“Onward,” Pixar’s first foray into fantasy and magic, was a departure for everyone involved, but especially for cinematographer Sharon Calahan, the only animation member of the ASC, known for her stunning naturalism on “Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story 2,” and “The Good Dinosaur.” But Calahan was willing to break out of her comfort zone for such a personal, warmhearted adventure from director Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”) about two teenage elf brothers (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) trying to resurrect their dad from the dead using a 24-hour magic spell.
“I was intrigued because Dan wanted to set it in a fantasy world and at that point it was kind of ill-defined,” said Calahan. “It was a pretty broad canvas to narrow down what fantasy means and how far you want to go. How much of it is mundane versus fantasy? So all of that was interesting to figure out, and it took a while. We made some missteps and backtracked a bit. One time, we were going to go full-on fantasy and then we decided to go more full-on mundane, and then we tried to find a balance between the two and have it be a language through the film. Normal world in the beginning was mundane as opposed to the fantasy [of] the brothers on the road trip. How much was light and color?”
“Onward” producer Kori Rae, who first worked with Scanlon on “Monsters University,” recommended Calahan to the director, who immediately responded to her vision of a road trip with a graphical element because of his own admiration of graphic novels. “She breathed life into moments and kept this fantasy world alive in ways I never thought about,” Scanlon said. So when Calahan needed some fantastical references, she looked to David Leitch’s 2017 movie “Atomic Blonde” (based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City”). In particular, she responded to the way cinematographer Jonathan Sela melded film noir with the neon glow of Charlize Theron’s action hero.
“I really liked Jonathan’s sensibility in all of his films [which also include ‘Deadpool 2,’ ‘John Wick,’ and ‘Max Payne’], the way the colors are nice and bold, and it fit in well with what Dan wanted,” Calahan added. But contrast was important by first setting up the sunny suburbia of a world comprised of mythic fantasy characters who live in mushroom-enshrined houses versus the more colorful wilderness that would-be wizard Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) encounter later on during their road trip in trying to complete the magic spell to conjure their dad.
“We tried to find bean stocks that are not part of our natural world and cloud shadows to break up the landscapes to seem moodier,” she said. “Billowing clouds you find in fantasy artwork added to the fantasy. The night scenes were easier [to light] because we got to make things up.” Some of the “Atomic Blonde” inspiration crept its way into “Onward” by way of a green swampy lighting scheme that highlights a gas station adventure, coupled with a red sign that cuts through like a beacon.
One of the nighttime challenges, though, was distinguishing the color of the headlights for a gang of unruly sprites that chase Ian and Barley. Calahan used a combination of pink and blue lights along with camera lens flares. Additionally, she was faced with a continuity problem in lighting the dashboard of Barley’s beat-up ’70s van, Guinevere, with lights randomly coming on and off “We decided that was part of the charm of Guinevere and just went with it,” Calahan added.
But the most innovative part of lighting “Onward” for Calahan was developing the shape language and color palette associated with the magic spells in close partnership with the effects team supervised by Vincent Serritella. They started with a 2D graphic look in conjuring low-frequency light waves to evoke chaos. “That was an important journey too for us because we had to discover what the magic would look like,” she said. “We didn’t want something too realistic. It needed to be stylized but not look like something that had been done before. At one point, we thought of going very graphic with it and they decided that it didn’t integrate with the image very well. So we ended up going somewhere in between, slightly realistic but also with graphic components.”
The opening Visitation Spell for dad proved to be the most time-consuming for Calahan. “It goes from blue to red and you see it progressing with the bolt of lighting,” she said. “The early concept was that the magic is part of the environment and the spell merely draws it out. So there are these particles in the air that help build [the dad]. Trying to get that motion and energy to build together was one of the big challenges on that [spell]. And natural lighting had to sit within the magic so that it’s believable.”
The finale of the spell, though, involved a special lighting choice by the cinematographer associated with the dad: the use of his favorite color, purple, which fills the room with his signature. “We wanted the spell to change as it goes wrong, and the use of purple was important here and [later on], with purple sky and light as callbacks to dad,” added Calahan.
“Onward” opens Friday, February 29.