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The Stellar Visuals in ‘IF’ Are Anything but Imaginary

From an enormous blue guy to talking bananas and slime balls, VFX Supervisor Chris Lawrence and Animation Supervisor Arslan Elver break down their work on John Krasinski and Paramount Pictures’ live-action/3DCG hybrid comedy adventure.

There’s a surprising detail in the production notes for IF, Paramount Pictures’ live-action/3DCG hybrid film about a girl whose superpower lets her see everyone’s imaginary friends. While it’s a given that the production would highlight such luminaries as director/writer John Krasinski and stars Ryan Reynolds, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Steve Carell, or its Oscar-winning composer and cinematographer, it’s a pleasant surprise to see the VFX and animation supervisors singled out for recognition.

It's true: the notes make it a point to acknowledge the IF team’s delight at snagging both Chris Lawrence, “one of Framestore’s most experienced VFX supervisors” (and himself an Oscar winner), and Framestore animation supervisor Arslan Elver (creator of the Rocket Raccoon character in Guardians of the Galaxy, among other illustrious achievements) to join their ranks. It goes without saying that they were not disappointed.

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To hear Lawrence and Elver tell it, they had a pretty good time as well, despite the not inconsiderable challenges that invariably attend the intermingling of live-action and animation. Much of the pleasure came specifically from working with Krasinski, who proved to be very interested in and sympathetic to their craft. But wait… there’s more.

Dan Sarto: How early in the process did you guys come on? Did you do any initial tests, or were you pretty certain – just from your past successes in this type of hybrid animation – that you could pull it off?

Chris Lawrence: We had our first meeting with [director John Krasinski] in April 2022, I think. Someone had given him production notes, clearly, because he knew all about us. He was über-enthusiastic. He was very familiar with our prior work, especially, in my case, Christopher Robin, and in Arslan's case, Rocket Raccoon and Guardians. He was trying to bring this film to life and get it made. And he'd done some testing and some artwork, but really the main thing he'd done was he'd imagined the whole thing.

He had sat there during lockdown, when it was conceptualized, and he had thought through every single shot, every single character. He had a structured plan for every bit of it. And he came to us with that. I took the meeting thinking I was doing another show, so I was probably a bit more relaxed than I normally would've been. And I remember finishing the Zoom and going, "Oh, man, I really, really wish I was doing that movie because that's going to be great." And then a week later, my other show pushed, and suddenly I was available.

John was very sweet about it. He was like, "It really cost me a lot of money to put that show on hold. But I'm glad I did - I've got you here." And so it was really quite a quick process, because that was April-May, and we were shooting at the end of August.

John had some designs, which were well conceptualized. He'd been working with some of the best concept artists and character art directors on the planet in order to come up with these things. And we just dove straight into a visual development and animation testing mode, where we were trying to give him faith that CG keyframe animation would provide the same quality of performance for these characters that he'd seen in our other work. We also did quite a lot of work with the production team, and the cinematographer and camera people, to make sure that we were going to shoot this movie in a way that worked for him.

To me, these are the hardest films to make because, to do it well, you've got to be a great live-action filmmaker, you've got to be a great animation director, and you've got to understand what both sides’ needs are, and get them to work together in concert to give you great film craft. And that became a big focus of those preparatory efforts. So, on the one hand, we were doing animation tests, and we were finding characters, and on the other hand, we were trying to work out how to block the physical space of a guy who was eight feet tall, and trying to make sure we were pointing the camera in the right place.

We also wanted to make sure we built in enough flexibility in terms of our approach that we could reconstruct backgrounds and paint out stand-ins, and have the magic on-set that John wanted. He described it as what happens when the performers are together, and everyone's in character, and it's all going. It was critical to us to support that. The heart of this film was the performances, both the voice performances and the live-action ones.

DS: Arslan, did you see this as something that was right in your wheelhouse, or were you concerned that there might be some odd, quirky challenges?

Arslan Elver: I would say the first, because I worked on Christopher Robin as well, and I was involved in the early stages of doing the tests and stuff like that. But, adding to what Chris said, in the first meeting, John was so complimentary about Rocket that it made me blush. But it also added to the pressure, like, "Am I going to be able to deliver to this guy who liked that character so much?" He talked about how the characters in Christopher Robin looked, but also how they moved – they were very tangible. And I think those were the keywords he gave us to run with. He wanted tangibility, believability. And watching the film at the premiere, it really made me feel very proud seeing these characters standing next to live-action actors. They breathe the same air and have the same kind of emotions. They really, really blend together.

The whole thing started with a series of interesting tests. The first one was for the main character, Blue. John really liked it. He got so emotional. And that moment was so cool, because you don't always work with a director who's so enthusiastic, and it's contagious. He really cares about animation. But the design kept changing, so we kept working on it. And we quickly realized that Blue's design allowed us to make a new facial rig system, which is more feature animation-like, and more deformer based. It’s a combination of blend shape and deformers that made Blue’s face much more mobile.

On set, we had a stand-in with a huge hula hoop around his belly because Blue is such a big character. So, the physicality of where he can stand and how close Kaylee could stand next to him could be established very easily. We had the ball for the eye line. And then on top of that, we did this thing where I could connect to Framestore on my machine. I could LiDAR the set very quickly on my iPhone, take it to my computer, and then I could take pictures from the takes from the QTech – literally picked them up, and aligned the camera myself very roughly, and posed the characters. So I was able to touch every single character in the film. I knew the rigs, and I could give live feedback to the rigging department, and the supervisors on both sides. And, on top of that, I could do some poses, transfer them to my iPad, and show them to John.

There was one shot, with Cosmo and [Ryan Reynolds’ character] Cal, where I posed it and showed it to John. And he showed it to Ryan, and they both laughed. And Ryan came up with an idea, "Oh, how about his hat goes into my mouth or something like that?" So it was feeding this creative thing on set. And it was great.

DS: So that's almost like a real-time previs. You're creating this and impacting the live-action shoot, based on what you're then going to do with the digital characters.

AE: And later on, I could pass the whole thing very clearly because FPS [Framestore Pre-production Services] was involved for postvis and previs. So, because we're all in the same pipeline, I was able to share those poses. They were not animation all the time. Sometimes it was just step poses, or whatever. And then they could use those poses and start the postvis process. There was nothing too fancy about it, but it was a great way of working. For this project particularly, it worked like a charm.

CL: Arslan’s being very modest, but there was a through line that he had from being there on set, working with the performers and John, understanding the blocking of the scene and the intentions, doing this quick mockup postvis that we just described. Then supervising the real postvis that we were doing in the director's cut – and also supervising the final animation. So, you had this incredibly strong knowledge base and familiarity with the characters, the director, the material, the scenes. And I think it really benefited the movie.

DS: More than in many similar hybrid animated films, there were a lot of characters in this one, and many of them were on-screen at the same time. You've got a lot of elaborate interactions between characters, and between actors and characters. Tell me a little bit about how that impacted your work – how it was shot, how it was blocked, how you got what you needed without interfering with the on-set acting magic?

CL: You're right, one of the challenges was this huge diversity of characters and cast. We had everything from a talking banana to a slime ball – and they required totally different approaches. But, on top of that, we also had to carry two, three, four hero characters that were very much a part of the key cast on the movie, and who were in a lot of scenes. And, really, you had to feel their story arc, you had to feel their emotion very strongly, or you weren't going to connect with them.

Working with the performers as they read the lines was very important. Sometimes that was John. He never missed an opportunity to be hands-on in any department in any part of this movie. If he could get in there and do it himself, he one hundred percent would. And so, we had great performances from him. We had a wonderful puppet performer for Blue, who wore a special costume, which outlined his shape. And he was very successful in terms of feeding back the lines to the actors. And the other thing that we were doing was actually some quite sophisticated invisible visual effects, because we were not saying, "You've got to shoot this clean with no standing."

They were always there. And the camera was more often than not on a Steadicam and free. And so we were doing really quite complicated paint-outs, or stitches, or re-projections to recreate the backgrounds to give us this canvas for the animated characters to live on. Sometimes, for fully CG shots, the simplest solution was to just scan the environment and do that in CG, in the camera language of the show. So, we augmented the production in that way to support the animation. It was very, very important to me that we didn't do anything that would compromise either the performance of the animation itself, or the performance of the human beings acting with the animators. Those were the two things you had to protect at all costs.

AE: And I’d like to add that normally the VFX pipeline has to be very foolproof. You often can't cheat because it has to look very correct in terms of the size of the track and so on. But Blue was huge, and sometimes he didn’t fit – like his back needed to go through the wall. And John was very encouraging of that. He was like, "Cheat it. I don't care. It doesn't matter. The important thing is the final frame and how he looks.”

CL: But they were very deliberate, crafted cheats – the same cheats that you would make as a live-action filmmaker guided by the director. They weren’t mistakes. To get framing to work with these huge size discrepancies, sometimes cinematic graphic cheating was by far the best way to do it.

AE: And the thing is, it could be like 10% smaller, 5% bigger, whatever, and you never notice, because it just flows in the film.

DS: In the production notes, it said that the actors’ voice-recording sessions had a significant impact on the animation. Can you talk a little about that?

AE: That was a fun part of the animation. We were able to pick up things from the performance, sometimes from just a facial expression. We were literally curating the performance, with John's guidance, because of course John is an actor as well. And he was always coming up with great ideas. It was creating a performance from the voiceover's energy. Sometimes people do some really interesting stuff, but it doesn't fit into what the scene needs to be. I had all that cumulative information and knowledge that I could use to guide them. It was a concentrated effort, in that I was trying to shepherd everything, like, "This way. That way." And It was full keyframe, no mocap. Pure animation art.

DS: Any last thoughts before we wrap?

CL: I think it would be wrong not to mention the Tina Turner dance number, choreographed by Mandy Moore and animated over the top of that, just as a moment of sheer joy and spectacle. It was certainly very successful with my four-year-old daughter. To me, that really was a testament to the approach that we'd taken, which was to support these live-action filmmakers. John is a live-action filmmaker, he's an actor, and we wanted to stack all the cards in his favor, because it's not an easy thing to make a good hybrid animation movie with lots of visual effects. There are a lot of traps along that road.

It's amazing seeing that sequence, knowing the compromises we made, knowing the enormous amount of work that went in behind the scenes in order to make that happen. The amount of painting out, and reconstructing, and matching the lighting that was moving around – all of the really detailed craft that we put into everything, just to bring it to life and give it that reality and make it sing. I thought that was just a nice moment that exemplified that and showed it off.

AE: For me, one of the great successes was the design of Blossom, which was quite tough because she was based on [the 1930s cartoon character] Betty Boop. Making a character like that work in 3D in different angles is such a big challenge. Having done Tom and Jerry previously, I know that challenge. But Tom and Jerry were quite stylized. Here, the character needed to act in a very natural, believable way. So, designing that character in 3D was a big challenge. I remember looking at Fleabag with Phoebe Waller-Bridge [who voices Blossom] and seeing some of her gestures and the way she moves, and how she holds her head, and it was a huge inspiration for me. We built her character upon that.

And the late Louis Gossett Jr., who played Lewis, he's a very wise teddy bear. And he really came across like that because he's not rushing it. He's slow, but meaningful. John had this thing about his eyes. He said he wanted to see a spark in his eyes.

CL: A twinkle.

AE: Right. And we literally put it in there, and I think it really paid off. You look at this guy, and he's doing this lovely speech, and you really believe in him. And it was just a joy to watch that on big screen.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.