‘Strange World’ Director Don Hall & Producer Roy Conli – Deadline

After working on Moana, director Don Hall was left thinking about the world he is leaving behind for his children. This thought gave birth to Strange World, an adventure story with an environmental theme. The film follows the legendary Clade family, as they explore the unknown regions of Avalonia. Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) are three generations of the family, each with different opinions that conflict and threaten their latest mission. Producer Roy Conli was drawn in by the story of generational conflict between three generations of a family.

DEADLINE: Where did the idea for Strange World come from?

Strange World, from left: Callisto Mal (voice: Lucy Liu), Jaeger Clade (voice: Dennis Quaid), Searcher Clade (voice: Jake Gyllenhaal), Splat, Ethan Clade (voice: Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (front, voice: Gabrielle Union)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

DON HALL: The idea came around 2017, I was just coming off of Moana and thinking of the next movie and what was on my mind at the time. I was thinking about my kids and what kind of world they’re inheriting, environmentally, versus what kind of world I inherited from my dad, who happens to be a farmer. That was number one on my mind, and I wanted to tell a story that spoke to that, philosophically. But, because I was also thinking about my sons and my dad, I thought it would be just emotionally interesting to tell a story with three generations. Quite often we don’t really get to see that. We see father-son, but I thought the idea of having it really speak to three generations would be an emotionally interesting take on it. And I love adventure films, I just love them, and having that be sort of the delivery device for this generational environmentally themed movie. I thought this idea of explorers finding a hidden world would be dazzling in animation.

DEADLINE: Roy, what did you think of the story when you came on?

ROY CONLI: Well, I was hooked with the father-son story because I’ve always been a sucker for father-son stories. But then I thought that the three-generation idea was terrific. I’m so proud of the emotional journey and the visual splendor of this film, but also the themes are what caught me early on. I knew we could make a beautiful film, but we could also talk about an incredibly loving family and we could talk about an incredibly important idea of what are we leaving the next generation, which I think for today really speaks volumes.

Strange World

STRANGE WORLD, from left: Searcher Clade (voice: Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger Clade (voice: Dennis Quaid), Ethan Clade (voice: Jaboukie Young-White)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

DEADLINE: Can you talk about using those generational relationships as points of conflict rather than a traditional villain? I like the idea that everyone in every generation just refuses to believe that they’re wrong.

HALL: The story would be focused more on the generational conflicts, and that was by choice, because I felt if you frontloaded the environmental theme, it’s going to be off-putting or even predictable. I’ll use Callisto as an example. If Callisto was the CEO of Pando-corp, I’ve seen this movie a million times. It felt like we didn’t necessarily need a traditional villain. 

I hear the outcry from fans out there like, “When are the traditional villains coming back to Disney films?” But I think it’s all about story, right? And what does the story need? We had enough antagonism between Jaeger and Searcher certainly, and kind of a buried antagonism between Ethan and Searcher. It was already there and we didn’t need a traditional villain. Callisto does become a little bit more of an agitated antagonist towards the end of the movie, but it’s coming from a more noble place where she thinks she’s speaking for all of Avalonia. Cause that’s her charge, that’s her job as a president.

CONLI: I think that’s what Don and Qui (Nguyen) did in terms of structuring the story. I’m gonna get a little wonky here in terms of story structure, you know – man against man, man against nature, man against self – all three of those things are functioning in this story. I’m so proud of the Ethan character because Ethan really carries the compassion and brings them together, and that’s what’s so wonderful about the story. I think Qui and Don brought up this concept of Jaeger being the conqueror and Searcher being the controller, and Ethan being the conservationist, knowing that all three of those elements are in everyone. I think each of those characters reflect something in each one of us.

DEADLINE: What was the research process like to create all of the creatures?

HALL: We did a lot of research into microbiology, and electron microscopic imagery of the body and seeing like, ‘Oh, cilia could look like grass and bronchial stems could look like trees,’ and stuff like that. Then we really encouraged all these amazing artists to just play, knowing the function of the area, the function of the immune system creatures, and then really let their imaginations run wild.

Strange World, Splat

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

DEADLINE: And then also you have Splat, who’s just great as a character that doesn’t talk but is still very expressive.

CONLI: This is the strength of Don. He challenges his animators. He really does. I mean, when you think of Big Hero 6 and Baymax, this big white balloon with two eyes, he took it even further this time. He gave you us an eight-tentacle creature that you don’t know what the front and the back is. And the animators just stepped up to the plate and did amazing things with this creature. You know exactly what Splat is thinking all the time, and he’s such a great force in the film. I think it’s a testament not only to our animators, but our character designers and our lighting guys, and just the whole team. 

HALL: And it’s just pure animation, right? That’s why I love working in this medium. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. We kept talking about the carpet in Aladdin, and look at what they did. Look what amazing animators could do with a rectangle and some tassels, you know? And CG has got to the point now where you really can do anything. We did some 2D hand drawn iterations of Splat to kind of learn about its locomotion, and then they were able to transfer that into the CG. 

CONLI: What I love about what’s happening with Disney Animation, particularly in the CG realm, is you could feel that DNA of the hand drawn. In this film, I think there was a real focus on visiting an older style, a much broader style. And the wonder with CG is that you can do that, but then you can get those incredibly intimate scenes where the emotion plays so specifically and tightly. It’s beautiful.

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