During the long lead press day for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming film, “Strange World”, the filmmakers discuss creating the characters and environments. What is the inspiration behind it all and what will wow viewers when they head to theaters on November 23rd?
Journalists were invited on to the truly magnificent Walt Disney Animations Studios Lot where they enjoyed freshly brewed Splat-tes, several clips of “Strange World”, and even tried their hand at recording a line in the recording booth which has been used for fan favorite films like Frozen. They also spoke with filmmakers about this film, and picked their brains to learn all about the characters and environments that audiences around the world will see this Thanksgiving.
“Strange World” is described by them as a mix of Indiana Jones and King Kong, with the characters of National Lampoon. It is a love letter to both sons and fathers, and is, at its core, a story about family and about generations. Heavily inspired by pulp magazines, “Strange World” is like nothing we have seen before.
WHO’S WHO IN “STRANGE WORLD”
Creating the Clades with Comic Inspiration and Talented Voice Cast
The character lineup in “Strange World” includes three generation of Clades plus two strong women who not only witness the journey but actually navigate it. Director Don Hall, who’d just wrapped “Raya and the Last Dragon” with its more realistic-looking cast of characters, wanted to do something different. “I love French and Belgian comics,” he says. “And stylistically, it felt like a fun thing to pull into our Disney world that hadn’t quite been done. It dovetailed pretty well with this idea of the pulp adventure concept. So, we married those two styles together.”
To help bring the characters to life, filmmakers enlisted the talents of familiar performers who stepped into unfamiliar roles. “This cast reflects the pure and very clear vision of Don and [co-director] Qui [Nguyen],” says Jamie Sparer Roberts, who headed up casting. “It’s diverse, inclusive and full of uniquely talented individuals who all bring more to their characters than what is written on the page. It was very important to the directors to find actors who had the ability to collaborate, improvise and bring ideas to the table. They are all thinkers who really understand their craft/acting. Because of this, the characters are relatable and grounded.”
SEARCHER CLADE is a treasured member of the Avalonia community having discovered a revolutionary plant-based power source called pando. These days, he farms the plant, providing energy to the entire community. Above all though, Searcher is a family man: he loves a spontaneous middle-of-the-kitchen dance with his wife, Meridian, and he vowed long ago that he would do anything for his son, Ethan. Searcher has worked hard to create a solid and secure life for his family, so when he finds himself out of his element on an unpredictable mission, his cool confidence escapes him. Says Hall, “I have teenage sons and an older father. I understand Searcher’s point of view because that’s where I am right now in my life.”
Searcher stepped out of the shadow of his adventurous father to create his own path—interestingly, they both have statues in Avalonia that honor their successes. “Searcher is caught between the legacy of the greatest explorer of all time and his own legacy he established almost in contrast to that of his father, who he sees as a rambling, intrepid explorer who was never home,” says Hall. “Searcher set out to be the opposite. He’s rooted in his family.”
Jake Gyllenhaal lends his voice to Searcher. “I think he approaches everything through a deep understanding of the story,” says Hall. “He comes at it from an emotional place first. He understood very early on where Searcher was coming from emotionally. But he was good at situational stuff, too. We could describe a scene, ‘you’re running from a giant, tentacled monster,’ and he was able to take that leap of imagination and do versions that were fun and funny. He brought a lot of humor to Searcher and the animators fed off of it.”
JAEGER CLADE is Searcher’s larger-than-life explorer father. He has long dreamed of venturing beyond the mountain ranges that surround Avalonia. His dream became an obsession he never lost sight of—even when a major misstep landed him in a strange world far from his family. The one-and-only Jaeger just wants to leave a legacy. “Jaeger is our pulp hero,” says co-director/writer Qui Nguyen. “He’s like one of those guys on the covers who wear white shirts that were ripped fighting an alligator. He is an awesome character. But what if that guy was your dad? That seems way less awesome.
“We wanted to push him as big and boisterous as he could be,” continued Nguyen. “And we needed a legend to play him. Dennis Quaid has had a giant career and he’s also a musician—the lead singer in his own band. That kind of big personality that can rock a crowd is Jaeger. It’s a ride every time we’re in the recording studio with Dennis.”
ETHAN CLADE is a typical teenager who rolls his eyes when his parents smooch, lights up when his friends visit and gets completely tongue-tied when his crush, Diazo, is around. The 16-year-old longs for the kind of adventure that echoes that of the grandfather he’s never met, so when his dad heads off on a crucial mission aboard the airship Venture—Ethan stows away. According to producer Roy Conli, Ethan has a healthy relationship with his dad, but they have different ideas of what the future may hold for Ethan. “He certainly embraces his father and can feel the love that Searcher has for him, but something is missing for him in the quiet farm life he’s living.”
Ethan is voiced by Jaboukie Young-White, who came from the world of stand-up comedy and brought his improvisational skills to the recording booth. “We love having the actors adlib, and Jaboukie can do that all day long,” says Hall. “He’s got that kind of youthful enthusiasm, and he brought a lot of warmth to Ethan, which is a tough job with a teenage character. What he did with Ethan is pretty remarkable.”
MERIDIAN CLADE expertly pilots the crop duster that helps their pando crops thrive. She’s the kind of person who finds the fun in any situation, and she adores her husband and son. “Meridian loves flying, and their farm is her life and livelihood just as much as it’s Searcher’s,” says head of story Lissa Treiman. Strong, observant and just plain cool, Meridian is an unexpected-but-invaluable addition to the Clade family expedition having chased down the Venture after realizing that Ethan sneaked aboard.
The bigger-than-life situation showcases a confidence and capability in Meridian that Jamie Sparer Roberts, who spearheaded casting, recognized in Gabrielle Union, who voices the funny and fierce character. “Gabrielle has strength, courage, humor, intelligence and experience,” says Roberts. “Her voice is smooth and she’s so confident. She can say something with one word and send a message that most people need a paragraph to transmit.”
CALLISTO MAL, president of Avalonia, has a long history with the Clade family. Once a member of Jaeger’s expedition team, Callisto ultimately followed a different path. She’s determined to solve the mystery of what is plaguing pando, becoming the driving force behind the mission to the strange world. “I think she’s a good leader,” says head of story Lissa Treiman. “She has the confidence to make decisions, but she’s thoughtful and able to see things from a human perspective.” Filmmakers aimed to create a character who was equally as brave and physically capable as Jaeger, but less self-absorbed. “She’s almost the opposite of Jaeger,” says co-director/writer Qui Nguyen. “She’s not about her own legacy or legend. She’s there for the people of Avalonia.”
Lucy Liu impressed filmmakers with her own unique interpretation of the character: “Lucy came in and started to go big and boisterous with her performance,” says Hall. “Qui and I loved it and thought it really added a sort of spice to the movie.”
SPLAT is a blue blobby creature from the strange world who befriends Ethan and guides him and the rest of the Clades through the mysterious underground land. With an overabundance of personality but a lack of facial features, filmmakers were challenged to make Splat an emotive character. “There’s a lot in the timing and posing of the character that sells the emotion—you almost think of it like a puppet,” says head of animation Amy Smeed.
LEGEND is the Clade’s three-legged, perpetually happy family dog who unknowingly loves charging towards danger. When Ethan sneakily signs on for the mission to the strange world, his loyal companion remains by his side, eager as ever to please his human. However, his presence—and instinct to naively and energetically greet every stranger—may do more harm than good.
Hall credits Burny Mattinson, a storyboard artist who’s been at Disney Animation since 1953, with the idea for Legend. “He kept telling me the movie needed a dog,” says Hall. “Dogs just scream family, and ‘Strange World’ is about family. I decided to name the dog Legend because that’s what I call Burny.”
Mattinson became an official Disney Legend in 2008, which earned him the esteemed nickname.
MAKING THE WORLD STRANGE
Filmmakers Lean into the Weird, Fun and Delightfully Warped World
Given the title “Strange World,” the look of the film could be nothing less than extraordinary, and the artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios were determined to create something unexpected and awe-inspiring for audiences. They started with pulp fiction—magazines that were published from 1896 to the late 1950s and were so named due to the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Says production designer Justin Cram, “We all had fun designing the different parts of the strange world, taking inspiration from those old book covers. “Seeing what they thought the future might look like back in that era, whether it was spaceships or aliens. It was a great jumping-off point.”
The team actually crafted three distinctive looks and color palettes: the city of Avalonia, the Clade’s family farm and the strange world.
For Avalonia, artists play up warm colors, such as white, orange and red. “We wanted to create a kind of utopia—a warm, nostalgic feeling to emphasize that this is a wonderful culture that everybody enjoys,” says Cram. Avalonia is featured in both pre-pando and post-pando times. Adds production designer Merhrdad Isvandi, “We show how the city went from single-story buildings to 100-story buildings.”
On the Clade family farm, cool colors—such as lush greens and blues—dominate the landscape. “I was looking at old Kodachrome images from the ’30s and ’40s and trying to connect emotionally because it’s really about the close relationship between Searcher, Ethan and Meridian,” says Cram. “We wanted to make it feel timeless and make it really about the idea of hearth and home.”
In the midst of an important mission, the Clades stumble upon a hidden world that is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. In the strange world, those cool colors from Searcher’s farm are used sparingly, says Isvandi. “When we get to the strange world, we don’t have any greens except pando,” he says. “We reserved green for pando, and we got away from blue in the sky. Our brain is adjusted to seeing blue skies. Removing that option and thinking of something else to make the image beautiful was an exciting challenge throughout production.”
The environments and creatures within the strange world are so unusual and striking that filmmakers had to be careful not to distract from the main characters at the heart of the film. “If we were looking at specific shots thinking, ‘This world is so amazing and so beautiful, but it compromises a moment between characters,’ then we would pull back,” says Cram. “It’s most important to honor those relationships within the scene. But there are times when the characters are astonished by what they’re seeing. That’s when we can really show off this wonderous environment.”
Viewers are sure to be wowed when they see “Strange World” in theaters on November 23rd!
Tessa Smith AKA Mama's Geeky, is a journalist that covers geek and Disney culture on her own website, as well as freelances for other sites such as What's On Disney Plus and Screen Rant. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Marketing and loves all things geeky. She is a Disney Vacation Club member and a Founders Circle Member of Disney+. She is also an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Critics Choice Association. Tessa lives in Upstate New York with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs named Sansa and Khaleesi.