Framestore VFX supervisor Kyle McCulloch shares how Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Cadenza and Garderobe were brought to life in Disney’s hit live-action remake of the classic 1991 animated feature.
Jumping from Rocket, the talking racoon hero of Guardians of the Galaxy, to a lively set of animated household items in Beauty and the Beast was certainly an interesting change of pace for co-production VFX supervisor Kyle McCulloch. McCullough was one of Framestore’s leads on Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic. Beauty and the Beast, which was released June 6 on Digital HD, Blu-ray, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and On-Demand. For Framestore, one of the production’s most critical challenges was the successful transformation of the 1991 animated classic’s iconic characters, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, Cogsworth, as well as a new character, Cadenza and renamed Garderobe, into believable live-action versions.
According to McCulloch, Framestore dealt with everything inside the castle, while Digital Domain looked after the scenes with the Beast. “It was myself from Framestore and Kelly Port from Digital Domain [supervising]. At Framestore, we had our internal supervisors running the shots and the day-to-day show. For me, it was more about doing the prep and the shoot. We had teams in Montreal and London doing the work.”
Framestore started early, helping design the film’s iconic anthropomorphized characters and stylish sets. McCulloch had previously worked with the film’s production designer, Sarah Greenwood (Atonement). He notes, “Sarah is as good as they get, and from the beginning, worked with Framestore’s art department to design the characters.”
“What we leaned on quite a bit was previs from The Third Floor, because there was going to be so much imaginary character involvement,” McCulloch continues. “Previs supervisor Shannon Justison came onto the project early. We did use storyboarding in the initial development stage to come up with ideas, especially, around scenes like the Final Battle, vistas and beats that we wanted in the village of Villeneuve or in the church or castle.” Previs was carefully developed to determine what the CG characters were going to do and say. Says McCulloch, “We had our actual hero actors do their voice work before we shot the film. That said, we tried to be as flexible as possible on the day for our physical performers, camera team and DP [Tobias Schliessler], so they could experiment and find different moments and beats.”
“The DNA of the project came from our director, Bill Condon [Chicago],” explains McCulloch. “It started because he was so passionate about the original animated film and pitched Disney on maintaining that culture, music, and story in this [live-action] remake. For us, the thing that glued it all together was the music. Alan Menken [Pocahontas] came back on board and not only re-orchestrated the original music from the film but also wrote three new songs for us. That provided a real framework for the film. However, we felt free to expand or enhance the texture and tapestry of what the original animated film did. Bill is not only a film director but a stage director, so in planning the scenes, he brought a wealth of knowledge of musical theatre and stage shows to what we were doing. In addition to that, I personally love musical theatre -- it has always been a part of my life. Especially with a scene like Be Our Guest, which is such a showstopper. It was fun to create these characters and to get them to sing, dance and perform.”
McCulloch emphasized that their designs integrated not only the essence of the objects being animated, but the tremendous acting used to bring them to life. “We had first-rate actors giving us the voices, and having that kind of base material to build off of was incredible,” he says. “Someone like Ian McKellen, from the first read-through, his voice and tenacious characterization of the sound of Cogsworth hugely informed what we did. For Sarah, it was important that we be faithful to the construction and materials of these characters. Mrs. Potts is porcelain. Lumiere is a blend of alloyed metals. We spent time going through the Wallace Collection and other museums looking at period Rococo artefacts to figure out how that would work. Cogsworth is a great example. He’s this incredibly beautiful, ornate clock, made up of dozens of materials, lacquered wood, gears, metals, and inlays. A lot of how we developed the rigs and the physical performances required stepping back and thinking about those materials and how you would bring them to life. However, with any CG character, you’re going to bend the rules and do impossible things. What was challenging and rewarding was figuring out the right moments to break those rules.
“Cogsworth has broad features that sort of show a face, but his mouth is a sundial which is a traditional feature on a Grandfather Clock,” McCulloch adds. “Figuring out how to spin the dials exactly and move the shapes to create a believable mouth was something we spent a lot of time on. The other one, which was even more challenging, was Garderobe, the singing wardrobe. All that we had in our brief was that they wanted it to look like a stage with curtains and fabric. How do you create an all-singing dancing face out of curtains? Our rigging, animation and simulation teams collaborated to come up with a clever solution in which animation was able to create poses and shapes using the broad structure of the curtains. The rig would do much of the heavy lifting to add the folding and more natural shapes. The simulation team gave it all of the extra detail, extra flow and flop of actual cloth. It took balance and feedback between those three groups to make sure that we had something that looked like drapery, but you could always see the expression and emotion. There is a particular shot where Garderobe is singing a musical number, which is one of my favourite pieces of animation, because it’s so expressive and beautiful, and she’s essentially a bunch of curtains hung in a cabinet!”
Another key redesigned character was Mrs. Potts, a teapot. “We had several shopping trips to charity and second-hand shops looking for old porcelain,” reveals McCulloch. “It was fun to figure out the shading and how to recreate the materiality. In the original, they used the stop on the side of teapot as her nose. Bill didn’t want that in the design, so we played her as inlay and embossed with painted porcelain. The face is painted onto the teapot. The thing we spent the most amount of time on were the eyes. Early designs had fully articulated eyes that were a part of the teapot and it ended up looking off-putting.”
Stanley Tucci voiced the role of Cadenza, a harpsichord that sways to its own music. Says McCulloch, “The vocal performance of Stanley Tucci was great and he enjoyed playing the piano. He has a few good scenes as his human counterpart, where he portrays the inspiration for Cadenza. We also found and sourced an original Rococo renaissance harpsichord. There was a lot of discussion about the materiality of the wooden legs. How much were they going to bend and sway when we got into the battle, where he has to run, jump and fight? There was a lot of work that went into finding ways that allowed him to move while still feeling heavy, with the flexibility he needed, without the viewer thinking the wooden legs looked like rubber.”
Set extensions we designed to recreate the French countryside settings. “We did do some top-up work and set extensions,” states McCulloch. “We built an entire replica of a French village on the backlot of Shepperton Studios. There were the vistas, trees and hills in the countryside that we needed to put in. We had a team that went out and did extensive photography work along the South of France to get the plates and views that we were going to be using in that extension work. In addition, Sarah brought in craftsmen to construct the real version of each one of the characters. We had an actual lacquered Cogsworth and a real metal Lumiere. For every shot that we did, we were able to bring in the real props, set them in the lights and photograph them.”
One of the production’s biggest challenges was creating believable interactions between the CG characters and the live-action cast. “We used all of the tricks in the book,” McCulloch remarks. “For a lot of shots, where for example, someone is carrying Lumiere, we had a lightweight grey proxy version that they could carry and interact with. When it comes to doing visual effects work, Emma Watson is a real pro because she understands what digital character work is like. She was collaborative in terms of making sure eyelines were right and interactions worked.”
Facial capture was used for the Beast. As McCullough explains, “Digital Domain did the entire project using their MOVA technology to capture Dan Stevens performance as the Beast. While we did videotape voice actors giving their performances, because the household characters were so abstract, each one was animated by hand.”
A number of new simulations were developed for the performances as well. “Garderobe’s curtains required heavy simulation. Lumiere wears a coat, which provided us many long nights spent trying to figure out what does a metal coat move like. A lot of details on the characters were simulated. Mrs. Potts has a tiny gold earring hanging off her spout that was always moving. Lumiere and Candeza both have candles. In every shot, we had effects artists creating candle flames so that they moved naturally and were realistic,” says McCullough.
“We render with our own version of Arnold and composite in Nuke,” notes McCulloch. “Beyond that we were leveraging a lot of our traditional tools that we’ve been developing in-house.” Framestore’s pipeline was pushed hard to render light in volume for the Be Our Guest sequence. “Bill Condon brought in Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher, who are the Tony winningest lighting design team out of Broadway. They designed the whole lighting performance. We did quite a bit of work with their team to accurately recreate all of the various additive shadows and volumes that she expected to see in her lighting design,” he adds.
In the end, few of the digital assets were shared between Framestore and Digital Domain. Says McCullough, “There are only a couple of scenes in which the Beast and the household staff are in the scene together. Even then they would rarely touch or interact.”
“The thing I’m most proud of is the actual performance of these characters,” McCulloch shares. “The original animated film is all about Lumiere and his charisma, as well as Cogsworth and his ‘curmudgeonness.’ They are the heart and soul, the backbone of this story. I knew that if we didn’t create unique, loveable and memorable performances for each one of those characters, the film would not live up to the Beauty and the Beast brand and what this film means to Disney.” He concludes, “Being able to create such a good-hearted and loving film, and to bring these characters to life for a whole new generation, was something special for us. I hope that audiences enjoy watching Beauty and the Beast as much as we enjoyed making it. Be Our Guest, without a doubt, is something to see.”