The visual effects in Mary Poppins Returns are a combination of the latest computer effects techniques, complex practical effects and the hand drawn animated craftsmanship of a bygone age. “We’ve fused them together to make Mary Poppins’ Magic resonate for a 21st century audience,” explains VFX supervisor Matt Johnston (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, World War Z). The approach on the film was to use the latest technology, just as Disney had done for the classic original film in its day in 1964, but to also blend in a modern take on hand drawn animation and old school physical special effects. For example, the parrot on the end of Emily Blunt’s umbrella was built as an animatronic so it could be a practical prop on set.
The film presented numerous visual effects challenges for Johnson. He and his team used a combination of many styles of VFX work and created beautiful effects that look and feel fresh to contemporary audiences. Having worked with Marshall on Into the Woods, he was familiar with his work style. “Rob comes from a background in Broadway and very much likes everything to happen on set in real time with the cast to music, so he can make sure he’s completely happy with every aspect of the performances,” Johnson says. “This meant we had to limit the use of technical toys like digi-doubles, Robo moco and multi-pass photography and come up with ways to achieve much of the effects work while filming live.”
Upon completion of principal photography, visual effects companies Framestore, Cinesite and Luma Pictures got to work, doing everything from digitally erasing any modern structures visible in the background of the London exterior shots to digitally creating period London landscapes and extending Cherry Tree Lane.
Can You Imagine That: Bath
The first time the children get to witness the magic of Mary Poppins is in their bathroom as Mary pulls impossibly large objects from her carpet bag. “We wanted to make sure that both Emily and the camera had total freedom of movement,” explained Johnson, “so rather than the locked off split from 1964 we created a digital bathroom for cleanup. Mary and the children slide into the tub, a specially constructed SFX rig with a hidden slide below, and are taken beneath the Magical Ocean.”
In keeping with Rob Marshall’s desire to shoot as much live on set as possible, this sequence required the children and Emily Blunt to be on wire rigs that slid along an overhead rail and allowed the actors to rotate, pitch and yaw. To help impart an underwater look, the effects team worked with DP, Dion Beebe, to shoot slightly over cranking the camera to 32 fps to give a little more weight to the actors. However, as the audio was sped up to compensate for the frame rate, Blunt had to sing very quickly!
“Also, as we didn’t want the cast to look soaked or have to worry about Mary Poppins drowning when she opens her mouth, a more fantastical approach was taken,” comments Johnston. Digi-doubles were rotomated to match the live action performances which were used to generate movement, adding appropriate bubble trails to help integrate the cast in the underwater world. “It was a fine line between creating something photo-real and something magical: as if seen through a child’s eyes,” he adds. Environments were created focusing on elements that Mary Poppins had tossed into the tub, including a rubber duck and pirate galleon. Shoals of fish are visible utilizing a bespoke flocking system that varied their motion depending on their proximity to the rocky environment.
The children are washed in a swirl of sudsy bubbles created by friendly dolphins and then float up encased in giant CG bubbles. The children were shot in SFX bubble rigs that allowed them to twist and tumble safely. As the bubbles break the surface, they find themselves on an ocean covered in huge mountains of bath foam. Mary sails in onboard the bathtub, an elaborate computer controlled SFX gimbal rig that allowed repeatable motion to be applied to the tub and also the boat containing Admiral Boom and Binnacle.
The foam mounds were a hugely complex CG undertaking. “Each of the millions of bubble spheres needed to accurately reflect and refract its environment. This combined with the motion of the ocean surface and the particle effect foam break up made this effect enormously challenging,” he explains.
Animation Sequence: Music Hall and Chase sequence
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated sequence in this film is Mary Poppins’ return to the “Animated World”. This sequence plays tribute to the classic ‘Jolly Holiday’ sequence from the first film but here combines traditional 2D hand drawn animation with fully digital environments.
When Mary Poppins takes the Banks children on a series of out-of-this-world adventures, director Rob Marshall was very keen to use the traditional style of hand-drawn animation to create these fantasy sequences.
Classic 2D animation is today considered somewhat of a lost art, so this was a unique opportunity for the production to bring a classic art form back to life while paying homage to the first film. Over 70 animators were recruited to design and create the animated live-action sequences, which included some of the top animators in 2D animation from Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, many of whom came out of retirement for the chance to work on a sequel to such a classic Disney title. Working out of Duncan Studio in Pasadena, the animators spent 16 months working to complete all the animation.
Recent advances in technology did offer the filmmakers a chance to blend traditional animation with 3D modern tools and allowed the camera to move all throughout the hand-drawn and digital CG environments.
In the Royal Doulton bowl scenes, all the characters Mary Poppins, Jack and the children interact with are animals. So, life-size standees, including a 20-foot giraffe, were used during filming to give the actors—the children, in particular—a point of reference. Everything the talent came into contact with had to be represented in some manner on the set.
The animated background environments, which were more dynamic with greater depth, were inserted later in post-production.
The Royal Doulton Music Hall sequence consists of Mary Poppins’ two-foot parasol turning into an 800-foot tent that houses a giant, turn-of-the-century vaudeville music hall. The 2D animation was lit in a 3D environment and combined with 3D elements but all shaded to look 2D. The Chase scene used similar CGI techniques to add sinister lighting to the terrifying journey the older children undertake to rescue their brother Georgie. The SFX team created gimbal mounted carriage set pieces. Hand drawn smoke and ember elements were added to each shot enhancing the speed and danger of the frame.
As with the previous screen musicals he has directed, Marshall covered the animated sequences just as he would any film. First, the live action was shot against a green background, with the principal cast interacting with actors and dancers dressed in green suits from head to toe. The Carriage ride environment was made up from traditionally painted artwork, which was then split into layers and projected onto cards in 3D space. This was the modern equivalent of the multi-plane techniques used to impart parallax in traditional 2D Disney animated features. It allowed for a more modern style of photography as any camera move including steadicam could be digitally tracked and split into projection layers.
One of the most fun elements is the traditional 2D hand drawn cartoon characters. The characters were animated with pencil and paper. These line drawings were digitally scanned and then ink and paint color was added to each character in CG. These characters would be composited with the live action green screen photography and animated backgrounds to create the final shots. The costume department, led by Sandy Powell, painted the fabric texture onto each actor’s costume to match the drawn backgrounds.
For the Music Hall and Chase sequence, rather than relying solely on projection, the effects team created actual 3D environments and textured them with drawn artwork. “This allowed us to enhance the lighting of the backgrounds based upon set lighting cues. In the music hall Rob Marshall could ‘light’ the set just as if he was creating a stage show and we were able to quickly respond to his directions about light intensity, color and direction without the need to redraw the background art,” says Johnson. “The traditional techniques were still very much to the fore with literally hundreds of hand animated animal dancers, theatre-goers and the iconic Penguins.”
Cherry Tree Lane, the famous home of the Banks Family, existed only as a partial street set. It consisted of a
section of road, several houses built to their roofline and an initial row of cherry trees behind an iron fence representing the park. The set was surrounded by blue screens. Extensive stills of London buildings were shot for the deep background and road extensions.
A fully digital Houses of Parliament and the surrounding area was used as Jack and the Leeries climbed Big Ben.
An expanded CGI version of Cherry Tree Lane and the Park was used to create the ‘Nowhere to Go but Up’ number at the end of the film. A fully digital representation of London from the air, including the spring fair at the park, provided backgrounds for green screen elements of the cast holding CG balloons dancing amongst the clouds.
Crafting an original musical is challenging for any filmmaker, but Rob Marshall is a classic director who brought a modern sensibility to the film. His background as a choreographer has had a profound impact on his work as a filmmaker, something Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, ACS, ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha, Into the Woods), has observed working with him over the past decade.
Looking to provide a wide-screen movie experience, Beebe chose digital capture over film and shot with Alexa XT and Alexa Mini cameras and Panavision Anamorphic G Series lenses and in 2:4.0 aspect ratio. “Rob is so detail-orientated that the large, high-definition screens became an important part of his ability to direct action, choreography and monitor the details within the frame,” says Beebe.
The filmmakers chose to shoot on locations throughout London to give the film a more grounded sense of realism, so that the wonder, color and fantasy that comes when Mary Poppins arrives, are the perfect departure from the real-world issues taking place at the time. Locations included: St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Cowley Street, Queen Anne’s Gate, the Royal Exchange, Cornhill, Middle Temple and King Charles Street, many of which required detailed set dressing to obscure any modern additions. And each was carefully lit and shot so as to best showcase the city’s true beauty.
Eight soundstages at Shepperton Studios were used to build and house the astounding practical sets for Cherry Tree Lane, Topsy’s Fix-It Shop, Big Ben, the interiors of the Banks home and the enormous abandoned park. Scenes requiring green and blue screens for visual effects were first filmed on J and K Stages with physical set pieces for the cast to interact with, called proxies, which were then replaced with animation in post-production.
Portions of the Spring Fair scene, where the cast floats into the sky with magic balloons (over 600 16-inch balloons filled with helium), were shot both on location and on soundstages with the actors wearing harnesses that could be hoisted upwards via enormous cranes set against backdrops of actual period locations and blue screens.