Working with Director Niki Caro, Framestore’s VFX team’s deft touch and pixel-perfect artistry on Mulan paid tribute to both the much-loved animated classic and the original 1,500-year-old Chinese ballad on which it was based.
VFX Supervisor Hubert Maston (Dumbo) collaborated with Framestore’s Vis Dev, animation and VFX teams across a wide range of scenes and 300-plus shots, including the graceful, multi-colored Phoenix; a truly epic battle sequence; and enormous matte-painted volcanic landscapes.
“Our main aim was seeing how VFX could support and augment the story of Mulan; instead of conjuring fantasy-based effects, we wanted to help build the kind of grandness and heraldic scale the story demanded," says Maston. "Ultimately we wanted audiences to feel immersed in Mulan’s rich and vibrant world, making them feel part of the sweeping landscapes and the incredible action setpieces.”
As well as photoreal environment builds and set extensions, there were, of course, moments of “Disney magic” that allowed Framestore to demonstrate its talent for the fantastical, such as the Phoenix, Mulan’s “spiritual guide.”
The work started with Framestore’s in-house art department, which developed a number of different iterations of the Phoenix and its silhouette. “The idea was to create an elegant bird that draws from traditional Chinese art, where the Phoenix is a very important figure,” explains Animation Supervisor Laurent Laban.
Working to create this mythical, idealized creature, the VFX team drew from a range of real-life examples to ground their phoenix in anatomically-correct reality, with references including eagles and peacocks.
“Our phoenix had to move through the frame in a way that makes it look like a bird, and has some kind of weight and physical reality to it. Its grandiose, graphic tail is raw, elegant and oddly-shaped, which doesn’t make sense when referring to a bird’s anatomy but can be used as a starting point for Chinese art, and we selected a vibrant palette of saturated reds, pinks and gold colors to reference the source material,” adds Maston. “With wind flowing through its feathers, we had to keep the silhouette clean and nail down that feeling of it striking a pose in every single frame.”
“It had to be instantly recognizable, so we continuously considered the Phoenix’s identity throughout the shots,” concludes Maston.
One of the key sequences sees Mulan embarking on a journey to battle the Witch (a new villain for the storyline, played by Gong Li), where the audience needs to sense the danger around her and the fact that there is little room to maneuver and nowhere to escape.
“The sequence was filmed against a bluescreen on a partial set, so this worldbuilding challenge involved VFX backgrounds complete with large mountains, blocks of rocks, and a fully CG sky; giving us full control across 100 shots,” says Maston. Working with plates from the New Zealand rocky White Islands, located inside a volcano, the team was tasked with recreating the beautiful, sliced rocks from the Chinese Rainbow Mountains – a considerable aesthetic and creative challenge. “The comp team did an incredible job blending the plates with the CG environment to create a coherent, seamless backdrop, and matte painting artists created these impressive photorealistic geothermal landscapes,” explains Maston.
The team heightened the dangerous experience by adding cracking sulfur – breaking beneath Mulan’s feet – as she made her way through detailed superheated steam and smoke. “It was quite a challenge to rebuild that volcanic environment filled with fully-simulated CG effects including steam and smoke and volume rendering for a realistic physical lighting,” adds Maston.
At the top of the mountain, a VFX-heavy scene sees the Witch dramatically transform into a flock of birds, wheeling in a tight and fluid formation, and reverting back into actor Gong Li. The team closely looked into bird murmuration effects for the digi-double Witch to bring home this eerily beautiful transformation.
An Epic Training Camp
Mulan’s transformative adventure features incredible action scenes, including a battle sequence in which the Chinese Imperial Army faced off against “The Rouran” invaders.
“We had to feel the epicness of it – it had to look colossal; with large mountains, a gigantic wall, a vast flat camp area and a feeling of thousands of soldiers coming in to train in that camp. It was truly a worldbuilding exercise to get those characters within the practical set and make them belong to a gigantic world around them,” says Maston. “We had to integrate the characters into this large scale environment and keep it relative to the size, which proved to be quite a challenge for this majestic end result.”
Paying homage to classic Hong Kong cinema and titles like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers that helped to bring it into mainstream parlance, the fight sequences in Mulan nod to the genre’s famous “weightless” performances.
“Niki tapped into those references for some of the action sequences,” says Maston. “One example is the long sleeves of the Witch that transform into weapons, which was an incredible simulation and animation challenge. The key was to ensure the sleeves moved in a realistic way, giving the sense that they are alive while keeping the look of cloth, so a significant chunk of time was spent in achieving that balance.”
He adds: “In some ways it was this sequence that summed up why it was so exciting to work on Niki’s vision for Mulan – the sense of scale and scope was awe-inspiring and the cinematography makes you feel like you’ve been enveloped by something truly epic, while the matter-of-fact inclusion of classic Hong Kong cinema styles and the Witch’s quietly menacing magic serve as reminders that this is an age and a reality very different to our own.”