Fast-paced CG-animated comedy adventure from Rocket Pictures and Mikros Image takes audiences on a tour of London to solve the mystery of the disappearing Gnomes.
Paramount Pictures’ Sherlock Gnomes, which arrived in North American theaters on March 23rd, is a light-hearted computer-animated comedy directed by John Stevenson. A sequel to 2011’s animated feature, Gnomeo & Juliet, the film’s central Shakespearean couple -- Gnomeo, voiced by James McAvoy, and Juliet, voiced by Emily Blunt -- must recruit renowned detective Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of other garden ornaments from their new home in London. Stevenson was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for his work on Kung Fu Panda, which also earned him an Annie award, shared with co-director Mark Osborne.
Produced by Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Rocket Pictures, the animation was handled by Paris-based Mikros Image. The film brought visual effects supervisor Freddy Chaleur, production designer Karen de Jong and animation director Eric Leighton to London for almost three years, along with the director, to develop a storyline that was technically quite a bit more challenging than the first film.
A veteran of the original film, Chaleur said he got the call to work on Sherlock Gnomes in 2012 and moved from Digital Domain, in L.A., to London in 2013 to supervise the film’s VFX. He explained that he spent about two years doing prep work until Paramount picked up the film in 2015 and moved rapidly into pre-production. At that point, de Jong, who also worked on the original film, moved to London along with Leighton to dive right in on the film.
Leighton, who was nominated for a VFX Oscar for his work on The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), along with Pete Kozachik, Ariel Velasco-Shaw and Gordon Baker, oversaw an animation crew of roughly a hundred at the height of production, split between facilities in London and Paris. He explained that Mikros, which was acquired by Technicolor in 2014, was able to open a satellite facility in London’s Soho district using space at Technicolor’s flagship VFX facility, MPC.
“It was an interesting challenge because, obviously for Mikros, it would have been a lot easier for them to do the whole production in Paris, but we were keenly interested in having production in London, because we were living there and the movie is actually set there, so it was a unique opportunity to do an animated film on-location, so to speak,” Leighton recounts.
But he added that setting up and running the satellite facility in London also posed one of the biggest technical challenges for the production, especially since they were working remotely with all the key servers in Paris.
“I’m not sure what the technical reasons were, but they were not able to set it up so that we had our own render farm in-house in London, and that was an ongoing issue all the way through production, because any time that there was a glitch in Paris, we would go down in London,” he says.
The film takes audiences on an action-filled adventure through iconic London settings, from a stereotypical back garden to museums, Chinatown, the sewers, and the Tower Bridge. Production designer de Jong explained that this film was much more ambitious in terms of the number of locations and the number of characters and props. But Chinatown and the Doll Museum were perhaps the most challenging just because of the quantity of objects and characters.
de Jong recalled that, initially, she spent a lot of time talking with the director “about locations, and the look and feel and then I would propose designs.” With an extensive background in VFX, de Jong stayed to the very end of production, working with Mikros on the modeling, texturing, lighting and compositing, and then the digital intermediate.
Chaleur agreed that the number of sets was a key challenge, and also the amount of space that the characters have to travel. “Because it’s an adventure movie, it’s also a roller coaster,” he says. “You start the adventure and we go from one place to another to another non-stop, and all those places require the same level of detail that you expect to see.”
According to Chaleur, being in London gave the animators the chance to capture lots of great reference photos and video footage. “We had so much to create that was based on reality that it made sense to actually be in London and be able to go and reproduce all the great architecture of London,” he says.
He explained that the VFX team took several field trips to the Natural History Museum and the Tower Bridge to gather reference materials. “We had to go there and explore the entire place to be as accurate as possible for our project,” he says. “We also have a sequence of the movie that was set in a sewer, so we went into a sewer in London and grabbed a bunch of reference material in order to replicate it.”
The animators described the animation style as “selective reality,” which involved fine-tuning the right amount of detail and texture to give a sense of how small the main characters were, in relation to a much larger world.
“Because our characters are so small, it was important for us to make sure that we felt how big they were in a very large world by selecting the right amount of textures to give us a scale for them,” de Jong recalls. “In the beginning, the challenge was: how do we make sure that our characters feel like they’re living and in the world and you don’t question that they’re talking ceramic characters, you just think of them as characters that are alive?”
Chaleur cited a particular sequence where Gnomeo and Juliet have an argument in a rainy alleyway. “It’s really raining strongly, and you can see that rain, all along that alley way and also in front of the character, running into their faces and you have some strong close ups of them talking and you can see all the ripples and all those drops hitting their heads. And you really feel like you are with them, in their world, but also in a human-sized world, where you can see all the detail and you can see all those drops closer because the camera is very close to the character, so that’s the level of selective reality that we really worked on,” he details.
“It was super important for me to have the audience believe in their physical makeup as well, so what Pixar would call ‘truth in materials’ was very much a part of my mandate to the animators on this film,” says Leighton. “For a ceramic character, obviously it’s sculpted and fired in one position. It has no joints. So how do you try and sell the whole truth-in-materials concept, but you still have to bend the hard material around?”
He explained that the conceptual approach was to think of the characters as though they were full replacement animation, like stop-motion, but fully replacing the character for each frame. He added that they took inspiration from George Pal’s “Puppetoons” of the 1930s-’40s.
“It meant that the animators would always be thinking about the physicality of whatever material the character was made out of, how a ceramic is going to bump against something versus wood versus paper versus a stuffed animal,” says Leighton. “With ceramic characters, we had the ability to go farther, to literally think of each frame as though they’re sculpting each frame. So the idea was that if you stopped on any frame of the movie, it would look like it had been sculpted, glazed, and fired in that position.”
Overall, the animators stressed that working with Stevenson was quite a positive experience.
“He was so happy with everything we were doing, that the crew would be happy,” Leighton underscores. “It became like a motivational thing, more than a dark approval session, and everybody ended up wanting to come to our dailies. We were just super-energized, and super-positive.”
de Jong added that “Stevenson gives you a lot of freedom and he’s very happy to let you do what you do best and show him and, he’ll make comments but he’s definitely not a micro-manager. So, basically, as a designer, he’s a dream come true.”
She noted that she was equally happy with her art department -- about 10 artists from all over Europe. “It’s rare when you meet and work with a group of people that you really get along with so well and then become friends afterwards,” she says. “It’s the first time that I felt that close to my department, so that was incredibly special. It was a really tight group.”
Overall, Leighton said that the thing he’s most proud of is the diversity they had on the crew.
“We had people from all over the world. In 2015, London hadn’t done feature animation in 10 years, since Despereaux came out, and so there wasn’t a high-level feature animation community already pre-set in London. [There is] a very high-level visual effects community, but it’s a different bird entirely,” he says.
“So because of that, we had to cast a really wide net all over the world, and do whatever we could to bring in people,” Leighton continues. “And we ended up with a really exciting mix of people from, of course, all over Europe, so Italians and Spaniards, and people from Scandinavia and Germany and France, and of course people from the U.K., but we also had a lot of people from India. We had people from Korea, a couple of Americans in there. It was a hugely diverse mix of people.”
He added that he also had to look at a lot of animation schools to find the talent he needed.
“We had a lot of juniors that I ended up hiring for this show but they were super passionate,” he said, adding that the animation schools these days are much less technical and much more into the art and craft of animation. “So what I ended up with on the show was all of the mix of seniors, with all these passionate juniors coming in, everybody in the middle, and they all taught each other.”
Leighton is also proud of the fact that they ended up with almost a 50/50 gender split, on the animation crew, “I have never had anything close,” he says. “You’re always fighting to get a mix of people and energy, but I’ve never had that before, and it really made a big difference to our crew. It totally changed the energy on the floor. It wasn’t a boys’ club; it was a real mix of people. It was super unique in that way, and I think that a lot of people will be walking away from this job as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A lot of bonds were made. It was super memorable.”
“I’m really mostly proud about that human element of the show more than anything else, and I hope that some of that energy goes up on the screen,” he concluded. “In my experience, it always does.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.