INTERVIEW: PAUL KING ON THE VISUAL WIZARDRY OF|
Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
January 4, 2018
Based on the beloved works of children's author Michael Bond, Paddington 2 sees its ursine protagonist on a quest to clear his good name after being framed for burglary by a nefarious theatre actor. This wonderful family film earnestly and unironically promotes virtues like courtesy, politeness, honesty, and loyalty in a refreshing way, even as it takes a few playful jabs at politicians, the penal system, and show business. But despite its dependence on a strong story and the endearing interactions between its charming characters, the lighthearted comedy is also incredibly indebted to one unsung hero: its computer generated animation.
In contrast to a franchise like the live-action Transformers series, where CG wizardry is paramount and steals the spotlight from any semblance of character development (a trend we hope actually gets reversed in this year's Bumblebee), the Paddington feature films have meticulously walked a precarious middle ground in which the visual fidelity of Paddington is never questioned, yet is not so slick and flashy as to jar its viewers out of its everyday reality. Effectively, the movie magic must be so sublime that it never draws attention to itself, even though it would stick out like a sore thumb if something happened to be askew.
Director Paul King, who helmed 2014's Paddington, returned to his behind-the-camera duties for the 2017 sequel. During a press conference in which he was joined by co-writer Simon Farnaby and stars Hugh Bonneville and Hugh Grant, he elaborated on some of the technical details that went into the arduous task of bringing his sapient bear to the big screen.
"When we started the first film," King recollects, "we were aware that we have this talking animal, and even though he's an extraordinary creation of special effects, there's an inherent unreality to having a small bear walking the streets of London. And we wanted to make sure that he didn't feel like people should be running and screaming, going, 'Is he going to tear my face off?' You know, we wanted Paddington to be able to exist in the universe. And part of that was making the bear as realistic as he could be, and another part of it was making the world come to Paddington. And so we tried to create a heightened storybook sort of magical London, where a bear walking down the street feels like the most natural thing in the world, and of course you say hello to him, and you're kind and polite. And it feels quite natural."
Paddington 2 creates that magical, fairy tale London through its actors being wholly invested in the premise of an affable talking bear with a hunger for marmalade sandwiches, as well as through a variety of animation techniques that imbue the narrative with a homespun flavor. One such moment depicts London as a children's pop-up book. Of that particular artistic choice, King says, "The pop-up book was an attempt to get in Paddington's head...Obviously, there's lots of high tech wizardry with Paddington, but we wanted to keep a sort of homemade, lo-fi feel to it as well--to keep that sort of storybook sensibility...Every single thing you see in there apart from the bear is genuinely hand-painted and genuinely scanned into the computer. And we really tried to keep as much 'organic special effect' as possible so that you don't feel that you've just left the world behind and entered the realm of computer."
To render this incarnation of Paddington, King collaborated with Framestore, who are no strangers to the process of breathing virtual life into critters that speak--the production company also worked on the uproarious Rocket "What's a raccoon?" for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.
The frontier of computer animation has made spectacular leaps forward since Pixar broke new ground with mainstream audiences in 1995 with Toy Story, and the tools at King's disposal continued to make rapid progress between Paddington and Paddington 2. "The technologies are, I'm sure you know, endlessly advancing," King notes. "And our partners at Framestore who work their astonishing magic completely rebuilt the way they render his fur. This immediately gets slightly tiresomely technical, but it's an entirely different process they went through, and it works much better. And there's things that you could do last time that had to be very, very bespoke, but this time, we were able to delve more into. And some of the things that are really tricky are the things you never really would think would be tricky."
Citing a specific sequence in which Paddington gets a job at a barbershop and has a mishap with an electric razor, King explains, "The way his fur vibrates when he's holding the razor is insanely complicated. And this whole scene was dependent on this moment when he holds the razor and the vibration transmits to his fur." Continuing, King recalls the production timeline of that particular gag, and how its evolution continued well into the eleventh hour. "You start the shot in January, and then by June, it looks dreadful. And by September, it looks like he's in an earthquake and may die at any moment. And literally, it was about the last day of October (and the film was out in the UK on the 10th of November) that we'd finally found the right algorithm--the sine wave that flows through his fur...So there's all sorts of incredibly technical things, and there's a lot of bespoke challenges in there."
Another easily overlooked challenge is the artistry of creating beats of living, breathing inaction. "I always think it's the stillness that's the hardest bit," King maintains. "There's that shot where [Paddington is] in the prison and that single tear goes down his snout, and he's hardly moving at all. But for that to feel like he's still alive and not just a freeze frame is so weirdly difficult. And I really think that that shot is so emotional, and he's doing so little. And we all think it's one of the best visual effects shots we've ever seen, because you're just right there with him. [Even] I forget that he's not real, and I spent six hours a day looking at visual effects reviews! So I think they've done an incredible job. I'm really proud of the work."
With both Paddington and Paddington 2 having garnered such immense critical acclaim, we're hoping the numbers work out for a third feature film to make sense for the genteel bear. In less capable hands, those crowd-pleasing comedies might have delivered a Paddington that was too modernized, too uncanny valley, or too barbarous--maybe even leading to the type of project that King jokingly refers to as "Paddington Goes Feral." But with the same creative team in place, it's safe to assume a third installment would remain true to the spirit of Bond's time-tested classics, and the most violence we would ever see from Paddington Brown is his trademark hard stare.