The Academy Award-winning producer of Disney's all-new animated feature, ‘Strange World,’ opening in theaters November 23, talks about the studio's retro-futuristic, subterranean adventure and his almost 30-year career at the legendary company.
As a veteran producer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Roy Conli has been involved with many of the studio’s best-loved properties, often centered on “strange worlds,” such as Treasure Planet (2002), Tangled (2010), numerous Disneynature live-action documentaries, and Big Hero 6 (2014) – for which he won an Academy Award. His latest such film, Disney’s highly anticipated animated feature, Strange World, hits theaters tomorrow, November 23.
An 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 Earth – Strange World stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Searcher Clade, a brilliant family man who discovered a revolutionary power-generating plant. When he learns that the plant is in trouble and they’re all in grave danger, Searcher and his 16-year-old son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) set out to find the source of the plant and figure out how to save it. Their journey takes them deep underground to a world nobody knew existed, where they encounter a bevy of never-before-seen creatures and, along the way, discover important truths about themselves – and Searcher’s relationship with his legendary explorer father, Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) – that will have profound consequences for their future.
We spoke with Conli about what makes Strange World both similar to and decidedly different from past Disney features, as well as how his role as a producer has changed (or not) over the years, and how he keeps it fresh a quarter of a century later.
AWN: When you look back at older Disney animated films, especially those adapted from fairy tales, there are always these bedrock villain characters. Is it harder to tell a story in an animated feature like Strange World without a distinctive villain to anchor the conflict?
Roy Conli: There may not be a villain, but there are antagonists, and you lean into that. You've got Ethan, who sits in the middle of the conflict between Jaeger and Searcher, and the story evolves out of that three-generation element. I love stories about fathers and sons, and I think that this is really a wonderful demonstration of how that personal relationship truly is epic and story-worthy. So no, I didn't find it difficult.
AWN: The film includes a number of important themes, among them the idea of respecting nature and not killing things as a problem-solving strategy. How do you approach the integration of societal and cultural issues, and how do you avoid being either superficial or preachy?
RC: All good stories have themes, and you always start with theme. In fact, I think theme is the driving aspect of any story. If you try and lead a film with plot, you get very much lost in the weeds. But if that plot services the theme, I think you actually have a clearer path. So when you're working with someone like Don, who is a fantastic storyteller and has a great ability in terms of both structure and character, you let yourself follow that theme. And each sequence that you do should reflect that. In all the films that I've worked on, the theme was apparent from the beginning, and we just kind of wrote to that through the entire process. You put up a screening, and you realize, "Oh, our theme is really more this than that," so you keep a little piece of that, but you go after this. And then you do another screening, and you continue to follow and chase the theme.
In Strange World, Don came in with that idea of the three-generational story, the father, son, and grandson. And he knew that the driving theme was going to be, "What do we leave generations in the future? What is our gift to the next generation?" That was always in the film. I've had other films where we've done a fifth-screening turnaround and restructured the entire story. This one we kept building off of each screening.
AWN: How long did it take before you were locked with the design and scope of the subterranean world below Avalonia? Did it keep growing, and getting stranger, as more people had their hands on it and more ideas kept coming up?
RC: Again, I think this is where Don, as a director, is really brilliant, because he doesn't force an image. I do think it kept growing, and we kept changing. Those changes became smaller and smaller, and subtler and subtler, and always to amplify the storytelling. And, animation being an iterative process, when you get everyone involved, including your actors, in terms of contributing to the storytelling, it's an amazing process.
AWN: What was the most challenging aspect for you as a producer on Strange World?
RC: For me, challenge is always a relative thing because I always find challenges to be exciting. I think the greatest difficulty with this project was the fact that Don jumped away and worked on Raya [and the Last Dragon] in between. We had an early development process that went exceedingly well, but then Don had to go away for about a year and a half and then he came back to the project. So that was a bit of a challenge. But I'm used to that, I'm used to schedule issues. And, if anything, I like an accelerated development period because you have to make choices. Don and Qui make choices very quickly. As a producer, I didn't have to coerce them to make a choice – they totally understood.
From a staffing standpoint, because Encanto was running on the slow side, I didn't get an asset team as soon as I generally do. One of the things that I like as a producer is to build early. And I like to overbuild, because that gives you the freedom to go as soon as something's ready to start production. We'll never put anything in production until it's ready. So if you have a backlog and this isn't ready for production, you have places to choose from. In this particular case, thank goodness for Scott Beattie, our head of layout [director of cinematography, layout], who was able to build temp scenes so that we could actually get things moving into production before we actually had stuff built. So that's how we compensated. We built a lot of temp stuff that then got filled in by the asset teams.
AWN: What was the most rewarding part?
RC: That's a good question. I think that it probably has to do with the world – being able to create a world from whole cloth. The Avalonia city had its challenges, in terms of trying to create something that was kind of retro-futuristic. We wanted it to be kind of aspirational steampunk. I mean, we weren't talking about steam power, weren't talking about burning coal in order to make steam. We wanted something that was much lighter. And then, when you get down in this strange world, we wanted to create an environment that no one had ever seen.
AWN: With the purchase of Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, the amount of animation that's coming out of Disney is unprecedented. I understand that TV is a completely different group, but are you consulted when, say, your features are turned into series?
RC: For the Tangled television series and the Big Hero Six series, we were brought in and we kind of set the table for them. We said, this is where we're at with this story. But, just like when you adapt a book to a film, there are going to be differences, particularly when both series were using a hand-drawn approach versus CG. So we're consulted, we go in and take a look at characters, but there's no way that I would dictate what they do.
AWN: The crews on these films are getting younger and younger. Does the filmmaking process at Disney Animation take advantage of the experience of veterans like you and Don? Do you teach while you produce?
RC: Listen, we’re still learning from Walt Disney. I think the DNA of this studio is amazing. And as we are rolling into our 100th year, I do think there is respect for experience and for legacy – which ties into this film, which in a certain sense is about legacy. It’s natural that we all get older. And it's wonderful when a young artist comes to me and says, "Treasure Planet is my favorite film." It's wonderful to be able to share my experience with those I work with, just as I want to learn from those who are younger than me.
We have discussions within the producer group, and the associate producer group, about process. We have a weekly meeting, where we share what's going on in our film and specifically talk about challenges, as well as rewards. I think Disney was a great inspiration, in terms of wanting to tell stories that are fresh and new. There's a sense in which storytelling obviously changes with each generation. But, still, that DNA is in there, and I think it really will support this studio for years to come.
AWN: What skills serve you best as a producer?
RC: I would say humor. I try and keep it light. Also, I always make sure that the team understands the context for any decision that goes out onto the floor. I think it's really important, when you're building a film, that everybody stay in contact with the decision making and understand why decisions are being made. If you know why, then you can embrace it, and you can move on. So in terms of team management, it really is about communication.
AWN: Are there ways in which your job as a producer has changed over the years?
RC: It's always the individual team and the individual project that determines what you're going to have to do. I also think it's important to work with different people. I've never worked with the same exact team. Early in my career, I saw someone who did that, and I think it made the projects a little stale. I think working with new people is really important because it stimulates different parts of your brain and it forces you to communicate on a different level than when you’re talking to the same people for five, six years.
AWN: Every time we've talked over the years, it’s been very obvious that you enjoy what you do. The work may be hard, but it's never a chore. Is that a fair assessment?
RC: Really, there's not a day I don't walk into that building, or don't get on a Zoom call, and recognize that I'm working with some of the greatest artists. I mean it's so funny because it'll be 30 years in May that I've been there, and I've always had that feeling. Even in periods where things weren't going well, there was never a time that I walked into that building thinking, "Oh, got to go to work today." It's like, we're going to go and make something beautiful. That's a great feeling.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.