A beloved fairy tale with a familiar theme — true beauty comes from within — dates back to 18th Century France with the first published version of “Beauty and the Beast” (or La Belle et la Bête), by author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Countless iterations and interpretations eventually led to one of the most memorable and best-loved versions, Disney’s 1991 animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, with its inspiring message and memorable songs. The film, which was released around the same time as Disney blockbusters The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Aladdin, was not only critically acclaimed, but was the first animated feature to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and won two Oscars, for Best Original Score and Best Song.
Fast-forward to the 21st Century when Disney is looking for a live-action, big-screen adaptation of the fairytale. When the studio approached Oscar-winning director/writer Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I and 2, Mr. Holmes and Kinsey), he initially “did not want to go near it.” Condon explains, “I consider the 1991 film to be a perfect movie. When the film was released it was groundbreaking, in the way the story was told and with that incredible score from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.”
But then Condon gave it more thought. “It is 25 years later and technology has caught up to the ideas that were introduced in the animated movie.
Now, it is possible, for the first time, to create a photo-real version of a talking teacup on a practical set in a completely realistic live action format.” Condon began with script development and working with the art department on initial ideas for the look of the film in 2014, with active prep starting on the first day of 2015, such as storyboards, previs, set illustrations, etc. He also brought on his creative team, including editor Virginia “Ginny” Katz and DP Tobias A. Schliessler, both of whom worked with Condon on Dream Girls, The Fifth Estate and Mr. Holmes, and Katz on the Twilight sagas.
Principal photography on the new film took place at Shepperton Studios outside London and on several exterior locations in the UK from May to August, 2015 where multiple, large-scale practical sets were built — 27 in total. And while the story itself was to be told in a live-action format, there was still a good amount of CG and animation required to create many of the film’s characters, including a believable Beast, as well as talking teapots, candlesticks and more.
Four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood (Hanna, Atonement) was brought on for the sets and Steve Gaub (Unbroken, Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) as visual effects producer. The Third Floor completed the previs. Two and a half years later, there is a finished, live-action film and an all-star ensemble cast, including Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Audra McDonald and Stanely Tucci.
Director Bill Condon, DP Tobias Schliessler and Editor Ginny Katz all spoke with Post magazine just prior to the film’s release, about each of their roles and taking on such a beloved Disney classic.
TAKE ONE: DIRECTOR BILL CONDON
What type of film did you set out to make?
“I set out to make what I hope is a very emotional, live-action musical film. To make a film that not only lived up to the animated film, but also the beauty of the score and the kind of richness of the story.
I didn’t think of it for any one audience, but to make it so it could go as deep as it could.”
What were some of the biggest challenges for you?
“That’s a big question. I think making sure it all totally fit. That everything fit within everything else. If you look at the animated film, you have Le Fou [Gad], who was like a human punching bag. So here, making sure that the broadness of Le Fou lived in the same movie as the delicacy of what Kevin Kline was doing as Bell’s father. Making sure that it was all part of the same movie.”
How many VFX shots are there?
I know you worked on other movies with visual effects, what is your comfort level with them?
“I think once you go through a big movie and do them, you realize just how intensive the post production period is. I’ve done movies with post that went longer than a year. This actually had fewer visual effects than my last movie, although very complicated ones, then you start to live in that world and understand it.”
I understand that you tried to do as much in-camera as possible?
“Absolutely, yes, starting with the sets. Building the huge sets, so it wasn’t so much about CG. And, lighting, too. Lighting certain numbers, such as the ‘Be Our Guest’ scene, with the light reflecting off of the dishware and the glasses. We did that practically so that the CG elements would be surrounded as much as possible by real things, because I think the audience can still spot the difference.”
How closely did you work with DP Tobias Schliessler and editor Virginia Katz? Are they your go-to people at this point?
“Yes, absolutely. Ginny, with rare exception, I worked with 15 times, like every movie I’ve done. We are like a very, very comfortable married couple. A professional married couple. And Tobias, too, I started working with Tobias around 22 years ago. It’s always been a question of availability. I love working with him and you can imagine a kind of shorthand we’ve developed just working together all those years. Just knowing each other so well. It’s wonderful. Obviously you keep growing with these people, which I love.”
I wanted to get a sense of how closely you work with them when you’re in the middle of a production?
“Intimately, like every day. Obviously, Tobias on every part of prep and every shot, and we just have good serious conversations and we plot out the movie before we shoot it, and with Ginny, the same thing, I just sort of move into her room once she has her assembly done and we review every foot of film that was exposed and we start to really collaborate.”
What does the live action feature offer that’s different from the animated film?
“Once you change characters from drawn characters into human beings, everything changes…obviously they have to behave as kind of recognizable human beings. For example, in the animated film, which I love, they kind of fall in love overnight. There’s just a moment, there’s a number and then they’re in love. In a live-action movie, you kind of have to watch that happen and understand it in order to believe it and feel it. Another example, but how do you change Gaston from that wonderful comic creation in the animated film to someone who is equally kind of superficial and narcissistic, but in a way that we believe he walks around in the real world?”
Is there one part of the filmmaking process — preproduction, production, or post — that you enjoy more than another?
“Yes, maybe ultimately the post production. I’m in a room with Ginny and, especially on a movie like this where so much of it does happen in post, the shaping of the movie really takes place. It’s incredibly satisfying.”
What is it like for you with a scene that features a CG character, that you see over and over again until finally, the finished character is dropped in?
“It’s not just when it’s dropped in, because it happens across stages, you know? Each time is a step. But there’s inevitably one big step, and the thrill is, that step takes to where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, now I’ve forgotten that it’s CG and now it feels real. And that is really thrilling.”
Do you feel as though you accomplished what you wanted to with this film?
“I hate to say it, I’m scared to say it, because who knows if other people will agree, but I do feel very satisfied with it, yes. It is what I hoped to have been able to make. Absolutely!”
TAKE TWO: DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY TOBIAS SCHLIESSLER, ASC
Schliessler spoke with Post while on-location in New Zealand, filming of the Ava DuVernay adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time for Disney.
How long did you work on the film?
“I started in late February 2015 for preproduction and finished in August. It was 12 weeks of prep and then we shot for about another 70 days. In all, I was on [the film] for six months. This kind of movie takes a lot of preproduction, storyboarding, previs, music rehearsals…everything. It takes a little bit more preparation than your usual film.”
Any particular shooting style for this film that either you wanted or director Bill Condon wanted?
“It’s definitely a collaboration and Bill definitely has a very strong sense in what he wants his movies to look like and how he wants them to feel. He also spent a lot of time with [production designer] Sarah Greenwood and her illustrations, so when I got there I had a pretty good sense of what this movie was supposed to look like, in terms of the illustrations and the feel for lighting. Also, the tone of the music dictates the style of movie in a sense, too. The tempo of the music. We start with storyboarding in [Bill Condon’s] office together and talk about the scenes. We bring in the storyboard artist and it goes into previs and that kind of sets the feel for the camera work and the framing. But once we’re on-set and if a scene feels better with how an actor moves, it can easily change on that day. But this movie was definitely planned out — especially with the musical scenes — we went in and shot rehearsal video and created moves. We brought the footage to the editor and she started cutting already with the rehearsal footage and that gave us an idea of how and how fast to move the camera.”
What was the overall look you were going for?
“It’s a period piece and it’s a fairytale, but we did want to give a modern feel to it, too. So, for the first time, I actually really embraced LED lighting. About 90 percent of the movie was done with LED lighting. We were able to control every light through an iPad, and we were able to change temperature in the shot. There’s one scene where Belle, Emma Watson, cleans a window in a ballroom and the sunlight comes through. When it comes through, I wanted to make the room become warmer and brighter, and I could do that with the control of the LED light, I could change the color temperature and intensity all by dimmers without having to change gels or bulbs. So I was able to really play with color temperature a lot during a shot. There was a lot of a sense of theatrical lighting that we designed through the LEDs. Same thing with the camera and the angles. Even though it has to have a classic feel to it, we didn’t go into handheld mode or push the framing, we definitely wanted to make it feel like a modern movie.”
What cameras did you use? What was the acquisition format?
“We shot on Arri Alexa Raw and Alexa XTs and I used the Leica Summilux Prime lenses. The interiors are all lit by light coming through windows or candlelight and that was the nice thing about using the Alexa’s because the HD cameras are so sensitive with lighting that I could basically use the candlesticks that were on the walls or overhead and a lot of times they were doing the practical lighting for me.”
I know there was a lot going on with the production of this movie — not necessarily an easy film to shoot — and a lot of visual effects.
“People say that there was so much visual effects, and in a sense, yes, it was visual effects driven, but Sarah Greenwood built all these sets and there were set extensions. Overall, I feel like we did a lot of things in-camera. It wasn’t a blue screen movie. We hardly used blue screen.”
What were some of the biggest challenges for you?
“Just the scope of the sets and to light them. The sizes of the sets were pretty enormous and it was a challenge…a challenge to light on that big a scale. We built a whole forest inside a stage. Definitely the biggest challenge I had.”
Knowing that there were going to be visual effects in a scene that you’re shooting, say a CG character, does that present any challenges for you? Is it harder to shoot?
“We had props that would simulate the characters. When we had Lumière, the candlestick, we had a prop that we had on set that we would then move and I would light them for reference for visual effects. He had interactive lighting, so we would use our prop to do the interactive lighting. Do I prefer having actors right there? Of course! But it’s a different type of challenge. In fact, it was pretty simple because Bill had everything so well thought out and we had the previs done. It was not bad. It’s a different type of work, because you have to have a little bit more imagination sometimes. Once you get into the shooting, it becomes pretty straightforward I think. With Beast, even though it’s a CG Beast, we had Dan Stevens acting — he was there on set. We had a mock up of his fur so I could light it for reference. We had great visual effects.”
You’ve worked with Bill Condon before on other films and also with editor Virginia Katz, how closely do you work with the editor? Have you all developed a shorthand?
“Definitely very much. Especially because Virginia comes on early in the movie for the previs and so we’re all in tune in terms of what the style of the shooting will be and the style of editing. I want to be able to cover all of what she needs or what Bill needs, and if I feel like in a scene I feel like we need a shot for this cut I would say it and the same thing for her if she starts looking at data she would come to me or Bill and say I could use this in a scene. We work together well. There’s definitely a shorthand and we trust each other and respect each other. It’s very collaborative. And then they go off and I’m gone. (laughs).”
Overall thoughts about final product?
“I watched it at Company 3 and it was unbelievable how beautiful it looks. I’m not even saying my work, but the combination of the production design, the costumes, the makeup and the craftsmanship that went into this movie. It all came together. When I saw the final film, I was just blown away with how beautiful it is. And the one thing for me, when I came on and saw the illustrations that Sarah Greenwood and Bill had created, I thought they were so beautiful I just wanted to light it the same way. I feel my biggest accomplishment when I look at the illustrations and I look at the movie, they look the same.
“Beauty and the Beast was definitely my most enjoyable movie so far because of the content, the music and the amazing crew in Europe. The trailer is great, but the movie is so much better … (laughs).”
TAKE THREE: EDITOR VIRGINIA (GINNY) KATZ, ACE
Katz was nominated for an America Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Kinsey and won an Eddie Award for her work on Dreamgirls.
When did you get involved in the film?
“[Tobias] started in February and I came in in April, about six weeks before they started shooting, because to look at previs and what they had for the previs so I could put my two cents in terms of whether I thought a close up should be inserted somewhere, or if something was missing. I felt if we could add to the previs and then we started shooting. It’s been a fantastic process, great fun, but it’s been long.”
How do you describe the editing style?
“When you ask about editing style, for me, my style is always dictated by the film that I get. So, for instance, the opening of the movie has this beautiful ballroom scene and all the women are in these gorgeous white dresses, so it’s this very fluid, beautiful waltz. I felt that fluidity and I cut it in that way. Then, when you have a dance scene with Gaston, and that’s a totally different taste, because it’s more raucous, it’s in a tavern, it’s taste differently because it calls for that…it calls for a more robust kind of editing and although it’s a dance number and a song, it’s a different pace than the ballroom scene. So I let the film, whatever it may be, whether it’s an action scene or a father/daughter talking, dictate to me what the rhythm is and then I go with it for that scene. It’s always about telling the story and getting the emotion out of it and usually the film to me dictates that. When I look at dailies, I understand the scene and feel what it’s looking for.”
What was the format that the footage was in when it came to you? Did you ingest it and convert it into something else to work on?
“Company 3 converted the footage for us from the ARRI raw, which is what Tobias shot, to DNx115. I get the bins and it’s ready for me to cut.”
What do you cut on?
“Avid. Love that Avid [Version 7]. I worked with Bill for a long time, and we had worked on film and I was one of those people who didn’t really want to move from film to say, the Avid, because I always loved the texture and that kind of feel of film, but once I made the move I could never think of moving back. I realized the great creativity it allows. It’s just made everybody’s lives easier.”
How different was this film for you from other films you worked on?
“It had many more visual effects — I haven’t worked on a movie with this many visual effects, even though we worked on Twilight, which was quite different. This really was a different animal. There was previs for the scenes that were mainly CG, like “Be Our Guest,” but there were scenes like the wolf chase, and it was prevised, but then when the film comes in, it’s not always the same as the way the previs was. For instance, in the wolf chase, if I say I want a close up of a wolf, which we didn’t have with the previs, because it’s CG I can build a close up from somewhere and eventually visual effects can work it in where I put it. It kind of allowed me to create new footage when I needed to, because of the visual effects. So, when I’m sitting with Bill and we’re going through footage or when I’m cutting it on my own and I’m thinking, ‘What we really need is a close up of Lumière here,’ and they might not have shot the prop close up, all I have to do is take any shot of Lumière, do a close up and eventually it becomes part of the scene. The special visual effects team will allow it to come alive in that particular moment. It really gave us great freedom.”
They were still working on the visual effects when you were editing?
“Yes, because I start when they start basically, and I came early to look at the previs, so the only thing I really had when I was cutting was the previs. And we would give up a scene early even if we knew there were going to be few changes, because then we could turn it over to the special visual effects team and they would start, otherwise if we waited until we were locked completely, then we would never have the film released. As we get things in, we can see how things are working and to get to the point where, especially with the Beast, which was really difficult, because I cut when Dan Stevens was in the [motion capture suit] and the main concern, for me and I think for all, was how that the Beast was going to be visualized. I mean, if the Beast didn’t work, then the film wouldn’t work. And it’s step by step by step. It’s great, but it’s also a lot of work to start with Dan and then see the various steps, the kind of rough visual effects as they’re being built. We would put them in, but they were still very rough. And then you get to one of the first shots where you see the Beast — I mean, the first time we saw it, really formed, it was spectacular. And a Beast that’s scary and angry, and lovable and sweet. The process is pretty amazing. Those kinds of challenges were unusual for me.”
You’re cutting these scenes over and over, and at some point, you finally see them with the final CG characters, I would think that that has to be somewhat mind blowing?
“It is. It’s done step by step. Let’s say you have Lumière when he releases Belle from the cell. I have the real Belle (Emma), so she’s in there, but I put in the previs piece of Lumière because I don’t have anything else. Then, as we start getting in the visual effect on that, it’s amazing, because all of a sudden, he has a face and then a body that’s maybe not quite right but becoming more three-dimensional. I always have the voice, we had the prerecorded voice, so I have the previs with him talking. And then his mouth starts to move and then you start to see his face, and the step by step by step, although it could be tedious, eventually, you get this amazing 3D character that’s alive from a flat, little previs to this three-dimensional candlestick who can move and dance and sing — and has eyes— it’s an amazing process.”
What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment on this film?
“I love the movie. I think the biggest accomplishment is that we got what we were hoping to get… all of us. In terms of the Beast and the excitement of telling this story in a different way than the animated version. Belle is independent, she’s strong, she’s like a role model today…she’s just a much stronger Belle. And the characters are able to sing and dance and become real. It’s a great accomplishment and I think all of us contributed to that…working to make the film what we hoped it would be. I’m thrilled by it and I think we all are. We came a long way.”
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST BUILDING A BELIEVABLE BEAST
To create a realistic-looking Beast in a real-world environment, while maintaining actor Dan Stevens’ performance, a combination of physical performance capture and MOVA facial capture technology was used.
Stevens also participated in separate MOVA facial capture sessions which took place in an off-site studio from Shepperton Studios. At these sessions, phosphorescent makeup was applied to Stevens’ face, which appeared blue under ultraviolet light, and he was then filmed by multiple cameras surrounding him and tracking every pore in his face. The MOVA customized hardware and software then converted the performance into data.
As for the household objects that magically come to life, each one has human-grounded characteristics and a specific personality. The objects are in close proximity with the human actors and are often shown interacting, but it was a laborious and significantly time-consuming process.
The final footage audiences see on screen is real and filmed in-camera and then augmented by the visual effects team during post production. In order to create flawless assimilation with the CG characters on practical sets, a solid hero model of each object — everything from a beautiful hand-painted teapot to a Rococo gilded candlestick — was created. Duplicate copies were also made, as were rubber versions for use in scenes involving stunt work, and once director Bill Condon and the visual effects team were pleased with appearances and proportions, the objects were then placed onset and filmed as part of principal photography.
The candlestick, Lumière (Ewan McGregor), is one of the few household objects that could open up and become a moving character with what are essentially arms, legs and hands, and the filmmakers wanted to bring as much of McGregor’s personality to the character as possible. McGregor was filmed dancing and moving the way he envisioned Lumière would move, via performance capture technology.
“Lumière was difficult to concept because we wanted him to be able to move, but at the end of the day he’s still a gilded candlestick,” says visual effects producer Steve Gaub. “Once we had a 3D computer model of him that everyone was happy with, he was constructed from a process called rapid prototyping which is able to take 3D computer files and produce an accurate model in polyester resin so you can physically see and feel it.”
The same process was used for the teapot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson): she was designed via computer, prototyped and then molded. To bring Garderobe (Audra McDonald) to life, a real version of the beautiful — and enormous — wardrobe was created and rigged to make her move. Additional special effects elements, like those in the scene where Garderobe creates Belle’s gown and dresses her, were then added in post production.