Onward Head of Story Interview

The newest film from Pixar Studios, Onward, begins with a look back in history—not our history, but the history of a fantasy world where all manner of mermaids, unicorns, elves, fairies, minotaurs, wizards, and just about any other creature you might find in a role-playing game would exist. But as these fantasy beings find shortcuts to doing magic—Why use your wings to fly when you can board an airplane? Why use a spell to start a fire when you can use matches?—they become lazy, and the magic that made them special starts to disappear from the world at large.

Head of Story for Onward is Kelsey Mann (I’ll let him explain exactly what that job entails), who worked as Story Supervisor (alongside Onward director Dan Scanlon) on Monsters University. He also has a story credit on 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. /Film sat down with Mann in Chicago during recently to discuss that moment in any Pixar production process where the story team literally starts with a blank page, the joy of creating and destroying one’s own fantasy world, and the practical considerations of having a pair of legs be one of your main characters. Onward is now playing nationwide.

So what exactly does the Head of Story do?

So, I do a lot. I basically oversee a team of story artists—anywhere from 6-10 story artists—through the storyboarding process, where we assist the director and producer and writer in helping shape the most compelling, moving, entertaining story, and we do that through our storyboards. We’re the first ones to visualize the script, so we draw the movie and we do so from beginning to end.

So the basic story, maybe not the screenplay, is finished by the time you get your hands on it?

I was actually on this movie from Day 1. I worked with our director, Dan Scanlon, and our producer, Kori Rae—we did Monsters University together in these same roles. So after that movie was done, we all took a long break and came back, and Dan was in development, and this was his chance to do his own original film, and he wanted me there from the very beginning, which was September 2013.

Is that much time from Day 1 to release day—six or seven years—pretty typical for Pixar, or do sequels move faster because you aren’t necessarily starting from scratch?

That’s pretty standard, between five and seven years—they take a long time, whether they are a sequel or original. But this one definitely took a long time.

When you first start crafting the story, do you think of individual scenes first, or do you think of themes that you write to? What was the process for this film?

For this film, it was the themes that came first. They always want the directors to say something personal, something really meaningful to them. Sometimes it’s a question that they struggle with. Dan looked at his own life and was thinking about what helped shape him—what made Dan Dan—and he thought about the experience of losing his dad when he was six months old, so he has no memory of his father. And he’s got an older brother who’s three years older than him, and he doesn’t have any memory of their father either. So he though “What if there were a character who had the same experience that I did—lost their father at a really young age with no memory of him—and had a chance to spend one day with the person that they lost.” So he thought, “That’s pretty cool. I want to do that. How can I give that character that opportunity? I guess maybe a magic spell.” And that literally where the fantasy part came from, his desire to have a character spend a day with someone they lost. That’s where this all begin.

Considering how the story plays out, it’s kind of incredible that that’s how it began.

Completely. That ending you’re talking about… we do multiple screenings at the studio. We’re always drawing the movie and putting it up on reels, and we do that every three months, so we did eight screening on this movie, plus a ninth screening that was an audience preview. If you look at the first screening of any Pixar film, it’s so different from the one that’s theatrically released. It changes a lot, and what’s unique about this film is this ending. We had it from the very, very beginning, and we storyboarded it for screening 1, and we didn’t touch it since. I’ve never had that happen; I don’t think that’s ever happened at Pixar. We always knew where we were headed.

Well when you nail that emotional gut punch, you have to leave it alone.

I know, yeah! It was a great barometer. We always believed in that ending, but in certain screenings, you felt it more or less. So there would be certain screenings where we would say “I didn’t feel the ending. We screwed something up in Act One.” So it was a great emotional benchmark of our success. And even though we had that ending, everything else changed around it completely, even the main characters were very, very different. The first version of Ian was more like Barley; he was really into magic. We always knew that Ian would want to spend a day with his dad, and his initial reasons why were that he was really into magic and was struggling with his magic, and dad was a master wizard, and he wanted to meet dad to be a better wizard, and that didn’t feel emotional and like he was using dad. It felt really wrong, and then we switched so that he had to learn magic in order to meet dad. And that became more emotional because dad is his ultimate goal, and not just so he could be a wizard. So Ian changed completely from that first screening. But we always had that ending in every version.

You spend most of the film thinking it’s about a kid who wants to meet his dad, and by the end you realize it’s about having an appreciation for the people who actually raised you. There were people in my critics screening crying there eyes out in that moment.

You’re making the hair on my arm raise up, dude. That’s great to hear. That’s why we do it. I was at the wrap party with all of Pixar, and I had my wife to my right and Dan’s brother Bill to my left, and Dan’s family knew we were making this movie but they didn’t really know what Dan wanted to say, and it ended and they were so moved. I’m just so proud of this movie; I wanted to make a fun movie that is really funny and entertaining, but but I’m so happy with the way it wraps up and how sweet it is and how it ends with love, and I’m so happy to put that out into the world. I think we need a little bit of that.

But it also succeeds as a straight-up adventure film. It’s one of the purest action films that Pixar has ever done. It had to be really satisfying to not only create the fantasy world we see at the beginning but talk through the ways that world has deteriorated and looks like garbage now. I’m guessing you had a few people one staff into role-playing games who could guide you through that world.

Yeah, totally. I made sure that the team was well balanced with people who don’t know anything about fantasy and people who really know it. I had two story artists on the show— Austin Madison and Louise Smythe—who really know that world. Austin runs his own role-playing games. It was great because he would bring that authenticity to the script. Because Dan, he’s not a huge fantasy expert, so he would lean on the people around him. I remember, there’s a scene where Barley is laughing at Ian and saying “You can’t do a levitation spell. It only has a 15-meter enchanting radius.” I can’t remember what it was initially, but it wasn’t “15 meters,” but Austin was like “Dan, technically a lot of role-playing games will use meters as distance; I think you should change it to 15 meters.” And Dan was like “That’s perfect. Put that in the script.”

Are there any visual elements or animation ideas that you’re particularly proud of in terms of being innovative or better than you’ve ever seen something done before?

We’ve broken so much ground now, so it’s hard to find new territory that hasn’t been broken through. I know one of my favorite things we did on this film, and I don’t want to give away the ending, but there’s a character in the third act that involved every single department at Pixar. We met twice a week and did dailies, and we kept watching the third act over and over again because the character that appears that they have to battle involved effects, character department, animation, story, layout, it was incredibly complex because this character is made up of many different things, and it was a really hard thing to tackle.

I was going to try to find a way to ask about that character without giving anything away, because let’s be honest, that type of character is so played out in animation, fantasy, you name it. And you all have done something completely different with it.

We made a list of classic fantasy things, and we’re like “How do we give people what they’re looking for in a new way?” Luckily, Dan had the concept of modernizing the fantasy world. That was his idea. So that automatically gives you something new. So we kept a list going of all of the classic fantasy locations and characters that we wanted to see, and this character at the end was definitely on it. If I go to see a fantasy film, I have to see one of those in a new way.

I wanted to ask about he design of the Manticore [voice by Octavia Spencer], who is not a fantasy character you see everyday.

You know, that thing is real. I love how I say “real.” [laughs] We’ve had so many weird conversations where we’re like “Technically, that’s a Pegacorn. A Pegasus does not have a horn, like a unicorn.” But the Manticore is an actual fantasy character; we did not invent it. It’s part scorpion, part bat, part lion. I had never heard of it. Dan, when he was initially doing some research on it, he heard about the Manticore and thought it was kind of funny because you just combined all of these things into one character—that’s kind of hilarious.

The thing I kept obsessing over were the metal band patches on Barley’s vest. Who came up with those designs and band names? What a dream job.

It is! Paul Conrad is the graphic designer on the show, and he did most of that work. It’s great. I’d get invited to art reviews, and he’ll just do all kinds of different patches and show them to Dan, and Dan picked his favorites. Paul is a great designer, but he’s also a really funny guy, and he came up with all of these great ideas. Sometimes we’ll work with the story department and give him ideas too. I remember he was designing the police cars, and he needed sometime to put on the back where it usually says “To Protect and Serve,” and he reached out to us saying “I need something for the back.” Austin Madison actually gave us the idea to say “Protecting the Realm”—something a little more fantasy.

Most kids are not going to get why those patches are hilarious. Again, that the classic Pixar thing—through in a couple of jokes just for the adults.

My favorite band name he came up with is Orc Blood.

I loved the logo for Smote.

Yeah! That’s really great too.

And of course that leads to a conversation about Guinevere, the van. It’s a huge character here, with a personality and a true purpose on this quest. Talk about designing the detailing on that. Was the van always in the story?

I love Guinevere, and the story team loves her. We were a big part of getting her in the movie. For the longest time, the boys were on foot, walking around, and it kind of threw us because they’re in a modern world, and they need to get somewhere. Wouldn’t they take an Uber or a cab? [laugh] And for the longest time, there was another character in the movie named Jenny, who was a a satyr that came along with them, and we ended up realizing that we didn’t really need another character because the movie is really about these brothers going on an adventure with their dad, and she was another character that we didn’t need. Although, her personality fed into what eventually what became Ian and Barley. But she had a car, which is one of the reason she came on the journey, because she had a vehicle, and that was the first appearance of Guinevere. It was a hatchback at first, but she was like Barley initially, where she was over the top into fantasy, and she referred to her car as her “mighty steed,” and we thought that was really funny. 

But we lost the car pretty quickly, and the story team wanted to them to stay with the car longer, and then we tried to move along without Jenny to have it just be about the brothers, and then started to click and their personalities started to take shape where Barley was into fantasy and Ian was the cynic. Jenny used to be both of those. But everyone loved Jenny’s Guinevere; let’s give Guinevere to Barley. Then we realized it should be one of those classic vans, and we can paint it. When we drew Guinevere at first, we put the painting of Guinevere on the side of the hatchback, but it didn’t have a lot of real estate. But with a van, you can create more of a character. That’s where she came from, and I love where we go with her. Her last scene, Austin storyboarded that scene, and from the very first pitch, we were like “Oh wow, this is going to work.”

Were the disembodied legs a hard sell? In theory, that could freak out some people.

[laughs] That was Dan’s idea, to have a character that was just a pair of pants. He thought it would be great for the animation potential—it’s the bottom half, not the top half, so it can’t communicate. A lot of animation can be told without any dialogue, so to have a pair of pants make you feel emotion is really difficult, but it’s really what animation is great at.

What do you want people thinking about when they leave the theater?

I want them to walk away with a different appreciation for the people who are around them.

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