Who’s the fairest Beast of them all?

For Mirror Mirror, Tarsem Singh’s re-telling of the Snow White fairytale, the director called on Tippett Studio to create the climactic encounter between Snow (Lily Collins), The Prince (Armie Hammer) and a fierce Beast. We talk to visual effects supervisor Matt Jacobs and animation supervisor Will Groebe about the creature work, and we feature a Tippett Studio Beast breakdown. Note: this article contains spoilers.

fxg: What were the design principles and things you really had to hit for the beast?

Matt Jacobs: After Immortals, I talked to Tarsem and found out he was making Mirror Mirror and he set us off with the original concept drawings. It was a creature with a snake body and eagle wings at the time. It was like a Medusa with wings in an old man form. Tarsem’s got a unique visual sense and the people he goes to to create concepts for his pictures are all very unique artists. We thought it was quite an interesting character. As production started going on, they wanted to change the design a little since it was a bit too much like an old man – it had to be more of a creature and less humanoid in the face.

The idea was to keep it along the vein of the original illustrations but change it up to look like a creature that lived in the woods. So it had the snake’s body and then long chicken-wing arms covered in fur in some parts and scales in others. It had kind of a lion’s head mixed with a dog, but big doughy eyes, and antlers. Then the wings themselves were a huge deal – they wanted them to look a little bit ratty from being out in the woods and having to feed on people. So the wings became more weathered.

fxg: Because of its snake-like design, did you have to solve the walk cycle early on?

William Groebe: I did a whole bunch of different tests where he was using more of his hands to walk on the ground. One where he was just pulling his tail behind. We ended up going for a more left-to-right coiled movement, very similar to a cobra. As a cobra raises up on its body, its whole back end is still very firm. It can move forward very fast but keep its head up off the ground. So that is what we ended up going towards in terms of movement and speed.

Jacobs: One reason we did that was that as soon as we saw it lifting itself up and using its hands, it looked like a zombie.

Groebe: That was making it look a bit trudging, like he was having a hard time, but we wanted to make it move very easily through the forest. It’s his home and he’s used to being there. We also had him grabbing trees and rocks a lot to pull himself forward, and his wings flap a little bit. We did a bunch of speed tests, say at 10 miles an hour, 20 miles an hour – then we’d show it to Tarsem and Tom Wood the VFX supe for feedback.

Director Tarsem Singh on the set of Mirror Mirror.
Lily Collins and Armie Hammer in Mirror Mirror.

fxg: That forest environment seemed like an interesting environment to make him move around in.

Groebe: Yeah it was fun – all the tests we did – well, originally there weren’t that many trees in the storyboards and concepts. There was kind of a clearing area that the Beast was going to be in. It was going to be good for shots and seeing the creature clearly, but then when they started building the sets, there were trees everywhere and Matt was calling me from the set saying, ‘Hey, there’s no clearing, so you know.’ Then we started looking at movements we could do where he started using the trees. So the shots include him climbing up and wrapping around the trees with his tail.

Jacobs: A lot of that action really comes from the director. We went out to the set and the trees were all there. In the first part of the scene that was shot, Tarsem was looking at the set thinking, ‘What can I do with this thing?’ He didn’t necessarily want the beast to fly, but he wanted to make some dynamic shots. So he said, ‘It’d be great if the beast could go up in these trees here, and fly to this tree and this tree while Snow White and the Queen are confronting each other.’ Those are really my favorite shots, because part of the Beast is that we don’t reveal everything – we didn’t want to give it away exactly what it was. So if he came straight out of the woods you’d know too much too soon.

fxg: How was the sequence filmed on set?

Jacobs: We started off with storyboards and some animatics/previs. We then shot very close to the previs and just added some extra action. For the interaction between Snow White, the Prince and the Beast, we have our usual stand-ins like a monster stick so people will know the eyelines of the creature. We’ll go through the set and show everyone the action and where they should be looking. One of the more interesting parts was when we had two points of contact – the head of the beast and the tail – both fighting Snow White and the Prince at the same time. That choreography required a lot of work between us and the fight choreographer Jean Frenette.

We would have the head and tail fighting in synchronicity but not going over each other’s performance. So when the head was going after Snow White, the tail was not engaging the Prince as much. The two guys on set wore greenscreen material and had props for the head and tail. There was a lot of attention paid to timing and pacing and making sure we didn’t back ourselves into a corner later on. And then Lily and Armie were great in adapting to this kind of shooting as well.

And then one of the more technically challenging parts of shooting it was when the Prince jumps up on the Beast’s back. We had a man-powered hydraulic rig that Armie could ride on top of for wide shots of the Beast swinging back and forth and trying to buck him off. Then there was another rig we built that incorporated a stunt double in a green lycra suit, but it was more like a Lazy Susan with a rotating base. It had a rig on there that acted like horns because the Prince reaches over, grabs the horns and yanks his head back. So that was a rig that was specifically built that would get tight performances.

It takes a lot of co-ordination and measurement with other departments like special effects. For example, the Beast needs to be the right number of feet off the ground so that when he swings around his feet don’t go through the creature. Or when he grabs the horns he needs to grab the right amount of distance and pull back far enough so that when we put the Beast’s head in the shot these things line up.

Watch a short time lapse clip of how production constructed the forest set.

fxg: How did you approach the fur and wings?

Jacobs: We have our tool called Furator which we use to do all the grooming. It’s a node-based system for changing lengths, creating the ‘scraggle’ of the hair and all aspects of grooming. The interesting thing about this character was that there were so many disparate parts of the creature – the wings looked different from the body, and the hands, and the face, have different characteristics. It was addressed by different artists in our crew, each working on the groom simultaneously.

fxg: Around his face there’s a real matted bunch of hair in particular.

Groebe: We wanted to make sure he looked old, and not too groomed. Tarsem would give us feedback and say, ‘You know what, he looks a little too perfect here, can we add some tufts here to break the fur up.’ It’s always fun to do that because it breaks up the ‘computer’ look that can be a little too perfect.

Jacobs: We almost had to make him look like he had been rolling around in dead villagers. But actually it was also like adding in a back story for him.

Groebe: Yeah, and we added little scrapes and scars around his muzzle and eyes to show how he’s had to push through branches and bushes in the forest. They’re hardly noticeable in the final product but I think if they weren’t there everything would feel too perfect.

The Beast. Click to enlarge.

fxg: On Immortals, you’d recently integrated area lights into the pipeline – was that used here as well?

Jacobs: Yes, it’s now part of our fur pipeline too. And for that work where you don’t have a high keylight – you’ve basically got a lot of softboxes up above coming down and creating soft shadows. Area lights are a real bonus to get that soft diffuse lighting look. At the same time, we still use a lot of tricks to add ‘movie’ lighting to it. It’s got to look cool at the end of the day. And when a DP is lighting a shot, he’ll add face bounces, rim lights, highlights, kicks and things like that – so we play off those tricks too. There’s a cinematic approach to lighting that we definitely keep in the back of our mind to make the picture punch more.

Actually, one of my favorite shots is when Snow White is about to cut the medallion off – and realizes the Beast is her father – and the Beast is over her. It’s a side shot and we added really strong rim lights and let the light pour through the fur. It all scatters through the fur and looks beautiful. Is that necessarily what the lighting was doing on set? No. But did it look really great? Yes. You make creative decisions because it works for the shot.

fxg: What about the final transformation – what were the effects you used there?

Jacobs: We worked heavily in our effects department to create multiple elements – it vortexes into a double-helix type of effect. It wasn’t meant to look like fire because actually during the entire production the idea was not to make it so intense that it would scare kids – it just had to be cool-looking. It’s a magical tornado that goes around him. We used Houdini to create the effects. There’s also snow pouring off the ground. Our compers also would add warps to the plates and flares. Then one aspect Tom Wood added was that the plate would become so blown out, as if the negative itself had strange anomalies happening to it and so tweaking the neg out at a photochemical level. We shot a lot of lens flares and used those in comp too. Again it was taking the perfection off it and pushing it.

Groebe: It was really fun – all of our effects artists took a crack at the transformation shots and we got some crazy renders. One looked like clouds, another where the Beast looked like a giant chameleon. It ended up being a combination of effects, comp and animation, but we really ran the gamut there for a while before doing the final shot.

All images and clips copyright © 2012 Relativity Media.

4 thoughts on “Who’s the fairest Beast of them all?”

  1. Kristijan Mrsic

    I agree its one of the best breakdowns. I especially love the first part with render passes.

  2. Great Article…! Have to say it’s truly inspiring work, it’s great to hear the workflow and thought process of getting the behaviour of the beast in its environment!

    Does anybody have any advice for getting into character td type work.. like what to include on a junior reel if wanting to specialise in this?.. Any good training resources for things like fur, rigging, skin, muscle?! I have skills in modelling/sculpting characters but I really want to get into the technical side of character work. Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Who’s The Fairest Beast of them All? | Tippett

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