Strange World Designers Talk About The 'Chonky' And 'Juicy' Look Of The Movie [Exclusive Interview]

In Disney Animation's upcoming feature "Strange World," the description of some of the settings is right there in the title. In the film, the Clade family finds themselves in a very strange world indeed, one that differs from their town of Avalonia, even after it has gone through a technological revolution after Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) discovered a plant called Pando that produces large amount of energy. During the course of the film, the Clade clan finds themselves traveling deep underground, discovering a... Well, a strange world. 

During a press presentation for the film, I had the chance to sit down with "Strange World" Production Designer Mehrdad Isvandi as well as the movie's Head of Environments, Sean Jenkins and talk about their work creating not only the very, very strange world the Clades find themselves in, but also how they approached crafting Avalonia and the "chonky" look of the town's airships.

Read on for that discussion, where you'll also learn some of the fun names for the weird creatures you'll meet in the film.

This interview has been edited and lightly condensed for clarity.

'Most of the movies that we see, there's one path of action and I wanted to break that'

One of things we saw in your presentation is one of your first designs for "Strange World" [pictured above]. I wanted to dig into your creative process for that a bit more — how did you come up with the idea to use vertical space that way, and how did you decide to go with that pinkish hue versus another color or tone?

Mehrdad Isvandi: I've wanted to try something like that for a long time, where we can go every direction that we want and there's still more place to go. Most of the movies that we see, there's one path of action and I wanted to break that. Early on, there was a test we did that's like a short film, and I did some platforms of that. It stuck and become some kind of rule for the movie.

For the colors, [director Don Hall and co-director and writer Qui Nguyen] said, "Let's remove all the green — green is for [Searcher's farm in Avalonia.]" We also took out brown and blue because blue is too much like the ocean. And we were stuck with very limited colors. I also wanted to make it even more limited because I want to have every sequence different. So if you are talking to your friend about the yellow sequence [something that hasn't been shared yet], you locate yourself in that world.

For the part of the strange world that I saw, the word that came to mind when I saw the footage was "juicy." It's very organic and it almost feels like the whole world itself is its own creature. Was that something you were thinking of when you created that landscape?

Isvandi: When you are in the city, it's all squares and tall lines. When you are in the farm, you see lots of terracing and form and baby lines, then. So we have those and then you are in the Strange World, you have lots of organic and bubbly shapes

Sean Jenkins: Ironically it's not the first time I've heard juicy. It came up during the production as well — it really describes the feeling and the richness of the place.

'We had this word chonky, which really was the design language for Avalonia'

We also saw the airship the Clades go on today, the Venture. And I know you see other airships in Avalonia, but I thought the Venture almost looked like a beetle or just in terms of its shape. Can you talk about your inspiration for creating that vehicle and how you came up with that look and aesthetic?

Jenkins: Cory Loftis did that the first design.

Isvandi: Yeah, I think Kevin Nelson started the design and we did and then Cory Loftis nailed it. They are both great artists and Cory is a ship engineer. So he knew details that I would never think of about how things should work.

Any specific details that come to mind?

Isvandi: He put in lots of areas you can go to in the Venture — the cockpit, the balcony in front of cockpit, the top balcony, the back deck, the galley inside.

Jenkins: The cargo.

Isvandi [to Jenkins]: And then you guys made it work so well together.

Jenkins: We had this word "chonky," which really was the design language for Avalonia — just really heavy and substantial. And so the Venture is really chonky, too. And I think that helped with the overall shape of it. It's not super streamlined — it's more substantial and could go anywhere. And then all the details inside of it, they're very chonky as well.

But then on top of it, we knew that we were going to be in the Venture for a lot of the film, so we set it up as its own world. And there were definitely sequences where we started with the Venture and we would scout out what would be the best area for this action to take place, and we would always find something. I was always amazed that the Venture always had just really good angles. It always just showed up really well on the screen. And I think that everything to do with the design.

'They wouldn't have just torn down the old buildings, they would've used those but maybe added onto them'

We also saw a little bit today how the town was like pre-Pando [the plant Searcher finds that generates energy and changes society] and post-Pando. How did you approach creating the before and after of a town that essentially just discovered electricity?

Isvandi: Early on when I was a starting my own research, I was talking to Don and he said that with the discovery of Pando, they were able to move from the 1890s to 1940s in their technology — they were able to have 50 years or a 100 years of progress in the span of 25 years. And then for the design, when were doing the pre-Pando town, we just had two-story buildings, and one-story buildings. And after Pando, they just built everything up.

Was there any specific building or another airship beside the Venture that you just really enjoyed creating for that town?

Isvandi: [to Jenkins] How many airships did you have? We didn't have time to count.

Jenkins: We did a whole library of vehicles that could be fly around through space — you need small ones, you need big ones, you need to make it look rich. As far as the buildings go, the main one we called the Geo Society, but there's also a city square one that summed up a lot of the architecture.

Isvandi: In the city square they kept the old building and adding tall buildings around it. If you go to an old town, you often see small buildings from 50 years ago still here in the world. And then you also see the newer towers. So we kept that the same in Avalonia.

Jenkins: It really gives a story and a history and richness to the town — they wouldn't have just torn down the old buildings, they would've used those but maybe added onto them or then built the skyscrapers back behind them as well. So it's a mix of these pre-Pando buildings along with the new buildings that they're now able to achieve.

'We definitely had the whoopy cushion plant; we had gummy shrooms; we had bubble shrubs'

I really got a kick about the names for all the creatures. So I'm asking everyone, what are your favorite creature names on the project?

Jenkins: We had some crazy creature names. We definitely had the whoopy cushion plant; we had gummy shrooms; we had bubble shrubs. We were really just looking at the designs and trying to figure out what could we name all of these things.

[To Isvandi] Do you have a favorite? Is Kevin [the creature named after a Disney Animation team member named Kevin that Isvandi mentioned during the presentation] your favorite?

Isvandi: [Laughs] Kevin is my is my good friend. That's my favorite one.

Disney Animation's "Strange World" hits theaters on November 23, 2022.