With 2020 being such a topsy-turvy year for nearly everyone, Framestore and Netflix is spreading loads of holiday cheer, delivering a special gift to audiences in the form of the magical film Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.
Written and directed by David E. Talbert, produced (and featuring music by) John Legend, along with a star-studded cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin, and Hugh Bonneville, the film called for a deft mix of storybook wonder, intricately-crafted CG characters, and touching emotional resonance – needs that made Framestore the perfect creative partner in this project.
The magical tale follows the escapades of toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker), and saw Framestore collaborating closely with Talbert from early concept art through to final VFX and the film’s distinctive credits and segue sequences. The team was also tasked with orchestrating whimsical choreography and creating a fully-digital 18th century and CG-snow filled town, complete with a factory and toy store.
"Framestore came on board early on. They helped me develop the two fully-CG characters and flesh out the ideas so I could see them on screen – the movement, the mechanics, and the theory behind how they would come to life." says Talbert.
Working under overall VFX Supervisor Brad Parker, VFX Supervisor Carlos Monzon (Paddington) led Framestore’s 350-plus VFX shots, key to which were two magical toys: charismatic yet nefarious matador Don Juan Diego and the ultra-cute Buddy 3000.
“Getting the chance to work on these characters from initial drawings to their walking, talking final iterations really spoke to the toymaking theme of the film,” says Monzon. “Because we wanted Buddy and Don Juan to be living, breathing toys, the design work was painstaking and incredibly intricate, with the team laboring over the characters’ inner workings and how the materials with which they were engineered would interact and operate if they magically came to life. In a way it’s funny; working on a fantastical, magical film like this means you have to really double down on your logic and your engineering prowess because you want to ensure that the audience is going to be fully immersed in David’s wonderful world.”
Based on concepts given by the client, Framestore’s art department was in the unique position of helping visualize the characters. “Their craft became an indispensable guide for our artists; they created some incredibly complex, detailed assets and developed hundreds of mechanical gears for both characters,” says Monzon.
The story lives within two worlds – reality and a stunning miniature storybook, imagined and designed by Framestore’s team in London.
The Matador: Don Juan Diego
Don Juan Diego, a devious 12-inch matador (voiced by Ricky Martin) embarks on a mission to halt a plan that would see him mass-produced. “Don Juan is an extravagant extrovert whose emotions ping-pong between arrogance, fear, and frustration,” explains Animation Supervisor Eric Guaglione. “We needed to convey his melodramatic, larger-than-life personality in a way that would complement the live-action cast and plate footage. David gave a good deal of latitude when it came to developing the character, especially when it came to working with him to make Don Juan a more ‘likeable’ villain. I had the chance to fly out to LA and be with David while he worked on the script, teasing out a more comedic and vulnerable side to Don Juan.”
In order to perfectly bring to life their miniature marionette, the Framestore team immersed themselves in reference footage, both of real-life matadors and models depicting them. “We became experts in matadors and flamenco dancing, closely studying how interrelated their theatrical performances in the bullring and dance poses were,” says Guaglione.
Based on those studies, Guaglione and his team created a reference library of movements that were crucial when animating Don Juan’s complex, miniaturized movements. “Our team of animators filmed themselves acting out the roles, to really get into the heads of our characters and understand the emotional journeys they were taking," he says.
The team was also tasked with acting out the complex, 100-shot choreography for the film’s opening sequence, which sees Don Juan Diego come to life and experience a roller-coaster of emotions. “David entrusted us with devising the character’s performance and personality throughout the sequence,” says Guaglione. “It was a huge task, both in terms of the trust he’d placed in us and the need to deliver a polished, note-perfect musical sequence.”
The Robot: Buddy 3000
Buddy 3000 is Jeronicus Jangle’s most beloved creation – a playful, childlike invention whose heart magically lights up when he feels warm and fuzzy. “Our brief was to create a toy that was innocent, with a child’s demeanor,” says CG Supervisor Britton Plewes. “We had to find ways to convey joy, excitement, and surprise solely through his eyes, so we paid a lot of attention to reflections, lens elements, and subtle eye movements to forge a sense of emotional connection between Buddy and the other characters.”
“Animating a hard-body character and projecting human-like aspects onto him was quite challenging,” adds Monzon. “It meant we had to make some design changes that would allow us to achieve the full range in motion required. For example, Buddy's heart required an extensive amount of rigging so that it looked mechanically correct when it moved and rotated. Also, he’s a squat, bulky character, but he needed realistic joints, and bends so he could achieve that seamless performance.”
One of Buddy’s traits is that his energy is fueled when those around him believe in magic; that’s when he comes alive and levitates. “We found a way to explain the levitation and movement by introducing an out-of-balance wobble during key moments and showing that something mechanical was happening, which created a scene full of magic yet grounded in scientific and mechanical reasoning,” concludes Guaglione.
Worldbuilding through VFX
The magic of Christmas doesn’t stop there. Both Jeronicus and his bright granddaughter have the power to visualize their inventions through a floating chalkboard. Working from mathematical equations (created by a real-life scientist), Framestore’s VisDev artists designed a distinct, fantastical look that guided the compositing and FX teams to re-create glowing 3D elements and effects. One of the more complex sequences involved a tunnel escape from a massive explosion, and the team was tasked with re-creating a fully-CG environment as well as fully-digital kids.
“One of the tools we refined for this tunnel sequence was the rigged environment; we were able to create a fully-deformed asset which truly allowed our creatives to put their artistry to work and really focus on nailing the thrilling escape,” explains Plewes.
With such creative input on a wide variety of VFX needed for the show, the result is a distinct world that helps drive this magical tale. “Working with the mechanical aesthetic of the film, our artists created a distinct vocabulary and movement of our craftsmanship, from the enchanting toys to the fairy-tale background in which the story takes place,” says Monzon.
The CG Storybook
In fact, Framestore created a number of stunning animated sequences for Jingle Jangle
. The Framestore team behind the sequences, under the guidance of Parker and led by Animation Director Ian Spendloff and VFX supervisors Tim Jenkinson and Johannes Sambs, created nearly eight minutes of full-CG animation, designed to reflect the magically-inventive aesthetic of Talbert’s film and establishes a world within a world, which is loaded with emotional resonance.
“I wanted something innovative that no one had seen before. What Ian and Framestore came up with blew me away – full CG characters that look like the wooden toys that Jeronicus would have carved himself. Big win for Framestore, bigger win for my film!” says Talbert.
A storybook structure was used in the CG sequences, which top and tail the film as well as serve as narrative bridges for important parts of its story that revolves around the family of eccentric toy-maker extraordinaire Jeronicus Jangle. “We wanted these storybook sequences to be told in a way that Jeronicus the toy maker would tell them, something that would reflect his character: playful, inventive, different,’ says Spendloff. “So, I came up with the idea of a miniature, mechanical, clockwork world all contained within the actual book itself – tiny handcrafted wooden versions of the film's characters, playing out scenes in tiny little mechanized sets that self-assembled.”
As a proof of concept, Jenkinson created some animated render tests to showcase these ideas, visualizing how the team would “shoot” the miniatures that would ultimately be built in CG. “It was important to work out how the sequences would look, but also how we could use an ever-changing mechanical environment to help drive the story.”
The idea that Jeronicus, the film’s central character, created this book served as the definition of how everything would be designed and executed by the team. It was agreed at the start that the world the team was creating had to feel like it was actually built into the book. “We wanted to sell the idea he’d actually carved, painted, and rigged up these automated figures and sets,” says Spendloff.
Explains Jenkinson: “We spent a lot of time defining the laws and restrictions in which the world would be built. This had to look real and handmade; we had to bear in mind endless considerations around how Jeronicus would have built these models – everything from what materials and tools he’d have used, to how he’d construct miniature pieces of furniture and the environments. In doing this, tangibility and imperfection were absolutely key. And we had to answer all those questions within a 3D workflow.”
Everything from the lighting and the costumes to the rain effects seen in the sequences had to be approached in this way. The questions about how went right the way through the project, all the way to comp. Jenkinson felt these limitations and demonstrating restraint were integral to the project because it’s possible to effectively do anything when working in full-CG. The team, however, didn’t want to turn the VFX up to 11, but instead, make something that looked and felt real.
A lot of effort went into making sure the materials used were the right type, the textures the right scale, and elements moved in the appropriate way. “We were always looking at real-world ways of bringing these sequences to life,” says Lucy Hare. “During lockdown, my mum even kindly stitched us up some teeny felt skirts so we could see how the fabric folds and reacts at that size.”
All the sequences’ buildings were designed to fold up and self-assemble with visible hinges and joins, designed as a cross between theatrical flats and tiny, mechanized dollhouses. The team developed a system to make each house build up in a unique way. Even if you don’t see a structure being assembled, it had to look like it could.
The background characters that fill these environments were flat, hand-drawn illustrations fed through a custom-built procedural tool that turned them into 3D assets, adding texture and basic appendage joints – even some wear and tear to make the models look aged.
“Everything we did was a balance between what could be done technically and creatively, and how those two things would have a narrative impact,” says Sambs. “This was a project that presented us with constant challenges. mostly because of the creative constraints set by us. But it meant we had a really inspiring culture of problem-solving right away throughout.”
The plan right from the start was for the sequences to have a continuous flow, as if they were shot in one take. This was worked out early on with Framestore Pre-Production Services (FPS), planning carefully how the camera would gracefully move from one scene to the next and accelerate timeframes in order to move the narrative forward. “I had storyboarded and edited all the sequences, but things really opened up when FPS came on board,” comments Spendloff. “It was great figuring out with them how to get from one set up to another in interesting and fluid ways.”
Multiple scenes were seamlessly blended to create the illusion of one long take, and with lighting and depth of field being just as important as the camera and character performances, effects were added even at this early stage.
Getting in and out of the sequences from live action was also a key consideration, and Talbert was keen for the team to come up with interesting ways to achieve this – a fun but tricky challenge. The team wanted the audience to be drawn in by the magic of the sequences, so while multiple transitions are present in the sequences, each was unique with cuts hidden as the camera moved through scenes in a way that created a seamless and continuous flow of action.
The sequences had to do some heavy lifting narratively, one in particular being a mini movie in itself, covering a 20-year span and featuring some major moments in the lives of the Jangles family. When discussing this sequence with Talbert, it was clear to Spendloff that it needed a big emotional response from the audience because it contained huge character motivations seen throughout the rest of the film. ‘We needed to make sure we got the right performance out of our wooden cast, so we had to find the right balance between the mechanical nature of our world and the need to empathize and feel for the characters,” he adds.
The rules and narratively-driven discussions resulted in an automation style of animation that Ross Burgess, Framestore’s animation supervisor on the project, hasn’t seen done in CG before.
The team had to make sure that every movement was considered and justified by the mechanics of the tiny world. “The reason this style worked was it gave the impression that the characters were wooden objects moving as a result of mechanisms like tiny cogs or wire, as opposed to being living characters with motivations and brains,” he says.
As well as those movements, the team also had to work out the best way for the characters to emote because the established rules for the world meant that they couldn’t simply animate faces to express an emotion. “There were some strong and nuanced emotions to represent in these sequences. It was a challenge to effectively communicate that with wooden figures. Instead, we found creative ways to cut between digital models with different facial expressions in order to play out the emotional scenes,” explains Sambs.
Alongside the storybook sequences, the team also designed and animated the film’s opening logo intro, and created two and a half more minutes of 4K, full-CG closing credits, a part of the project they were really passionate about. Spendloff came up with an epilogue that shows what happens to the family after the events of the film, using the little wooden cast. “It’s another short film itself, and a fun way to wrap up the film,” he adds.
Again, FPS handled the previs for this sequence, and Jenkinson led the incredibly fast turnaround for both title sequences, all of which was lit, rendered, and comp’d in just three weeks.
“It was a really nice way to both showcase the characters, props, and the world we had lovingly created, and even do more with them,” recalls Jenkinson. “The film’s main character Journey, for example, only has a tiny part in the storybook sequences. But here she gets to have her moment and interact with the rest of the characters. It was a great way to end both the film and the project.”
Over 18 months the team created nearly eight minutes of full-CG in 4K which features 250 CG assets: 21 3D characters, 59 2D characters, and 170 different props and environments.
“David’s vision for this film is unique, and we loved getting into the mindset of that and helping to bring it to life. We had a great relationship with David and his whole production team, and greatly appreciated their trust and confidence in us,” concludes Sambs. “What we’ve created is something that’s as technically -impressive as it is visually captivating.”
As well as the CG sequences, Framestore also delivered the animation and VFX for film's main live-action narrative.
To help define the stunning full-CG that went into the animated storybook sequences, Framestore enlisted the help of FPS, its newly formed in-house pre-production services team. FPS previsualized all of the sequences so shot composition could be signed off ahead of final asset delivery, creating a faster and more efficient process of creative development and project schedule.
Jingle Jangle is one of FPS’ first feature-film projects after its official launch in January 2020 and was overseen by Vincent Aupetit, creative director of visualization. While the CG team was working on the creation of the project’s visual language, the previs was created and used to define the action and blocking of the sequences as well as the mechanics that would be deployed during final production.
Creating previsualizations of the sequences allowed the teams to quickly iterate on different ideas and concepts, a key benefit of deploying pre-production services on any project. And not only does it remove the need to invest time and resources just to try out ideas, it also removes any potential technical or story-related roadblocks from appearing further into the project’s delivery.
Because the fully-CG sequences were so integral to the film’s overall narrative, it was important to produce a high level of detail and visual fidelity in the previs to allow the team to get a feel for the sequences. And because the FPS team completed the work within the wider Framestore pipeline, the assets were much more than references and instead gave the team a basis on which to bring their storybook world to life.
“I had storyboarded and edited all of the sequences, but things really opened up when FPS came on board,” says Spendloff. “It was great being able to work with them to figure out how to get from one setup to another in interesting and fluid ways.”
One of the major considerations on this project was that while it was all built in CG, everything needed to look and feel like a physical storybook world populated by wooden toys. This was the case even at the previsualization stage, meaning the team had to make sure that all the virtual camera movements were ones that could be legitimately done by a camera shooting live-action models on a miniature stage.
“This project perfectly demonstrates the technical aspects of pre-production rather than a means of just blocking out animation,” says Aupetit. “We were able to not only plan out the action, but also define the virtual cameras and lenses, their use, and their movements – all of which is invaluable information and tangible data used by the final delivery team.”
“I think it's fair to say that technology and creativity have never been more entwined, and Jingle Jangle exemplifies this entirely,” notes Alex Webster, managing director of FPS. “It’s a perfect example of how previs can be used to explore complex and emotive narrative sequences early in the creative process and to help inform meaningful decisions which can carry through an entire production. The final sequences are not just visually stunning, but also have a huge narrative and emotional impact. I’m thrilled with how much of our thumbprint is visible in the final film.”