The Framestore team composed of Andy Kind (VFX Supervisor), Chris Zeh (Compositing Supervisor) and Liam Russell (Animation Supervisor) tell us about their work on THE SECRET GARDEN:

How did you get involved on this show?
Andy Kind, VFX Supervisor // We have a strong relationship with Heyday Films and StudioCanal, having worked with them on the PADDINGTON and HARRY POTTER movies, and they approached us to come onboard early on in the process. From the outset we knew that it wasn’t a heavy VFX film, but at the same time the visuals are integral.

Was what the client’s vision for the VFX in this show?
Andy Kind // The work had to suggest the spirit of the garden and avoid an obvious cgi look. We definitely didn’t want it to look too magical – the VFX needed to be invisible and aid the story, as opposed to being the main event.

Can you elaborate about your work on the Misselthwaite Manor?
Chris Zeh, Compositing Supervisor // The Misselthwaite Manor was supposed to have a certain character; close to but still different to other manors in the UK. We were tasked with replacing the existing Manor with one that would fit the tone of the movie better. As the original Manor was shot on location, we had lots of great reference in terms of lighting and textures. Then we also had to set it on fire, which is naturally easier in VFX as it doesn’t affect the home insurance renewal premium.

Can you elaborate about the creation and animation of the Robin?
Liam Russell, Animation Supervisor // Creature animation of any kind always starts with reference. The animation team needed to learn how the Robin moved, specifically in flight. For the story, the Robin had to continuously fly and land in different parts of the garden as he guided the children through it so it was essential that we understood how such a small bird could move so quickly between points. We then did a series of animation tests which included trying to bring a sense of cheekiness and curiosity to the Robin as well as the realism of his natural motion.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Liam Russell // The most challenging thing was making the Robins flying speed work with the live action plates. Small birds move at a very fast rate, much faster than the on-set cameras can move. This meant that by the time the camera had panned across the Robin had already moved off and left the scene.

The team had to find ways of having the Robin lingering in the shot for the purpose of storytelling and then having him fly off. We also had to experiment with slowing his flight down, although this proved very tricky as slowing him down made him feel heavy and unlike how a small bird would move.

Chris Zeh // There is a shot that dissolves through time and space. It starts inside an old photograph and transitions into the garden and from there back into a room. This is a big challenge since there are a lot of moving parts involved and you don’t just want it all to happen at the same time.

We started with the three plates // One plate of the garden that was used as the photograph, one of the room that the photograph was supposed to be in and one of the garden that the room was dissolving into. There’s a painting of a tree in the garden on the wall in the room which we wanted to use as a commonality to build our dissolve around.

It became this big, involved choreography of things happening in a specific order and blending in a specific way. It took a lot of things to fall into place, but I think it turned out quite beautifully.

Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
Chris Zeh // For the sequence where the house is on fire, a lot of the flames were actually shot in live action. This is great to get a realistic interactive lighting on the room and the actors, but we did enhance the flames a little to make them look a bit more dangerous.

The house in India (in the opening sequence) needed a second floor, so we topped it up with a matte painting.

The garden was shot in different locations all over the country. To bring them all together into one beautiful place we extended some of the plates with a digital version of another location. Often with a 3D render of the gunnera field (these tall plants with the massive leaves) featuring in the background.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Chris Zeh // Not really. There are always shots that need a lot of work, oftentimes not for very glamorous reasons. For example the matting problems posed by leaves on a tree blowing in the wind!

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
Chris Zeh // Tricky question! It’s a bit like asking for one’s favourite child. And in much the same way I think I can’t really single out any of them.

Liam Russell // There’s a shot at the beginning when the Robin lands on a statue in the foreground and watches Mary’s car drive up the road towards the house. This shot had some small nuances of performance which were tricky to sell with such a creature. A lot of time was spent on this shot as it’s the very first time the audience sees the Robin.

What is your best memory on this show?
Chris Zeh // I have a lot of good memories of this show. I had the pleasure of working with a fantastic team at Framestore. Also, as it was a local client, we had them come in regularly to review our work. And not only are they very nice people, I find it always much more creatively conducive to sit down with somebody in a room over a cup of tea, rather than phone calls and video conferences.

Liam Russell // Having worked at Framestore as an animator for many years this show was my first opportunity to step into an animation supervisor role and this was a challenge I very much embraced.

How long did you work on this show?
Chris Zeh // I think I was working on it for about 7 months all in all.
Liam Russell // September 2018 until March 2019

What is your next project?

Liam Russell // I’m also currently working on the second season of HIS DARK MATERIALS.

A big thanks for your time.

Framestore: Dedicated page about THE SECRET GARDEN on Framestore website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020


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