The Art and World of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World

Courtesy of Disney

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ recent lineup of films has taken audiences on wild adventures from a fictional world based on Southeast Asian cultures with Raya and the Last Dragon to a Columbian village with a magical family with Encanto. Next, the studio will be transporting audiences into the mythical land of Avalonia, following three generations of one family, the Clades.

Nerd Reactor went behind the scenes at Walt Disney Animation Studios for a sneak peek at Strange World with director Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Raya and the Last Dragon) and co-director/writer Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon), learning about the Clade family, the world of Avalonia, and artwork that helped shape the look of the film.

Meet the Clades

Jake Gyllenhaal voices Searcher Clade, the lead character who found a way to help Avalonia prosper. Voicing his father, Jaeger Clade, is Dennis Quaid, an explorer who went missing during an expedition. Jaboukie Young-White is Ethan Clade, Searcher’s 16-year-old son who wants a life outside his father’s farm. Rounding up the Clade family is Meridan Clay (Gabrielle Union), Searcher’s pilot wife who is the glue that holds the family together. Lucy Liu voices Callisto Mal, the president of Avalonia, and she brings Searcher on an expedition to help save the world.

Strange World’s Visual Development art of Jaegar Clade, Searcher Clade and Ethan Clade by artist, Jin Kim. Courtesy of Disney.

Jim Kim is a visual development artist for Strange World whose credits include designing the look of Frozen‘s Elsa. In the art above, he illustrates the three generations of the Clade family, each having their own distinct look.

The Story so Far

Courtesy of Disney

“I have this wonderful job where I get to be influenced by things that I loved as a kid,” Don Hall tells Nerd Reactor. “And I haven’t really matured. The stuff I loved as a kid is the stuff I love now. I kind of start there, with love,

Hall was inspired by the stories from Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, which then evolved into comic books and pulp serials in the 30s and 40s. The influences can be seen in the land and tech of Avalonia and the uncharted world underneath it.

“And all that kind of stuff is the same stuff that was the inspiration for some of my favorite movies as a kid, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars,” Hall continued. “I keep drawing upon the things that I love, making movies that I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid, but also we want to make movies for everybody too.”

The film begins with Jaeger Clade, his young son Searcher, and a team of adventurers on a mission to conquer the unknown parts of their world. The son finds a miraculous, glowing plant known as pando that can generate energy, and he begs his father to return home with the plant. The team agrees with him, but Jaeger is focused on the expedition. Months into the adventure, the team has had enough of the rough terrain, and they all go back to Avalonia, leaving Jaegar to continue on by himself.

Avalonia

Strange World’s Visual Development art of Avalonia by artist, Larry Wu. Courtesy of Disney.

Searcher’s discovery of the plant paved the way for the town of Avalonia, turning it into a metropolis from candles to electric lights and horses to airships. This results in Searcher becoming the city’s hero. 25 years later, Jaegar still hasn’t returned from his expedition and Searcher is now a father and husband. He wants his son, Ethan, to one day take over the farm that he’s built outside the city.

The art from Larry Wu above shows a post-pando Avalonia with its airships and towering buildings. And in the outskirts, Searcher’s farm can be seen on a hilltop.

“We have to build everything from scratch because we want it to be unique and its own world and its own culture,” said Mehrdad Isvandi, the film’s production designer. “We have inspiration from all over the world – Andes, Himalayas, every environment that has tons of mountains. Speaking of mountains, we wanted to see mountains everywhere, like in the city or in the farm. Wherever you look, the mountains are present. To not make it kind of claustrophobic or anything, you push the mountain back into the blues. So when you’re in there, you feel it’s a sky, but it’s actually mountains around.”

Things seem to be going well in Avalonia until one day, there’s a problem with pando, and crops all over the valley are failing. Now the leader of the city, Callisto, recruits Searcher on a mission to go underneath the land of Avalonia in uncharted territory.

The Venture Airship

Courtesy of Disney

The team built a really big airship digitally called the Venture that is 200 feet long and 130 feet tall, and it’s a world of its own. Like a live-action movie, they would usually build the exterior and interior separately, but for Strange World, they went the extra step.

“Eventually we actually just rebuilt a full ship and you can go inside the cockpit, you can go into the main areas that were in there because we knew we were going to be on it for quite a while,” said Sean Jenkins, who’s the head of environments. “The Venture itself, we ended up building it multiple times as it goes through its journey, as it travels, it crashes into things. We then try to track all of that through the movie of, ‘Okay, well, this the Venture when it hit that one thing and lost its back, then ultimately, we ended up repairing the Venture. So then the rest of the movie has a repaired version of it.”

The Creatures of Strange World

Courtesy of Disney

There’s the family’s pet dog, Legend, named after Disney’s story artist Burny Mattinson. The artist is a Disney Legend and the longest serving employee of The Walt Disney Company with 69 years. His credits include Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Big Hero 6 and many, many more. In the film, Ethan stows away on the ship along with Legend, and Searcher isn’t happy about that.

Strange World’s Visual Development art of Splat by artist, Jin Kim. Courtesy of Disney.

Legend will be competing with another non-talking character, Splat, a mysterious creature that the Clades encounter during their adventure. The art by Jin Kim teases what audiences can expect from the adorable creature, from the way it walks to the way it runs.

Strange Environments

Visual Development art of Ethan Clade with Pop Trees by Visual Development Artist, April Liu. Courtesy of Disney.

It’s a strange world in and out of Avalonia, and the artists focused on not making it look like Earth or any other place. For example, the team had no constraints and played with fun shapes for the plants and populated them all over the world.

“So these are the trees, our version of the trees and the movie called the pop trees,” said Isvandi. “With the trees, you have a scale for a human, especially when you see a palm tree. When you see a tree that you recognize, you know the scale to kind of ground you on a scale. We kind of have to follow what’s a rule in the real world and kind of connect it whenever we can.”

Character Animation

Courtesy of Disney.

We were shown an animation test of the Clades including Jaegar, Searcher, Ethan and Meridian. Each performed the same action of entering the farm, but the test really shows how the family members are really different from one another.

“It’s basically a series of tests where the characters all enter the same set while completing a very simple and clear action, but all in their own unique and specific way,” said Amy Smeed, Head of Animation. “It was a great way for us to test who these characters are, as well as how they might move differently from one another, and to see if we could experiment with some ideas or style for the show. We did so many tests in pre-production for their characters.”

Hall pointed out to the animators that the tests reminded him of some of the Disney films and shorts right after World War II. So the team started to look at the older works like Johnny Appleseed, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and then going up to Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty. They also looked at some of the modern films like Treasure Planet and the more recent ones like Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto.

“The animation in these films is really based on naturalism and tends to focus both on the sincerity and the complexity of human movement,” said Justin Sklar, Head of Animation. “We’re really trying to lean into the high level of detail, both in terms of anatomy and in terms of motion. We’re generally looking to create these super nuanced expressions, super thoughtful poses. And then we very carefully layer all of this together on top of each other to create these performances that feel like real people with sincere emotions, but with all of our careful design choices. Then we started talking about what we love from these post-war films. These movies are so much about simplicity, and character and design, the poses are much broader.”

Strange World releases on November 23, 2022.

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