Why the Production Eschewed Stuffed Animals and Animatronics in Favor of All-CG Characters

In Walt Disney Studios’ live action film Christopher Robin, the stuffed toys Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and others from Christopher Robin’s childhood bring spontaneity and joy back into his overworked adult life as an efficiency expert.

Mark Forster, who directed World War Z among many other films, and received a Golden Globe nomination for Finding Neverland and a BAFTA nomination for The Kite Runner took charge of this film. Ewan McGregor played Christopher Robin and Hayley Atwell co-starred as Robin’s wife. The voice actors included Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger), Brad Garrett (Eeyore), and Nick Mohammed (Piglet). IMDb lists the film’s budget at $75 million and worldwide box office receipts rounded to $198 million. The review aggregator calculated critical approval at 73 percent with an audience score of 85 percent.

Christopher Robin received an Oscar nomination for visual effects, an Annie Award nomination for character animation in a live action production, and two VES award nominations, one for outstanding visual effects and another for outstanding animated character (Tigger).

Theo Jones (VFX supervisor, Framestore), Chris Corbould (second unit director and special effects supervisor), and Framestore’s Chris Lawrence (overall visual effects supervisor), and Mike Eames (overall animation supervisor) received Oscar nominations.

We spoke with Chris Lawrence about the visual effects work on this film. Previously, Lawrence received an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a VES award for his work on Gravity. In addition, he was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA and a VES award for best visual effects on The Martian.

We’ve interviewed all five Oscar-nominated VFX supervisors. Click here to read the rest of the Q&As.

StudioDaily: Why do you think your peers voted to give Oscar nominations for best visual effects to Christopher Robin?

Chris Lawrence: I think the film was trying to do something quite special. At a high level, it was a complicated concept about using the idea of toys coming to life — that people would believe in the toys and they would enlighten the human characters. The other thing we were able to do that I think the voters bought into was the craft itself, particularly in terms of the animation. Marc [Forster, director,] pushed the realism of the toy animals. It was paramount to the crux of the film and he wanted it to be perfect. So we did everything in our power to make the realism the best it could be. The animated performances of the characters are subtle, particularly Winnie the Pooh. He’s a simple bear. Mark wouldn’t allow us to push his face around to be cartoony, so we had to hold back. I think we were able to make that subtlety work within the construct of the story and the storytelling and the craft. I thought it was some of the best animation I’ve seen.

How many visual effects shots were in the film, and who worked on them?

Framestore was the lead vendor and did something like 700 shots total. Third Floor joined us for previs and postvis. Method in Melbourne did 400 shots. Lola did 180 shots. We also did the end sequence in post where we had to composite Richard Sherman into footage we’d shot at a beach in Dover for the credit roll. He couldn’t travel. So I had one of my best days of my filming career doing a facial capture shoot of Richard Sherman just playing. Then we put him into plates shot on the beach in the UK. We had a body double playing the piano — but not as well.

I was surprised that the great work on Tigger resulted in a VES nomination, but Pooh didn’t.

I was surprised too about Tigger winning over Pooh! They are such contrasting characters we thought it would be fun to put them both up. I guess ultimately when you make a three-minute reel of Tigger being bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun fun fun fun fun! That’s the kind of thing people are going to vote for. I’m sure there’s a lesson somewhere in there for the world.

Which character was more difficult?

Winnie the Pooh, because he was the key antagonist in the story and central to everything else. He had to be right. We had to go on a real journey to create an appealing performance with such heavy constraints on the way we could do it. In the end, Michael [Eames, overall animation supervisor] used every trick in the book. For example, we’d hide an expression change in a head movement. We had to create a performance with enough range to be powerful without having the ability to move. I think Michael has never gotten over what a challenge that was. He wondered for days whether he’d be able to pull it off. It was [laughs] interesting to watch.

What was the process of creating the toys and their performances?

We did two things simultaneously — CG animation and, in the visual effects department, sculpting from concept paintings. We did animation tests to explore how the characters would come across using the models. A creature effects team in Shepperton built the [practical] models. These characters had to be well-loved toys. They couldn’t feel brand new; they’d been kicking around in an Edwardian bedroom for however long, so they had to be a little threadbare. Michael [Eames]’s wife had an amazing old teddy bear that had all the qualities we were looking for. The filling had become a little unstuck in places. It was missing hair. So we used that as reference. They made the toys for real; they were hand-built with mohair. Pooh had a woolen jumper [sweater].

Did you use the Pooh stuffy or an animatronic for shots like the one where the adult Christopher Robin hugs Pooh?

We never used stuffed animals in the shots. No animatronics. They are always CG. You have to get that out there.

Why didn’t you use animatronics?

We wanted to control the emotion more than we could do with an animatronic. We looked at what was done on [Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film] A.I. with animatronics. That was beautiful, but the teddy bear had mechanical limitations. We wanted to lean into the teddy bear’s stiffness, but we didn’t want to be constrained by it. We wanted the best of both worlds. Our approach was to build a CG model with the same articulation as a teddy bear and then be able to manipulate it as required.

But you did have the stuffies on set?

It was important for me to have relatable characters on set. We had two kid actors. It was important that they see these toys that would come to life. We had puppeteers who would stand in the shot and hold the stuffies for the first take. Then, for subsequent takes, we’d give the actors line markers and beanbags that we’d replace later with the CG toys. Michael [Eames] was on set the whole time and worked with the puppeteers and the stuffies to help come up with the action. And the puppeteers would often come up with new lines and new ideas.

In a way, it was seat-of-the-pants. It was planned but also spontaneous. This was important for the film and the type of film it was — crafted and fresh. We wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls that can occur when we impose technology on the cast and crew and make them have to be told what to do by the computer. We wanted the opposite approach. The shooting was like a road show. On location, on set, magical things would happen. The weather, the set dressing, the beautiful naturalistic sets would inspire ideas for the stuffed toys.

Did you develop new technology for the CG toys’ hair and fur?

We did a couple things. Traditionally, you have to light CG fur in a certain way and that didn’t work with a layer of cloth underneath. So we developed a new shading technology with both the cloth and fur to make the fur respond more realistically to light. The jumpers were almost the hardest part. [Costume designer] Jennifer Beavan made woolen jumpers for the stuffed toys. We counted stitches and matched them stitch for stitch with CG. To get the soft fuzziness, we had to generate volumetric shaders and then groom the flyaway hairs. We modeled them procedurally in Houdini and rendered with Arnold and our own renderer Freak. Then we worked with Method in Melbourne to get the same look.

Our simulation team really had their work cut out for them. They simulated every hair, the cloth, the leaves on the ground. For the honey, Chris Corbould, the special effects supervisor and second unit director, gave us lots of reference and then we went ahead and simulated it in the computer. It was all CG.

Did you create many digital environments for Christopher Robin?

There were all-CG shots within the picnic scene especially. We had panoramic photos for the background, but all the shots at the table were CG because the camera blocking is so dependent on the animation. Table scenes are notoriously difficult to block out. We had to be precise, and that’s difficult to do in prep to be fully prepared. Plus, it was a windy day and there were kids in the shots. So it worked out that the best route was to do the shots completely in CG. All the characters, all the dressing on the table.

What was the hardest part of working on this film?

The subtlety of Pooh’s performance in key emotional moments. The interaction when he first meets Christopher Robin in the park as an adult. When they hug on the bench, you really want to feel the connection between the two.

Your last five films were not fairy tales — Gravity, Edge of Tomorrow, Jupiter Ascending, The Martian, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. What was the best thing about working on Christopher Robin?

Everyone always says this, but it was such a great experience. The crew was collaborative. They are wonderful people. I felt that the experience of working on this film was so enriching – to believe in the crazy idea of making a film about a teddy bear that can change people’s lives, the mindful message to remember to play as an adult is so beautiful.

And actually, I’ve always … it drew me into working with animators. In one sense this is an unusual film for me, but in another, I felt back on my home territory. I love working with talented animators like Michael [Eames] and the rest of the people. It was a huge pleasure. One of the things I love about this industry is that every film brings something new. Vintage animal toys. Always something new to learn.

What did you learn from this film?

I learned a lot from working with Matthias Koenigswieser, our director of photography. I tried to involve him as much as possible in the digital cinematography. Inside Pooh’s house in the log — those sets would have needed to be huge, so it was better to have them CG. I wanted him to feel like it was not a CG sequence, though. I tried to get him involved in that. He is an amazing photographer with a unique visual style. I absorbed all that I could take in.

What will you be working on next?

I can’t say. I’m working on a test, but it isn’t greenlit yet. And I’m spending time with my kids. On the day the nominations were announced, I cycled home in the snow to celebrate with my family. My son came running out, very excited, and said, “Daddy Daddy! K is the knuckleboom loader.” [He had been reading the children’s book Construction Alphabet by Jerry Pallotta and Rob Bolster.] Brought me back to reality.