tam,1,Review,36,Rib Tickles,1,Ricky Nierva,4,Riley's First Date,6,Rob Thompson,1,Robert Kondo,5,Ronnie Del Carmen,6,Rosana Sullivan,7,Rosie Cole,1,Sandra Karpman,1,Sanjay Patel,13,Sanjay's Super Team,18,Saschka Unseld,30,Scott Morse,1,Sequoia Blankenship,1,Shanghai Disney,2,Sharon Calahan,5,Shawn Krause,1,shopDisney,3,Shufflerz,1,SIGGRAPH,4,Small Fry,3,Smash and Grab,3,Soul,37,Soundtrack,53,SparkShorts,29,Stephany Folsom,1,Stephen Karski,1,Sterling,2,Steve Jobs,6,Steve Pilcher,1,Steve Purcell,18,Steven Clay Hunter,4,Store - Amazon,70,Store - App Store,12,Store - Barnes and Noble,4,Store - Best Buy,4,Store - Disney Store,44,Store - eBay,8,Store - Hallmark,1,Store - iTunes,45,Store - Target,15,Store - Toys R Us,4,Sulley,2,Tales From Radiator Springs,5,Teaser,4,Ted Mathot,1,Teddy Newton,2,Television Specials,3,The Blue Umbrella,40,The Good Dinosaur,93,The Incredibles,42,The Incredibles 2,35,Thomas Jordan,1,Thomas Newman,3,Tia Kratter,1,Tim Allen,4,Tin Toy,1,Tinny,1,To Protect and Serve,4,Toby Chu,1,Tokyo Disney,1,Tony DeRose,1,Tony Fucile,3,Tony Hale,3,Toy Hunt,1,Toy Review,33,Toy Story,152,Toy Story 2,2,Toy Story 3,5,Toy Story 4,114,Toy Story Land,15,Toy Story of Terror,37,Toy Story That Time Forgot,25,Trailer,151,Turning Red,6,Twenty Something,3,Tylor Tuskmon,4,Type - Books,28,Type - Clothing,9,Type - Collectibles,26,Type - Holiday,2,Type - Pins,1,Type - Plush,14,Type - Toys,41,UP,22,Valerie LaPointe,3,VanArts,5,Victor Navone,1,Video Games,51,Vinylmation,9,Wall-e,23,Win or Lose,2,Wind,4,Woody,23,YouTube Live,9,
Pixar Post: Creating the World and Characters of Pixar's 'Onward': Blending the Familiar with Fantasy [New Concept Art & Screencaps]
Creating the World and Characters of Pixar's 'Onward': Blending the Familiar with Fantasy [New Concept Art & Screencaps]
Pixar's Onward wasn't always filled with all the wonderful characters and environments. Read all about the background of how the team dove it to create the entire world from nothing.
Pixar Post
Loaded All Posts Not found any posts VIEW ALL Readmore Reply Cancel reply Delete By Home PAGES POSTS View All RECOMMENDED FOR YOU LABEL ARCHIVE SEARCH ALL POSTS Not found any post match with your request Back Home Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat January February March April May June July August September October November December Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec just now 1 minute ago $$1$$ minutes ago 1 hour ago $$1$$ hours ago Yesterday $$1$$ days ago $$1$$ weeks ago more than 5 weeks ago Followers Follow THIS PREMIUM CONTENT IS LOCKED STEP 1: Share to a social network STEP 2: Click the link on your social network Copy All Code Select All Code All codes were copied to your clipboard Can not copy the codes / texts, please press [CTRL]+[C] (or CMD+C with Mac) to copy Table of Content