VFX: Disney's <I>Christopher Robin</I>
Issue: August 1, 2018

VFX: Disney's Christopher Robin

There have been many iterations of the story of Winnie the Pooh over the years since English author A. A. Milne introduced the stuffed character to readers in his first collection of stories in 1926. Aside from the popular books establishing Pooh as one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, Disney’s films from the 1960s helped create a place for the loveable bear and his pals, including Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger from Hundred Acre Wood, as a regular part of pop culture. Disney’s newest version, Christopher Robin, is a live-action tale that’s centered on title character Christopher Robin, who as a child, embarked on many adventures with his stuffed animal friends.

Now, all grown up, Robin is a working-man, with a job he dislikes and a family with which he spends way too little time. When he becomes reunited with Pooh, Robin is reminded of his childhood past.

Disney’s Christopher Robin, staring Ewan McGregor ( Trainspotting, Moulin Rouge) and Haley Atwell ( Captain America, TV’s Agent Carter) is directed by Golden Globe nominee Marc Forster ( Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland), with help from a stellar team that includes editor Matt Chesse, DP Matthias Koenigswieser and VFX supervisor Glenn Melenhorst, among others.

Here, while still putting the finishing touches on Christopher Robin, Forster (pictured above) speaks exclusively with Post about making the anticipated new film.

Why did you want to make this film?

“I was on a plane with my daughter and she was watching a Winnie the Pooh cartoon and she turned to me and said, ‘I can’t watch any of your movies, can you make one for me?’ I saw she was watching Winnie the Pooh and I said, ‘Yes, we can do Winnie the Pooh! (laughs).'

“When I came back from my trip, Disney sent me a couple of scripts. They never made a live-action film with Pooh before and so they put me in touch with a producer, Brigham Taylor, who was working on a draft. We started working together on the script and developed it. Apart from the fact that I love Pooh, and all the Pooh-isms, and I love my daughter, it’s really about a movie that brings you back to who you really are, the people who you really love, the people that really matter in life, the importance of doing nothing, and if you do nothing, ultimately you can discover yourself again. It can open your heart again. There are all these incredible topics, which are more important than ever in the time we live in.”

I imagine it was challenging to work on a set, with some characters that were digital/CG and not actually there when you were shooting?

“Yes, it was tricky with CG characters. Normally, I’m used to, ‘Oh, the light is perfect, let’s shoot.’ With the hero pass, you have to make sure that the light is perfect and the shot is perfect, but nothing is in the frame, so I shot some of these with the stuffed animals that I wanted in there and shot hand held. Also, when you shoot something that’s empty, it doesn’t give you the same satisfaction of a great act delivering some great lines.

“It was also a very difficult task for Ewan (McGregor), because ultimately he was acting to air. I had stuffed animals made, my whole office was full of fabrics, for Pooh’s sweater, and I had a stuffy on a stick. I had a young student just out of drama school read the lines and I blocked the scenes with the stuffy what I wanted Pooh to do. Then we had a rehearsal with Ewan, acting with the stuffy and he had the lines, and then the stuffy had been taken out and he only had the eyeline stick at different spots where the character would be at certain lines and he had to act to air. It was really hard.”

How many visual effects shots are there and what studio was the lead VFX house on the film?

“To be honest, it’s not that crazy. It’s around 1,400, and Framestore and Iloura were the two lead houses. Framestore was in London and Montreal, and Iloura was in Melbourne."

Did you do any previs? 

“Yes, we did lots of previs and obviously with the CG characters and some complete CG scenes. We worked with The Third Floor on that.”

How early on did you integrate post and the visual effects?

“I started integrating once we started to prep in London. Most of the previs was here in Los Angeles and then finished up in London once we moved there. But it set the look and feel in regards to our image boards and mood boards, and then ultimately, the previs made it very clear exactly what kind of movie I was intending to make and the differentiation of the live action versus the cartoon version we all know. I went back and looked at the original, black and white, E. H. Shepard drawings of the characters and at the early animations, some of the drawings from Disney, but really, I wanted the stuffed animals to feel like they were vintage, like they have a feeling of being used, having been played with, and to get that real authentic feel with them.

“Framestore basically wrote an original program just for Pooh’s jumper (his red sweater) — it was that hard to make that work.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“On the production side, it was very pleasant, right at the beginning. I said I wanted to keep the camera pretty low, handheld, pretty much to the ground. It had to feel very fluid. And everyone completely understood that. We did a couple of tests and the tests turned out fantastic. It’s the first time they had done anything like this, and we had a challenge where we only had 32 weeks in post, and it was very tight to finish it up but we made it. So that was very exciting.”

What are your feelings about the post production portion of the filmmaking process?

“In a film where you’re dealing with eight or nine animated characters, it’s much more complicated. You’re directing part of the film in post because you’re recording the voices with the actors in the booth, you’re coming back and putting them in, you have to post this first and then you move on to these rudimentary animation and then ultimately you end up with the final product. But it’s a constant process because you’re going back to the booth, re-recording the actor, changing lines to something funnier or just works better. On the other hand, it’s exciting because you can shape the movie. You can cut the movie and see what works. You can make it more precise versus on a film, you have the performances, you cut it and then pretty much you’re done. And you feel like, ‘Oh, I wish we could have tried this.’ So, it gives you basically half your movie and then you make the other half of the movie in post, when you’re cutting it, which I think ultimately it gives you a chance to get a better movie made. I came to the realization that I need to work with more animated characters from now on (laughs).”

What were the big editing challenges? You worked with editor Matt Chese before?

“Yes, that’s correct. We worked very closely. We have similar sensibilities, at the same time we have the constant dialogue how to make the movie better. But I’m very hands on with him and we are in the editing room together. It’s back and forth. As we’re shooting, he’s already cutting and seeing footage. I give him input, and he goes off and cuts some more. 

“As for challenges, to be honest, there really weren’t any. It went incredibly smooth and in great cooperation with the studio. We were all making the same movie and that’s really key — especially in post. If you’re not making the same movie, you’re suddenly confronted with challenges. One thing you learn after making movies for a while, when you meet with producers and meet with the studio, you present your vision as clear as you can, to make sure you all are making the same movie.”
What was your relationship like with DP Matthias Koenigswieser?

"He’s Austrian and Swiss, so we speak the same mother language, so we have a close collaboration. When I worked with him the first time, a very young DP, he hadn’t done any features before that, just commercials and documentaries, but he had a very instinctual connection with the camera. He operates the camera himself and I like when DPs operate themselves, especially when it comes to some of the handheld moves, he connects very well with the actors or the subjects very much. I’m at a point where I know what I’m doing, where I wanted a young DP who comes with a fresh eye; a fresh perspective and not become overly technical.” 

How important is sound design and music?

“Hugely important. Especially a film like this, music is very important. Sound as well. Sound design invokes emotions like music does. But the key in sound design was to make it not too cartoony. Because we know these sounds from Pooh as a cartoon, you don’t want to duplicate that sound. We wanted the characters to feel much more real than the cartoon version but still have a little bit of that — Tigger has a spring in his tail. How is that going to sound? Ultimately the music is the emotional part to it, but music also works for comedic reasons, which is also very important.”

Did the film turn out the way you envisioned going in?

“Yes, I really, truly made the movie I wanted to make. I’m super happy with it and couldn’t be more pleased.”