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‘Inside Out 2’: The Anxiety About Making an Appealing Anxiety

For production designer Jason Deamer and animation supervisors Dovi Anderson and Evan Bonifacio, finding the right look, and energy level, for a frenetic character in constant motion was a considerable challenge; the highly anticipated sequel to Pete Docter’s Oscar-winning 2015 ‘Inside Out’ hits theaters June 14.

Most of us look for ways to rid ourselves of anxiety. From meditation to exercise and even medication, people will try anything to suppress the emotion. So, when it came to making the new emotion Anxiety’s character endearing, even appealing, the Inside Out 2 team had their work cut out for them. Which meant dealing with a bit of their own anxiety… in creating Anxiety.

“She has an antagonistic role in the film, but she's not a villain,” explains Dovi Anderson, animation supervisor along with Evan Bonifacio on Pixar’s highly anticipated sequel. “And we do want the audience to identify with her, and empathize with her, and see where she's coming from.”

Following Pete Docter’s 2015 Oscar-winning animated comedy Inside Out, which personified a young girl's inner emotions, Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out 2, picks up in the next exciting phase of Riley’s life: the teen years. Now, emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Fear (Tony Hale) and Anger (Lewis Black) will have to adjust to a sudden mind demolition, making space in their control room for new emotions Envy, Ennui, Embarrassment and Anxiety. Directed by Kelsey Mann and produced by Mark Nielsen, the 3DCG film releases in theaters Friday, June 14. 

Joined by Ayo Edebiri as Envy, Adèle Exarchopoulos as Ennui, and Paul Walter Hauser as Embarrassment, Maya Hawke voices Anxiety, a bundle of frazzled energy who enthusiastically aims to ensure Riley is prepared for every possible negative outcome. And, for a teenager just hitting puberty, there are an infinite number of potentially disastrous results. 

“For the scene of Anxiety arriving, the animators found a fun energy, even in the test animation, where Anxiety is like ‘I'm here to help!’ with this eager intern persona,” notes Anderson. “And Joy, who’s normally the quick moving, fast, sharp, joyful presence is suddenly like, ‘Whoa, who are you and what are you all about?’ We turned the knob down on Joy so Anxiety could be who she is, and then they have this interesting dynamic that plays against one another.”

Making sure the emotions didn’t overshadow each other as characters – in their looks as well as personality – was a big challenge for the crew, even with the guiding light of the previous film’s character developments, canons and established visual language.

“I would say that the old characters definitely retained their personalities, but Anxiety's this new presence who's very energetic,” says Bonifacio. “Mixing Anxiety, who’s always shaking and tapping, with Joy could have been a bit exhausting to watch, especially if they’re both at a 10 all the time. Once we had a handle on what Anxiety's performance was, we had to play with how that meshed with Joy's performance. And so, a lot of the testing early on was how do we crack this nut of Anxiety as well as how does that play with the old character of Joy and do we need to adjust the way she performs so that those two dance in an appealing way on the screen?”

“In Anxiety's case, we had a special challenge on our plate, which was that if we just threw all the Anxiety traits on her – eyes darting around, talking a mile a minute – and if that’s all we did with that character, the audience would be left exhausted,” restates Anderson about how the animation was handled. “The amazing Maya Hawke brought so much warmth and empathy and this idea of, ‘I'm trying really hard. I want what's best for Riley.’”

Bonifacio adds, “There was this added sense that she couldn't help herself. She can't help but touch the console, because she just has to. It's something she can't control. So then you empathize with her. You feel like, ‘Oh, I've been in that situation where I just can't help myself and say something or do something maybe I shouldn’t do or say.’ That gives the audience more empathy for this character who Joy, one of the film’s main heroines, is initially not so sure about.”

But Joy wasn’t the only potential character clash with Anxiety, whose concept art and traits often stepped on the toes of Fear as well. 

“It makes sense,” says Jason Deamer, the film’s production designer. “They're kind of cousins. And, like Fear, Anxiety isn’t bad. We need Anxiety. It's important to us. It's just when it gets overwrought, that's a problem. I think it's part of why we had a hard time [designing her], because it would have been easy to fall into making her one dimensional. I really don’t know what made her [design] work in the end. But when everyone saw it, we thought, ‘That’s it.’ It was appealing and Muppet-ish and felt like Anxiety.”

Shape language played a big role in designing the characters and establishing clear goals that distinguished them from their co-star emotions. Anger, for example, is a rigid, tough square, and Sadness’ shape is based on a teardrop. Fear cowers and droops while Ennui moves like she’s made of syrup. So, Anxiety, an overthinker, has a large head and equally large smile that doesn’t make clear whether it’s hiding nervousness or emoting genuine happiness. She has big eyes to see everything and absorb unnecessary amounts of information. Her movements are somewhere between Joy’s quick excitement and Fear’s droopy and nervous posture.  As Deamer puts it, Anxiety is “always spring-loaded.” 

Establishing the shape language as an early step to approaching these characters was a tactic taught to Deamer by his dear and mentor, Ralph Eggleston, the production designer on the first film who won an Oscar for the animated short, For the Birds, and is also known for his work on Monsters Inc., WALL-E, and Finding Nemo. Eggleston sadly passed away in 2022.

Deamer shares, “When I asked him how to approach a project like this, because it's so immense, he basically said, ‘Start with pinning cards on a board with words that relate to the film, then do that with the shapes you want to see in these characters, and make sure those are distinct. Consider the emotions of the story and don’t forget to think broad, because it’s not your job to design every little thing. It's your job to keep the big picture in mind.’” He adds, “The job of a production designer is like being a composer. They see how a score is going to work together even if they aren’t the one playing the instruments. I think I’ve worked on just about every film where Ralph was the production designer, and I learned a lot from him. I’ve learned there’s no magic bullet for these things. If I had one, I'd make these movies a lot faster.”

When all is said and done, even after a character is fully established in concept, there’s still plenty of work to be done, and to keep every frame of every hand pose and eye movement consistent is arduous, especially if the character is constantly twitching. 

“The first characters are a little bit easier, because they're known equations, but when they're a new character and you only have 12 expressions that have been figured out on paper or in a sculpt, but you know they need to have hundreds of expressions, that gets daunting,” says Anderson. “Building the model, working with the characters department, building a library of expressions and visual language on the 25 hand poses that we need to have ready for the animators, it’s always a challenge. Luckily, everyone's jumping onto the train to start working. And you want to do right by the character and make sure you have made the best choices and worked out as many problems as possible so that people aren't coming across glitches or issues in the rig while they're actually in shots. 

Bonifacio hopes the whole crew walks away feeling, first and foremost, joyful about the production. “Even through the crunch times, I hope they feel it wasn't a very frustrating experience to work on this film and that they really enjoyed the work they got to do,” he says. “I would hope that they look back on the film and say that they had a great time.”

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at victoriadavisdepiction.com.