Far from fable: Cinderella

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is a lush re-imagining of the classic fairytale and of Disney’s own 1950 animated feature. In this detailed Q&A, overall visual effects supervisor Charley Henley discusses the elaborate work conducted for the film – principally by MPC – in bringing animals, environments and the famous carriage transformations to life.

fxg: The work in Cinderella feels like such a great mix between magic and reality – can you discuss the general approach to the VFX and how it was to fit into this vision for the classic fairytale?

Henley: In order for the audience to believe in the mix between the real world and fantasy we wanted to establish the idea that the world through Ella’s eyes was always full of Magic, and that her positive outlook could ride above the earthly hardships she endures at home. Director Kenneth Branagh was keen to establish this underlying theme from the start of the movie and the VFX team was tasked with putting that onto the screen. The idea was to give a sense that there is a magic underlying everything should one choose to see it and that kindness and compassion can open the door to that dimension.

Watch a spot from the film.

A first principle was one of collaboration. The brief was to keep the visual effects in tune with the tone, texture and mood of the film Branagh was establishing with the wonderfully resolved and lustrous set design, costume and cinematography. We worked closely with Production Designer Dante Ferretti to plan out the most practical mix of real and digital sets and locations. Ferretti’s Art Department drew-up wonderful concepts for the palace, gardens, town and landscapes. We also worked alongside Costume Designer Sandy Powell throughout pre-production to establish a connected look between the costumes of the Coachman and Footmen and the look of our digital Goose and Lizards who were to transform into them. DOP Haris Zambarloukos established a visual lighting style for the film, shot anamorphic on Kodak Vision stock. We worked with Zambarloukos to figure out the logistics of complex digital takeover shots as well as methods for shooting mice plates, often shot through a prism to get the feeling the camera is down on the deck seeing the world from a little mouse POV.

The classic Disney heritage was also something we used as a benchmark for the tone, style and fun of the magic FX. We referenced such things as the magic sparkles of the original animated classic and re-interpreted it into a more real world version.

MPC took on the lion’s share of the work headed up by VFX Supervisor Patrick Ledda. The total show shot count was over 800 and Rodeo FX and an in-house team also completed some beautiful work. The project was a wonderfully exiting challenge due the sheer variety of work combined with the opportunity to help tell a classic timeless tale where the magic is such an integral part of the story.

fxg: Can you break down the creation of the mice?

Henley: Based on a family of real mice we had good references for Jacqueline, Gus and baby mouse who where originally modeled and textured from a polarized a hi-res photo shoot. But to give the teen mouse some distinctive characteristics we went though a lengthy design process. The mouse family is all full CG throughout, as Branagh wanted to have full control to direct their performances.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

These little mice presented an opportunity for MPC’s fur rendering technology to be further enhanced. To create believable CG mice VFX Supervisor Patrick Ledda worked with his team at MPC to add additional functionality to “Furtility” (MPC’s proprietary grooming and fur software) that would allow attributes that are driven by the animation to be baked into the geometry caches and then used to control the properties of the groom at render time. Mice are very elastic creatures. The software updates allowed us to replicate the clumping and splitting of hairs as the mice move and stretch. It was also very useful when they were transforming into horses. It gave the animators control over the growth of the manes and tails as well as modifying the groom to work for various stages of the transformation. Our mice had a combination of dark and light fur. MPC further developed scattering techniques into the hair shader to be able to simulate the complex way that light bounces around and interacts with hair in the real world. Look development lead Thomas Stoelzle worked hard to get the mice to render in an efficient time and look photo-real. All of the hair rendering was fully ray-traced with Prman.

fxg: Can you elaborate on the mice reference you considered?

Henley: We shot extensive reference footage. Warren Leathem our Animation Supervisor studied mice behavior to make sure the mice performances were grounded in the real world. The brief was not to anthropomorphize the animals. We watched footage of mice and other animal antic videos with the director to get ideas of what mice motion we would adopt and what real world funny moment’s we could be inspired by. Ultimately of course artistic license was taken to add a touch of humor and humility to their performances on occasion and where it served the story.

fxg: How were the shots featuring the mice filmed practically?

Henley: We shot plates for most scenes based on postvis or storyboards. Along with the above references we had a flat grey mouse 3D printed model painted 18 percent grey and mounted on a stick so we could have him move around the frame to use as lighting reference. We also shot mini mouse VFX size chrome and grey reference balls. Being so small and therefore close to camera it was critical to get the depth of field correct for the background plates so we shot a number of focus passes for each shot. Some shots were photographed through a prism to effectively get the lens right down on the ground.

A number of backgrounds were also created in post by MPC’s environment team. Each of Dante Farretti’s sets were scanned and photographed, beauty lit, using super high res HDR 360 round shots. These images were then projected onto basic geo as a base to recreate mice size environments in post when we decided to expand on scenes and shots featuring the mice.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

fxg: What approach did you take to animation in terms of an animal/human look?

Henley: Each animal had a very specific character brief worked out between Leathem, Branagh and myself. The director referenced actors and human performances but each of the animal performances were based on true animal anatomy and we limited the anthropomorphic moments, preferring to get a sense of character from the way animals move in the real world. For the Lizards and Goose we had actors for their human versions, as they turn into footmen and a coachman, so we shot reference performances and built a character profile based on the actor’s performance.

fxg: What were the main tools MPC used to achieve them?

Henley: For the creature work Richard Clegg our CG Supervisor at MPC directed the build team. Sculpting designs used zBrush with final Modeling in Maya. The animals where groomed with “furtility” which was further developed for the show to increase the realism of hair shading. Texturing was achieved with Photoshop and MARI. Rendering was fully ray traced with PRman and composited and environment projections used Nuke. Complex custom rigs and dynamic shaders were developed for the transformations.

fxg: There are other animals and CG characters too – can you talk about bringing these to life?

Henley: There are lots of real animals in the film but a handful were selected to be digital as they needed to have specific performances and are key background characters in the film. They accompany and support Cinderella and act as her connection to nature.

Both animals and digital doubles of the actors were modeled using photogrammetry. Clear Angle Studios supplied a fantastic photo rig which uses 100 synced stills cameras and produces a hi-res mesh based on a split second capture. This was a real bonus for this film. With more traditional scanning you need the subject to stay still for a number of seconds, not something easy to ask of an animal (or some actors!) The system came into its own when we needed to capture a high volume of extras that were used for crowd extensions in the town at the ball and at the wedding.

The animals included a digital Goose who brought comedic opportunities and two CG Blue Birds were used to sew the scenes together as they fly by and work as a device to lead the camera and audience from one setting to another always keeping a watchful eye on Cinderella. The Lizards, which hark back to the original story and were a departure for the 1950’s Disney classic, were based on the English common Lizard who is now very rare. There are also Digital versions of the white horses that transform from mice and in some wider CG shots, a Stag, bees, butterflies and seagulls.

Human Digi doubles were also built for the Coachman, Footman, Cinderella, Palace guards and towns folk used for crowd extensions.

fxg: For the transformations, what was the style chosen for how these would look – such as mice to horseman? Can you talk about the live action shoot for transformations and also the tools used to make them possible?

Henley: Just as things couldn’t get worse for Cinderella, the Fairy godmother explodes onto the screen with magic that would create endless possibilities for our VFX team. Animal Transformations were the biggest VFX task. Branagh wanted to do something fun and magical, far from the generic horror movie style. The transformations also had to have a common thread as well and progression across the scene that would build up to the dress transformation but without over shadowing it. We invested a great deal of time in tests to find the correct balance of fun and action. The biggest problem was that a photo real amalgamation of a horse and mouse can easily look quite frightening, so one task was to find a nice half and half look, the trick turned out to be emphasizing the characteristics our little mice friends had eg making the mice trot happily like little horses.

C-016-13463RsmUltimately however, the solution was different for each character. The Goose and Lizard were led partly from the actor’s performances. The Gooseman was rather surprised to be a coachman. It was decided in post to build up his character throughout the film so we retrofitted the digital goose into a number of earlier scenes to introduce his slapstick character before his big moment as a coachman. Practically during his transformation he starts off as a live action Goose that we take over to digital for the transformation and then back to the real actor on a stunt rig with a digital beak and digital goose legs. A Similar hybrid approach was used for the Lizard to footmen who rather enjoyed their new cloths. Their look was based on a number of classically drawn animatics and concepts developed by MPC’s art department alongside the costume designs. For both of these characters VFX worked closely with costume and make-up to get a harmonized look and design between the lizard and goose men.

Technically it was a real challenge to set-up a workable rig and animate smoothly between 2 different creatures, it was time consuming to run tests and it was a continuous process through pre production, shooting and post.

Building a system with enough flexibility was the biggest challenge that faced MPC’s rigging team. We needed a system that would allow lots of creative freedom when animating the transformation shots. Each character had three rigs. i.e. a horse, a mouse and a transformation rig. The animators could choose to animate the different parts of the character with either the horse or the mouse rig depending on what suited. The horse and mouse rigs were constrained and linked to the third transformation rig, which was used to blend between horse and mouse shapes in various ways.

The rigs calculated scale changes and how various parts of the body were transformed. This information was baked into the geometry cache. MPC’s software team added additional features to Furtility to be able to read this data back from the geometry cache and use it to drive changes in the hair. For example, as the head grew massively in size from mouse to horse, so would the mane grow and the fluffy mouse hair would transition to short horsehair. This data was also used by the shaders to modulate between textures and different shading setups for the different modes of animal.

fxg: The pumpkin to carriage is a key transformation in Cinderalla-lore – can you talk about the discussions with the director as to how ‘magical’ to create it? What were some of the challenges in realizing size differences and finalizing the shots?

Henley: The Carriage transformation was based on the scripted idea that the slightly clumsy Fairy Godmother, on the edge of being out of control, would magic a pumpkin but inadvertently take the greenhouse outwith it. It was a challenge to visualize so we completed a number of conceptual storyboards to be sure we had the right idea and look.

Watch a clip from the film.

Special FX Supervisor David Watkins built practical pumpkins for Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter to interact with including a giant inflatable version we used to approximate the growing pumpkin. This was replaced by a CG version with animating growing vines that presented another challenge to MPC’s rigging team.

The story we wanted to tell was that the magically expanding pumpkin grows and destroys the green house, which in turn breaks down into a cloud of magic dust, which then reforms into our practical carriage which design kept a strong hint of in the pumpkin and greenhouse design. The golden carriage was designed to be made of not only pumpkin but also components of the greenhouse, including the glass, leaves and furniture.

MPC built the digital greenhouse and pumpkin, which the FX team destroyed procedurally with a proprietary destruction tool, Kali. They then ran particle simulations on top of the broken pieces to give the effect that the solid chunks were vaporised into magical golden dust before they materialised to form the frame and shell of the carriage. The practical golden carriage on set had a very ornate and complex design. We built an exact digital replica which our technical animation team stripped apart so they could hand animate the various parts so that it felt like the carriage was assembling in an organic and elegant way.

To further enhance the practical carriage the compositing team at MPC added dancing collide-scopic light effects to the interior using Nuke.

fxg: Can you talk about the transformations for Cinderella’s dress and slippers too – how were these achieved in terms of the shoot and in post?

Henley: The sparkling dust that falls from the fairy godmothers magic wand was a key component of the dress transformation. The brief was for the magic to not look anything like computer simulations. The simulations were designed to follow natural flow patterns, combined with a look inspired by traditional Disney animations of Magic. The magic continuously flows out of the wand ready to create a transformation at any moment. An emitter was tracked to the tip of the wand emitting 5 different mixes of sprites and particles that where then balanced by MPC’s comp team lead by supervisors Rueben Barkataki and Richard Little.


The dress itself was the inspiration for it’s own transformation. It was made from 1000’s of feet of material with lots of layers. Working with MPC’s Art Department we came up with a look and the idea that the magic butterflies would build the dress by laying down magic dust that would fall like petals and then become real material as they enveloped Cinderella.

In order to have a real base for the shot the background was shot with a 40’ techno crane on the exterior set of Cinderella’s house with Lillie doing a stand-in performance as a guide. This was then tracked and fed into a milo motion control camera set-up on the stage with on a repeatable motion control turntable, the dress was so large we had to use a rig designed for cars. We captured Lilly James’s performance with multiple passes for each dress, and multiple layers of dress material that make the Ball gown.

All of the magic dust simulations were based on real world flow patterns that where then blended seamlessly with cloth simulations designed to match the material properties of the real dress. As Cinderella spins the swishing dress was made to influence the particles causing eddies and a graceful natural movement to the magic.

The practical slipper was built of Swarovski crystal and had some practical limitations. They were too precious to be bounced down stairs or thrown around, and built of real glass, not possible to walk in let alone dance. James used stunt shoes for the shoot that were replaced in post.

Ledda directed MPC look dev artist Alexey Mazurenko to work up an impressive physically accurate shader that simulated both the iridescent reflections and the caustic properties of the real shoe. However once Cinderella’s feet were inside, this would limit the complex refractions and the bouncing of light that gave the slipper its beauty. In the end we rendered multiple passes of the slipper, with and without the feet in, as well as a few supporting passes to give the compositing team a consistent ingredients list. The comp team would then selectively use the various passes to get the right look for each shot.

fxg: Can you discuss the amazing palace exteriors and environments? What was built practically, and how were digital models referenced and built? How did you approach lighting for these shots, and what things helped nail the CG work into the scenes?

Henley: Production Designer Dante Ferretti and his team created the vision of the world for the story to take place in. The art department had made practical architectural models of the palace, town and Ella’s house and the layout of the land as well and many concept drawings and blueprints. This was the kickoff point for VFX builds and through post production we consulted architect Inigo Minns to help finalise the design work and detailing of the Palace, ballroom exterior and palace gardens. The CG palace model was very highly detailed but used a lot of instancing to improve times for the renders that were all fully ray-traced.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Period Paintings influenced many of the digital designs for the palace, gardens and landscapes from Fragonard “the swing” to the landscapes of Jakob Hackert. The gardens of Capability Brown served as inspiration for the landscape design.

We worked with the production art department during pre-production to establish the best blend for real set build’s and locations verses miniatures, CG environments, digital set extension and Matte paintings.

MPC’s environment team, supervised by Hubert Zapalowicz, did beautiful work to create this fairy tale world including the Palace gardens, surrounding landscape and sea, interior palace set extensions and the wide countryside views. The Palace, Town and ships were 3G assets built by Clegg’s team. Ella’s house was a partial practical build with a digital first floor and roof and some extra bushes trees and flowers.

Some practical sets were also enhanced in post. Rodeo VFX worked on the rose garden scene and the attic sets to further enhance the atmosphere by adding roses and light beams with dust sparkle. Our in-house team, stationed with editorial in Pinewood studios, worked up the ballroom scene cleaning up practical LED lights that where used to boost the luminosity of the chandeliers, as well as ballroom crowd replication and a variety of other compositing based shots. MPC built CG chandeliers; matte painted the ceiling and added digital guards to finish off the beautiful ballroom set which was built practically at Pinewood studios.

As the clock strikes midnight at the ball the ‘Reverse Transformation’ scene encompassed all of the methods and techniques we employed to build the world as Cinderella races from the Palace to her home before the spell is broken. The sequence used a blend of traditional miniature work, stunts and the latest CG techniques. Branagh, Zambarloukos and I all wanted to ground it in reality and have the tangibility of shooting as much a possible on celluloid.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

The Town set was a partial set build on the Pinewood back lot with Digital set extensions, including rooftops, boats and the portcullis. To extend the town beyond the set, MPC created buildings using photogrammetry derived from an extensive stills shoot of old English towns. The town’s clock tower, bell and bell chimeras were built as a 1/3rd scale functioning practical model build and shot motion-control by Jose Grannel and his team at the Magic Camera company in Shepperton Studio’s. Using a periscope lens to get right inside the mechanism multiple passes were shot and composited together to blend seamlessly with the mix of practical night, Green screen and fully CG shots.

The sea and landscapes surrounding the palace and town were based on helicopter plates shot on the north Devonshire coastline.

We shot the carriage turning back to a pumpkin in the woods of Black Park Buckinghamshire. We had three carriages built practically for a different stage of the transformation. The original was a working practical carriage, which had minor fx enhancements to bring a subtle sense of magic to it, a stunt version that could be driven at speed so we could keep real horses but go fully CG for the transforming Carriage, and finally a practical pumpkin rig that Lily James could burst out of on the final strike of midnight as the magic disappears.

Based on a pass of post-vis, editor Martin Walsh and Branagh, cut the pacing and staging of the transforming moments and MPC’s team built a transformable CG carriage, lizards and horses, then brainstormed fun ways for each to return to their natural state. New technology MPC developed in the simulation of fur and feathers helped bring the goose, horses and mice to life and meant we could cut seamlessly between live action to CG.

Some sections were shot on a Greenscreen stage, for backgrounds plates we shot at locations using a 3 camera stabilized rig. And in addition the black park environment was captured with a HDRI hires 360 camera rig and rebuilt for a number of shots that evolved after the shoot.

fxg: Can you talk also about any virtual cinematography in moving around the palace environments?

Henley: Three days were spent shooting environment plates on the Devonshire coast. Using these plates our post-vis team ARGON run by Jason McDonald, mocked up palace and town establishers based on the plates and offered them up to editorial. In a number of cases we designed a shot based on a real plate but decided to do a digital takeovers or in other cases stitch various plates together.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

The last shot in the film is a huge sweeping reveal, starting on Cinderella and the Prince as they walk onto the balcony. As the camera pulls back we see the palace and the town-folk in the gardens and then finally we follow bluebirds as they fly up to the sky. To achieve this shot we built a practical room with an exterior balcony on the back lot of Pinewood studios. We open the shot using a 100’ technocrane to pull back from a close up on Cinderella and the prince as they walk out onto the small set balcony. From a certain point there is a digital take over that continues as the camera pulls up and away to reveal the palace. At this point we used a projection of the plate for the balcony and couple, and then go full CG for the palace, crowd and environment.

All images and clips © 2015 Walt Disney Pictures.