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Behind the Strangeness of ‘Strange World’

A half dozen top creators of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 3DCG sci-fi action-adventure film, now in theaters, talk about the strangeness of making things strange.

For those who haven’t yet experienced the endlessly surprising universe of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World, there are many wonders in store. Set in a vast subterranean world populated by strange kinetic plants and an array of bizarre creatures, the film is both an action-packed comedy adventure, as well as a sensitive exploration of father-son relationships, specifically those among three generations of the Clade family – the brilliant Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), his 16-year-old son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and his legendary explorer father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid).

The film is ambitious not only in the surpassing strangeness of its biological and botanical life forms, but also in the way it approaches family dynamics and eschews certain narrative conventions. In this regard, Strange World is notable for being a fantasy-adventure that lacks a foundational villain character. This, according to director Don Hall, while atypical, was not problematic from a story perspective.

“The film felt like it didn't need a villain because we had an emotional antagonist, which was Jaeger to our protagonist, Searcher,” Hall says. “And then you also had Searcher's inner anxiety that his son may become a version of his father. So we had elements for what I felt was enough conflict that we didn't need an overt villain.”

As for another potential narrative trap – one faced by all films that attempt to fuse good storytelling with social advocacy – Hall explains that they were able to avoid heavy-handedness in presenting Strange World’s environmental themes by making sure that they never lost track of the emotional dynamic at its core.

“We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do an environmental film – that we wanted this movie to unabashedly tackle that question of what it means to be a good ancestor,” he shares. “But I knew that it could come across as heavy-handed if it wasn't rooted in a very relatable personal story. That's what led to the decision of telling the story about three generations and letting the father-son dynamics kind of structure the emotional story and let the environmental story be woven into that.”

For the film’s designers, the challenges were of a different order. Given the “anything goes” nature of Strange World’s fanciful environment, they had their hands full imposing some kind of order on the incipient chaos.

“I was basically trying to divide it as much as I could, because the artists that were coming on the show had to have something to stick with,” says Production Designer Mehrdad Isvandi. “And so we established overall rules, based on if it's inspired by pop, if it's inspired by French comics. And then, there were shape guides for each part. For the city, we had squares and tall lines. For the farm, we used wavy lines and horizon and mountain lines. And for the Strange World, we had curves and bubbly shapes. We made a slide deck and we used it as a style guide.”

Head of Environments Sean Jenkins adds that the design process was helped a great deal by the inherently collaborative nature of the enterprise.

“You have this really clear initial direction, and the rules for it, and then the process gets very iterative,” he explains. “I think one of the strengths of this studio is that there's a lot of collaboration, a lot of back and forth. One thing that we talk about a lot is you show early and you show often. It's like once we've got the main idea, we're really discovering the movie as we go, and we're discovering it for quite a while along the length of production.”

Jenkins also notes that Strange World is the first movie where he was working with a production designer who built a model in VR and then handed it to his team.

“Usually we're getting 2D artwork and designs of particular things,” he says. “But there were a couple of areas that Mehrdad took into VR and sculpted out a rough idea of what he wanted a place to look like.”

“Yeah, it was so fun to do that,” Isvandi confirms. “To draw something and pass it to another person so that they understand you takes tons of drawing and they have to match. So I took it to VR and built the environment so we knew the scale, we knew the path of action, we knew that this person is here, this person is there. Then I sent it to Sean so that his team could build it properly.”

Like the designers, the animators of Strange World also took an iterative approach in order to find the optimal way of presenting the flora and fauna of the film. As Head of Animation Justin Sklar describes it, they wanted to have a functional understanding of what these strange life forms really were.

“We were animating pop trees, we were animating the ground reacting when they hit it, to understand what all of those things are,” he remembers. “We asked ourselves, ‘What does this do in the world? What is this plant for?’ And so we did a bunch of different versions of the pop trees just to play around and figure out what that was going to be. And that was the process for a lot of the movie. We would animate a version, and then we would talk about it a little bit, and then we would do a number of variations. A lot of what we had to figure out on the plants and stuff is how do you have them be kinetic in the background, but not in a way where you're staring at them for the full length of the film? Because that's kind of not a good way to make a movie.”

Adds Head of Animation Amy Smeed, “It was awesome having [Disney veteran] Randy Haycock on this film. The general way it worked was somebody would come up with an idea and do a blocking pass in CG. They'd show it to the directors, who would give whatever thoughts they had. If Justin and I had a thought, we would chime in, and then they would go to Randy and say, ‘Okay, this is what I'm working on. Where do you think I could plus this?’ And then Randy would do draw overs. Sometimes it might be something simple like, ‘Oh, I think this facial expression could be pushed a little bit more asymmetrically,’ or ‘This could be a stronger silhouette if the elbow was out,’ or whatever it was. I feel like it really plussed our posing throughout the film.”

Asked what it was like having fewer constraints and the freedom to be more “cartoony” in their animation, Sklar says that in some ways it was harder, but it was also more fun.

“The goal for us was to take off some of the limits to let people try weirder stuff,” he says. “I have a fondness for saying, ‘Make me regret giving you this note. Go so far that I regret telling you to do this.’ And I think a lot of times people would do that and Don would be like, ‘Yeah, that's awesome. We should do that.’ So, there was a lot of fun to be had there.”

For directors Hall and Qui Nguyen, there was also much fun to be had in their journey into Strange World. However, they each also knew what they found challenging about the experience.

“Probably the most challenging thing would be how our ambitions caught up with this in terms of schedule,” Hall allows, explaining that the bulk of the film was done after they completed their work on Raya and the Last Dragon. “We had started it prior to Raya, but we really had only done maybe one screening, and then had to set it down and go on to Raya and then come back to it.”

The challenge Nguyen recalls was considerably less serious and makes for a much funnier anecdote.

“It was something we ran into all the time that had to do with the language we used to describe things,” he relates. “Every time a new department rolled in, they would have to start learning how to speak Strange World-ese, basically. Because nothing was normal. When we were in the top world, we could say, ‘we're on the farm, we're riding in a truck, and we get to a statue.’ But then suddenly you're underground, and you're like, ‘we ran into the reaper tentacle creature and we're going to start running on top of the sushi, and then we get to the poop pickles and eventually we'll see a filter loaf.’ And you could see new artists going, ‘Are they saying real words or have they just not been getting enough sleep?’”

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.