Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin is easily one of the most delightful films of 2018, and also contains some of the finest fully-CG animated characters you’ll see this year. That work was led by Framestore, which had, of course, sharpened its expertise in integrating CG animated ‘stuffed toy’ characters with live action in the Paddington movies.
Christopher Robin’s production VFX supervisor was Chris Lawrence, and its production animation director was Michael Eames (both hail from Framestore). In addition to Framestore’s 727 shots for the film, Method Studios also came on board to deliver several scenes.
To find out more about how Christopher Robin’s characters came to life, vfxblog sat down with Framestore animation supervisor Arslan Elver in London. Elver shared details on early animation tests, the on-set stuffies used during filming, and some of the specific details infused into characters such as Pooh, Piglet and Tigger.
1. Framestore started animation tests before seeing any concept art
Arslan Elver: We started with Pooh, but at that point we hadn’t seen the designs, the concept art, or anything else yet. The very first test we did was a yellow Pooh Bear in the form of a more classic Disney style. I did the very first tests with our animation director Michael Eames also getting involved. I did animated tests of him trying to climb stairs, but he fails and tumbles down, and he looks at his tummy and then looks around at an empty honey pot.
2. The director didn’t want elbows or knees
One thing immediately our director, Marc Forster, reacted to was that the character had elbows and knees, and he didn’t want them. I didn’t understand at first but then he showed us some concept art which he was very happy with from Michael Kutsche. It was a teddy bear, it was Pooh Bear walking by holding the hand of Christopher Robin, and looking around, but you could tell there was nothing bending or anthropomorphic about it. We went back to the drawing board, and we did new tests to reflect that.
3. Some inspiration for the animation came from a philosophy book
Marc Forster talked to us about a book called The Tao of Pooh. It’s about Taoism philosophy using the Winnie-the-Pooh characters. In the book, it talks about an uncarved block as an idea. The book says Pooh is an uncarved block. He’s not carved as a shape or sculpture. He’s empty. He’s a clean sheet. He doesn’t have any prejudice. He doesn’t have any expectations. He’s just who he is. So we started to dig into those ideas and think about the teddy bear aspect of it.
4. Stuffed toys changed the way the characters would be animated
What happened is, on the set, they made these characters as stuffed toys. They had fully furred ones and then just grey ones with no fur. The stuffies were moved around by actors on set, and then the camera person shot the scene again via muscle memory for a clean plate. The stuffed toys were so interesting to see, and they fell in love with them – Disney and the filmmakers, so they asked us to match our assets to that. The stuffies were so cute, you could put them on a chair and just by rotating the head a little bit you could immediately get some emotion out of it. So that was the kind of behaviour we were trying to find. We’d think, during animation, ‘What kind of head tilt will give that same feeling?’
5. Some interesting animation moments came from those on-set stuffies
With Piglet, say, I immediately picked up on the ears from the stuffies. The fabric around the ears is looser, it has these very nice ear movements on the head turns. And then with Tigger, who is so long, I was holding the stuffie from his head, and because he’s heavy, the rest of his body was hanging down with these very floppy arms. Mike Eames saw it and said, ‘That’s interesting. I wanna play with that idea a little bit.’
6. Framestore’s animators played with the stuffed toys, too
When we got all these toys into Framestore, I called all the animators in and I said to them, ‘Just play with them,’ and we were recording. It’s some of the most stupid video footage ever. If you see these, I mean, just like these 35 year old men playing with plush toys, it’s ridiculous.
7. Pooh doesn’t really blink
Because of this Zen thing about Pooh, the director didn’t want him to blink. Even the eyebrow movements, he wanted to be very minimal. The mouth movements as well. He didn’t want it to be very complex. It was quite tricky because to be able to sell his talking, there’s a bit of jaw movement for sure, but if it’s just that it looks very weird. If you start to put in a lot of movement, it looks very stretchy very quickly, so we had to think, how we can keep it alive? How could we move the corners of the mouth and make some shapes that at least suggest that sound is generated but have enough fall-off on the corners of the mouth so it doesn’t feel like it’s stretching? It’s a very difficult thing to do without stretching.
8. Tigger’s tail: should he jump on it a lot, or not?
I looked at Milt Kahl’s beautiful animation for Tigger when I was doing animation tests, and actually I did something based on that where he was running on four legs and I was thinking, ‘No, Marc’s not gonna go for this.’ But he responded really well. He liked that. He liked the energy of Tigger, but when I made the test with him on his tail, jumping on his tail, and then hopping down and clapping, Marc said, ‘Yeah, it’s very nice, but maybe we’ll only make him do it once or twice in the film.’ But it grew on him. During the production, I find myself getting notes like, ‘Let’s put him on the tail again.’
9. Eeyore went from sad to…still pretty sad
Eeyore was interesting because the very first test he was walking and just sitting on his bum and depressed. We started to do that but people didn’t really respond very well because he was a bit dead, so the note we got back was that we needed to keep him alive but still make him feel very sad. So we kept that same posture of him, but we raised the head up and rotated it up more. I think Marc wanted to see his mouth more because he had such a long muzzle. The other thing was his eyes – because of the fur, the toy is so sweet and cute but as soon as you do a little bit of this pose, the fur covers it so much and the render, it looks like a thin black line almost, so there was a bit of back and forth with that.
10. Getting honey and food onto Pooh was tough
They didn’t do anything on the set but, later on, they did carry out some shoots for the honey, for how it looks on the face with the fur. So if Pooh chucks his face into the pot, we had to work out, what kind of lining of honey comes out and how much is it on it? They used more of the grey stuffies without any fur for all the dirty stuff. There was one beautiful scene where there’s this big cake and they all jump on it, but they didn’t shoot anything for it. What we did was get one of our animators to put his head into it and chomp on it and see how much remained on his face and how the cake breaks up, to help the effects guys. So we sacrificed one of our animators to do that for the effects guys, but at least they got to eat cake.
Christoper Robin is now available on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray.