"Framestore has surpassed all our expectations and dreams in bringing such humanity, emotion and humour to Paddington." David Heyman, Producer, Paddington
“Please look after this bear. Thank you.” Those are the words written on the note attached to Paddington’s coat as he sits forlornly in the station. They are also the words we bore in mind when StudioCanal, Heyday Films and director Paul King gave us the opportunity to recreate the famous bear for his big screen debut. Beginning in 2012, a 350-strong team spread across Framestore’s London and Montreal studios delivered 760 final shots for Paddington, 570 of which feature the marmalade-obsessed bear.
And it’s not just Paddington, there’s also a CG supporting cast including his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo, a dog and a flock of bothersome pigeons.
“You don’t really think about the fact that you’re creating a lead character at the time,” says Animation Supervisor Pablo Grillo. “You think wow, what a great potential to do some really lovely work and work with some wonderful filmmakers. That’s the hook. It’s only when you reach the end and it takes shape that you realise quite what a big thing it is.”
“It was challenging taking on such an iconic character,” adds Andy Kind, Framestore’s VFX Supervisor on the film. “From the Peggy Fortnum illustrations to the 1970s BBC series, there are a lot of looks for Paddington, and everyone has their favourite, so we spent a lot of time on the design before we found something that hit the mark.”
Some early concept sketches
“It's a massive achievement for Framestore multi-site production,” says Montreal VFX Supervisor Christian Kaestner. “You can't tell the difference between the sequences, which was done earlier or finished last, or which was done in London or in Montreal. If I had to choose a Montreal sequence, it would be on the platform when Paddington meets the Browns. It's a remarkably beautiful sequence that wasn’t just a great animation challenge, but also where you bond with Paddington as you feel his desperate situation.”
Paul King discusses the love behind making Paddington stick his head down the toilet
The film was shot at Elstree Studios and on location in London and Costa Rica, which doubles for Peru, with Framestore’s Tim Webber working as second unit director. “We shot at a very high altitude in the Costa Rican jungle,” says Pablo, who made the trip out to Costa Rica with Tim. “To travel from one site to another we were sending the crew and camera gear on zip wires over the canopy in order to reach the next set before the sun went down. It was quite an adventure.”
The beautiful jungle footage gives way to London, “It’s kind of a love letter to the city,” says Andy. “It’s London in all its beauty and grittiness. It’s always raining, in contrast to sunny Peru, which lends a huge amount to the mood and the visuals.”
While filming was taking place, the VFX team back at Framestore were hard at work perfecting the look of Paddington. “There was a lot of responsibility finding a photo-realistic design for a bear that people have so clear in their minds,” says Pablo. “We were keen to bring him into the real world so he would sit into the live action and, we hope, people will connect with him. Being anatomically correct meant we needed more detail compared with the simplicity of the original designs, which often had just two dots for eyes. We had to think about things like his wet nose, teeth and muzzle but still make sure that what we created carried that simple essence of the original Paddington.”
Concept art - Paddington in profile
King briefed the animation team on who Paddington was before they started work, focussing on every nuance of his personality. In the stop-motion TV series he would often remain quite still, before doing something that took you by surprise, and there’s still a little bit of the old style in this new bear. “We tried to maintain that spirit in the way we crafted the performance. We didn’t put in too much and instead let things sit and rest. It’s very much in the style of the filmmaking – there’s no excess, it’s all very classic storytelling,” says Pablo.
One of those quiet moments
“The hope was that rather than filling every moment with movement and unnecessary detail, you could just run a little wind through the fur to keep him alive and really hold some quiet moments,” Pablo continues. “In contrast we have his reactions to some of the more silly situations – to water, to marmalade, and the various conditions he’s put in. A lot of the humour of Paddington is watching him being put through the ringer.”
His appetite for accidental destruction results in long moments of physical comedy, which were choreographed with performer Javier Marzan. “He causes mayhem because he touches everything, and everything he touches, we had to build in 3D,” says Andy. “He gets wet an awful lot – in the rain, in the shower, in the toilet. Those sequences were the most complex tasks in terms of visual effects and there were a number of them.”
Fur and water are difficult things to create individually, so combining them multiplied the challenge. With the elements simulated using different propriety solvers (fLush for water and fDynamo for fur) that had never needed to speak to each other before, a whole new workflow had to be developed to allow interaction between the two.
The FX team would begin the process with a water simulation on top of a hairless Paddington model, which created a wet map, showing in black and white where Paddington comes into contact with water. This was the passed to the Creature Effects (CFX) team who used it to drive the fur, making sure that in wet areas it was made to fall and clump a lot more. As soon as the dynamic for the fur was done it was passed back to FX for them to place droplets into the fur and the water dripping from it. The look would then be perfected in Lighting and Comp, who would add extra droplets at key moments in 2D.
There was a lot of fine-tuning to be done of course, as CFX Supervisor Juan-Luis Sanchez explains “The first issue was what does Paddington look like wet? We did it as it would technically happen at first, but then you lost some of what was Paddington, especially around his eyes, so we had to go back and recover his character. We blended between two or three different versions of his fur, which ranged from dry to soaked, depending on where he was getting wet. The important thing was to hit that balance between realism, the character and the comedy.”
The wet look
Of course all this water results in the classic animal in a bathtub moment as Paddington shakes himself dry in two ultra-detailed slow-motion shots. “We really had fun with it and played up the comedy of his jowls shaking and the water flying off,” says Juan-Luis. “We added something extra with an fLab simulation (Framestore’s in-house fat solver) to give the ears that extra level of flap you see.”
Key to selling the shot was getting a genuine reaction from the kids. “It wasn’t a high tech solution,” says Composting Supervisor Anthony Smith. “We got a broom handle about the height of Paddington with mop-heads fixed to it all the way up. We put it in the bath, soaked it and spun it around, so we had real water hitting real kids and a real reaction. In the comp later it meant we had to remove this spinning mop-head contraption we had built, but it was the best way to do it.”
Our high-tech solution to the bathroom scene
A shot of Paddington licking Judy Brown’s face was accomplished in a similar way, with Pablo creeping on set to delicately wipe a paintbrush the size and shape of Paddington’s tongue across her face, leaving the perfect, slobber-like mark. The approach meant we had deal with the consequences of having to remove the paintbrush, but it avoided intensive facial tracks and simulations of the liquid running down her face.
After Paddington shakes much of the water off, the Brown children use hairdryers to finish the job, which required careful placement of Paddington to make sure they were aiming in the right place and some tweaks to the groom the make his fur longer so it would show the effect of the hot air more obviously. The end result is pure comedy, as Paddington is turned into a three foot fur-ball. “It was just one of those crazy shots where we had to push it a bit further,” says CG Supervisor Ben Loch. “We didn’t even go through our normal pipeline for that and simulated every single hair, so that was an extremely heavy sim.”
Marmalade, which we see oozing over fur, provided another new challenge. “It was the first time we had done something that viscous with our fLush solver, so it was quite challenging from an FX point of view. We had done zero gravity water, but it’s not the same. It’s a long shot and the camera is locked-off, so you have time to see every detail. You really see the fur get wet and become shinier gradually as the marmalade leaks down. It was one of our biggest renders but the final shot looks really, really cool,” says CG Supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot.
Paddington effortlessly rips an orange in two while making marmalade in another super close-up. Needing plenty of interaction between his paws and the skin it was decided that the outside should be CG, but the interior is based on live action footage we shot as we attempting to rip oranges in two in our capture lab (it is considerably harder to do without bear claws). A combination of that footage and still frames were put together delicately in Nuke, then finished off with FX juice and spray.
One of Paddington’s most complex scrapes sees him get on the wrong side of a reel of Sellotape. “The tape was complicated because it’s not a manoeuvre you could easily map out, it had to be constructed carefully through a process of animation. On top of that we were dealing with a very complex effects scenario in having to simulate the Sellotape reeling out and wrapping around him. It was certainly a very difficult sequence to accomplish,” explains Pablo.
Creating the look of Sellotape is relatively easy, but its interaction with Paddington’s fur, coat and hat made it difficult. The tape had to have folds, snag on the fur, pull on the coat and wrap around his face, restricting his movement while still allowing for the animation we wanted. “It’s an 848 frame physical gag that was both technically challenging and needed to convey the little bear’s struggle with his new environment – and the last shot in the film to be completed!” concludes Andy.
The introduction of Paddington’s famous blue duffle coat was another big VFX challenge, requiring an invisible transition from live action to CG coat as it is swept around Paddington’s shoulders by Mrs Bird (Julie Walters).
“We knew this would be a big shot, so watching Julie on set was bit nail-biting knowing that just a few seconds of her movement would determine the difficulty level of what had to be done,” says Anthony. “We could have had a stand-in to receive the coat, but we decided to use an eye-line stick to prevent obscuring Julie, to prevent lots of reconstruction in post. The eye-line stick gave Julie a good reference for Paddington’s position and height and fortunately she did a great job of wrapping the coat over the imaginary shoulders.”
The process of transitioning the live action coat into a CG version that wraps around Paddington was a real collaboration between departments. “The moment Paddington starts to interact with the coat it had to move in a way other than just dangling as it did on set,” adds Anthony. “So we tracked some key parts of the coat – the section Julie was holding and the fabric between her hands, along with the front sections of the jacket. We determined we could keep these live action for as long as possible and use them to help reveal the CG coat exterior as they closed around Paddington, all of the other parts we would simulate with nCloth.”
“As Paddington puts his arms through the sleeves all parts of the coat that would be influenced by that interaction are simulated. We began the composite with a first pass at this and fed back to CFX on where the transitions, which happen in stages on different parts of the coat, were working, where they could be improved, and where we could assist in comp, by reanimating Julie's arms into better positions for example. We had to have a very productive feedback loop going between comp, CFX and lighting to get the best results.”
“It’s moments like that that I’m most proud of,” says Andy, “where hopefully no one will really notice what we did but maybe wonder afterwards how it was done.”
StudioCanal presents a Heyday Films production