Play­ing Fairy God­mother

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects - By Mercedes Mil­li­gan.

The break-out suc­cess of last year’s Malef­i­cent was merely the prow of Walt Dis­ney Pic­tures’ latest fea­ture film jug­ger­naut: live-ac­tion takes on the stu­dio’s an­i­mated fairy tale clas­sics. On March 13, fam­ily au­di­ences turned out to the­aters to give the new Cin­derella a No. 1 open­ing, and were treated to a col­or­ful up­date filled with vis­ual-ef­fects en­chant­ments.

Di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh, the film stars Lily James as gen­tle-hearted or­phan Ella, who is tor­mented by her cruel step­mother ( Cate Blanchett) and step­sis­ters. Things get crit­i­cal when she meets the hand­some Kit ( Game of Thrones’ Richard Mad­den) and hopes to see him at the royal ball. With the help of an in­ge­nious Fairy God­mother ( He­lena Bon­ham- Carter) and some plucky crit­ters, Ella gets a once-in-a-life­time chance to make her dreams come true.

On board from the be­gin­ning was the crew at MPC Film’s Mon­treal stu­dio, which co­or­di­nated with the pro­duc­tion team from pre­viz through shoot­ing in Lon­don to post­pro­duc­tion. “Ken­neth Branagh was adamant that we kept a nice, clas­sic look and feel, so that was al­ways some­thing we were aim­ing for — this idea of a sat­u­rated, col­or­ful land­scape, a ro­man­ti­cized ver­sion of Eng­land,” says MPC vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Pa­trick Ledda. “At the same time, we were a lit­tle bit inspired by the orig­i­nal car­toon and a lot of Dis­ney films, but we wanted to have our own stamp on it as well.“

A Girl’s Best Friends A good chunk of Cin­derella’s 500-plus VFX shots in­volve the hero­ine’s pint-sized CG an­i­mal pals. Dig­i­tal but­ter­flies, birds and a ma­jes­tic stag all make ap­pear­ances, but the key crit­ters are those re­cruited for Ella’s ball en­tourage: skit­ter­ing lizards, a quar­tet of mice and a busy­body goose. MPC re­lied on pro­pri­etary tools built on top of Maya to lend per­son­al­ity to these re­al­is­tic char­ac­ters.

The mice — the car­toon’s portly Gus Gus and his fam­ily — es­pe­cially re­quired some fi­nesse, ac­cord­ing to Ledda. They needed to strike a bal­ance be­tween a pho­to­re­al­is­tic ap­pear­ance, while at the same time be­ing an­thro­po­mor­phic and ex­pres­sive enough to be­liev­ably in­ter­act with Ella in dozens of shots. The crew pored over hun­dreds of ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als, and even brought real ro­dents to the set at Pinewood Stu­dios to gauge light­ing in­ter­ac­tions.

The film’s scene stealer is def­i­nitely “Mr. Goose,” a white gan­der who pops up in many scenes for a brief comedic cameo.

“Mr. Goose be­came more and more of a char­ac­ter, it was al­ways kind of a joke that the movie was about him,” Ledda says. “The artists and an­i­ma­tors here had fun with it. … With a goose, it al­ready has kind of funny move­ments and gait, and you can play with it, how it moves its neck and wob­bles with­out hav­ing any fa­cial ex­pres­sion.”

Wav­ing the Magic Wand The hands-down most com­plex work, both tech­ni­cally and cre­atively, was de­vel­op­ing and an­i­mat­ing the var­i­ous crea­ture ( and pump­kin) trans­for­ma­tions when the Fairy God­mother gets Ella ready for the ball.

“We wanted to keep it funny and ex­cit­ing. Some­times with these trans­for­ma­tions they can look a lit­tle creepy, and we were very aware of this is­sue,” says Ledda. “The hard­est was the mice turn­ing into horses. We did hun­dreds of tests, took months and months de­vel­op­ing ideas. … We had to do lots of re­vi­sion. Ken­neth wanted to do some­thing quick and snappy, and liked the idea that the mice were ex­cited about be­com­ing big white horses and help­ing Cin­derella.”

The trans­for­ma­tions of­fered plenty of cre­ative com­edy mo­ments — from beau­ti­ful white horses sport­ing over­size mouse ears to a tem­po­rar­ily goose-beaked car­riage driver. The lizard morphs into a re­spectable foot­man by first sprout­ing a hat and shoes be­fore his scaly skin rip­ples and folds into fab­ric as he grows and takes on a hu­man form. Cru­cial in all these mu­ta­tions was a spe­cially de­vel­oped fur sys­tem that gave the an­i­ma­tors tons of con­trol over the se­quences and used a three­rig pro­gres­sion to cal­cu­late what kind of hair or fur should ap­pear on the chang­ing model.

How to turn a pump­kin into a sump­tu­ous, gi­ant Faberge egg of a car­riage also chal­lenged the MPC team’s cre­ative lim­its. Ledda points out they went through mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions of the se­quence, which in the fin­ished film has the pump­kin grow­ing out of con­trol un­til it bursts the en­tire green­house in a blast of magic. “Ken­neth said, ‘ It has to be some­thing a kid watches and re­mem­bers the rest of their life.’ And I was like, OK, no pres­sure then!”

In ad­di­tion to the pro­pri­etary fur sys­tem, MPC also had to come up with tools that would help han­dle the load of gen­er­at­ing tons of lush trees and green­ery for the out­door scenes, took its first stab at us­ing ray-trac­ing on hair and used in-house so­lu­tions built on top of Maya, Katana and Nuke for an­i­ma­tion, light­ing and ren­der­ing.

Fit for a Princess Since the film was shot al­most en­tirely on in­door sets, MPC was also tasked with cre­at­ing fully CG ex­te­rior shots — such as the mas­sive stair­case and star­lit gar­dens out­side the royal palace — plus dig­i­tal set ex­ten­sions for key lo­cales like Ella’s house ( which got an ex­tra cou­ple of sto­ries). The vast ma­jor­ity of wide shots were pri­mar­ily CG. Ledda es­ti­mates the stu­dio cre­ated about 80 CG as­sets for Cin­derella.

One of the more in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges in­volved the hall­mark of the fairy tale: the cap­ti­vat­ing glass slip­per. While the film crew and cast did have a prac­ti­cal prop to work with, the slip­per built for this was too small for star Lily James to wear, so Ledda and his team had to cre­ate a dig­i­tal one.

The VFX supe points out that the re­fract­ing, re­flec­tive and iri­des­cent qual­i­ties of the crys­talline ma­te­rial pre­sented dif­fi­cul­ties in cob­bling the CG shoe. Like­wise, keep­ing the size of the shoe con­sis­tent and mak­ing sure it was large enough to fit Ella’s foot with­out mak­ing it too big or dif­fer­ent look­ing from the orig­i­nal prop re­quired spe­cial at­ten­tion. “A few shots with the prince hold­ing the shoe, we had to re­place the prop shoe. Ev­ery time you see ( Ella) putting on the shoe, it’s fully CG. We also had to change the per­for­mance of the hand of the prince ( to match up with the CG shoe) — some pretty com­plex work there.” [

Dig­i­tal ex­ten­sions and em­bel­lish­ments turned par­tially built sets into sweep­ing ex­ter­nal shots of the prince’s opu­lant, ro­man­tic palace.

MPC went through sev­eral it­er­a­tions to strike a bal­ance be­tween a pho­to­re­al­is­tic look and read­able ex­pres­sive­ness for Gus Gus and his mouse fam­ily.

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