The Visual Effects of Paddington

by Graham Edwards

Paddington - visual effects by Framestore

Paddington is more than just a bear. He’s a British icon. Yet, as established in Michael Bond’s original children’s book of 1958, this polite-but-accident-prone little fellow started out as a stranger to the country’s shores, having arrived at Paddington Station (from which he took his name) from Darkest Peru. Shortly thereafter, he was adopted by the Brown family … and in time by an entire nation.

More than twenty books later, Bond continues to publish his Paddington stories, ensuring the continuing popularity of his marmalade-loving bear. Over the years, Paddington has been illustrated by artists including Peggy Fortnum, Fred Banbery and Ivor Wood, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he sprang into animated life in the BBC TV series Paddington.

Now he’s hit the big screen in Studio Canal’s feature adaptation Paddington, directed by Paul King. The film’s 760 visual effects shots – 570 of which feature Paddington himself – were delivered by Framestore, with a 350-strong team spread across their London and Montreal studios.

Paddington meets the Brown family

“Paddington” was shot at Elstree Studios and on location in London and Costa Rica, which doubles for Peru. “The film is a kind of a love letter to London. It’s always raining, in contrast to sunny Peru, which lends a huge amount to the mood and the visuals.” – Andy Kind, VFX supervisor, Framestore London.

The Essence of Paddington

One of the biggest challenges facing the Framestore team was introducing Paddington to a global moviegoing audience, while remaining true to the well-established character loved by generations of British readers.

“It was a big responsibility to find a photorealistic design for a character that people have so clear in their minds,” said Framestore’s animation supervisor Pablo Grillo. “We were keen to bring Paddington into the real world so he would sit into the live action and be easy for people to connect with. We wanted him to be anatomically correct, which meant we needed more detail compared with the simplicity of the original illustrations, which often had just two dots for eyes. We had to think about things like his wet nose, teeth and muzzle, but still make sure that what we created carried that simple essence of the original Paddington.”

As well as referencing the original illustrations, the Framestore team also took cues from his television incarnation. “In the stop-motion BBC TV series, Paddington would often remain quite still before doing something that took you by surprise, and we tried to maintain that spirit in the way we crafted the performance. Rather than filling every moment with movement and unnecessary detail, we would just run a little wind through the fur to keep him alive and really hold some quiet moments.”

Watch the featurette Paddington: From Page to Screen:

To learn more about what it took to bring Paddington to the screen, I spoke to Christian Kaestner, VFX supervisor and Head of 2D at Framestore in Montreal.

Paddington – VFX Q&A with Christian Kaestner

How did you get involved with Paddington?

Paddington was a project that had been started while I was still working in our London office. I’d worked previously with Andy Kind and Pablo Grillo on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it was the combination of a great character project with a fantastic team that made me want to get my hands on this. I’d just finished Edge of Tomorrow in Montreal when the opportunity came up.

What was your general approach to the visual effects?

A few years back, we started working closely with the director, Paul King, and his team to shape and develop Paddington’s film debut for the big screen. Countless sketches, animation and render tests were part of our early involvement with this adorable, furry little bear. In our London office Pablo and Andy spearheaded the creative development, assisted with the shoot planning and of course the VFX shoot supervision. Additionally, Tim Webber got involved in the shoot as second unit director.

After the filming had wrapped, we started to narrow down the edit by blocking out scenes based on previs that we’d worked out with Paul King. At this stage both our London and Montreal facilities were involved with layout, blocking and animation. At the same time were also finessing the character and photorealistic look of Paddington.

Pablo Grillo talks about the challenges of working with such an iconic character. Did you feel the pressure too?

Bringing any CG character to life in a believable way is always a challenge, but taking on such a famous, well-loved and established character like Paddington makes it exponentially harder. We obviously wanted to stay true to the character and not create something from scratch that the audience wouldn’t be able recognise.

At the same time, there was no live-action version of Paddington that we could match to. The creative process became an in depth exercise in character development, working closely with the director and even Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, to ensure that we translated this wonderful character to the big screen to everyone’s satisfaction. We are very pleased and proud of how we were able to bring Paddington to life.

How closely did you work with practical and special effects on set to integrate the animated character into the scene?

Framestore worked very closely with Paul King, the director of photography, Erik Wilson, and the art department to ensure we could really integrate Paddington into every scene. We carefully looked at all the shots and the vision that Paul had for the scene. We discussed in detail what was the intention and how we could combine the live-action photography and CG character most efficiently.

This obviously was a huge benefit for us and the project because we could plan carefully, helping the budget distribution. We could bring all our experience to the table and work out how we might save a little here and there, enabling us to concentrate on sequences or shots that were really important to Paul.

Paul’s vision for Paddington was hardly a full CG visual effects extravaganza – quite the opposite. We wanted to be clever about the shoot, get as much as we could in camera and focus our visual effects efforts on the star of movie: Paddington.

One of the great examples of combining practical on-set work with Paddington’s character is when Paddington is licking Judy’s face in the kitchen. It was much more visually effective for us to shoot the licking of the face as a practical effect and animate to Judy’s performance, rather than creating this from scratch in CG.

Pablo Grillo creeps on set to wipe a paintbrush the size and shape of Paddington’s tongue across the face of Judy Brown (Madeleine Harris), leaving the perfect, slobber-like mark.

Before and after. Pablo Grillo creeps on set to wipe a paintbrush the size and shape of Paddington’s tongue across the face of Judy Brown (Madeleine Harris), leaving the perfect, slobber-like mark.

So did you keep CG environments to a minimum?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying there was no digital matte painting or CG work in the movie, but for the most part environments and set augmentation were supportive in nature and hopefully as invisible as possible. We built partial medium-distance CG for some of the Natural History Museum environment and combined it with digital matte paintings of the London skyline. Additionally, we used Nuke’s particle system to dress in the snow here and there, to enhance the on-set snow and provide consistency throughout the sequence.

How much were you affected by the recasting of the voice talent from Colin Firth to Ben Whishaw?

Obviously, any creative change has – and should have – an impact on the final visual result. Paddington’s character with regard to his live-action appearance had been long established by the time the voice changed from Colin to Ben, and there was never any intent to change Paddington’s character drastically. Design and the core appearance were not affected too much, although obviously there were new characteristics we had to adapt to regarding performance and pace. But they were slight alterations rather than drastic changes.

What’s your favourite sequence from the film?

There are so many lovely sequences of Paddington in this movie, but one of my personal favourites is the “Lost and Found” scene on the station platform after Paddington arrives in London. It’s the sequence where Paddington first meets the Browns … and a pigeon. There’s so much attention to detail in this sequence, because not only does it further establish Paddington’s character, but it also really establishes the bond between Paddington and Mrs Brown – and of course the audience.

How did you go about putting the “Lost and Found” sequence together?

We began by blocking out the sequence to establish the rhythm and feel. It had to be emotional, yet maintain the wit and humour of the rest of the movie. We spent quite a lot of time getting the timings right – hitting the beats of the sequence – before we went into more detailed performance animation.

Once all the timings and beats were right we went into more detailed facial animation to really establish the emotional context of the scene. The audience can clearly follow the thought process and emotions that Paddington goes through, it’s a bit sad and funny at the same time, which really helps to build a connection with the viewer.

In this sequence we also feature an additional CG character that appears throughout the movie – the pigeon that Paddington interacts with. The pigeon doesn’t speak and performs only through its actions, yet there’s a clear conversation between Paddington and the pigeon before the Brown arrive.

Marmalade-loving Paddington tears open an orange

Paddington rips apart an orange. The outside of the fruit is CG to facilitate interaction with the animated bear, but the interior is based on live action footage shot in Framestore’s capture lab. The two sources were combined in Nuke, with FX juice and spray completing the shot.

What did you learn from working on Paddington?

That creating a believable live-action CG character remains an incredibly hard thing to achieve. But it’s still just as rewarding to see final result on the big screen.

In this age of motion-capture, it’s worth pointing out that Paddington was entirely keyframe animated, and I think the performance is amazing. We had a lot of reference from the voice talent, performer Javier Marzan, Paul King and Pablo Grillo to help us bring Paddington to life. This allowed for complete control over Paddington’s acting, enabling us to direct every little detail of his performance.

Special thanks to Stephanie Bruning and Rob Goodway. Paddington pictures copyright © 2014 by StudioCanal Limited and courtesy of Framestore.