The Art of Onward: An Insightful Look at the Making of Pixar’s Epic Fantasy Film

Pixar’s Onward, an original film that lived a short theatrical release due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, arrived on Disney+ on April 2nd. The film is a heartfelt and vibrant movie, filled with heart and emotion, all of which you can read about in our review. Today, we want to take a look at an accompanying project from Disney and Chronicle Books showcasing the collaborative work that went into making Onward, which acts as a testament to the incredible craft and artistry of each Pixar film. 

The Art of Onward is written by Drew Taylor and features an introduction by Onward director Dan Scanlon, helming his second feature film at Pixar after 2013’s Monsters University. Scanlon’s film is deeply personal and is drawn from his own experiences as a child in his dream to connect with his father, who passed away when he was a child, and before he could develop any memory of him. Channeling the real-life experiences into the story, Scanlon’s team developed the lead characters Ian and Barley Lightfoot, based on a blend of Scanlon’s own personality and his older brother. As the old saying goes “write what you know”, Scanlon took the things that he knew (or lack thereof) about his father and channeled into a poignant story about grief and family. 

As always, the process of making an animated feature film is a long and exhausting process and one that calls for many changes throughout its unpredictable road ahead. “Creating a story for a Pixar film is a lot like going on a quest,” says Kelsey Mann, story supervisor for Onward. “It’s a long road with many twists and turns.” Those twists and turns are chronicled throughout this book in showcasing a long process that led to the final film as we know it. Back in its early production stages, the film, then internally known as Trio, was a very different story than the finished product. Much of this is thanks to a deleted character, named Jenny, who acted as the voice of reason for Ian and Barley, acting as a third party to solve Ian and Barley’s problems. It’s often hard to know what won’t work until an idea is tested and full realized, which is what the filmmakers discovered. Instead of having these points brought through Jenny, the filmmakers realized that these were conversations Ian and Barley should have themselves, and Jenny was dropped from the film. It’s always fun to reflect on the things that almost were as an insight into why things were better off left behind, including a hilarious sequence in a never-ending mall that sadly had no solid fit in the actual story, but still lives on in its hilarity in storyboard sequence. 

From The Art of Onward, Introduction by Dan Scanlon, By Drew Taylor, Edited by Molly Jones and Jenna Moussa Spring, published by Chronicle Books. Work by Peter Chan, graphite

Onward is also the first full-fantasy film that Pixar has created to date, inhabiting entire fantasy landscapes with vibrant characters and deep mythologies. Its artistic representations are pulled together by a blend of fantasy and ordinary suburbia, creating a balance of layered visual storytelling to service the character journey. In telling Ian’s journey from his comfortable, care-free life to a journey into darkness and uncertainty, the filmmakers employed fantasy visual techniques, painting the ordinary dark corners of a journey with imaginative modern elements. After all, Onward truly is a fully-fleshed epic fantasy film, and it only makes sense that its design and mythology should be free to define itself by the genres it stands upon.

Pixar’s latest film is not one that always works, but its efforts are recognized due to its heartfelt story and significant tearjerker moments throughout. It’s a beautiful representation of artistry and imagination and with The Art of Onward, the film gets its due spotlight. Author Drew Taylor, and editors Molly Jones and Jenny Moussa Spring do a phenomenal job at showcasing the creative process behind the Pixar film from conception to finalization that should be a welcome addition to any Disney-Pixar fan or animation lovers. As always, the ‘Art of..’ series from Chronicle Books’ is a stellar showcase at Disney artistry and imagination, making it a must-read for any fan. 

The Art of Onward is now available to purchase online

From The Art of Onward, Introduction by Dan Scanlon, By Drew Taylor, Edited by Molly Jones and Jenna Moussa Spring, published by Chronicle Books. Work by Garret Taylor, digital