A Little Bit of Magic
Barbara Robertson
January 27, 2015

A Little Bit of Magic

With a 300 shot total, the film Into the Woods doesn’t qualify as a visual effects blockbuster, but shot count doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Almost every shot was a different approach and a different effect,” says Christian Irles, visual effects supervisor at The Moving Picture Company (MPC), which was the main vendor on the show. “Our studio is a big machine, and we specialize in doing complex sequences, but usually we can set a benchmark with a few shots and the others follow. With Into the Woods, we had lots of small sequences, and each had a particular challenge. It almost felt like working in commercials. We were constantly on our toes.”

Directed by Rob Marshall, the Disney adaptation of a Broadway musical twists several fairy-tales into a modern fantasy. The all-star cast includes Meryl Streep as a witch, Emily Blunt as a baker’s wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince.
MPC extended environments, added CG characters, and sparked the film with magical effects. 

Gnarly Woods

Marshall shot the film on a large set at Shepperton Studios and in various locations in the UK. At Shepperton, the production unit provided a stylized forest with gnarly rooted trees the crew matched and re-created for the exterior locations.

“For the plates shot at Shepperton, we went with a 2.5D approach,” Irles says. “If they had shot the same part of the set, we would have built a 3D extension, but every shot was in a different part of the forest.” 

Thus, the artists matchmoved the plates, painted shot-specific trees in Adobe’s Photoshop, and projected the artwork onto geometry in The Foundry’s Nuke. To provide continuity for shots such as these with those filmed on location, MPC incorporated the stylized trees into the natural forest. 

“We did a full-CG version of the forest, and it looked pretty, but it wasn’t what Rob [Marshall] had in mind,” Irles says. “So, it was better to stick with principal photography and use 2.5D projections with some 3D trees. But, it made our life harder because we had to blend between plates.”

In addition to the on-set and on-location CG forest extensions, the crew extended and destroyed geometry. First, Rapunzel’s tower, which the production crew filmed at Waverley Abbey in Farnham, Surrey. 

“On location they had the bottom half and scaffolding for the upper [part], so we knew where our CG tower would be, and they knew how to frame the shots,” Irles says. “As we built the extension, the director asked for some nice little tweaks to the castle, so we crooked the iconic pointy roof at an angle, like a witch’s hat.” 


During the same sequence, the crew collapsed a CG tower on the king’s castle, which the production unit filmed at Dover Castle in Kent. Although it’s the largest castle in England, it doesn’t have a fairy-tale tower. So for shots at the beginning of the sequence, MPC artists topped the castle with a tall, medieval tower based on the original architecture. 

Then, about midway through the sequence, a giant climbs down a beanstalk, tromps around looking for Jack, turns the kingdom into rubble with each footstep, and the tower collapses.

“We modeled the tower in [Autodesk’s] Maya using [Pixologic’s] ZBrush for displacement textures,” Irles says. “Then for the destruction, we used a combination of techniques. Kali, our rigid- and soft-body dynamics solver, collapsed the main tower. We added iterations of little brick pieces for scale, and generated smoke with [Scanline’s] Flowline.”

MPC artists also created a few all-CG shots, some for a sequence involving Jack and the beanstalk, and others for a sequence in which Rapunzel is trapped on an island surrounded by snake-infested waters.

CG Characters

In the film, as Jack travels down a beanstalk, he hears the lout shout, and looks up to see a giant. It’s a full-CG shot.

“The point of view is from Jack,” Irles says. “So getting the scale was difficult. We got the weight right to make sure the giant felt like a big person. Then we used lighting and compositing to make it look like he was maybe a kilometer away. We had wind blowing and clouds.”

As for the beanstalk, although MPC Vancouver had created a beanstalk for Jack and the Giant Killer (see “Growing a Giant Fantasy,” CGW, March/April 2013), the crew on this film needed to match a prop.  

“We followed the set piece, but pushed it,” Irles says. “We could see seams from the plastic mold, so we changed that, changed the way the leaves connected, and the wetness. It was more work tidying up the real piece than it would have been to do look dev on a CG beanstalk.” And, ultimately, they replaced the prop with the more realistic-looking CG version.

Similarly, the visual effects artists replaced most of the animatronic snakes threatening Rapunzel with CG snakes, which looked more menacing. The water surrounding Rapunzel’s island was a mixture of real and CG water.

“We decided to keep the water in the plates, then when we added our snakes, we used CG ripples,” Irles says. “When Rapunzel jumps in the water, the splashes are a combination of CG and live action.”

In addition to the giant and the snakes, the MPC artists built and animated a CG cow, a magical thicket, and flock of blackbirds. 

“The most important were the blackbirds,” Irles says. “They are the characters Cinderella communicates with, so they appear multiple times. Because the birds get really close to camera, we had to build proper hero birds. And, they had to be photoreal in terms of movement.”

That was true even though the blackbirds were doing fairy-tale actions. For example, early in the film when Cinderella’s stepmother spills a pot of lentil soup on the floor, it’s the blackbirds, summoned by Cinderella, that clean up the lentils.

At MPC, animators looked at reference of real birds pecking at seeds on the ground to help perform blackbirds picking up lentils, and then added the “less likely in the real world” actions of putting the lentils in a bucket. For the feathers, the character TDs used MPC’s proprietary tool, called Furtility, which also managed the hair on a CG cow.

The cow belongs to Jack of beanstalk fame. 

“We needed a CG double to make the cow collapse in front of the camera,” Irles says. “It was a straightforward build because we matched the cow in the surrounding shots. We built the model, groomed the hair, and it looked perfect on the turntable.”

Animating it, however, was not as straightforward. For the crew, the fairy-tale became tragicomedy. 

“In the film, Jack looks at the cow and she tips to one side,” Irles says. “Rob [Marshall] didn’t want it to look funny, and we went around and around to get it right. It either looked funny or disturbing. Making it look somewhere in between was a very thin line.”

Twisty Thicket

Back at Rapunzel’s tower, the witch spies the prince come down, jump on his horse, and ride away. So, she casts a spell on a nearby thicket. The horse balks and throws Cinderella’s prince into the animated tangle of branches and vines.

“We built the thicket in Maya using 10 to 15 long, straight pieces with thorns, and rigged them straight,” Irles says. “In a layout pass, we placed the end positions for the twisted thicket and showed that silhouette to the client. Once approved, we animated the twists backward. If we had animated everything forward, I think it would have taken more iteration. Making wood move in bendy ways doesn’t work. It’s just wrong. But, if you don’t make it bend, it’s difficult.”

The visual disconnect that can happen with animated wood became especially apparent during a sequence in which the witch emerges from a tree trunk.  

“We wanted the tree trunk to open left and right so she would step from inside into the forest,” Irles says. “But with the budget we had, no matter what we tried, the tree looked like it was made of rubber. We started running simulations so that as the tree opened, solid sections would crumble based on pressure, and that worked, but it detracted from the story. So, they canned the shot.”

Magical Effects

Adding a bit of magic to a film is nothing new for the crew at MPC, who had incorporated magical effects into eight Harry Potter films. The fairy-tale effects they created for Into the Woods cast a different spell.

“The first time we see the magic is when the witch is in the baker’s cottage,” Irles says. “She grabs a cape and starts rotating. As she does, the flour on the floor rises up and envelops her, and for a beat she’s fully covered. Then, there’s an explosion from the center. The flour hangs in the air and slowly drops.”

The main volume of flour moved through a Flowline simulation. To give it texture, the artists added little elements from the ground during the flurry using a separate particle pass.

Similarly, when the witch is in the forest, she disappears in a whirl of leaves and dirt from the ground as she rotates her cape. 

“Early in pre-production, we had magical god rays bleeding from the witch inside the leaves,” Irles says. “Rob liked them, but once he looked at the shot in editing, he realized that it was not necessary.”

The same kind of magic surrounds Cinderella, as well, during a shot early in the film. For this shot, the crew swirled willow leaves as she transitions from ragged clothes into a golden dress for the ball. 

At Shepperton, Kendrick, who plays Cinderella, stood beneath scaffolding that represented the willow tree, first in ragged clothes and then in another pass in her beautiful dress. Through 400 frames, a motion-control camera started at her feet, craned up, rotated almost 200 degrees around her, and then craned back down to have her fully framed. 

MPC artists morphed between the two plates, and to help with the transition, spiraled the willow leaves around Cinderella as the camera rotated up and around. A particle simulation in Maya swirled the leaves, and a little bit of fog simulated with Flowline gave the shot extra depth. 

“It was a complicated shot with multiple elements and plates, and it was hard to get the timing right,” Irles says. “We added foreground willow leaves above. Without that and the low-lying fog, the shot looked flat. We tried adding magic, but Rob said, ‘Nope. The leaves are lifted by magic, but we don’t need to show the magic itself.’”


Even the witch’s most fantastical magic is subtle. 

“She fires a blue color that looks almost like a liquid from her hands,” Irles says. “When we first did the look dev, we went over the top and created the type of effect we’d done for Harry Potter. Rob liked the shape and movement but asked us to back off in terms of the look. So in most of the film, it has low opacity. It’s just a hint of blue haze in the air so that it doesn’t distract or overpower.”

In addition to the witch’s personal magic, the crew added visual effects magic to a sequence in which two of the characters find themselves stuck on a sticky stairs. 

“Time comes almost to a stop,” Irles says. “The staircase is surrounded by bright flambeaus, with little embers everywhere that move slowly. It was quite tricky to nail down.”

For reference, the artists looked at examples of flame elements shot in extreme slow motion. 

“Matt Johnson, the client VFX supervisor, shot the flames with a [Vision Research] Phantom camera at a ridiculous speed of 48,000 frames per second,” Irles says. We couldn’t use the elements because even if we put them on cards, there was so much parallax and rotation around the flambeaus, the illusion would break. So, we re-created the look with CG flames. Rob [Marshall] worked with an artist in New York on the final shots. They iterated over and over to make sure they had the scale of the little floating embers correct. Some are close to camera and out of focus; some are behind. It’s simple and beautiful.”

Gone Girl

One of the most difficult sequences included 20 shots that were much less subtle. “We have ground bulging and breaking,” Irles says. “Leaves, ground, and smoke fall into the void. Lightning flashes into the smoke and lights up the leaves. And at the end, there’s a big carpet with viscous black matter.”

The artists turned again to the studio’s Kali software to manage the collapsing ground, Flowline to simulate the smoke, and Maya particles to move the leaves.

“The hardest thing about the shot was the look,” Irles says. “We had to change the camera – they couldn’t get the crane high enough, so we had to extend the camera in layout. And, conceptually, the smoke was difficult. They wanted the smoke to dissipate quickly so it wouldn’t cover the tar.”

Irles worked on the film from October 2013 to September 2014, almost a year, with a crew that ranged from 60 to 80 people.

“It wasn’t a big crew, so when we had a rush to provide almost final looks for a temp screening, I freaked out a little,” Irles says. “But, with the small crew, it was easier to have people focus on what we had to do. It turned out to be one of the smoothest shows I’ve worked on.”

Into the Woods may not be a visual effects blockbuster, but it is spellbinding. And Irles and the supporting cast of visual effects artists who created the subtle magic in this film can take pride knowing their work helped the film win an AFI Award for Movie of the Year, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, three more wins, 22 other nominations, and the awards season has only begun. They may have created only 300 shots, but the fairy-tale wouldn’t have been as magical without them.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World . She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.