Academy Award-winning Big Hero 6 director Don Hall tells IndieWire how his new film picks up on the days “when the studio was at its peak when it came to animation.”
The studio is building on its legacy with Disney’s animated sci-fi adventure Strange World (out November 23), just as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. In fact, legacy is the theme of this film about a racially mixed family of explorers venturing into uncharted territory. The Clade clan revolves around legendary patriarch Jaeger (Dennis Quade); his farmer’s son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal); The seeker’s wife, the veteran pilot Meridian; and her troubled teenage son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White).
When director Don Hall (the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6”) gave a 30-minute peek at Disney last week, he mentioned that “Strange World” was inspired by ’30s pulp magazines, authors Jules Verne and Edgar Rice influenced Burroughs and some of his favorite action-adventure films. He even likened it to Raiders of the Lost Ark – but with a crazy family straight out of National Lampoon’s Vacation. He acknowledged that Strange World looks both forward and backward with its core idea of saving the environment.
“It’s good to acknowledge that your film has to keep up [the classics]’ Hall told IndieWire. “But you mustn’t have it in your head. It can inhibit you. You must have that restless spirit about what’s next. I think this movie does that. It wasn’t like I walked in and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We want to go a little further with our character designs and in terms of the physicality of the comedy. There was a test by Searcher who had a musicality. It was reminiscent of my love of Johnny Appleseed and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and those Disney movies after WWII in the ’50s when the studio was at its animation peak.”
At the same time, Hall wanted to explore uncharted animated territory, beginning with Avalonia, home of the Clade, a rural community-turned-metropolis with flying airships and surrounded by a mountain range resembling the Himalayas. After a power crisis, the Clades travel to central Avalonia, where they discover a retro-future world filled with magenta and yellow-orange landscapes and vegetation, along with an assortment of faceless creatures reminiscent of dinosaurs and sea creatures.
“That [environment] could have been a flat, undulating plain,” Hall said. “No, [the art department] we created these levels of plateaus that our characters have to move up and down and over and over again. Additionally, the clumps of trees that make up the plateaus can walk, and that meant they had to be specially manipulated by the character team. “A lot of technology was developed for this film to be able to bring every part of the environment to an animator,” production designer Mehrdad Isvandi told IndieWire.
The hardest animation challenge revolved around a creature that the Clades befriend in this underground world: a mischievous 12-tentacled blob named Splat. Like a cross between R2-D2 (vocalized by sound designer Shannon Mills) and Mickey Mouse, Splat is definitely one of Disney’s most complex characters to manipulate. The animators sculpted and moved the blob character in a variety of ways. Hall’s only instruction was that they could not shapeshift.
“Whatever we do, I always try to anticipate what’s going to be great in animation because I know that’s how they thought back in the ’40s and ’50s,” Hall said. “They were looking for potential for their stories and animations. I feel like being the shepherd of this idea is one of my core responsibilities. It’s hard to retrofit. You have to design it and it has to be part of the DNA of your thinking.”
From a narrative standpoint, Hall chose Searcher as the protagonist, who must face up to both his father and son in order to direct the family legacy. “Searcher is more a reflection of where I am in my life right now,” Hall said. “My sons are in their teens and my father is a little older than Jaeger. It was a point of view that I found most understandable.”
Co-director and writer Qui Nguyen (who reunited with Hall after Raya and the Last Dragon) told IndieWire that Strange World was personal to him, too. “This is a film that reflects the world that I actually live in, like Los Angeles, where there are people who look different and aren’t just one,” he said. “I like to write stories to make the world a better place. We leave behind a legacy that is not just an entertaining film, but someone’s favorite thing to look back on in time of need, crisis or escape.” Producer Roy Conli (“Big Hero 6”) reiterated his opinion on the film’s thematic relevance and said it’s “about forgiveness, acceptance and kindness”.
According to Conli, the film’s connections to Disney history stretch all the way to the Strange World storyboard. With digital tablets and storyboard software allowing more than 500 drawings per sequence, the process can become overly complicated—clicking through so many drawings can make it 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 Strange World’s storyboards closer to the physical boards the director worked with as he progressed through the ranks. This old-school throwback allowed them to quickly iterate and display a sequence at a glance to identify the most important aspects.
“I did not want to [the artists] to wear out, especially early on, and we mined it,” Hall said. “It was an experiment at first and very quickly everyone loved it.” At the suggestion of Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee, they also began the storyboarding process on Strange World earlier than other films. “It wasn’t the whole crew, but then we had fun before you’re pulled in all directions and asked to think about the story [a longer view]’ Hall said.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/strange-world-disney-preview-1234764069/ ‘Strange World’ Sneak Peek: Sci-Fi Adventure explores Disney’s legacy