Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a major, major hit. The film has won over audiences by staying true to the classic Disney tale but also bringing something new to the world.
Helping to make the ‘live action’ film possible was, of course, an incredible amount of visual effects work, including the household characters. These were CG creations brought to life by Framestore, overseen by visual effects supervisor Kyle McCulloch. I had the pleasure of exploring how the characters were made with Framestore’s animation supervisor Dale Newton and CG supervisor Neil Weatherley. This lengthy discussion is aimed at giving a glimpse into just how much work went into the characters.
vfxblog: Where do you start with a major character animation project like this?
Dale Newton: Each of the characters had their own particular sort of challenges in a way. We started off with some designs. Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, she’d already gone through quite a process in terms of evolving some of the look of the characters, in particular with Cogsworth and Lumière. There was a very distinct Baroque or Rococo, ornate sort of impetus behind the way that they looked.
They would have to stand up as ornaments in the environment in a convincing way. And in a sense that left us with quite a challenge with some of those designs fairly established to try and work out how to put the characters in, in a way. A lot of the details such as the faces and the mechanics of how they were to work were left quite open. We had to climb in and try and respect the designs that Sarah had created to find ways of making these characters come to life both mechanically and dramatically.
vfxblog: Tell me about Cogsworth, the mantel clock.
Dale Newton: So obviously one of the things with all of the characters was just locomotion. So we began studying how they might walk. Cogsworth has got a very interesting anatomical layout. He’s got two sideways pointing rear feet and two forty-five degree angle forefeet, and he was somewhat of a strange mix between a quadruped and a biped. And so we had to play with how to get his legs, being very small, to get the maximum mileage out of him. Malleability was something we came up against all the time, so we’d come back to that in all of the conversations. But the rhythm of his walks, the rhythm of how he runs, I think these are things we had to study and come up with some interesting ways and convincing ways, ways that you feel like he’s just walking along. And ultimately what we ended up with was a fairly bipedal, if slightly offset, between the front and rear legs.
In terms of expressions we had to go to a phase of what you call prototype rigging in animation where we played with a variety of clockwork mechanisms and shapes within his face to work out what level to take his expressions to. Obviously being the fact that he’s made of brass, it is brass isn’t it Neil?
Neil Weatherley: Yeah.
Dale Newton: He’s got a brassy look anyway.
Neil Weatherley: Brass wood.
Dale Newton: Being that he’s metal it wasn’t gonna be convincing that obviously things bounce around too much, but we had to give him life. So, for instance his eyes, we played with the idea that they bend around slightly but they’ve got eyelid shutters slightly behind him. The same is for his mouth, I think his mouth is the most bending and deforming thing in his facial structure. We gave him a set of sliding teeth as well as a set of side sliding shutters which could be used to help him to smile. I think making Cogsworth smile with his sort of, in his design he’s got this very sort of downcast look with the corner of his mouth, and so wrangling a smile out of him was quite a challenge actually, but, you know, I think it’s a good part of his character because he’s actually just so dry. I think working with him, Ian McKellen as a voice to start off with just provided us with a wonderful place because he as such a dry delivery a lot of the time. He sometimes doesn’t even know when he’s being funny. That’s the character as he presents it in the film. So you could sort of play with those quirks and dryness.
His hands and his arms, he has these handles that you would use to move the clock around and they became his arms. We went through quite a long stage of experimenting with sort of trying to anthropomorphisize the structure, trying to make a readable elbow and a hand with a palm, but ultimately whenever we tried to push it in that way it became weird and ultimately we ended up sticking with a style of rigging and a style of animation that ultimately kept his form, his baroque bits all the way they’re designed, and left the challenges of trying to emote up to the animator. So we sometimes used his hands in different ways to express and create sort of a good staging for whatever he’s expressing in a particular shot.
In terms of squash and stretch we allowed ourselves to play with a larger amount of, to push the character shape a little bit more where there was faster action. And this was a general rule across all of the characters actually, whereas when the shot is a lot slower we found that the threshold for that sort of rubberiness just became too much. I think to create convincing CG shots of one of these guys, the look of metal that doesn’t behave like metal was very distracting, and ultimately it was something we had to play with on every single one of them.
vfxblog: Was it a similar case for Lumière? What different challenges did the candlestick have?
Dale Newton: One of the first challenges we had was a bit of a design job on his face, which we approached from a few different angles. The design that we started off with was quite not anthropomorphic. If you were to look at it very quickly you wouldn’t be able to recognize eyes or a nose or a mouth. It was quite abstract. Which, you know, that’s what a lot of baroque ornament looks like. So we had to work within this brief of trying to find a design for his face that felt recognizable and would work. Because he’s made totally of metal with a uniform kind of patina the trouble was that we were gonna lose his eyes or his mouth very, very quickly. And so we had to try and simplify, try to have clean enough lines that we could get a quick read. And so we settled on -it’s quite a stark and simplified look. I think even then he’s not the most expressive character. He does a lot of performance with his body, and I think a lot of his performance dramatically comes from his more physical performance.
Having a lot of dance numbers in the film there was a lot of discussion between Bill Condon and Anthony Van Laast, who’s the choreographer, about what sort of character he is as a dancer. And that fed into a little bit about what the character was as a person where he’s playing himself in a shot, there was always this thread of humanness which came into his facial design. We tried to study Ewan and his smile – he has this golden smile. You know, his eyes, there were little quirks of how his face seems to work when he smiles and he laughs. We did quite a lot of looking at that. There was an interview where he was talking about Beauty and the Beast one night, which we recorded, the Graham Norton one, and he talked about his experience doing the little shoot that they did for Beauty and the Beast very early on last year, which also fed into, ultimately he was more of a Maurice Chevalier kind of character.
So, in terms of some of the actual mechanical issues that he had for his hands. Obviously they came around because of their being candlesticks. They had a lot of interesting solutions in the first movie. To be quite honest, we watched it a few times but I don’t think we ever watched the first movie in any way to try to model what we were doing. I think Bill Condon and the Disney execs had already done that, you know, this film being very, very much based on that. But we found our own solutions for how he had to handle things, having to pick up a plate of caviar or the napkins. We had to come up with certain configurations of the candle where sometimes we think of the candle in the middle as being his palm or his hand and other times we think of it as being his thumb. And this varied from shot to shot and ultimately it was up to the animator to try and come up with a convincing solution for these things.
vfxblog: What about Mrs. Potts and Chip? Obviously they were very different, but how did you approach the animation there?
Dale Newton: [Our colleagues at Framestore had] explored the notion of Chip being a very high energy little boy, barely able to control his energy using his saucer like a little surfboard or a skateboard, and that’s what that test explored. And I just think that worked incredibly well. And we continued with that. I mean obviously wherever we had Chip in the shot we tried to do creative things with his surfboard. In a way, you know, you think about a tea pot which had these little legs on it which really do not deform, and we didn’t really allow the animators to squash and stretch things too much, and Chip is sort of the same. You really got to the very core elements and I think it really becomes an animation challenge to make that convincing. You’re really not left with a heck of a lot which actually is a very nice animation challenge, it’s a very nice place to be.
Neil Weatherley: Chip was nice and rigid.
Dale Newton: Yeah, and he had his face, he only had his face. But the fact that you had two things, that you could ricochet his one thing off of the other thing and spin it around, the guys did a very good job. I think parts of his face probably had some intrinsic challenges in it, being another case of one of those things where you design something that worked on a baroque level, but ultimately I think required some more work to be convincing to build.
For Mrs. Potts, I think Bill Condon particularly had this idea of her being a soft character. That suited her voice. And I think there was a lot of the Occam’s Razor, I don’t know if you know that expression, where you just gradually pull things away until you strip the thing bare so you’ve got the least lines. And it took a good many months.
Neil Weatherley: She was the last character to get finished.
Dale Newton: Yeah, to find her. And yes she obviously had her own animation challenges. I think I love the way that some of the guys approached her in the Be Our Guest sequence. I think in a way we were allowed more flexibility with her because obviously when you’re dancing, or when you move the characters with high impact you’re able to squash and stretch a little. Even though you don’t feel the squash and the stretch it’s still there and sort of helps manoeuvre into sort of be fluid and come to life.
vfxblog: Neil, could you tell me a bit about some of the material qualities of these characters and the lighting challenges?
Neil Weatherley: Well it’s a similar thing to the animation, especially Chips and Potts, they are a very solid porcelain material so you don’t have that malleability to kind of move them around, but you’ve also got this kind of translucency from the porcelain as well as the cracked surface, and then you’ve got this face moving over the top which – Bill didn’t want things moving over surfaces because it would look cartoony. So there’s that challenge of making all the bits of the characters look real but allowing them to move around a bit. And especially Lumière. The big problem with his facial features…
Dale Newton: Like where the patina ends.
Neil Weatherley: Yeah, how much dirt you put onto Lumière’s face is a big thing because you wanted him to look aged and look like he’d been a candlestick in a dusty castle for years, but you couldn’t hide his quite minimalist features too much. And there’s also his eyes and his mouth they are just stuck on to his paint body, but there was all this talk about should they be actually underneath his surface and moving around? But that gave a kind of a very soft worm-like feel.
Dale Newton: Creepy.
Neil Weatherley: Yeah, kind of a creepy feel. So it was hard to balance that feeling that these characters had been sitting in this castle for years without doing much to then suddenly they’ve gotta be this all-singing, all-dancing characters that look appealing. And let’s be honest they’ve gotta be marketed and made into toys…
Dale Newton: Appeal is a huge thing, actually. I mean, I think working out pleasing designs that felt they communicated and expressed was, you know, it’s not a word we use but it’s sort of the area we worked in.
Neil Weatherley: I actually ended up going to Vienna on holiday just while we were finishing off Lumière, and I took all this reference for the crockery and cutlery and bits of furniture from the royal palaces.
Dale Newton: Neil and his crockery holiday.
Neil Weatherley: I was just taking hundreds of photos of the most boring stuff [laughs]. But it was really useful because you see all the dirt that gets stuck in the corners. But then also you see dirt in the corners of something like Lumière, but then everything’s gotta move. So do you move the dirt with the features or do you leave the dirt under the features? That was quite a big challenge. Because, you know, you get this sort of black grime in, you’d get it under the eyes and things like that. But then obviously when the eyes had to move and animate do you reveal grime underneath? Which then gave them these black eyes which was slightly terrifying.
Dale Newton: So some things we did actually hide, and it was all about thresholds working out what read well. What read well in a wide as opposed to what read well in a close-up were two different things as well.
Neil Weatherley: Lumière was this sort of brass shiny candlestick, then Coggs obviously had his wood body and all the sort of intricate detail on his chest. Then they had Plumette which was ivory and her big tail, feather tail, and then Potts and Chip who were mostly porcelain. So each one was a completely different approach.
vfxblog: I am curious about things that were done on set when there was interaction with the characters and say Belle, or with other objects. What things were done during filming to enable these CG characters to be done?
Dale Newton: Previs was the order of the day and it allowed planning to be done per shot. We got footage back with eyeline markers, so obviously there were markers that were timed and rehearsed, and ultimately that’s how we established the eyelines. Which didn’t always work, you know. Obviously they don’t like to rehearse things too much. That counts as a good performance sometimes, so every now and then we do have to work with the eyeline we receive in a way if that’s the chosen performance and the chosen shot it.
Neil Weatherley: For Lumière they had a marionette or a puppet.
Dale Newton: When Belle held him there was a little thing where she held him while she crossed to her bedroom.
Neil Weatherley: When he first meets Belle and falls off the handle they had a little puppet on strings that they had to sort of throw around which gave us some cues.
Dale Newton: They were also experimenting with lighting and they had a little mannequin with flickering lights in its extremities, thinking it might sort of help to illuminate the scene.
Neil Weatherley: Because obviously Lumière at any scene is gonna cast his own lights, which makes a difference to shot especially when you’re in tight with him. So I think Bill maybe wanted to see how it was gonna affect it.
Neil Weatherley: I think obviously the Beast is a completely different story.
Dale Newton: Yeah, I mean, I think what they had to put him through with his, being on stilts and what have you, I mean that was kind of interesting. Had they not done his eyelines, because a lot of the shots we did were shared with Digital Domain, there was a sequence where the Beast is knocking on Belle’s door trying to push his inner id and be a reasonable man, and then sort of roars at the household objects, and obviously we did the household guys and DD did the Beast. And working up together whilst our respective aligned positions changed was interesting. But I think that went quite well actually.
vfxblog: Let’s talk about the Be My Guest sequence, and I want to ask about the stage lighting approach to it, which obviously echoes the animated feature. How challenging that was to choreograph but also deal with the changing lighting conditions?
Dale Newton: I think Disney really put all of its eggs into one basket on this one. I think they really got the best lighting designers, the best choreographers. When I came on board they’d gone through a process whereby they had managed to get hold of Ewan McGregor for 24 hours, and threw him the song, strapped him up in a light ball suit, and so he did all the dance moves, and they recorded that as the underpinning for the previs for the Be Our Guest. And in a sense that was kind of where Bill was coming from. He didn’t want Lumière to feel like a dancer, and so it was kind of casual. And I think that sort of still carried forwards into what we did. So they did the work with Ewan and that went into the previs with Third Floor, and that was basically where they started to shoot.
And that’s where we started. Anthony Van Laast, the choreographer, he wanted to come in and finesse the choreography, so he hired some of the talent that he knows around town. And we hired a space, I think it was at Pinewood, and he re-choreographed, so just getting some of the details right about how each of the particular moments worked. And so we took that away and did our first sort of block layout of some of the key moments. We brought Anthony back in, obviously with Bill Condon as well, because it’s just interesting to see how Bill and Anthony work. I mean Anthony is a complete professional, it’s just lovely to see how he’s just so gracious and he brings so much to the table. He just listens to what Bill is after and continually trying to adapt to find the thing that Bill wanted.
Anyway, quite interesting just going through various dancers because Bill didn’t necessarily respond to the more academically trained LA dancers, and we found because reference being such an important thing, especially with choreography, Anthony had this thing about Bob Fosse and his work. And just going back and re-watching things like Cabaret and My Sweet Charity, I think myself and the VFX supervisors, I don’t know if Neil did, but the animation team, we all fell in love with these movies again. There was just this shrouded sort of what we were all working or thinking about. And some of the particular flavor of movement that Bob Fosse came up with each had a sort of a special home in specific shots.
Neil Weatherley: Especially if there was certain dances that he thought worked on certain bits better than others, so there’d be specific names he’d be like oh you should use…
Dale Newton: Don’t use this one, she’s a ballet dancer, but use the rugby player.
Neil Weatherley: Ya, he never wanted dances to look like it was a professional…
Dale Newton: Well choreographed…
Neil Weatherley: Yeah.
Dale Newton: And I think anybody who knows their musicals will be able to look there and say, ‘Oh that’s from Singing in the Rain.’
Neil Weatherley: Which is an intentional thing.
Dale Newton: Totally intentional.
vfxblog: How did you then approach lighting the sequence?
Neil Weatherley: They had a lighting designer, Peggy Eisenhauer, who kind of sketched out the design for the whole sequence. But then it was mainly driven by the dance and the music and the choreography. And so we had good reference for a lot of it, but it was done a lot of it on the fly as the animation came in, and again each little section had its own lighting scheme and cues to what we should base it on. Which is quite unusual for us, we had to do a lot of animated lights and then we gave compositors a lot of freedom to sort of move things post render so we didn’t have to keep going back and re-render if lighting cues changed.
And each section had a look so by the end when the characters are diving into the pool it’s all very purple and pink, and then when Potts is in the kitchen it was all warm lighting. And then quite a lot of the times some of the shots had to go full CG because just the lighting that they shot in the day didn’t work. So a lot of the kitchen stuff, and Potts is coming down the table, those went from plates to just being full CG. So it was choreographed at the same time as the animation. I don’t think animation were involved in any lights at all, it was all the lighting team.
And then the characters themselves, how they affected the lighting. So the shot with Lumière walking on the table casting a shadow, and when he wraps the table off the rounding we could use his hand lights to sort of give that warmth against the burnt tablecloth. So it was all a very choreographed sequence, but we had reference in the set where they’d move things around. And sometimes we had to project lights onto the set as well. We had to re-light a couple of the shots to fit in. If a shot moved around a bit then obviously you’d have to change the timing of the lighting based on that. So it was an unusual challenge for lighting, more akin to the animation I think.
Dale Newton: It wasn’t entirely lighting, we got all the effects at the end with the explosions going off and all the confetti, and all those had to be timed to the music, and so it was really, when I first came on they showed me it and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it seemed like insurmountable.
Neil Weatherley: It’s really nice to have been on such a classy number actually.
Dale Newton: And then Bill actually added the pause at the end of Be Our Guest there’s a black pause, a black screen, and he added it…
Neil Weatherley: Some people cheer.
Dale Newton: That sequence is going to get the cheer.
Neil Weatherley: Or just to breathe.
Dale Newton: Yeah. I saw one screening, which was a cast and crew, but sure enough everybody cheered which is great. Doesn’t happen often, especially in England.
vfxblog: One character we haven’t talked about yet is Plumette, how did you approach her?
Dale Newton: And just from a motion point of view she was very interesting to sort of think about how she moved. And actually we struggled quite a lot, I’ll be honest, with finding her and finding her particular way of locomoting around. Ultimately she was a feather duster, and I think the thing that she looks like, as if she’s feather dusting. You know, so although we tried to use her wing is in some kinda way they ultimately ended up being expressive, and she just wriggled her bottom around, you know? Doing a bit of a wriggle here, a bit of a wriggle there, and you know the key notes on sort of finishing being grace.
Neil Weatherley: She was hard to settle anywhere as well, because she obviously can’t stand or sit. So she always had to be kind of floating or leaning. It’s just the logic of how is she locomoting, you know? Because they didn’t want her tail to drive her movements so she couldn’t feel like it was flapping.
Dale Newton: Well it doesn’t, but I think as long as there was a sort of a slight grace and a slight, you know, gratuitous movement is what we call it.
vfxblog: What about Madame de Garderobe – it must have been a little tricky making her animatable?
Neil Weatherley: The big thing with her was she had to sing and talk…
Dale Newton: Convincingly.
Neil Weatherley: We had to kind of lip sync curtains moving.
Dale Newton: I think the design of her first of all was the first major impasse because of needing to communicate with eyes and a mouth, and I think Bill was very precise that she is a, you know, a dramatic set of curtains with a proscenium. And you know that’s what we had to play with, and I think we were playing a lot with anthropomorphasization which ultimately we veered away from, and it became a very conceptual thing with moving curtains, and it sort of worked.
Neil Weatherley: And a carefully placed drop shadow to give her a lot of mouth.
Dale Newton: A lot of comp work I think.
vfxblog: Any final thoughts on the work?
Dale Newton: I think one of the things that I always have lots of fun with is working with the animation team. I think there’s a lot of people that have so much enthusiasm for coming up with performances. We didn’t necessarily have, for a lot of the performances, we didn’t necessarily have great actor reference, which is something we always strive to do. You know, we always try and get the director to be thinking about trying to evolve the performance before things come to us as a way of sort of being really certain about the thing that we’re trying to achieve. But we had a really great team, and a lot of people sort of worked really well. We had one animator who just was Lumière, and so whenever we needed a shot, or thought, ‘what would Lumière do in this particular situation?’, well, we had to extract him from his shot and…
Neil Weatherley: …Get him in front of a camera.
Dale Newton: Stick him in front of a camera and perform!
vfxblog: How did things work between Framestore’s UK and Canadian studios on the show?
Dale Newtown: The show was split 60/40 between London and Montreal. Both offices were involved with character development, London taking the trickier and more involved development characters – Lumiere, Cogsworth, Plumette and Garderobe, whilst Montreal took the equally challenging and no less interesting Mrs Potts, Chip, Chapeau, Cuisinere, Cadenza and Frou frou. We tried to split the sequences up so as each site had more shots featuring their characters, but ultimately we each worked with each others characters. My colleague and fellow animation supervisor Spencer Cook in Montreal and I worked together to refine and push the character rigs in a way that worked for all sequences together.
Based on the seniority and experience of the relevant teams at the outset of production, we based the choreography based shots and those requiring a particular emphasis on dramatic performance in London with still a good smattering of these and more action based shots – particularly the Castle Attack sequences at the end of the film, in the Montreal office. Our Canadian cohorts did some beautiful work across all disciplines – and some lovely performances of Mrs Potts from animation being my favourites – and as a team are growing from strength to strength.