With Disney’s animated sci-fi adventure “Strange World” (opening in theaters Nov. 23), the studio continues into its legacy as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. Indeed, heritage is the theme of this racially mixed family of explorers venturing into uncharted territory. The Clade clan centers on the illustrious patriarch Jaeger (Dennis Quade); his farmer son, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal); Searcher’s wife, the expert pilot Meridian; and her restless teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
When director Don Hall (the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6”) gave a 30-minute glimpse at Disney last week, he mentioned that “Strange World” was influenced by pulp magazines of the 30s, authors Jules Verne and Edgar Rice. Burroughs, and some of his favorite action-adventure films. He even compared it to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but with a wacky family straight out of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” He admitted that “Strange World” is looking forward as well as backward with its main idea of saving the environment.
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“It’s good to admit that your film has to sit up there [the classics],” Hall told IndieWire. “But you can’t be sincere. It can block you. You have to have that relaxed mindset about what’s next. I think this movie does that. It wasn’t like I came in and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We want to push and go a little bit wider with our character designs and in terms of the physicality of the comic. There was a Searcach record that had a musicality to it. It showed my love for ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and those Disney movies after World War II through the ’50s, when the studio was at its peak in animation.”
At the same time, Hall wanted to explore uncharted animated territory, starting with Clade’s home of Avalonia, a city turned countryside with flying airstrips, surrounded by a mountain range like the Himalayas. After an energy crisis, Clades heads to the center of Avalonia, where they discover a post-future world full of magnate and yellow-orange landscapes and vegetation, as well as an array of faceless creatures reminiscent of dinosaurs and marine animals.
“The IS [environment] It was a flat hilly plain,” said Hall. “It’s not, [the art department] he made these layers of plateaus that our characters have to move up and down and across.” In addition, the cluster of trees that make up the plateau can walk, which meant they had to be specially run by the cast of characters. “For this film, a lot of technology was built to be able to animate any piece of the environment,” production designer Mehrdad Isvandi told IndieWire.
The most difficult animation challenge revolved around a creature the Clades befriend in this underground world: a 12-tentacled, mischievous blob named Splat. Splat is like a cross between R2-D2 (voiced by sound designer Shannon Mills) and Mickey Mouse, and is definitely one of Disney’s trickiest characters to rig. The animators shaped and moved the blobby character in many ways. The only instruction from Hall was that they could not shapeshift.
“Whatever we do, I always try to look ahead to what’s going to be great in animation because I know that’s what they thought back then in the ’40s and ’50s,” Hall said. “They were seeing the potential of their stories and animations. I think that’s one of my main jobs is to shepherd that idea. It is difficult to do it to retrofit. You have to design it and it has to be part of your thinking.”
From a narrative perspective, Hall settled on Searcher as the main character, who must confront both his father and son to help steer the family legacy. “The searcher shows more clearly where I am in my life right now,” Hall said. “My sons are in their teenage years and my father is a bit older than Jaeger. It was an attitude that I felt was very relatable.”
Co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (who reunited with Hall after “Raya and the Last Dragon”) told IndieWire that “Strange World” was also personal to him. “This is a film that shows the world that I live in, like Los Angeles, where there are people who look different and are just one thing,” he said. “I like to write stories to make the world a better place. We’re leaving a legacy of not just being an enjoyable film, but to make the best thing someone can look back on in a time of need or crisis or escape.” Producer Roy Conli (“Big Hero 6”) echoed the sentiment about the film’s thematic relevance, saying it’s “about forgiveness, acceptance and kindness.”
According to Conli, the film’s ties to Disney history extend all the way to the storyboarding of “Strange World.” With digital tablets and storyboard software allowing for more than 500 drawings per sequence, the process can become overwhelming – and clicking through so many drawings, it can be difficult to keep track of where one frame leads to the next. “We tend to go overboard sometimes,” Conli said.
Hall’s solution: No more than 150 panels per sequence, making the “Strange World” story boards closer to the physical boards the director worked with as he came up through the ranks. This old-school feedback allowed them to quickly iterate and see a sequence in one glance to identify the most important features.
“I didn’t want to [the artists] to throw themselves out, especially early, and we took it down,” said Hall. “It was an experiment at first and very quickly everyone liked it.” At the suggestion of chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, they also started the “Strange World” storyboarding process earlier than other films. “It wasn’t all the crew, but we had a lot of fun that time, before you go in every direction and you’re asked to think of a story from [a longer view],” Hall said.
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