'Mary Poppins Returns' Revisited
May 17, 2019

'Mary Poppins Returns' Revisited

Mary Poppins’ return to Cherry Tree Lane has been hailed as “practically perfect in every way,” and Framestore was proud to play a key part in the film’s unique magic.

Framestore was the lead VFX company for Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, delivering 470 sparkling shots across 32,000 frames that accompanied some of the film’s key musical numbers and contributed to the rich, detailed, stylized look of the film.

One of the film’s magical moments was when our real-life heroes – Mary Poppins, lamplighter Jack and the Banks children – are transported to a colouful animated world. The scene features a lively music hall sequence (replete, of course, with dancing penguins) and culminates in a thrilling carriage chase, with the merging of traditional animation and modern VFX a tag-team operation between Framestore’s Montreal team and the animators at Duncan Studios. 

“Integrating the 2D and 3D universes definitely threw up some challenges,” says VFX Supervisor Christian Kaestner. “Balancing perspectives and allowing the right amount of modernity to filter into that exquisite hand-drawn world required a great deal of time and thought. The pacing is so dynamic and the choreography so precise that we really had our work cut out when it came to capturing the light, texture, shade and geometry of the scene. Helping bring together the superb direction and choreography, the fantastic performances and Duncan Studios’ artwork for the seated, animated audience was a lot of fun but also a lot of work – for example, we actually recreated the music hall’s stage and lighting rig to get things just right.” 

A sense of the traditional merging with ultra-modern craftsmanship permeates the film, with Framestore’s environment work frequently nodding to the first film’s exquisite matte paintings. “We definitely wanted to tip our cap to the beautiful paintings that Peter Ellenshaw created for the first Mary Poppins film,” says Kaestner. “Ellenshaw and his contemporaries worked to convey a mood or an atmosphere rather than striving for note-perfect accuracy. While we adopted a more realistic approach to our backdrops, the original matte paintings were certainly there in the back of our minds, and we definitely tipped our hat to them in terms of the colour palettes we employed.”

While London might be witnessing something of an economic slump in the film, Mary Poppins is on hand to bring a dash of magic to the Banks family’s life. This meant deftly mixing conjuring fantastical elements and a sense of amplified reality – something key to the extraordinary “magical ocean” sequence which first demonstrates Mary’s powers as she takes the Banks children from bath time to a tour of the ocean depths. 

“The aim was to hit a sweet spot between the real and the abstract,” says London-based VFX Supervisor Kyle McCulloch. “We were looking to create a hybrid world which mixed fantasy and reality and ultimately conveyed a child’s eye view of what life underwater might be like.” As well as creating the rich, stylized visuals, it was pivotal that the underwater world work in harmony with the actors’ performances. 

“Rob Marshall is a brilliant filmmaker, so we needed to make sure the underwater world complemented the actors’ carefully-choreographed performances through movement, shape and countless subtle interrelationships,” says McCulloch. “The coral, the plant life, the bubbles and the sea creatures all serve as visual seasoning for the choreography, and these elements were laid out with incredible attention to detail.”

If Framestore’s work below the ocean was a question of balance and style, the VFX work atop the ocean waves was all about painstaking technical craft. “When Mary, Jack and the Banks children emerge from the ocean depths piloting their bathtub, everything you see is VFX,” explains McCulloch. “I’m pretty sure this is the first time we’ve created such a huge, purely-VFX environment. We simulated the entire ocean, and the biggest challenge in doing so was definitely the foam. You might think those enormous foambergs were simple, but getting the right mix of softness, solidity and airiness was a challenge worthy of The Great British Bake Off, while scattering light and life though them was a mix of pure science and pure art. It’s a testament to the skill of our look-dev, effects and lighting experts that it all looks so effortless.” 

The film involved the work of some hundreds of Framestore creatives, drawing from a best-in-the business pool of compositors, lighting experts, CG whizz-kids, environment specialists and art department pros. “It was extraordinary,” sums up Kaestner. “Every film demands something unique and something special, but with Mary Poppins Returns there was so much music, warmth, humor and charm that we couldn’t help but push ourselves to the limit. It was a pleasure to work on the film, and a privilege to induct a whole new generation into the unique magical world of Mary Poppins.”

To revisit CGW’s in-depth story on all the VFX in this film, see “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” in the Q4 edition of CGW or online at https://bit.ly/30ogKWh .