In 2014, Kyle McCulloch had explained to us the work of Framestore on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. He then took care of the visual effects of PAN.
How did you and Framestore got involved on this show?
Framestore was involved in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST from the earliest days of planning. We initially started working with Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, on developing the characters with our art department. From there, we involved the VFX team in developing those characters through animation tests, as well as helping to plan and prep for the shoot.
How did you work with director Bill Condon?
Working with Bill was really a dream job. We connected on our shared love of theater, and quickly developed a shorthand for what he wanted the performances of our characters to be.
What was his approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
From the beginning, Bill was focused on making sure all the visual effects work really fit into the look and feel of the world. For the animation, he directed us like actors – talking about the mood and motivation. It was a really collaborative experience.
What was your feeling to work on a classic Disney movie?
For so many of us, we got into this industry because of the magic we saw in the Disney films. For me, it was a dream come true to be part of this project, especially because we were returning to the source material, and working with members of the original team from 1991.
How did you split the work with VFX Supervisor Kelly Port?
The project had quite a natural split in the VFX work – the Beast, and the environments he was in were mostly separate from the scenes and environments with the household staff. For the few moments where we needed to combine our work, we had weekly calls, and daily data sends to pass the required elements back and forth.
What are the sequences made by Framestore?
Framestore was responsible for all of the household staff, many of the castle interior environments, the exteriors of the unenchanted castle and grounds, and all of the Little Town extensions and vistas.
Can you describe to us one of your typical day during pre-prod, on-set and during the post?
Pre production was the usual blend of working with previz, meeting with the various departments about the builds of sets, costumes and character designs, and meeting with the HODs and the director to plan the shoot – sequence by sequence. We’d regularly visit the builds for the sets, and plan how and where we needed greenscreens, and how we thought we’d be shooting the scenes. We also worked closely with the SFX team, who were building animatronic versions of two of the bigger characters – Garderobe and Cadenza.
The shoot itself was really busy – with two full units running, and three full-time VFX supervisors (Kelly, myself, and Glen Pratt from Framestore), we still felt quite stretched to manage everything that was going on. The Be Our Guest shoot was probably the most complicated, thanks to the combined efforts of a techno-dolly, a musical team, and a full theatrical lighting setup, being run separately from the main stage lights. It was quite the production – watching it all happen over a (mostly) empty dining room table!
Post was pretty traditional – working up the character assets, building the animation, and working with Bill to make sure the performances developed in the way he expected.
How did you design the various characters of the household?
Most of the character design work was done by the Production Designer (Sarah Greenwood), who partnered with the Framestore art department on some of the concept work. She was the driving force behind their look, and how their design fit with the period of the film. As we started to build them, we continued to get her input on how their particular materials would inform their movement. We were quite fortunate that she had her craftspeople construct real, scale versions of each of the characters for reference. These proved invaluable as we were shooting for lighting reference, and also gave the performers a useful visual cue for what these creatures were going to look like.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of these characters?
Each character provided it’s own challenges. Cogsworth was made of wood and metal, but needed to be able to walk, climb stairs, and gesture. That was made more complicated thanks to him having four feet, two of which pointed backwards! We did quite a few movement studies to help dial in exactly how much he might ‘bend’. Plumette needed to have lovely flow, and her feathers had to have just the right amount of length and movement. We did a variety of designs and builds on her feathers and body to get exactly the right feel for how they’d move. Garderobe was especially challenging – how do you get a cabinet full of drapes to sing opera? Early tests we did with her design actually came out quite frightening looking, so we worked closely with Sarah to come up with something that was both pleasing to look at, and gave us the full flexibility of a readable face.
Great actors are playing these household characters. How did you put their personality and acting on these CG characters?
The basis of any great character is a great performance, and we had no shortage of great performances in this film. For us, I’d say the Cogsworth was a favorite – from the moment we heard Ian McKellen’s voice, it was clear to us exactly how this stuffy creature would behave. We had great video reference of the actors performing their lines, and from there we worked into a selection of character studies. Another example was Mrs. Potts – Emma Thompson has such an expressive face, and so we worked to bring as many of the tiny details of her actual facial performance into Potts.
Beside the actors, did you received specific indications and references for these characters?
With each character, we did an initial kick-off with Bill and Sarah, to discuss the general aspects and ideas for each one of them. From there, we started creating small vignettes or tests to try and flesh those out, and see how they’d work in practice.
How did you handle their rigging and animation?
Framestore has quite a well developed character pipeline, and we were able to apply a lot of what we’ve learned from other previous shows to these characters. For animation, we spent a lot of time actually moving in front of cameras – we’d stand up and act out different movements or performances, to try and find the right feel for different beats. Our animation supervisors, Dale Newton and Spencer Cook were heavily involved in working with Bill to quickly dial into the performance he was looking for.
Can you tell us more about the facial animation challenge?
Because of the vastly different designs on our characters, each face was a different puzzle. For Cadenza, we had to figure out how much movement on his keyboards we needed for it to feel like he was speaking. Also – how do the moulded metal pieces of the music stand actually MOVE to give the impression of pupils? Garderobe was especially tricky – using a combination of lighting shadows and fabric sims was a huge technical challenge. For the animators, just building a rig where they could see what the shapes was going to be was quite a sculpting task.
How was simulated their presence on-set for the interaction and the cast?
Most of the time, we’d do an initial lineup with our full-size prop versions of the characters, and have the actors do a quick walkthrough. From there, we’d replace the props with small eyeline poles, or tape marks, and they’d shoot the take. For Garderobe and Cadenza, we actually have motion bases built for them that SFX controlled, which was really fun to shoot with. There was an extra level of realism for Emma to perform against when the singing wardrobe really DID pop out of the wall and start moving around!
Be Our Guest is an impressive sequence. Can you explain in detail about the creation of this sequence?
Be Our Guest was one of the most challenging things to shoot. We worked closely with The Third Floor to previz the entire scene. Anthony van Laast was the choreographer, and he spent a great deal of time actually working out the entire number with ‘real’ dancers, so we’d have a better sense of how to block the performance. Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher, Tony Award winning lighting designers, were brought on to design all the theatrical lighting to go along with the CG. The actual shoot was a coordinated effort between all those teams to actually set up, light, and shoot almost every shot in the sequence – even if we didn’t have any of the signing and dancing objects on the table yet!
In post, we continued to work closely with all the creatives involved to create the animation, and build all the CG. While we often had to replace large portions (or all!) of a plate, having the original base of the real lighting and camerawork was key to getting the final look of the song. Bill was very clear from the very beginning how he wanted to stage this number, and having that clear direction made it more straightforward to build the shots. From an animation standpoint, it was often the trickiest to get the dance performances exactly right, and we had more than one session where we regrouped in a dance studio with Anthony to make sure we get each foot, arm and head in exactly the right position.
How did you manage so many CG characters and render them?
We’ve been fortunate at Framestore to have developed a robust and flexible pipeline over the last few years (starting with GRAVITY). While we use the usual tricks of doing low quality, simpler renders early in the process to get buyoff, we were able to manage and push through a huge amount of renders and comps to consistently provide Bill with the best looking shots for his edit. Special mention to our CG Supervisors, Neil Weatherley, Adrien Saint Girons and Julian Hutchens for managing and streamlining such a big body of work.
Which character was the most complicated to created and why?
Different characters had different complexities – while Garderobe’s fabric was a tricky exercise to get the sims exactly right, figuring out exactly how the myriad of pieces on Cogsworth’s face would do lipsync was a real long term task for the animation and rigging teams. The character that came out of development last was actually Mrs Potts – she had to deliver the most nuanced facial performances, and the Montreal team had to build quite a few iterations of that asset before we hit the mark with Disney and Bill.
Which one is your favorite?
I’ve got a soft spot for Garderobe – she’s such an odd creature, yet her motherliness and charm really come through in the animation.
The characters become humans again at the end. Can you explain in detail about these transformations shots?
We had an early brainstorming session with Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (Set Decorator) about how the scene might work. The team didn’t want to make a big, magical fuss out of it, but instead have it feel more like a slight of hand. I think the final result works quite well – it’s much less about us doing any flashy visual effects, and more about the excitement of finally seeing these characters as their human performers.
We only had those principle actors for a very short time, and shot almost all of that transformation sequence in a day. We had to get in there very quickly and shoot the plates we knew we needed, and we put the rest of the bits into it in post. Garderobe’s fabric, Plumette’s feathers, and Mrs Potts flying through the air were all added in post.
The Castle is a massive piece of set. How did you work with the art department to create it?
Well, the great thing about the sets on this film was – they really built them! While we did have to do the odd top up here and there, the art department actually built almost all of what you see inside the castle. Having that foundation to build upon meant we were able to develop some very realistic looking extensions that I think blended seamlessly into the plates.
Can you explain in detail about its creation?
The art department provided us with extensive design bibles for everything we needed to build. We spent a lot of time in prep and during the shoot trying to detail what would need to be built, and then working with the art directors to create designs for what we’d need. We even had construction pull some pieces of the set out for us and deliver them to Framestore, so we could reference the quality of the build as we put our models together. It also helped that we were able to get some of our department leads out onto set while we were shooting, so they could get a sense for what the real sets actually felt like.
What was the real size of these sets?
Enormous. I’ve never seen builds like these – not only were they huge, but the quality was extraordinary. The craftsmanship in everything that was built rivals any set I’ve ever seen.
How did you created the huge environment around the castle?
The exterior of the unenchanted castle, along with the grounds, were based on Vaux le Vicomte, a chateau in France. My co-supervisor, Glen Pratt, went and shot a wealth of textures and references in the actual spot that helped us build our digital version. Of course, even the real thing wasn’t quite massive or picturesque enough, so there were quite a few rounds in post of getting exactly the right look and layout.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
Without a doubt, the main challenge on this show was bringing life to these beloved characters. We had to find the right performance for each of them, bringing something new and wonderful to them, while keeping in mind the heritage of the original, animated film. Each one of them had different challenges, but creating something that we were really proud of took a lot of teamwork. We were able to accomplish this thanks to the wealth of talented and passionate artists at Framestore who were so dedicated to the creation of this work.
What do you keep from this experience?
The original, animated film means a lot to me, and having the opportunity to be a part of this production was something I’ll always be grateful for. Top to bottom, everyone involved in the project was at the top of their game, and did really incredible work, and it was a true delight to be a part of that.
Was there a shot or sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The ‘sound of music’ shot – the 360 camera flying around Belle as she runs up a hill in the countryside. Everything apart for Belle is CG, and we had the added demand of going from afternoon into full night, with a storm in the distance. It was a tremendous amount of work by the Montreal environment team, and while I’m really happy with the final shot, it was a really tricky thing to build.
How long have you worked on this film?
All told, I was on the project for almost two years.
What was the size of your team?
We had over 300 artists working across our facilities in London and Montreal on the project.
What is your next project?
I’m working with Marvel on THOR: RAGNAROK!
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on Framestore website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017