Between films including War for the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Beauty and the Beast, it’s been a big year for films led by CGI-enhanced characters. Having worked on the first Guardians installment, visual effects supervisor confronted an abundance of VFX characters this year on the latter Disney film, grappling with how to assist actors with their performances in reaction to characters that weren’t there.
The solution, in large part, was to bring those characters into the room, whether that be through animatronics, life-size builds or puppets guided by marionette performers, grounding the actors in the reality of Belle’s magical world. Luckily for McCulloch, he was in this case working primarily with Emma Watson, a VFX wiz from her years on the Harry Potter series.
As someone who has worked across a great number of genres, what excited you about Bill Condon’s live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast?
As a kid, Disney animation was something I was really into. Beauty and the Beast and that particular renaissance of the Alan Menken music was right when I was coming of age, so it was a project that I was, very excited to be a part of.
How, then, did you come to be involved?
I work for Framestore, which was one of the companies contracted to work on the film, and we were involved from very early on. Our art department had partnered with the production designer long before pre-production had started to work on designing the characters. That early relationship developed into us then taking on all of the work on the film.
What were the first steps taken in figuring out the visual effects for this film?
It’s always a big challenge for a filmmaking crew when you’re going to have characters on set that aren’t going to be there. Especially for Bill, who comes from a theater background, I think there were a lot of questions and concerns about, how do we make the filming process fluid and creative and flexible, so that we can get the shots and the performances that we want, without being too tied into all the technical stuff.
Framestore was partnered with Digital Domain, who were the other vendor on it, and myself and Kelly Port—my counterpart at Digital Domain—did quite a bit of work to develop what the characters were going to look like, to do animation, character and movement tests, and a lot of that stuff was happening well before we started filming. It was all in the service of showing the filmmakers and getting everybody on board with what they looked like.
Then, through the shoot, it was a vast array of every trick available to us. We had the special effects team build some of the characters as animatronics, so they could actually be animated and moved around on set. We had life-size builds of them that we could have on set, and then we had puppets. Lumière had this pretty amazing stand-in—a marionette performer. We built the marionette with lights on his hands, so we could actually walk the puppet through the scene and have it perform for everyone to see, and get a sense for how it was going to work.
Every shot was different, but we really worked hard to build up a library of tools to give the filmmakers as many visual cues and ideas and stand-ins for what we were going to be doing in post.
The Beast was originally going to be created practically. It must have been a major turning point, when the decision was made to go with effects.
What is so amazing about the film is that so much of it is real, so I think it was that same motivation, early on—can we do the Beast practically? Can we do it with makeup; can we do it with animatronics? And a lot of work was done to explore that.
But in the end, the team at Digital Domain were also doing some tests to show how it might work digitally. When push came to shove, the flexibility of the visual effects approach won out, and the fidelity of the performance, being able to take all of the subtleties of what Dan Stevens was going to give us as the performer, and seeing all of that reflected in the Beast. If you were trying to do it under a thousand pounds of makeup, it was never going to give us the clarity of performance that Digital Domain ultimately achieved in the Beast.
When it came to character design, did you look to Disney’s animated classic or other iterations of Beauty and the Beast for inspiration?
Totally. The original Beauty and the Beast is a really beloved film, so I think we all approached it with a great deal of respect for what was done originally. As we were thinking about the characters, what the original characters were was a huge part of that.
But at the same time, for Bill and Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, there was this mandate that we set this in a real world and that these things look like real objects, and be a part of a real castle. As much as we did jump off from where the original characters were, a lot of it was, “Okay, in Versailles, what does one of these crazy rococo candelabras look like?” We did tons of research, looking at clocks and wardrobes and furniture, to try and build believable-looking characters that fit into the sets that they were building.
Were exterior shots of the Beast’s castle handled exclusively through visual effects?
Yeah, I think most of the exteriors are primarily visual effects. They built the big front balcony and landing off the front of the castle, so there’s a big entryway that was built, but beyond that, I think the bulk of it was visual effects.
From a VFX perspective, what went into the creation of those exteriors?
It started with some original French chateaus, the Vaux-le-Vicomte and other really incredible buildings that exist in the real world, and then extrapolating from that—not to speak to what Sarah’s process was, but I do know that they worked on designs for what the unenchanted castle might be, and then the language of enchantment in the film was rococo design gone mad. So, what does it look like when that happens to this castle, and pieces of it are falling and grown over and tilted at impossible angles? That was a huge part of the design process.
But that model was all part of the production design’s work, to bring this world to life, so before we ever started, we had these incredible models and designs of what this castle was meant to be. The sets were by far the biggest sets I’ve ever been on, and the craftsmanship on them was extraordinary. The art department had figured out where each one of these sets fit into the bigger castle build that they had designed, so when it came time to do the digital build, we had a very strong starting point to build from.
What is the thought process on big-budget films like Beauty and the Beast when it comes to deciding what will be built and what will be generated after the fact?
It’s all a conversation and it’s all a bit of a compromise. Certainly, this particular group of filmmakers, from the beginning, they wanted to build it. They wanted to see as much as they could on camera, and from a visual effects perspective, I love that. Yeah, I’m going to add stuff, but it’s so much harder when what you’re starting with is a green box. So you have a lot of conversations when you’re in pre-production for a film, when you just sit down for hours with the art department, reading the script.
There are monetary considerations, because everybody has their budget and it’s expensive to build the real thing, so it’s always a back and forth of figuring out where the smartest way to spend your money is.
On a film of this scale, what are the visual effects supervisor’s responsibilities on set?
Visual effects are becoming more and more involved in every different aspect of filmmaking. On this particular project, we were focused on making sure that it was really easy for everyone to understand where the characters were, how big they were, what they looked like, what their performances were going to be. I was making sure that I worked with the ADs, that I blocked out with the director where each character was going to be, so that as the crew is moving and we’re doing setups, my team was getting the characters in and trying to make it as seamless as possible—especially for the actors.
Working with Emma [Watson] was really a treat because she has so much visual effects experience. She can walk on set and know exactly the questions to ask. She knows what she needs to understand about the characters, and then she’s ready to go. That was really a big help. But for us, it’s mainly staying out of everybody’s way and making sure we’re there to help people understand the stuff that they can’t see.
What went into creating the spectacularly colorful “Be Our Guest” sequence?
That was the hardest bit to plan and execute. Bill, from the beginning, wanted to design it as a stage performance, so we were instructed to work with Anthony Van Laast who’s a West End choreographer; we were working with Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher who are Tony Award-winning lighting designers. He brought together a very unusual team of people who do stage performances, and then asked us to design this very complex visual effects number.
It was pretty neat to work with those people because they are used to building things in the real world. Working with those lighting designers, they brought in a tremendous amount of their own lights, and we shot quite a bit of material on a set that didn’t have anything in it. It was all in service of getting all of the different light and color stacked up.
They did a lot of work for us, and while they were designing all that stuff, we were pre-vising, working with mocap to put temp dance into the scene, and timing everything out to the second to make sure that it worked. Then, when it came time to shoot it, we were using Panavision’s technodolly, which works similarly to a motion-controlled rig. We were using that to make sure every camera move was exactly as we’d planned it, and the lighting designers were the ones controlling everything on the set. They designed these very complex lighting cues, and it was something to behold because they would trigger the lights and SFX were on the same channels, so all of the servomotors would go, all the carts would start flying around the set. There was nothing there, but you get chairs flying and carts zipping around, and the technodolly’s whizzing around over the table, shooting all the plates. Even though there’s nothing there.
It’s to Bill’s credit that he insisted that we build it for real. In post, we ended up replacing and redoing a lot of it to put in all the characters and the plates and the napkins and the fireworks, but because we had built this real thing with all of these people whose experience was to build real things, the end result has a texture and a loveliness and a depth that we wouldn’t have had if it was just, “Okay, we’ll shoot it on a green screen and let the visual effects guys figure out what to do later.” It was those partnerships that made it really something special.