How ‘invisible’ effects brought Winnie the Pooh to life in ‘Christopher Robin’

Ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, our Oscar Effects series puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” looking at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

Bringing a child’s imagination to life can test the limits of even the most accomplished filmmaker, but director Marc Forster kept things simple in Christopher Robin, a family-friendly adventure that explores the world through the eyes of a grown-up boy and his best friend, Winnie-the-Pooh.

Based on the works of children’s author A.A. Milne, the film casts Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Christopher Robin, who left his stuffed bear Winnie and the rest of his imaginary friends behind decades earlier. An encounter as an adult with Winnie, however, prompts him to re-evaluate his priorities and decide what’s truly important in life — with some help from Tigger, Piglet, and the rest of the gang from Hundred Acre Wood.

Tasked with bringing Winnie and the rest of Christopher Robin’s imaginary friends to life was visual effects studio Framestore, along with a team led by visual effects supervisor Chris Lawrence, who previously won an Oscar for his work on 2013’s Gravity and was nominated again for 2015’s The Martian. One of this year’s surprise nominees in the “Best Visual Effects” category, Christopher Robin tells a very personal story set in real-world London with both human characters and a host of animated stuffed toys sprung from Robin’s imagination.

Digital Trends spoke to Lawrence about bringing the world of Christopher Robin and Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters to the big screen.

Framestore/BBC Click

Digital Trends: A lot of people were surprised by Christopher Robin getting an Oscar nomination, given that visual effects category is typically filled with big-budget superhero and sci-fi projects. Were you surprised? What does the nomination mean to you?

Chris Lawrence: I was very happy that it got recognized by the Academy’s executive committee early on because I think that was a sign that we might break through. Just to be recognized at that point was a huge honor, because it was a very small movie with a relatively tame subject matter. We weren’t destroying the world three times over, or anything like that. It was a movie with some moving teddy bears.

So I was very happy, and I think it shows that the visual effects branch of the Academy were tuned in to the things I thought were good about the work we did, so that was really nice to see. I just hope enough people have seen the movie to vote for it, but I think we’ve won by being nominated.

“He wanted the audience to be able to question Christopher Robin’s reality, too. Was he imagining things or was he really seeing these characters?”

The presentation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends could have gone a lot of different ways in a film like this. When you first joined the project, what were your initial discussions like as far as how Marc wanted to present those characters? 

Authenticity was very important to Marc. He wanted to pay homage to the Disney iteration, but I think that E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations were really what drew him into the project. Creating a bear that had the feel of an Edwardian-era stuffed toy but also was able to be a key character in his story and be appealing enough that people would be drawn into it, those were the challenges we talked about early on.

[Marc] also valued us creating something that was so real an audience would forget about it being a toy, and they would believe in that character’s ability to change the humans around him and teach them things. I think he wanted the audience to be able to question Christopher Robin’s reality, too. Was he imagining things or was he really seeing these characters?

Hair and fur can be notoriously difficult to create digitally, and this film had to take an interesting approach to them because they weren’t really animal or human hair. How did you approach that element of the design?

The fur was definitely a challenge. We started off with visual effects concept paintings and then we gave them to a creature effects team who built physical stuffed toys. These stuffies were the perfect one-to-one reference, right down to the stitching. Jenny Beavan, the costume designer, hand-knitted these amazing woolen jumpers and then we photo-scanned them using very high-res photogrammetry, and that gave us this reality to match the fur to. That was one of the key things in getting it right.

Another important element was that we made huge strides in shading technology. You typically have to bend the lights into weird angles to make the fur look good, and that was particularly true with Winnie the Pooh, because his fur was quite sparse on the surface. It wasn’t just the fur that had to respond to the light accurately, but also the cloth that was underneath it. We were finding that the traditional shading models we use didn’t really work. They worked fine if you had really thick hair, but when it was less dense, it didn’t look so good.

Framestore/BBC Click

So updating our shading model was a big breakthrough, and so was our simulation of the fur. You see shots where Winnie touches flowers and plays with honey and things like that, and you’re constantly seeing interactions between the fur and other things. … we literally simulated every hair on him … and I think that all of that sort of subconsciously added to the realism and made it feel grounded.

Winnie and his friends in Christopher Robin maintained a very toy-like feel, with limited movement and expressions and such, which seems like a departure from what visual effects studios are typically aiming for when they create digital characters. Did you have to rein in that animated element in some way? 

I think that was actually the biggest challenge of all: To give these animated performances which were faithful to the spirit of a toy. Mike Eames, the animation supervisor, did a fantastic job of guiding the team on that. We had to see how far we could push ranges of expression within a shot, and Marc was absolutely tuned in to that. He never wanted a cartoony performance. He was always looking for us to sort of rein it back and make sure that our screen performance had a level of subtlety.

“A lot of stuff you see in the film that feels really organic and natural … is in fact a 100-percent computer-generated shot.”

Mike’s team had to use every trick in the book, but they were bound by the physical limits of these toys, which had these single pivots of articulation and things like that. They had to make them move just enough to be really appealing and get into what they were doing, but at the same time within this palette of a very limited range of movements. … There were lots of little subtle things they were constantly doing to push the boundaries of the animation. I think the result is actually quite special.

Marc is known to be a big fan of using handheld cameras and a more hands-on, natural, no-frills sort of filmmaking style. Did that impact the way you approached your work on Christopher Robin?

It did. In an alternate reality we would have done very extensive pre-visualization work on the film and we could have animated the scenes independently, but that really wasn’t the way that Marc and his director of photography were working. We were shooting on location in natural light and they wanted shots that used some greenery that had probably only grown a few days before, and things like that, so that sort of forward planning we would typically do became the wrong tool for the job. So we fell back on puppeteering the stuffies that we’d made.

Marc Forster | VFX of Christopher Robin
Director Marc Forster with Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger on the set of Disney’s Christopher Robin. Walt Disney Studios

We’d film the first take with them being puppeteered through the shot, and then we would try to mimic that for the second take. … if it didn’t work, we would essentially shoot tiles of the area that we could reconstruct as a CG entity matching the primary camera style. So a lot of stuff you see in the film that feels really organic and natural, with someone holding a stuffed bear, is in fact a 100-percent computer-generated shot. That was something I’m quite proud of. It’s nice still to do true invisible work in visual effects.

Each of the digital characters in Christopher Robin has its own, very unique style. How did you differentiate them on the visual effects side? Were there any that posed unique challenges?

They all did. There’s such a legacy there from Disney and going all the way back to the books. If you think of a character like Tigger, who was going to sing the Tigger song and act that way, you had to be faithful to that — but then at the same time here was this kind of slightly worn, aged character that had to feel like a well-loved toy, too. A lot of that individuality came from establishing their character through the way they moved or rather, the way they didn’t move — the way they flopped, for example.

Framestore/BBC Click

Eeyore is a sort of donkey that sits down like a beanbag and just kind of collapses. So we made him that way as a stuffed toy, because that played to his character, and then we were able to sort of imbue that in the animation for him as well. And then with Tigger it was exactly the opposite, as he’s loose but springy, and you could sort of throw him around, which creates this sort of extreme contrast with someone like Eeyore. With Winnie the Pooh, we had to be so restrained because of his character — he’s kind of Zen — whereas with the other guys we could really push the range of the animation and make it be very expressive.

Is there one particular scene or element of Christopher Robin that encapsulates the experience of working on this film for you? What comes to mind when you think about the work you did on this film? 

Wow. I think it has to be just being in the woods. We were shooting in the beautiful English countryside, and we went to the real Hundred Acre Wood.

So we were there in nature making this very beautiful love letter to our own childhoods and wanting to get a message out to the world to stop looking at the news on your phone and go out play with your kids and things like that. So I think the whole thing felt very personal in a way, because it felt like a message we wanted to get out there. I hope in some small way that we did.

Christopher Robin hit theaters on August 3, 2018. The 91st Academy Awards ceremony kicks off February 24 at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.

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