MPC’s visual effects supervisor walks us through Disney’s latest fairy tale adaptation.
There’s plenty of magic in Disney’s live action Cinderella and most of it has nothing to do with a Fairy Godmother. The Moving Picture Company teamed up with director Kenneth Branagh to create a visual feast befitting one of the most beloved rags-to-riches stories of all time, and VFX Supervisor Patrick Ledda was there every step of the way.
“When I was offered the job, I was very happy to do Cinderella and it was the same for all my artists,” he says from MPC’s Montreal-based office. “It was a great opportunity to reinvent something but with this idea of still keeping it classic and without going too modern. We just wanted to keep it simple and had a great director who also had that vision.”
The visual effects house had some 500 shots to complete once primary shooting concluded in London in November 2013. Between their British and Canadian teams, MPC reshaped the English countryside to suit the romantic tone of the picture. “We shot a lot of aerial photography of the coastline in particular,” he says of the image below, “so this Cinderella world is by the water effectively.”
“I like to shoot a real plate so we can get a natural helicopter move and build the layout around it, and if you can keep the river elements, you keep them and the rest you take over digitally,” he continues. “Basically, we shot a plate and tracked the camera, so we have the camera information and use that as a foundation.”
“We were inspired by British architecture and landscapes, so we wanted to try to adhere to that naturalistic style and the rest evolved as we went,” he says of the film’s most iconic location – the royal palace. “We worked very closely with the production art department on it. They had some sketches and we developed those further. It took a long time to get to this final model because the palace had to be really well balanced within the landscape and feel natural.”
Though they eventually settled on a look for the palace, one particular shot of the locale proved hugely challenging. “The final shot was definitely the most complex of the film,” Ledda laughs. Cinderella and her Prince may be smiling on their big wedding day, but creating the layered sequence was anything but a piece of cake. “All that was practical was the foreground and the balcony and doors, so we had to rebuild everything and extend and create the digital crowd, and then go on to make the cloud that forms the fairy godmother before the credits.”
Over the course of those 2000 frames, Ledda and his team found themselves constantly tweaking elements. “We did some crowd simulation and then we looked at it and felt there wasn’t enough variation, so we had to add more but that meant going back to modeling. Something like that can set you back.” MPC turned to ZBrush, Maya, Mari, Katana, Kali and Flowline to get the job done.
The complexity of that final scene, he notes, lies in the Happy Ending atmosphere that must be created. “When you have a long shot that’s very slow, you have to re-render many times. You cannot hide behind anything. This whole movie is very clean and pretty. It’s not like a big action movie where you can put smoke and use camera shakes and tricks. This is very calm and slow and therefore everything has to be pretty and pristine.”
The palace’s elaborate exterior is mirrored by the interior design as well. To that end, Ledda is especially proud of the fact that his team was able to make a hallway that looks so real you’d never guess it was mostly digital. “This shot is one of my favorites because we actually built a full corridor but all that was real was the back end. Usually, when you do these kinds of set extensions, you tend to build the foreground for real and then you CG the background. In this case it was the opposite.”
“We had to build digital guards and CG chandeliers. So this was, for me, one of the most successful shots.” The hallway leads to the grand ballroom where the infamous party takes place, meaning it had to be convincing from a variety of viewpoints. “In the ballroom you see sections of it from a different angle later on,” he notes, adding, “the ballroom is spectacular. It’s the most beautiful set I’ve ever seen, for sure.”
Of course, Ledda and Branagh were fully aware that the most crucial portion of the film would be Cinderella’s transformation from put-upon maiden to belle of the ball – a sequence made famous by the Disney animated feature. “The Disney version is about one second long and ours is a minute! So it was very different,” he laughs. “It was a pretty challenging shot particularly because we wanted to keep as much of Lilly James’ performance as possible. Originally, we shot it on location but it wasn’t quite working, so we ended up going for a motion control shoot where we could actually repeat the motion of the camera. We ended up shooting her twice, first with the pink dress, her Mum’s dress, and then with the final dress, the blue dress.” James, meanwhile, was required to twirl on a rotating platform surrounded by a green screen, imagining the transformation unfolding around her. “There were many takes where Lily was trying to match her own performance, but at least the camera was locked. Then we had to blend the two digitally.”
“The first version of the shot was much longer and we had to end up removing a couple of loops because Ken felt it was too long. So there are editorial decisions in terms of timing and how the music will feel and also to zero in on the moments where we can make it work visually. In the end, we ended up finding a compromise,” he reveals. “It is a hybrid of practical in the beginning, fully CG in the middle, even replacing Cinderella for certain frames, and then going back to the blue dress. So it was definitely very involved.”
“Even her feet are CG,” he adds, referencing the first shot where the glass slippers appear. “We used Lily’s performance to see how it would feel and then we rebuilt her feet to fit the shoe. On this shot she was barefooted because initially the character was barefooted, so she stood on her toes and we rebuilt the shoe.”
Of all the effects in the film, Ledda is clearly most taken with the CG mice that dart around helping to change Cinderella’s fate. “At MPC, we’ve done lots of creature work over the years. We did a couple of Narnia films where a main character was a mouse, Reepicheep, but that’s a very different mouse. He was a talking, humanoid-mouse hybrid and that was four or five years ago, so the technology has changed. These mice used the latest technology we had for shading and rendering.”
“For grooming, we have Furtility which is our MPC fur system. For example, when the mice turn into horses, Furtility could tell based on the rig how big the character was and therefore decide whether they should they grow a mane or hair. And obviously we need very talented fur technical directors to drive all of this,” he adds.
“We had 100 plus shots of mice, which was a challenge because we wanted them to have an animated feel, but still appear photo-real, only with a touch of personality. It was a fine line.” To aid with reference, mice were brought to the actual set. Sadly, they weren’t the most professional of performers. “They just weren’t going to do the kinds of actions we needed,” Ledda sighs, “so we ended up shooting them only for reference to see how they would behave under the lighting. So we were slightly inspired by those original mice but very quickly moved on.”
The final designs, developed with Branagh and visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, required a few months of fine-tuning, “particularly Gus, the Dad. He’s a bit chubby and fat and struggles to get around.” Changing them into horses to bring Cinderella to the ball offered an opportunity to bring their personalities to the forefront. “We had a really long sequence there which we revisited many times with Kenneth. He wanted something that felt really quick and fun. He wanted to portray that the mice enjoyed being transformed and becoming big white horses and helping Cinderella. And also there was this idea that they’re in a rush and Cinderella has to get to the ball quickly.”
Going through a variety of iterations of the sequence was time-consuming, due to the technical demands of the transformations. “It was very difficult for us to react quickly because a shot like this where you have a mouse with a horse head requires multiple rigs. There’s a horse rig and a mouse rig and then a third rig which blends the two. The technical animators would look at the length of the fur and then the groomers would have to come in, so it is complex. Sometimes you get into these kinds of circles where you want to show what it would look like but you need some time to present that.”
“Then we started saying, ‘what if we want to show a nice cantor?’ so it kept evolving in different directions and over the course of the project it went through different iterations. But in a big project like this there are always critical sequences and those you know will change because they’re a bit more creative and subjective as well.”
Ledda clicks away at the computer screen in front of him, replaying a scene in which the mice rear up, clearly enjoying the horse-like qualities MPC has granted them. Who says you need a wand to get the job done?
Cinderella is in theatres now.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.