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Disney’s ‘Strange World’: An Epic Adventure in the Grand Style

Director Don Hall, co-director/writer Qui Nguyen, and producer Roy Conli talk about the making of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ lush, expansive, and action-packed CG animated sci-fi film hitting theaters November 23.

A legendary family of explorers. An uncharted subterranean world where bizarre creatures and looming danger await. A motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog, and a slew of ravenous creatures.

All this and more make up the endlessly surprising universe of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World, a lush, epic-in-scale action-packed adventure that also sensitively explores father-son relationships and, despite its fantastical setting, has more than a few things to say about our situation here on Planet Earth.

The story begins when Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), a brilliant family man who discovered a revolutionary power-generating plant called pando, learns that the plant is in trouble, and everyone is in grave danger. With his 16-year-old son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), Searcher sets out to find the source of the plant and figure out how to save it. Their journey takes them into a world nobody knew existed, where they encounter a bevy of never-before-seen creatures and, along the way, discover important truths about their relationship – and Searcher’s relationship with his own legendary explorer father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) – that will have profound consequences for their future.

At the helm is Oscar-winning director Don Hall, whose credits include Raya and the Last Dragon, Moana, and Big Hero 6. He tells AWN that he was inspired by the kind of adventure story where explorers find hidden worlds, citing such authors as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… and the film King Kong. Among those who joined him in his quest to create an epic in similar grand style are co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon, Dispatches from Elsewhere) and Oscar-winning producer Roy Conli (Big Hero 6, Treasure Planet, Tangled).

We spoke with Hall, Nguyen, and Conli about their latest great adventure – the one on the screen and the one that took place behind the scenes.

AWN: There appear to be a lot of different visual and design influences in the film, which somehow all work together harmoniously. How did you combine all these disparate elements so that everything fits and the whole makes sense?

Don Hall: It was probably a little more difficult on this film because there was nothing to bounce off of. In the case of Raya, for example, the designs were inspired by the many different cultures of Southeast Asia, so there was always something to grab onto. This one was, like, anything goes. So people were bringing in different inspirations, from coral reefs to sausages, or whatever weird thing they found on the internet. But I think what helped us was just doing a lot of concept art early on, and seeing what people responded to. So, it was really organic, this kind of meandering exploration of finding things and seeing that this works with that, and that works with this. And we just winnowed it down, with input from a lot of the brilliant artists that work here under Mehrdad Isvandi’s supervision.

Roy Conli: Larry Woo, Jin Kum, Sean Jenkins, Keith Wilson. We had this base of talent that just kept shaping it.

DH: They synthesized it. The characters too. I came in with a desire to try and change up our style a little bit, but without a clear path. And so we had to discover it, and that's what led us to look at French and Belgian comics and gave us something to build around.

Qui Nguyen: Totally. I think the hardest thing about it is that it's all made up. If you were to just set these characters in a jungle, it's fine giving it wind and having things move around. But because you're in Strange World and everything's made up, things are different. But the environment can't be so interesting that we stop looking at and listening to the characters. So you have to dial that in and out. And it was a challenge to do that, because every little bit of the frame came from someone's imagination – it’s not like, "Oh, that's just a tree we found."

AWN: Did you use any virtual tools to help with the visualization? Because this stuff doesn't really come together visually until way down the pipe. How did you manage that?

DH: To your point, it did all come together relatively late. But I would say it wasn’t really tools as much as it was trusting people’s experience. For instance, Scott Beattie, who is our head of layout [Director of Cinematography, Layout], has worked on a million films. It's the first film we worked on together, but because I worked in the same building with him and know his reputation, I just had a lot of trust. The other thing is that they build things that have sliders and are relatively easy to change. So if, like, a tree is moving too much, they can dial it back.

AWN: I love it when creators go back to 2D because it's quick and allows them to check something like a movement or a look. How much did you use 2D in that way on this film, compared with other films?

DH: I don't know that we used it more, but it’s always part of our process. What I did notice more on this one was that the animators would use the old iPhone trick, where they'll film themselves doing the scene and then show it to us almost as a first pass. And they were getting really good about getting angles and stuff like that. And then, for some of the more physical scenes, a lot of them would do pencil tests, because it's easier to block out that type of broad animation in 2D, regardless of your draftsmanship skills. So we would look at that as a first pass and, if it looked good, then they would put it in CG.

QN: [Heads of animation] Amy Smeed and Justin Sklar used that a lot. How would you do it if it was 2D? How would it move in 2D? Because Don wanted to celebrate this postwar Disney feel, which was obviously all 2D, and combine it with what we can do now in terms of nuance with CG.

RC: There's a fundamental DNA in this studio that comes from the hand-drawn history. And I think that that's what makes our animation so special.

DH: It all starts with drawings. It's always interesting when we talk to people – say, when I go back to Iowa – and they're like, "So you do all that on computers now?" And I'm like, “Yeah. But it all starts with drawing. It doesn't matter if you're drawing on an iPad or on paper, it still starts with a drawing.”

AWN: We spoke about how the lack of real-world guidelines gave you a lot of freedom in the design of the film. Did the fantastic setting offer any comparable freedom in terms of storytelling?  Were you able to worry less about the cultural and societal concerns that have to be considered in a story that's more closely connected to the real world?

DH: Yes and no. The world we created, Avalonia, is not our world. It’s its own specific thing that draws upon a large number of different influences. And even though pando provided them with a technology to power airships and refrigerators and so on, I didn't want there to be any digital technology. No satellites, no television, we don't even see telephones. I didn't want that because I wanted it to feel like a unique kind of retro future world.

So for the character of Ethan, for example, we were thinking about our kids. My kids are big-time gamers. They're more into games than the movies. And it just felt like for Ethan to resonate, or for modern audiences to relate to Ethan in terms of being a teenager, he would have to be into some sort of gaming thing. And so we created this whole tabletop card game called “Primal Outpost,” which is their Minecraft, it's their Fortnite. We did such a deep dive into it, in terms of its rules and everything, that we could probably market that game.

That's just one little example. So I wouldn't say it freed us, because we were just as rigorous in terms of working with cultural consultants and getting the details right. It's just that it wasn't specifically targeted to a particular place.

AWN: I remember a long time ago, when I went to see Disney’s Island at the Top of the World, it really made an impression on me. It was a new type of filmmaking to go see in a theater that was nothing like what was on TV. Strange World feels like a return to that kind of visual splendor for a new generation that is bombarded with visuals. Is it fair to say that that's part of what you hope to bring to people?

DH: I think so because, again, it's so hard to do something original and unique, and I think that's what we can provide. These things are crafted over the course of years, in this case, four, five years. One of the things I love about working here is that you can go for something original. And it's not the easy road, by any stretch.

QN: It's never the easy road.

DH: But at the end of it, it’s something that you can feel proud of. And it could turn out to be somebody's favorite thing. If we could do that...

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.