Like most fairy tales, the tale of Cinderella is part of an oral storytelling tradition stretching back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many versions exist of this classic story of the persecuted heroine, but the one most familiar to modern Western audiences is a French variant, Cendrillon, written in 1697 by Charles Perrault.
Perrault’s story – which introduced the now-familiar devices of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin turning into a carriage, and the glass slipper – was first adapted for the screen as Cendrillon by George Méliès in 1897. However, the movie remembered by most people is the 1950 Disney animated feature Cinderella.
Now, Disney have released a new version of the rags-to-riches tale: a live-action feature starring Lily James as Cinderella, Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother and Richard Madden as the Prince.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film eschews the recent trend for reimagined, edgy fairy tales. Instead, it tells the traditional story straight, and is unafraid to draw on the heritage of its animated predecessor.
The majority of the visual effects work for Cinderella – approximately 500 shots – was delivered by MPC, with Charley Henley in the role of production VFX supervisor, and Patrick Ledda supervising for MPC.
In this Q&A for Cinefex, Ledda discusses magic and mice, palaces and pumpkins, and that all-important glass slipper.
How did you first get involved with Cinderella?
I joined the show in Summer 2013, a couple of months before the start of the shoot, and was on the show for 15 months or so. I knew the production VFX supervisor, Charley Henley, so it was easy to get started. We had several meetings about the style of the movie, previs, sets, locations, and so on. A few weeks later, we commenced principal photography at Pinewood. I attended the shoot, and subsequently went on to supervise MPC’s work.
What was the scope of MPC’s work on the film?
It was varied. We did creature work, including the mice, lizards, goose, transformations, digi-doubles and stag. Also magical transformations: the carriage, the shoe, the dress. There was a considerable amount of environment work, including fully-CG wide establishers, the palace, the town and various set extensions. Our CG supervisor, Richard Clegg, did a tremendous job of managing such a variety of assets and shots, ensuring a consistent style and quality throughout. Supervisors Richard Little and Reuben Barkataki led the comp team.
How involved was the director, Kenneth Branagh, with the visual effects?
We were very fortunate to work closely with Kenneth. We had some conversations on set about certain VFX shots and how to shoot them, but his real involvement with us started at the end of principal photography. We met him several times to discuss big-picture things – such as what the mice would look like – to more in-depth conversations going through the entire movie shot by shot.
Can you give us some examples?
We discussed questions concerning the personality of the mice, or ways in which we could transform the lizard into the coachman. It was clear that Ken understood the VFX process well, having worked on movies such as Thor in the past. That helped us tremendously. But what I found most useful was his amazing ability to act scenes and characters. That gave us the clearest briefs of all. Just from his expressions, we could understand what he was after.
It sounds as if the process was quite collaborative.
He was interested in our ideas, so our sessions weren’t just briefs but more like creative conversations. He also came to visit the team in the Montreal office, which was great for everyone. Going through the film with him and listening to his ideas was inspiring for the entire team.
“Cinderella” palace exterior – original plate
“Cinderella” palace exterior – final composite
How closely did you study the original Disney animated film?
By the end of the movie, the entire crew was very intimate with the 1950 animated feature! We used it as reference and inspiration, however we were also keen to put our own stamp on the movie. We also worked with the production art department to ensure that our CG work would be in line with practical sets.
What other visual cues did you use?
As usual, for human characters, we did photoshoots, photogrammetry and scans. For the animals, we used a ton of reference photography and videos. Additionally, we had our in-house real mice, which our animators looked after and used as reference on a daily basis. We also looked at many landscape paintings to get a mood and palette for Cinderella’s world.
The film has quite a saturated colour palette. Did that affect your approach to the visual effects?
That’s a good question. Firstly I should mention that Charley Henley and director of photography Haris Zambarloukos had several conversations about the look of the film as a whole. It was shot on Kodak film stock, as both Ken and Haris wanted a classic look, and then went to digital intermediate, which can make quite a dramatic visual change to a shot.
In order to deal with this, we obtained grade references early on, so we would know where the grading process would take our shots. For fully CG sequences, we delivered shots “neutral” or with a simple representative grade, which was used as a guide for the digital intermediate.
How much creative control were you able to use during the previs stage?
We did a considerable amount of previs early on, and continued to produce previs way after the shoot; some scenes are fully CG and were completely designed in post. We were given quite a lot of creative freedom – Ken was always interested to see our ideas and was happy to see rough work and proof of concepts instead of waiting for something more polished. Most of the big CG sequences had been prevised and/or postvised, and for the most part were used as references during the shoot. I should mention that a lot of the previs/postvis work was done by the production VFX team.
How much of the palace was built practically, and how much did MPC create?
The exterior of the palace was fully CG, apart from the door and balcony which are visible in some shots. A section of the stairs and gate was also practical. Together with the production art department, MPC designed and created the entire model.
The interior was mainly built practically. We did set extensions, CG chandeliers, digi-doubles and so on, but I won’t take any more credit than we deserve. The set was outstanding – beautifully designed and created – so it was really great to complement it with our work.
Building the digital palace sounds like a big task. How did you go about it?
We drew inspiration from a number of European palaces, as well as palaces from other Disney films. From there, under the supervision of our asset lead, Jung Yoon Choi, we created the design that we wanted. The whole process was fairly elaborate, mainly due to the sheer size of the palace, and not knowing to what extent we would have to build it, and to what level of detail.
What was the biggest challenge with the palace?
Finding a way to marry the palace and the landscape. Ken wanted it to feel grand, but at the same time immersed in the landscape. A lot of work went into the design and creation of the palace gardens, led by environment lead, Hubert Zapalowicz. Size-wise, the model of the palace was fairly big, but still manageable in our pipeline. What was more complex were the trees and vegetation surrounding the palace. For a large part they are fully 3D.
How many elements does a typical shot of the palace contain?
To pick one shot is difficult, but I can briefly describe the shots where Cinderella is running away from the Prince down the stairs of the palace. In this scene, apart from the actors and a section of the stairs, the majority was CG; even the plate containing actors got re-projected to allow for a nicer camera move. We extended the stairs, created vegetation to the sides, added digi-double guards, the palace and sky. The carriage was practical in this sequence, although we applied a 2D treatment to make it look more magical.
Do you have a favourite shot of the palace?
The opening shot of the ball, where we fly through fireworks and have a first establisher of the palace at night.
Let’s talk about the digital characters. How many did you create in total?
The main characters were four mice, lizards, the two coachmen, a goose, the footman, stag, bluebirds, and white horses. There are also many other lesser creatures, such as butterflies, birds and so on. I believe the total number of assets was in the region of 80.
Which were the most challenging?
The mice! The brief was to go for a photorealistic look, because they interacted with Cinderella quite often. But they needed enough character and personality to engage with Cinderella and the audience. It was a fine line, and our animation supervisor, Warren Leathem, and lookdev head, Thomas Stoelzle, did a great job in finding that balance.
We gave the mice a slight anthropomorphised feel in order to differentiate them slightly and give them personality, but all in all we were going for photoreal shading. Although we used a lot of reference material, the mice are not the digital reproduction of any real mice. We created our own version.
How were the creatures animated?
For the vast majority we used keyframe animation. The animals other than the mice – particularly the transforming characters – had a much broader animated style to help the comedy and fairy tale aspect of certain scenes. We created our own concepts of the various transformation stages from fully animal to fully human.
MPC’s digital mice interact with Cinderella’s dress – original plate
MPC’s digital mice interact with Cinderella’s dress – final composite
How did you rig the models for the transformations – the mice changing into horses, for example?
Building a system with enough flexibility was the biggest challenge that our rigging lead, Davide La Sala, faced on this project. We needed a system that would allow lots of creative freedom when animating the transformation shots.
Each character had three rigs: a horse rig, a mouse rig and a transformation rig. The animators could choose to animate the different parts of the character with either the horse or the mouse rig, depending on what suited. The horse and mouse rigs were constrained and linked to the third transformation rig, which was used to blend between horse and mouse shapes.
Tell us more about the blending process.
The transformation rig calculated both scale changes and how “transformed” various parts of the body were. This information was baked into the geometry cache. MPC’s software team added features to our proprietary hair system, Furtility, to be able to read this data back in from the geometry cache and use it to drive changes in the hair.
For example, as the head grew massively in size from mouse to horse, so the mane would grow and the fluffy mouse hair would transition to short horse fur. This data was also used by the shaders to modulate between textures and different shading setups for the different modes of animal.
Stylistically, how did you manage the animation during the transformations?
This was probably an even bigger challenge. The director was adamant that the transformation had to look enjoyable; he wanted to convey excitement as the mice become beautiful and powerful horses. We went through many iterations, experimenting with several ideas and edits. Interestingly, the transformation back from horse to mouse, although more challenging and of a higher shot count, was in a way easier as we had a clearer idea of how the scene was going to develop.
How did you approach the transformation of a humble pumpkin into a shining golden carriage?
This particular transformation sequence went through quite a few conceptual changes. In the end, the story that we wanted to tell was the greenhouse exploding into particles of dust, which would then collect to forge the carriage.
We destroyed the greenhouse and the pumpkin procedurally with our proprietary FEA (Finite Element Analysis) destruction tool, Kali. We then ran many particle simulations on top of the broken pieces to give the effect that the solid chunks were vaporised into magical golden dust before materialising to form the frame and shell of the carriage.
Was it hard to match to the practical carriage?
The practical golden carriage on set had a very ornate and complex design. We built an exact digital replica which our technical animation team stripped apart, allowing us to hand-animate the various parts so that it felt like the carriage was self-assembling in an organic and elegant way.
How much of what we see in the dress transformation is practical wardrobe, and how much digital effects?
We ran motion control shoots of Lily James spinning in the different pink and blue dresses. The dress transformation then involved stitching two different performances together. It was tricky to find a moment in both performances that blended perfectly and at the right time. We helped the 2D blend with a digital Cinderella for a few frames in the middle.
For the dress transformation, we ran lots of cloth simulations on our CG version. The dress needed to float up and feel light as it grew in size to fill the volume of the blue ballroom gown. The trick was to make the dress expand and move as if it was underwater, but at the same time stay coherent and feel part of Lily’s performance.
How did you integrate all those magical sparkles?
Once we had our cloth animation just right, we ran multiple layers of particle simulations on top of it. Butterflies fly into camera, then land on and form part of the dress. We emitted magic dust from the ground, air and butterflies as they flew in. It was important for all the dust to interact and feel like it was being influenced by the swooshing of the dress.
Digital set extension by MPC for “Cinderella” – original plate
Digital set extension by MPC for “Cinderella” – final composite
Finally, let’s talk about the story’s most memorable icon: the glass slipper. What did you do to enhance the practical shoe used on-set?
We had the challenge of matching the practical shoe, which was covered with a special coating to give it an iridescent effect. Our lookdev team did a fantastic job, firstly by developing a custom shader, and secondly by making sure that shader would give us enough artistic control when needed.
What was the most difficult slipper shot?
The moment when the Prince first puts the shoe on Cinderella at the ball. In this shot, we had to replace the practical shoe (which was a plastic prop) with our CG version, and re-create the prince’s arm so that it had a more coherent movement with the shoe.
On a side note, the practical shoe was so small that it wouldn’t fit even Cinderella! Therefore, for several shots, we had to find ways to alter the shape of the shoe and foot in an “invisible” way.
What are your feelings looking back on the show?
It was a great pleasure to work on such an iconic film. Kenneth Branagh and Charley Henley both gave us creative freedom, but at the same time challenged us with their ideas. Although the vast majority of the work was done by MPC Montreal, all our other facilities helped in different capacities. It was a great effort by everyone.
Special thanks to Darrell Borquez, Marshall Weinbaum, Riki Arnold and Jonny Vale. “Cinderella” photographs copyright © 2015 The Walt Disney Company.