It’s a familiar tale - a skilled woodcarver looks to fill the void of loneliness by creating a small puppet that he treats as his own child. One night, before retiring to bed, he catches a glimpse of a fabled star through his window and makes a wish for a real boy that will bring him the happiness he longs for.
Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis directed this latest telling of Pinocchio, which combines live-action elements with CG characters and environments. Tom Hanks plays craftsman Geppetto, who interacts with a range of digital characters, including his pet cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo.
Cynthia Erivo is the Blue Fairy, who visits the workshop late that night upon receiving Geppetto’s wish, and turns Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) into a walking, talking puppet — though still in need of some direction. Enter Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who was simply trying to escape the elements when he came upon the workshop. After slipping under its door and settling in for the night, he witnesses what takes place and offers to act as Pinocchio’s conscience, helping to teach him wrong from right.
When Pinocchio heads to school one morning — like all the ‘real’ children — he is intercepted by ‘Honest’ John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who convinces the young puppet to skip school and instead enter into show business, where he’s destined to become a star. This sets off a string of events that lead Pinocchio further from home and the only people who truly care for him.
Lorraine Bracco voices Sofia the Seagull and Luke Evans is The Coachman, who rounds up children and takes them to Pleasure Island, a place where children are told they are free from adult supervision, but are instead turned into donkeys and made to work. The film’s story differs only slightly from Disney’s 1940 release, and songs such as “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)” all find their place.
MPC served as the sole visual effects and animation studio on the project, delivering more than 920 shots and calling on a team of 1,200 artists across studios in Montreal, Bangalore and London. Production stretched two years and was impacted by the COVID pandemic, limiting how many actors could appear on-set during production, as well as those in MPC’s offices. According to MPC VFX supervisor Ben Jones, the film called on the studio to create approximately 10 hero characters, including Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Cleo, Figaro, Sofia and Honest John, along with 20 environments.
Live action footage of Tom Hanks was shot on large stages set within former WWII airship hangars in Cardington, UK. Geppetto’s workshop was a practical set, though a digital version was also created. This allowed for previs, where director Robert Zemeckis could plan his camera moves.
“We didn’t do any in-camera LEDs. This was all, simul-cam,” Jones explains. “We sort of built all the sets in Unreal, which we were using for previz and postvis. And then we had camera tracks on-set so that, in the monitors, they [could] see all the sets with the blue-screen live. The only time we actually used LED panels was for interactive lighting.”
Characters were modeled using Audodesk Maya and were based on physical models built by the prop department. A Pinocchio puppet, complete with clothing, was built and used as a reference for the modelers. This allowed MPC artists to really get into detail, recreating elements such as the wool gloves that cover Pinocchio’s hands. Similarly, costumes were created for other characters too. Honest John’s cape, for example, exists as real fabric, and Jiminy’s jacket and umbrella were also created with real materials.
“There’s a realism from copying something that’s real like that,” Jones explains. “Pinocchio was one example of that. But even Jiminy, Honest John and Gideon, who are full-CG characters in the whole movie, the costume department actually built real costumes for them…Real things were built that we then copied. I think that really added a level of handmade, naturalistic design to those characters.”
Pinocchio, himself, presented a unique challenge, unlike the film’s other characters. As a figure made of wood, the team had to decide how expressive he could be, while respecting his rigid wooden structure.
“Bob [wanted] him to be really expressive,” says Jones of Zemeckis’s directive. “So to achieve that in a way that isn’t a rubbery wood kind of look was a sort of technical and artistic challenge. But having said that, once we sort of got it to a particular stage, it was never actually a problem. We sort of got it into place where Bob and everyone were happy, and then the animators were able to achieve the performance that Bob wanted.”
Cleo, the goldfish, is fully CG, but her bowl goes back and forth from CG to live action.
“We had some live-action water in there, inside the shot,” Jones recalls. “But for the most part, the water was CG as well. It was tricky. The simulation teams did a great job on that. With an actor like Tom Hanks doing his performance, he would be carrying a prop bowl in some of those scenes, and the effects team had a real challenge to kind of get an artistically-directed kind of simulation of water inside that bowl as he’s moving around. Nice little splashes and things like that.”
‘Scale’ was a challenge that MPC faced throughout the film. There are large environments, such as the Pleasure Island theme park and the wide-open ocean with Geppetto’s tiny rowboat, and then there are macro shots, with close-ups of Jiminy Cricket.
“For a lot of the movie, we had this same sort of challenge,” says Jones. “There’d be huge shots, and then Jiminy on like a tiny little thing in the middle of the environment. So, having to build the whole environment and also the small (detailed) sections of it.”
Performance was yet another challenge. The musical numbers, particularly “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” are quite theatrical. Pinocchio, in fact, performs on a stage among a cast of marionettes, to show off his unique skills.
“I guess the word would be, it’s ‘enthusiastic,’ but it’s sort of a realistic style,” says Jones of the motion. “Bob really wanted the animators to go to town and sort of have fun. The animators really enjoyed that aspect of it.”
Animation was all hand keyframed. The MPC team worked with music when possible and with click tracks when music was unavailable.
“What that [allowed] us to do was to embellish it slightly,” says Jones of the keyframe technique. “Push the envelope a little bit in terms of poses, and especially for someone like Honest John — he’s extremely flamboyant.”
Members of the animation department, including animation supervisor Christophe St-Pierre Paradis, shot reference poses, which were then used for the characters’ individual movements.
"Bob would often look at the references and choose a particular one and say, ‘Hey, I like what he’s doing here.’”
MPC’s proprietary tools were used for facial animation, as well as for all the grooming of hair and fur.
“And then we relied really heavily on (SideFX) Houdini for all the effects and sims and water stuff,“ Jones notes, including the film’s climax, where Geppetto and Pinocchio are swallowed by a giant sea monster, rather than a whale, as told in the 1940s film.
“Over the past few years, we’ve tended to move a little towards using Houdini instead of some of our proprietary software.”
When Jones is asked what part of the film presented the biggest challenge, he replies, “It’s an easy answer.”
The Pleasure Island scene challenged the MPC team because of its many components. In it, a wagon-filled with children are told they are going to the famous island, where there is a massive theme park and no rules — or adults. Children can drink as much as they want, ride roller coasters, shoot pool and break things without consequence. Ultimately, though, they’ve been misled, and are instead turned into donkeys for use as manual labor.
“The Pleasure Island stuff was the most tricky scene on this show, for sure," says Jones. "You’ve got Pinocchio, interacting with a live-action character, and you’ve got a huge background environment that’s mostly full-CG. (There are) kids dancing to music and lots of effects. I think a lot of shots in that scene were made up of multiple plates — maybe three or four plates make up one shot. So they were very complex assembly shots. That was certainly the most complex scene.”
Geppetto may have gotten his wish, with Pinocchio coming to life, just like a real boy, but for the MPC team, there was no help from a magic fairy.
"Nothing comes for free in CG,” says Jones of the studio's two years of hard work. “That’s for sure.”
Pinocchio premiered on September 8th and is currently streaming on the Disney+ app.