Tippett Studio’s Matt Jacobs and Will Groebe discuss the challenge of creating a family-friendly monster for Mirror Mirror. By Mark Ramshaw
Hollywood never does things by halves. Instead, everything is done in twos. If one studio greenlights a movie about an opera-singing elephant in space then it’s a given that another will follow suit… and aim for a near-identical release date. Thus, audiences have been given two live-action treatments of Snow White this year. Surprisingly, it’s the one directed by Tarsem Singh – the director of the ultra-stylised films The Cell, The Fall and Immortals – that delivers the child-friendly take on the tale of an innocent young girl, wicked queen and seven resourceful dwarves. True to form, however, the director does manage to add one beastly element to the story – a spectacular chimera-like monster created by Tippett Studio.
Matt Jacobs, Tippett Studio’s visual effects supervisor on the project, says discussions began while the studio was working with Singh on his previous project, Immortals: “He told me that if he could sign up a particular actress for a specific role then he had another movie lined up. A little later the actress, Julia Roberts, signed on, and so he asked us to come and join him for the next round.”
Jacobs says that the original concept designs for the beast – which Snow White and Prince Charming must face down in a climactic forest battle – were a little different. “The basics were all there, but its head looked more obviously like that of an old man, a little less like a creature of the forest and more Big Trouble in Little China, so we were asked to make it more of an amalgam of creature elements,” he recalls. “It was a fun process, designing all these different elements and going back and forth with Tarsem. The final creature has a face that’s almost cat-like, but with the face pulled long to make it possible to get more expression out of it.”
Jacobs points out that what works well on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into a working design, and that this creature was especially challenging. “It just had so many different elements to it, with a wolf-like head, antlers, the belly of a snake, a tail, long gangly arms, wings, feathers and fur that ranged from long whiskers to matted and ratty parts,” he explains. “It was both artistically and practically a challenge to get everything working well together. We had to use every tool in our box of tricks to make everything play nicely.”
“I remember Matt was on set, trying to do some quick pre-viz without any animation, and Tarsem was looking at the creature, saying, ‘Just how is this actually going to work?’ ” laughs animation supervisor Will Groebe.
Development shot of the wing design. “We used feathers on the ends of the wings, and then built a transition between those and the matted fur that grows there,” says Will Groebe
One of the key things they needed to consider was how much the creature would weigh, and consequently how it would be able to move around. “One of the first things we noticed in early animation tests was that he looked like he was dragging his body, so we added a serpentine, Sidewinder-style motion, which then really upped the creepiness factor,” says Groebe. “We also did a lot of animation tests with the creature rising with this tail, pulling himself up trees and doing some gliding. By the end Tarsem decided that the creature should be able to fly. We had to do a lot of testing to work everything out. The wings weren’t even supposed to be functional or large enough to allow for flight.”
The beast’s ability to scare was something of an issue, admits Groebe. “We do a lot of creatures here, and we tend to come out of the gate taking things a bit darker. A lot of our early animations were a little too aggressive.”
In the end the creature’s design was toned down a little further, the animation softened somewhat, and a handful of the studio’s 60-odd shots ultimately cut because they were simply too intense for youngsters. Fear-factor aside, another key area of focus for the animators lay with the creature’s eyes. “Snow White had to be able to recognise something in the beast, as it’s not a monster, but her father trapped in creature form,” says Jacobs. “They evolved from beadier, more fierce-looking eyes into something bigger, and more emotive.”
“The stage was lit for a daytime environment, so HDRI data wasn’t remotely useful,” says Matt Jacobs. “It was good to go back to the old days, using cinematic lighting techniques rather than aiming for complete accuracy”
Despite Singh’s reputation as an auteur, Jacobs says that development of the creature and the visual effects sequences was highly collaborative. “He doesn’t micro-manage things at all, and is very open to suggestion,” he says.
Groebe says that the director’s approach to the camerawork and composition for the sequence was also uniquely organic: “Tarsem told us he wasn’t interested in boards, because he didn’t want things to be locked down. What we ended up doing was pre-vizing the scenes with the camera pulled right back, for a more ‘theatre in the round’ sort of approach. It enabled him to see the action as a whole and then hone in on the camera angles he wanted.”
“Having worked with Tarsem on the graphic violence of the bloody, R-rated Immortals it was quite an interesting experience to go straight into something like this – he did initially have to remind us to tone it down!” says Jacobs. “But it’s good to mix it up a little, and after everything going so well with Immortals it was great to work with him a second time.”
Title Mirror Mirror Released 30 July (UK), 26 June (US) Formats Blu-ray/DVD Distributor Studiocanal (UK), Relativity Media (US) Watch for… The way the creature coils around trees and splashes down into the snow, and also its final gentler scenes