One of the technology leaders behind the hugely anticipated big-screen debut of the world’s best-loved bear has a refreshingly humble method for evaluating the success or failure of his team’s latest multi-million pound movie project. He calls it ‘The Mum Test’. Steve MacPherson is the Chief Technology Officer of Framestore, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning team that has used Intel technology to bring Michael Bond’s beloved creation to life in the new Paddington movie starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters. A team of 350 from across two continents helped to bring Paddington to life with a little help from Intel tech. As global leaders in visual effects, Framestore’s credits also include all eight Harry Potter films, Oscar-winning blockbusters Gravity and The Dark Knight, the BAFTA-winning War Horse plus Guardians of the Galaxy and Dracula Untold. So Steve knows what he’s talking about.
Yet despite the deafening chorus of industry approval for their best-in-class character animation, the first person he goes to for an honest assessment of Framestore’s latest work is his mum. He knows that if it’s good enough for his mum, it’s good enough full-stop. He explains: “I call it ‘The Mum Test’ – when I’m sitting in the movie theatre with my mum, believe me, her reaction tells me whether or not the characters are right and if they’re not you know about it pretty quick!” And the film’s Animation Supervisor Pablo Grillo agrees: “There was a lot of responsibility finding a photo-realistic design for a bear that people have so clear in their minds. We were keen to bring him into the real world so he would sit into the live action and, we hope, people will connect with him.”
VFX Supervisor Andy Kind echoes his sentiments: “It was slightly scary taking on such an iconic character,” he says, “from the Peggy Fortnum illustrations to the 1970s BBC series, there are a lot of looks for Paddington, and everyone has their favourite. We spent a lot of time on the design before we found something that hit the mark.” Or to paraphrase all of the above: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” This was, of course, the message famously written on the luggage tag which adorned the marmalade -loving bear when he was first discovered at Paddington Station. It’s an instruction that has been meticulously followed by Framestore as they set about the task of animating Paddington for his big screen debut later this month. The results are spectacular but remain true to the spirit of the classic tales that have captivated children and adults since 1958.
We all know the story – having traveled by boat from darkest Peru, the polite duffle coat wearing bear eventually arrives at Paddington Station in London where, once found by Mr. and Mrs. Brown, he is welcomed into their home at 32 Windsor Gardens. Hijinks followed with the Brown family and we’ve been fascinated with his adventures ever since. For nearly sixty years we’ve laughed with him, we’ve celebrated birthdays with him, we might even have dressed up as him and we’ve grown up with him. He’s a big part of our lives. And that’s exactly why technology is so important in the latest chapter of the Paddington story. Intel and Framestore have been technology partners for almost five years and have enjoyed huge success together with films such as Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But, importantly, they both understand that the main role for technology is to not make the audience gasp, but to make them believe.
Steve picks up the thread: “We work with directors and producers across the complete film making process to help design, plan and create visual effects to support their storytelling. We’re lucky to have all this incredible technology but ultimately there is only one objective: to make Paddington a believable and lovable animated character that people can connect with. If we achieve that then all of our collective work from many different fields has been a success. “Our relationship with Intel goes back nearly five years and our whole infrastructure is powered by Intel technology, from our Core i7 based workstations to our servers. A few years ago we transferred over to the Intel compiler and that has really helped us in terms of our optimizations and the physics of what we’re doing with hair, water and other materials. This is a fundamental part of character animation and is one of our core strengths. “As everybody knows, Paddington is a hairy creature and, as the central character of the film, he has a lot of screen time which means there are a number of different environments to create. At various points in the film Paddington is seen eating cake, skateboarding, throwing snowballs and even flying down the staircase in a bath so he has to be believable. Factors like the way his hair reacts to objects and water have to be authentic and realistic. This work is done by our compositing team whose job is to combine different visual elements from separate sources to create a seamless finished image. “There is a lot of hidden tech that goes into these movies and they simply couldn’t happen without it. At Framestore we are absolutely creative but our bedrock is technology.
There are a lot of unsung heroes, not just the compositing team – there’s also the visual effects pipeline team who plan the phasing of the film’s production; the R&D team who produce new software tools to bring the vision to life and also our systems experts. All these functions are hugely interdependent and hugely reliant on technology. “The relentless march of technology has completely changed the film industry and it’s the power of technology that allows our creative teams to turn their visions into reality. It’s part of the DNA of what we do, simple as that. We recently made a switch in our rendering hardware which has opened up a whole world of new possibilities for us. Paddington the movie, directed by Paul King and produced by David Heyman, hit the UK cinemas at the weekend and is set for release in 50 countries over the festive period. http://www.paddington.com/gb/the-movie/ The classic tales of the much-loved bear have sold more than 35 million books worldwide, been translated into over 40 languages and captured the imagination of children and adults around the globe. You can also follow Paddington’s adventures on Twitter: @paddingtonbear and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/PaddingtonBear