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January 29
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

MARY POPPINS RETURNS – and So Do Old-School Effects

By IAN FAILES

When Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins was released in 1964 it wowed audiences with a stunning combination of practical effects gags, matte paintings, and process photography that combined live-action actors with 2D-animated characters. The state-of-the-art techniques of the time earned the effects filmmakers an Academy Award for Special Visual Effects.

Like the original, Rob Marshall’s sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, features all manner of magical sequences, and could easily have taken advantage of the latest in computer graphics and VFX to make them possible. But here, the director and Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Johnson looked instead to honor the first film’s timeless analog qualities.

The sequel certainly relies on digital handiwork to bring key gags and fantastical scenes to life, but a heavy emphasis was also placed on on-set practical effects and even hand-drawn 2D animation. VFX Voice asked Johnson about some of the movie’s more magical moments and how they were achieved.

Mary Poppins readies a bathtub for an underwater adventure. 

“The thing about working with [director] Rob Marshall is his Broadway background. On a typical visual effects movie you normally do short takes and move things through. But Rob loves to do these very long numbers, as if they were part of the show. So we’d have four- or five-minute performance pieces of Lin [-Manuel Miranda] and Emily [Blunt] doing the song, and multiple cameras moving through. All of the VFX and animation work had to be able to work within that environment.”

—Matt Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor

There are several occasions in the film where Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and others seem to defy the laws of physics and do things out of the ordinary. For example, when the children are all transported by bike – by sitting on a horizontal ladder – the scene was filmed with a practical bicycle gag built by Special Effects Supervisor Steven Warner and his crew.

“It had two pneumatic legs underneath each side of the ladder,” details Johnson. “So as it was cycling along they could remotely control the pitch and yaw to tip and move with the unbalanced-looking bike. Since they were cycling through a busy street, there was some extremely complicated clean-up work required, but what it allowed us to do was have so much of the frame for real.”

That kind of approach drove the shooting and VFX methodology for other scenes, too, including when Mary Poppins magically pulls items out of her carpet bag, and for a sequence that sees her invite the children to dive into a bathtub.

Director Rob Marshall on the set of Mary Poppins Returns.

“We built the [bathtub] set one story up on the soundstage. So as you went into the bath you actually slid down into a practical bath full of foam and down into a chute underneath the set. We did CG bubbles floating in the bathroom, but it was a really nice testament to old-school sequences that you could jump in the bath and dive in and keep the scene moving.”

—Matt Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor

“The trick there,” says Johnson, “was that we built the set one story up on the soundstage. So as you went into the bath you actually slid down into a practical bath full of foam and down into a chute underneath the set. We did CG bubbles floating in the bathroom, but it was a really nice testament to old-school sequences that you could jump in the bath and dive in and keep the scene moving.”

The bathtub slides result in the characters entering and flying through an enchanting underwater fantasia full of sea life, a rubber duck, and even a pirate galleon that Mary Poppins had popped into the bath beforehand. Much of this was computer generated, including, sometimes, partial digi-double representations of the characters along with bubble trails. Blunt and the children were initially captured while connected to a wire rig which ran on tracks in the studio ceiling, with an extra ‘effect’ added by shooting the scene in a slightly different way.

“One of the things we also did with the water scene was over-crank the camera just to give a little bit more float to the shots,” explains Johnson. “The problem we had there, however, was Emily had to sing the entire song. This is a testament to Emily’s acting and singing skills – we actually filmed that sequence on the bluescreen at 32 frames per second. We had to re-speed the music so it would sync at that rate, and on camera Emily would be singing the song very quickly. It was a combination of old-school techniques.”

The characters enter a Royal Doulton bowl.

“We were very keen to try and reflect the Silver Age style of Disney animation from the ’60s. A lot of those movies of that time had a very specific Xerox-ing process that they used for the line work that gave you a slightly scratchy feel to the edges. All of those things were noted and looked at, and that was the look that we needed to go for.”

—Matt Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor

Then, in a direct ode to the original film’s ‘Jolly Holiday’ number, Mary Poppins, the lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and the children somehow enter into the surface of a Royal Doulton bowl. It results in an elaborate live-action and animation sequence that Johnson, again, says was about honoring the 1960s film.

“We were very keen to try and reflect the Silver Age style of Disney animation from the ’60s,” he notes. “A lot of those movies of that time had a very specific Xerox-ing process that they used for the line work that gave you a slightly scratchy feel to the edges. All of those things were noted and looked at, and that was the look that we needed to go for.”

To film the sequence, which starts with a carriage ride, actors performed against greenscreen, often interacting with greenscreen proxy stand-ins for major objects like a carriage or for characters that would ultimately be animated.

Duncan Studio provided hand-drawn 2D animation for the film.

“The carriage ride is an update on the multi-plane technique that would have been used in the ’60s,” says Johnson. “But we did a lot of hand-drawn textures on projection cards to show the perspective and the parallax, and that would be combined with the hand-drawn animated characters and the carriage, which was artwork projected onto geometry.”

—Matt Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor

“The carriage ride is an update on the multi-plane technique that would have been used in the ’60s,” says Johnson. “But we did a lot of hand-drawn textures on projection cards to show the perspective and the parallax, and that would be combined with the hand-drawn animated characters and the carriage, which was artwork projected onto geometry.”

The hand-drawn cartoon characters (most notably the dancing penguins) were animated via pencil and paper by Duncan Studio. Line drawings were then scanned and inked and painted digitally before being composited with the live action. An extra touch came from Sandy Powell’s costume department which painted the fabric texture onto each actor’s costume in an effort to match the drawn backgrounds.

The action then moves to a music hall set that again featured 2D-animated characters as well as fully digital environments. The actors again performed on a large greenscreen set with green proxy props.

Inside the animated world.

“The thing about working with Rob Marshall is his Broadway background,” outlines Johnson. “On a typical visual effects movie you normally do short takes and move things through. But Rob loves to do these very long numbers, as if they were part of the show. So we’d have four- or five-minute performance pieces of Lin and Emily doing the song, and multiple cameras moving through. All of the VFX and animation work had to be able to work within that environment.

“We also had dancers for the actors to interact with,” adds Johnson. “We’d have people in gray suits and cardboard cut-out penguins in green running around so that Lin and Emily knew where to look.”

Much of the music hall was fully 3D, but then textured with hand-drawn 2D artwork. “Rather than having to go in and re-paint every shadow and every cast of light in a 2D sense, this gave us the opportunity to instead use some shading and rendering techniques to allow color and light to hit an animated surface and still look drawn,” describes Johnson. “It meant it could all be choreographed properly and with proper lighting cues, and for us to be able to re-light things efficiently.”

The famous dancing penguins make an appearance.

“On a typical visual effects movie you normally do short takes and move things through. But [director] Rob [Marshall] loves to do these very long numbers… So we’d have four- or five-minute performance pieces of Lin and Emily doing the song, and multiple cameras moving through. All of the VFX and animation work had to be able to work within that environment. We also had dancers for the actors to interact with. We’d have people in gray suits and cardboard cut-out penguins in green running around so that Lin and Emily knew where to look at.”

—Matt Johnson, Visual Effects Supervisor

In the end, several VFX studios, including Framestore, Cinesite, Luma Pictures and Pixomondo, lent their services to Mary Poppins Returns across many sequences, with significant work in particular required to re-create 1930s London. Johnson praises the mix of the old and the new in completing the VFX, and the director’s desire to film as much live action as possible.

“Rob Marshall didn’t want to do everything on greenscreen, or with multiple passes,” adds Johnson. “He revels in the ‘here and the now’ and working with the cast. So we and the special effects team needed to make sure that all of the gags just ‘happen.’ That really influenced my thinking when it came to working out how to do the visual effects – to really not put restrictions on the director during filming.”


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