Created in 1958, Paddington Bear is one of the most iconic children’s book characters of all time. His blue duffel coat and red hat are instantly recognisable and millions of cuddly toys have been made in his image. There’s even a statue of him at his namesake Paddington Station.
Paddington was brought to life on screen in 2014 feature film which followed his journey from deepest darkest Peru to West London, where he is adopted by the Brown family.
The film was a huge success. Box office takings exceeded $200 million – making it the highest grossing family film made outside of Hollywood – and a second film released last year brought in a similar amount.
Framestore worked on the visual effects for both Paddington and Paddington 2 and might just have created the cutest CG character in film.
The CG Paddington has all the charm of the original. Framestore have retained his friendly, gentle demeanour while adding a level of realism with startlingly realistic fur and eyes.
Much of the humour in both films comes from his reactions and movements – whether its seeing his fur stand on end when he picks up a pair of hair clippers or seeing him get swept away on a wave of water after he accidentally floods the Brown’s bathroom.
Framestore worked closely with Michael Bond, the Paddington Estate, StudioCanal and director Paul King to design Paddington before making the first film. The second film builds on this design – as VFX technology has advanced considerably since 2014, animators were able to give Paddington “an upgrade”.
“There was a lot more flexibility in terms of what we could do with him and I think the level of realism takes a little bit of a step up,” says VFX Supervisor Glen Pratt.
“We upgraded his eyes – his eyes were ever so slightly not technically correct in the first film – but for this one we could make the irises and the meniscus and all of that behave in a way that is much more accurate and representative of real world eye behaviour,” he adds. “Another thing we upgraded was fur. We redressed his fur so that was something that behaved a lot more consistently in Paddington 2.”
“Paddington doesn’t really smile but he does express happiness with his eyes”
Keen-eyed viewers might have also noticed that Paddington gained some weight between the first and second films – an indication of his new living situation (and presumably a result of eating many a marmalade sandwich). “He’d been living with the Browns a little while so he wasn’t destitute so we did make him a little bit tubbier. He’s a little bit more portly around the belly,” adds Pratt.
Framestore’s animators had to adhere to strict guidelines around expressions and movement: Paddington is a bear but a warm and friendly one and the animation had to reflect his gentle and polite manner.
“Paddington doesn’t really smile, for example, but he does express happiness with his eyes,” says Pratt. “We never want him to look too surprised because if he looks too surprised, you’ll see the whites of the eyes too much, and then he looks aggressive.
“It’s the same with teeth, because he has a big set of ursine teeth, so we never want to see too much of that. Also he doesn’t move in a sharp way – there’s a sort of deliberate softness to the way he moves. It all goes back to getting the tone right and making sure he doesn’t ever become something other than this cuddly little bear,” adds Pratt.
Paddington’s expressions are the result of careful refinement and great care was taken to ensure each scene in the film hit just the right note. King would gather multiple references for animators – such as pictures of kittens soaked in water for a scene where Paddington has to be rescued from a river – and professional clown Javier Marzan was on hand to advise on gestures and movement during filming.
“There was a lot of refinement and a constant revisiting of sequences to get the comedy right,” explains Pratt. “We’d do a rehearsal where Paul would think up some ideas and then to get a more nuanced performance we’d bring Javier in to do a session with him to get the comedy beats and expressions that might help inform [the VFX].”
“Javier would be there on the day when we were shooting – he would often stand in [for Paddington] when we were running through a rehearsal with the cast to help give them an idea of what Paddington would be doing,” he continues.
The team also filmed Ben Wishaw (who voices Paddington) during recording sessions and recorded King demonstrating how Paddington could react in certain scenes. “We’d be talking about a scene and [King] would say, ‘hold on, I’ll do it for you’ and we’d just film him performing whatever idea he had in his head. A lot of the film, when I watch it back, I can really see Paul in it, and it’s testament to the work the animators have done – they’ve really captured that performance.”
Animators looked to four people – Marzan, Wishaw, King and Animation Supervisor Pablo Grillas – to inform Paddington’s facial expressions. This helped ensure consistency throughout the film – making sure he never starts behaving in a way that seems out of character.
“Rather than it being a case of ‘hey, I’ve found this person doing this on the internet’, which is often the case, we had a consistent number of references that informed the animators during the process and I think that shows. There’s a sort of throughput all the way through it,” adds Pratt.
Pratt says a lot of viewers still assume that the film is shot before Paddington is simply ‘dropped in’ afterwards. To a certain extent that’s true – scenes are filmed and Paddington is added in post – but the actual process is a lot more complicated.
In some scenes – such as one where Paddington wanders through a prison canteen just after accidentally turning the prisoners uniforms pink – the team had to recruit a stand in actor who was the same height as Paddington so actors knew where to look (and cameramen knew where to film). Other scenes had to be drawn up in ‘previs’ before filming to determine exactly where Paddington would be placed.
Each scene had to pass through multiple departments – from creature effects to lighting and compositing – and some scenes took several months to animate.
A moment where Paddington discovers a pop-up book about London and is transported into the world of the book was one of the most challenging to create, as the team had to build buses and buildings that looked as if they were crafted out of paper and show Paddington walking amongst them. The animation process took six months – “I think that scene is an example of how it really shows if you allow that time for VFX. You get this beautifully crafted bit at the end of it,” says Pratt.
Framestore’s VFX work in Paddington 2 didn’t just extend to working on the lovable bear. The team also digitally created vistas of London and a prison exterior as well as adding backgrounds to a train chase sequence that was filmed in a lot in Neasden. “We had Hugh Bonneville and Hugh Grant and Sally Hawkins running around on the roof of trains against green screen … and we were adding all of the trains and the wider environment there [in post],” explains Pratt
Another scene shows Paddington heading through the countryside on a train. The view resembles the South Downs in Sussex with its rolling green hills but was in fact filmed in the Lake District and edited in post to create a quintessentially English landscape. “Finding roads in the South Downs that look like a train line is next to impossible because they’re very curvy,” says Pratt. “We needed to have a long [straight] run and the Lake District had a bit more of that.”
As VFX supervisor, Pratt began working on the film four months before shooting began and was involved in deciding where and how scenes should be filmed. He worked closely with the films heads of department – including King, production designer Gary Williamson and cinematographer Erik Wilson – and Framestore’s Animation Supervisors.
“That tends to be the case [in filmmaking now] – you are involved in that key decision making because you have to be. [The VFX] is such a key part of how it’s created.”
Framestore’s effects in Paddington 2 aren’t meant to dazzle. They are designed to go unnoticed and they are there to help ensure viewers remain immersed in Paddington’s world.
“Going back 10 years ago, there would be a real whiff of CGI [in films] whereas I think now, it’s a lot more believable,” adds Pratt. “You’re not pulled out [of the film] as much. Speaking to colleagues in Framestore and elsewhere, there’s a feeling that you just don’t notice the visual effects in this film and I think that’s great because it means the animation was so on point and delivered what it needed to do.”
He also credits King with having “a fantastic vision” for the film. The end result is a film that encourages us to suspend disbelief – one that reflects the world seen in Bond’s but also maintains a level of realism.
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