Mary Poppins: The Peculiar Challenge of Animating Her World

LOS ANGELES — “Mary Poppins” was the first film the director Rob Marshall saw as a boy, so when Disney approached him about directing a sequel, the prospect was exciting — and intimidating.

“It was daunting because the film means so much to me,” Marshall said in a recent interview. “But I felt, if anyone’s going to do a sequel, I would like it to be me, so I could protect the spirit of the first film. I asked myself what would I want to see in a sequel. I knew I‘d want an animation/live-action sequence: It’s in the DNA of ‘Mary Poppins.’ And I felt it was vital to hold on to the classic hand-drawn animation from the first film.”

[Read our review of “Mary Poppins Returns.”]

Although Marshall has won many awards for direction and choreography for feature films and television specials, he had never worked in animation. He built a team under the leadership of the veteran Disney/Pixar writer Jim Capobianco. Working with a small group of artists in the Bay Area, Capobianco prepared preliminary storyboards for the sequence.

He presented them to Marshall, the writers David Magee and John DeLuca, the composer Marc Shaiman and others in the Hyperion Bungalow, a relic of the 1930s Disney studio that had been moved to company’s Burbank headquarters. As everyone wanted to recapture the feeling of the original film, it felt right to begin planning the sequence using actual drawings rather than computer images.

“We pulled together a storyboard — pinning sheets of paper onto corkboards, the old Disney way,” Capobianco said. “We met in the bungalow and pitched the boards using an umbrella as a pointer. Rob would say, ‘I love that idea, but we need a little more time.’ Marc would get on the piano and rewrite the music; we’d redraw stuff and re-pin it. I felt as close as I could get to being with Walt and the Sherman Brothers making the original ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”

Combining the media was a technique Walt Disney used when he first came to national prominence in the mid-1920s with his short “Alice” comedies, which placed a live-action little girl within an animated setting. Although film technology has advanced enormously since then, the crew of the new film, “Mary Poppins Returns,” still faced problems integrating the media seamlessly.

The animators strive to create convincing performances for their characters — who have to react to the live actors’ actions. For example, engineering a scene so an actor and an animated character touch requires almost microscopic precision: If anything is out of place, the drawn and live elements will seem to slide over each other, spoiling the illusion that they’re sharing a space.

“For an early test, we filmed a boy dressed like a ’30s newsboy and put him in a scene with the animated bear,” Capobianco recalled. “When we looked at it, he stuck out like a sore thumb because of that costume. I realized that’s why Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews wear garish clothing in the ‘Jolly Holiday’ sequence: It integrates them into the cartoon world.”

Making the live actors look at home in the cartoon world was essential to the sequence, and artists from all the departments worked synergistically.

“Sandy Powell came up with the idea of painting the actors’ costumes to match the look of the animated characters,” Capobianco said, referring to the costume designer. “Mary Poppins wears a long pink and white gown that looks like it’s made of many layers of fabric. It’s actually just one piece of material that’s painted to look tiered; all the buttons and ties are painted, too.”

The key to the look of the sequence was the Royal Doulton bowl in the Bankses’ nursery, which takes the place of the chalk drawings in the first film as an entry to the animated world. Jeff Turley, the animation production designer, explained: “We looked at a lot of Royal Doulton bowls, and what caught my eye were the hand-painted ink decorations with sort of watercolor washes. That look is reminiscent of the work of Ronald Searle” — a British cartoonist — “and some of the Disney films, like ‘101 Dalmatians’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’ It felt like a good fit, at least as a starting point.”

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and the three Banks children, accompanied by Jack the Lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), ride a carriage driven by Shamus, a jaunty Irish setter (voiced by Chris O’Dowd) through the bowl’s landscapes and visit the Royal Doulton music hall — a sequence reminiscent of the “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” numbers in the original movie. Blunt and Miranda interact with an assortment of animated animals, including penguins — a homage to the cartoon waiters in the previous film.

Filming the live performances so they could be combined with the animated elements proved challenging. “For the big music hall number, we were basically shooting the scenes three times,” Marshall said. “Once with Emily and Lin-Manuel and reference dancers representing the animated characters, so I could frame the shot and know how many people would be in it. Next, I’d take Emily and Lin out, and just shoot the reference dancers so the animators would know what they’d be doing. Then I’d take the reference dancers out and just have Emily and Lin-Manuel dancing, imagining everything around them.”

Capobianco added, “When we were on the set, we’d tell Lin and the other actors, ‘Remember, you’re carrying a penguin and it’s going to have a certain weight.’ As actors, they would have a zillion other things to think about, and the take wouldn’t quite be there. I’d ask Rob, ‘Can we get another take?’ He’d do it, and I’d say, ‘We still didn’t get it,’ and he’d say, ‘No, you got it.’ ”

The music hall scene was the first sequence the filmmakers shot. Marshall edited it while the rest of the filming was going on, to give the animators time to draw the other characters.

James Baxter, an animator whose first job at Disney was on the live action/animation combination film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” said the footage of the reference dancers was helpful.

“Obviously, we’re not doing the same movements — they’re real people with their own way of moving, which is completely different from the way a two-foot penguin moves,” he explained. “But to see how the choreography is working with all the other characters in the shot is really helpful. They were really good about not having the animation do just what the people did: You want to make the actions faster and cartoonier and snappier than a real person can move.”

If Marshall worried about matching the standard Walt Disney had set in the original “Mary Poppins,” the animators knew that the cartoon sequences had largely been drawn by Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, three of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” whose work remains the gold standard of animation, even in the age of CGI.

“I’ve spent my entire career being intimidated by their work, so that’s nothing new,” Baxter said with a laugh. “It was great to have that high bar: It’s the motivator to do the best you possibly can, even though you know you’ll never get over that bar. If it’s not there, there’s not as much motivation to reach for the stars.”

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