What Does Anxiety Look Like? How Pixar Created the ‘Inside Out 2’ Villain

“Inside Out 2” delivers a fresh crop of emotions for Riley, the film’s 13-year-old protagonist, who begins the story at the cusp of puberty. Anxiety, Embarrassment, Envy and Ennui join the core emotions from the original film: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness.

The most consequential of the new arrivals is Anxiety, whose well-meaning but chaotic influence pushes Riley and the other emotions to the edge of mental and social catastrophe. Voiced by Maya Hawke and bursting with discomfiting character details — unruly hair, bulging eyes, a grand-piano grin — Anxiety emerges as the hit sequel’s breakout star and unstable center of gravity.

In a series of interviews, the team at Pixar that brought the character to life — the director Kelsey Mann, character designer Deanna Marsigliese and animation supervisors Evan Bonifacio and Dovi Anderson — broke down Anxiety’s anatomy and discussed taking inspiration from psychology research, the bird kingdom and the produce aisle. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

What was the initial idea for the character? Who was Anxiety?

KELSEY MANN, director Initially, she was a shape-shifter. She was going to be this person who was lying about who she was. I wanted somebody that was almost made of clay. Kind of a monster character, almost like a lizard. But we eventually got rid of that twist because it made the movie really complicated.

DEANNA MARSIGLIESE, character designer By the time she came to me, other ideas had already been tried, but they weren’t working in the story. They were a little bit more sinister, more antagonistic. I thought maybe we could try to soften the character, see if we could do something a little more approachable. I did about a dozen-and-a-half, maybe two dozen thumbnails — very tiny sketches. After a few days, I chose 10 and put them in front of Kelsey. He chose the first one I’d ever done.

MANN They were just fun. You don’t want the audience to root for the antagonist, but you do want them to enjoy when they’re onscreen. Whenever the earlier version of the character showed up, I just didn’t like watching it.

Where did you look for inspiration?

MANN Deanna had a really great idea to link her a little to Fear, because they are kind of distant cousins.

MARSIGLIESE Every time I looked up a definition for anxiety, it always started with “A fear of.” “Anxiety is a fear of what may happen.” So I started to think, “OK, Fear and Anxiety are different, but clearly they’re related,” so I designed her with that in mind.

MANN The more research we did, the more we realized that Anxiety is really there to help and protect us, which encouraged us to lean into a more fun design. Jason Deamer, the production designer, pointed out that the male emotions seemed to be more stylized. Anger is a square and Fear is this kind of raw nerve. I remember him saying it’d be really great if we could do that for a female character.

MARSIGLIESE Anxiety and Fear share those really expressive, hypervigilant eyes. That was tent pole No. 1. But where Fear is really vertical in design, I decided that for contrast, Anxiety would be more horizontal. That’s where we got that really broad mouth.

MANN I remember one of the animators doing some birdlike references for the fast little movements of her eyes.

EVAN BONIFACIO, animation supervisor The concept was that somebody who was anxious would be constantly scanning the room trying to look for problems and plan for the future.

MARSIGLIESE To me, it’s almost like a kettle. There’s this simmering, constant nervous energy just below the surface that very gradually builds. And like the steam in a kettle, it’s going to need avenues for release.

MANN She’s the opposite of Ennui. Where Ennui is like, “I barely need to move unless I have to,” Anxiety is just constantly moving. We always said she’s got restless leg syndrome.

BONIFACIO The animators did a lot of explorations of how she would move in the environment that ended up influencing the story. Her apologetic nature is an example — the idea that she’s touching the console and taking over headquarters but she’s sorry but she can’t help herself.

What other physical traits did you use to express her personality?

MARSIGLIESE I chose a lot of features that would support nervous tics and habits, her clothing being one of them.

MANN I remember somebody had the great idea that she’s going to have a really itchy sweater. If you look at Sadness, the sweater, it’s very warm. It’s very cozy. It feels like it’s cashmere. But Anxiety, she has this itchy wool that kind of added to her anxiousness.

MARSIGLIESE She’s got the high collar, which I imagine she’d be tugging on a lot. It’s a little suffocating. She’s got stretched-out sleeves, which is her doing. She’s got her pants hiked up, which isn’t the most comfortable. And her boots are just a little too tight. Everything is built to aggravate her just a little bit.

MANN Her hair was a big part of the character, too. It’s wild even when she’s trying to present herself as together, like she’s trying to tame the chaos. The simulation department, who does hair and cloth, added a lot.

MARSIGLIESE I used the top of a carrot as a reference. The way the leafy bits exit the carrot top really stiff and strong but then get flimsy and light toward the tips. I wanted it to be a conduit for all her trembling and twitching.

BONIFACIO The hair itself had a bunch of poses, probably five to eight: Stiff and straight up, a more relaxed groom, a softer groom, a wiry groom. If Anxiety screamed in the script, the animators could say, “Go from a soft groom to a stiff, more upright groom at this exact second.”

What was the hardest part of the character to animate?

BONIFACIO The mouth. Building the rig — the thing that’s underneath the skin of the character that allows the animators to pose out the arms, the head and the face.

MARSIGLIESE The teeth were a big thing. They were meant to rattle and move around the mouth. It’s unsettling. A lot of my choices were about asymmetry: being off-center, off-kilter. She was put together in a way to make you be like, “Are you OK? Are you going to fall apart? Can you stand up?” I really wanted her to make the other emotions and the audience feel a little bit nervous by proxy.

DOVI ANDERSON, animation supervisor We were curious what it was going to look like when the character was talking. Are the teeth going to be moving too much? How can we make it so it’s not too hard to follow the dialogue?

BONIFACIO If you look at the drawings, there’s no denture. There’s no jawbone. It’s just this sort of big, open shape. We had to figure out a way to give her a wide range of expressions but still have the teeth anchored to something.

ANDERSON A standard mouth rig has like 300 controls. For Anxiety, we probably had 1,000.

BONIFACIO There were two full sets of controls for the mouth, and each tooth could be controlled individually if needed.

ANDERSON Even though she had a very challenging design, the fundamentals of animating her were the same as anyone else. The animators are performers — it’s their job to figure out what the performance is going to be. What am I? What is the subtext? What’s going on inside the character’s head? How do I communicate that to the audience? Many would go into an acting room, turn on a camera and act the scene out with their own human anatomy and limitations. Then the question is, “How do I translate that into this design?”

What’s your favorite Anxiety scene?

MANN There’s a scene where Riley experiences a panic attack at the end of the film. I wanted Anxiety to come in and take over the console and drive too hard on Riley.

ANDERSON She starts moving really fast and turns into this whirlwind. He ended up animating 106 Anxieties in about eight shots. In one shot, there might have been upward of 10 or 15 Anxieties — multiple arms and heads going around in circles.

MARSIGLIESE Anxiety for some people is really debilitating; they’re not activated by it, they’re paralyzed. Other people get really activated and kinetic. It was important that we start her at one extreme and then walk her to the other, so that everyone with anxiety could see themselves and their behavior in her.

MANN There’s a really great line in that scene where she says, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Joy. I was just trying to protect her.”

MARSIGLIESE I think there’s a single tear.

MANN I’m really proud of the way it turned out, because it takes the entire team of artists and filmmakers at the studio to pull that off.

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