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May 29
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BLENDING LIVE-ACTION AND ANIMATION TO CAPTURE THE CAST OF IMAGINARY FRIENDS THAT SPARK IF

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Writer/director/actor John Krasinski’s live-action animated feature IF follows 12-year-old Bea as she begins to see everyone’s imaginary friends (IFs) who have been forgotten after their real-life friends have grown up. The impressive ensemble cast features Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, Emily Blunt, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Louis Gossett Jr., Bradley Cooper, Pheobe Waller-Bridge, Bill Hader and George Clooney.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal) and Steve Carell (Blue) in IF. Blue is around eight feet tall, almost as wide and fills the frame. A challenge was making his character more appealing to audiences.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal) and Steve Carell (Blue) in IF. Blue is around eight feet tall, almost as wide and fills the frame. A challenge was making his character more appealing to audiences.

“We wanted [Blue and Blossom] to feel grounded and real and tangible in the world of our movie, without feeling like they are on another layer. John wanted the comedy energy, but he also wanted the heart and the emotional resonance of the movie to be with the characters in the world. We talked about magical realism only feeling like magic when it feels real; this idea that the characters needed to be very tangible. So, we did things where we made their eyes feel like they were puppets, with resin and tiny micro scratches.”

—Chris Lawrence, Production Visual Effects Supervisor

Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Steve Carell (Blue) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom). Director Krasinski wanted the characters to feel like actors on the screen, emphasizing that every character needed to be thinking and every emotion counted.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Steve Carell (Blue) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom). Director Krasinski wanted the characters to feel like actors on the screen, emphasizing that every character needed to be thinking and every emotion counted.

Chris Lawrence served as Production Visual Effects Supervisor on the film. “We had a meeting with director John Krasinski in April 2022.” Lawrence recalls. “He’d seen our work previously on Christopher Robin, and there was an obvious similarity. John has this amazing energy. He’s a real film lover. You could really tell that he had thought every shot of the movie through. It became very clear that there was a love affair to have with these characters and ideas that John was pushing for. His kids are slightly older than mine, but there was an affinity with wanting to do something that the kids would enjoy, and it was the pride of my life seeing my four-year-old daughter on the edge of her seat at the premiere. There aren’t many films you can make in this industry that you can take someone that young to go and see.”

Ryan Reynolds (Cal) and Steve Carell (Blue). Director Krasinski had done a lot of artwork and designs before bringing on the VFX team. As a result, they were able to capitalize on that advance work and progress quickly.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal) and Steve Carell (Blue). Director Krasinski had done a lot of artwork and designs before bringing on the VFX team. As a result, they were able to capitalize on that advance work and progress quickly.

Some of the creative references that were discussed in the early stages included notable ’80s fantasy movies such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and E.T. “We also spoke about growing up in the ’80s and how we make movies now,” Lawrence adds. “It was originally one of those meetings where you can go in with complete confidence as I knew I wasn’t going to do the project because I was engaged on another show. But when I left the meeting, I really wanted to do it. The other show got pushed by quite a lot and suddenly I was available, so it worked out and that’s how it got started. It went very quickly from that first meeting and then shooting in August. It was a very quick turnaround from that moment.”

There were more than 40 IFs created for the film. From left, clockwise: Maya Rudoplph (Ally Aligator), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball), Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), George Clooney (Spaceman), Steve Carell (Blue), Matt Damon (Flower), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher), Akwafina (Bubble), Matthew Rhys (Ghost) and Bill Hader (Banana).

There were more than 40 IFs created for the film. From left, clockwise: Maya Rudoplph (Ally Aligator), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball), Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), George Clooney (Spaceman), Steve Carell (Blue), Matt Damon (Flower), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher), Akwafina (Bubble), Matthew Rhys (Ghost) and Bill Hader (Banana).

“Particularly in a live-action world, with live-action actors acting next to a CG character, you really want to feel the believability and you want the characters to sound honest in terms of performance. When I recently watched it for the first time on a big IMAX screen, I was thinking how many details there are, and I was thinking how [director] John [Krasinski] really wanted these characters to feel like actors on the screen. Every character needs to be thinking and every emotion counts; they can tell a huge story with just one eye dart.”

—Arslan Elver, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

“John had done lots of artwork and designed lots of stuff before we joined, so we were really able to capitalize on that move very quickly,” Lawrence continues. “We worked with Framestore’s visual development team to do really quick renders. I think John had been in this world of sketches and tests that weren’t quite there, and we had this opportunity to build on top of that, rather than to keep trying different things. So, we dived straight into that process, especially with the characters Blue and Blossom, who are the two hero IFs in the story. They were two completely different challenges. Blue is around eight feet tall and almost as wide and fills the frame. There was the challenge of that and making his character appealing. Then, there was Blossom, who was much smaller, but she was really modeled on ideas from the Fleischer era, such as Betty Boop. We tried to come up with a design that was authentic to that but worked three-dimensionally so it  worked with the style of animation that we were going to use. Again, we wanted her to feel grounded and real and tangible in the world of our movie, without feeling like they are on another layer. John wanted the comedy energy, but he also wanted the heart and the emotional resonance of the movie to be with the characters in the world. We talked about magical realism only feeling like magic when it feels real; this idea that the characters needed to be very tangible. So, we did things where we made their eyes feel like they were puppets, with resin and tiny micro scratches.”

Krasinski wanted the comedy energy, but he also wanted the heart and the emotional resonance of the movie to be with the characters. Front left, front row: Jon Stewart (Robot), Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Maya Rudolph (Ally Aligator), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball), Blake Lively (OctoCat), From left, back row: Matt Damon (Flower), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher), Bill Hader (Banana), Amy Schumer (Gummy Bear) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis).

Krasinski wanted the comedy energy, but he also wanted the heart and the emotional resonance of the movie to be with the characters. Front left, front row: Jon Stewart (Robot), Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Maya Rudolph (Ally Aligator), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball), Blake Lively (OctoCat), From left, back row: Matt Damon (Flower), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher), Bill Hader (Banana), Amy Schumer (Gummy Bear) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis).

Arslan Elver was Framestore’s Animation Supervisor on the film. “Performance-wise it was also quite special,” Elver remarks. “I remember in the first meeting, John looked at Framestore’s character animation reel and there was a shot of Rocket from Guardians, which he loved as he felt that it looked so real and true. He said he felt like it was the first time a CG character worked as a supporting actor in a movie. He also really loved Christopher Robin because you really feel those characters in the scene, but they are also moving in a believable way. They are not over the top and too cartoony. Particularly in a live-action world, with live-action actors acting next to a CG character, you really want to feel the believability and you want the characters to sound honest in terms of performance. When I recently watched it for the first time on a big IMAX screen, I was thinking how many details there are, and I was thinking how John really wanted these characters to feel like actors on the screen. Every character needs to be thinking and every emotion counts; they can tell a huge story with just one eye dart.”

“Blossom was another one of our characters that was really tricky, not just because of the design, but also performance-wise. It’s a very different character,  proportion-wise as well. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings an amazing energy to the character. They are very careful, curated performances for these CG characters, but when you watch the film, it’s not like they are CG and just part of the film. I felt like that was a big hit of the film.”

—Arslan Elver, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

Matt Damon voices Flower. Looking at Framestore's character animation reel, Krasinski admired Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy because it looked so real and true-to-life. He felt like it was the first time a CG character successfully worked as a supporting actor in a movie.

Matt Damon voices Flower. Looking at Framestore’s character animation reel, Krasinski admired Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy because it looked so real and true-to-life. He felt like it was the first time a CG character successfully worked as a supporting actor in a movie.

When it came to Blue’s first animation test, Elver and his team kept a sizzle reel with all the development work being cut in with the music to show the studio and filmmakers where they were. “I remember there was this costume they built for Blue, and I was able to walk around in it,” Elver notes. “It’s a big character and just to feel the weight of that was important. We started developing some animation walk-cycle tests to find his character, and we used our Framestore lobby reception as a testing ground and shot some tests for John. With animation, you have to try multiple things. Some of them will be wrong, but you will find what the director wants, and that will just really guide you through that world. Blossom was another one of our characters that was really tricky, not just because of the design, but also performance-wise. It’s a very different character, proportion-wise as well. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings an amazing energy to the character. They are very careful, curated performances for these CG characters, but when you watch the film, it’s not like they are CG and just part of the film. I felt like that was a big hit of the film.”

Imaginary friends, from left: Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Allyson Seeger (Viola), Akwafina (Bubble), Matt Damon (Flower), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball) and Jon Stewart (Robot).

Imaginary friends, from left: Sam Rockwell (Super Dog), Allyson Seeger (Viola), Akwafina (Bubble), Matt Damon (Flower), Keegan-Michael Key (Slime Ball) and Jon Stewart (Robot).

Elver and Lawrence didn’t want the animation and visual effects to draw attention to themselves. “Sometimes you can think of huge explosions as being the archetypal and challenging visual effects, but I think it’s very challenging to make visual effects that don’t impede the filmmaker and doesn’t put them in an environment where there is a greenscreen stage all around, or talking to somebody wearing a green morph suit,” Lawrence observes. “We worked really hard to overcome that. We cast a great puppeteer to perform as Blue. We made sure he took up the physical space. So, he was wearing a suit with a big thing above his head, and we didn’t use motion control. We would allow our Steadicam shots to develop, and they’d act with real people, giving them that live feedback and creating that magical spark that is so much part of John’s process on set. Our job then was to apply all the complexity behind that, which included some vastly complex paint-outs. There’s amazing behind-the-scenes invisible work that’s done by some of the more junior artists who worked on the film, and I think they deserve a huge amount of recognition, because they were the ones who facilitated us to make this film and do it in a way that supported the filmmaking at every stage. We honestly took that philosophy all the way through from the first days of prep to the last days of post. We were always trying to prioritize getting the best result overall for the movie, even if it was making our lives a little bit harder.”

One of the most challenging sequences to capture was the big dance sequence, which filmmakers executed in postvis. Because the sequence was performance animation, the characters needed to breathe for a moment, extending shots to let the emotional impact sink in. From left: George Clooney (Spaceman), Amy Schumer (Gummy Bear), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Steve Carell (Blue), Matt Damon (Flower), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher) and Maya Rudolph (Ally).

One of the most challenging sequences to capture was the big dance sequence, which filmmakers executed in postvis. Because the sequence was performance animation, the characters needed to breathe for a moment, extending shots to let the emotional impact sink in. From left: George Clooney (Spaceman), Amy Schumer (Gummy Bear), Emily Blunt (Unicorn), Steve Carell (Blue), Matt Damon (Flower), Cailey Fleming (Bea), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom), Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher) and Maya Rudolph (Ally).

Another one of the central characters was Lewis, voiced by Louis Gossett Jr. “We don’t talk about Lewis enough,” Elver says. “Although he doesn’t have a lot of screentime, we always considered Blue, Blossom and Lewis as the three primary characters of the film. Lewis was also a very cool character because his human used to be a jazz player. I remember doing two animation tests and showing them to John on set. One of them was just Lewis standing up and bowing his hat, and the other one was a little dance, but he loved the hat so much, and he wanted that in the film. It was a lovely performance generated by the animators. When I watched it on the big screen, it looked gorgeous. There was this little spark in Lewis’ eyes that I remember John wanted. It was very true and layered. These characters act next to a human without being out of place. Lewis was a character that was very successful and dear to me.”

Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) was modeled on ideas from the Fleischer Studios era of the 1930s, like Betty Boop.

Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) was modeled on ideas from the Fleischer Studios era of the 1930s, like Betty Boop.

Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) was modeled on ideas from the Fleischer Studios era of the 1930s, like Betty Boop.

Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) was modeled on ideas from the Fleischer Studios era of the 1930s, like Betty Boop.

Lawrence and his team decided to postvis the circled takes and selects so John could edit using the postvis. “Everybody said to me that it wouldn’t work because takes are a minute and a half long, so you can never track in time and never animate in time, but it turns out you can, and it does work,” Lawrence deatils. “It was the right solve for us because it gave John a base. If he changed the take, then we still had basically animated the take and you could still reload it, and it was pretty quick. The other benefit of that is it allowed him to make very deliberate editing choices, based on Arslan’s direction of the animation. So, there was a very true-standing approach where Arslan was directing the characters to do what he understood having been there on the day and understanding what the nuance of their performance should be. Then presenting that to John and allowing him to select it and cut around it and give notes. It was just very successful for those sequences to come together in a good way.”

The characters act next to humans without being out of place, such as Lewis (Louis Gossett Jr.) holding hands with Bea (Cailey Fleming) at the amusement park.

The characters act next to humans without being out of place, such as Lewis (Louis Gossett Jr.) holding hands with Bea (Cailey Fleming) at the amusement park.

One of the most challenging sequences to capture was the big dance sequence. “It was beautifully choreographed by Mandy Moore,” Elver explains. “We had these dancers, and for filmmakers to be able to do this scene in postvis was just so useful. Because this was performance animation, you need to let the characters breathe for a moment to make the necessary emotional impact hit you. Occasionally, I’d ask John if we could extend a shot, as I thought it would help, and he would always say ‘go for it.’ There were even a couple of shots where he’d edit more frames as he just loved it so much. He wanted that look, or that moment to stay on the screen a little longer for the emotional impact. That was a joyful experience because he was very collaborative.”

Cosmo (Christopher Meloni) gets in Ryan Reynolds' face, although it was director Krasinski who initially “attacked” Reynolds to get him in that position for the animation. Cailey Fleming (Bea) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis) share the moment.

Cosmo (Christopher Meloni) gets in Ryan Reynolds’ face, although it was director Krasinski who initially “attacked” Reynolds to get him in that position for the animation. Cailey Fleming (Bea) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis) share the moment.

A puppeteer was cast to perform as Blue. The VFX team felt that the characters needed to be grounded and tangible for the audience to believe they were real and not just another layer. A puppeteer was cast to perform as Blue. The VFX team felt that the characters needed to be grounded and tangible for the audience to believe they were real and not just another layer.

A puppeteer was cast to perform as Blue. The VFX team felt that the characters needed to be grounded and tangible for the audience to believe they were real and not just another layer.

A puppeteer was cast to perform as Blue. The VFX team felt that the characters needed to be grounded and tangible for the audience to believe they were real and not just another layer.

“It’s an amazing body of work that Framestore did [for the big dance sequence], and the animation of the dancing is just joyous. On top of that, it’s a real high point of the film for me. It’s a celebration of imagination set to a beloved Tina Turner song. It exemplified our philosophy of what we were trying to do and why. It’s where visual effects can become this unsung hero, enabling amazing live-action filmmaking.”

—Chris Lawrence, Production Visual Effects Supervisor

Emily Blunt is the voice of Unicorn. Creative references discussed in the early stages included notable '80s fantasy movies such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Emily Blunt is the voice of Unicorn. Creative references discussed in the early stages included notable ’80s fantasy movies such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Director John Krasinski ready on set with the Unicorn model for positioning purposes with Ryan Reynolds, to be replaced by the animated character. Krasinski served as director, writer, producer and had a starring role in the film.Director John Krasinski ready on set with the Unicorn model for positioning purposes with Ryan Reynolds, to be replaced by the animated character. Krasinski served as director, writer, producer and had a starring role in the film.

Director John Krasinski ready on set with the Unicorn model for positioning purposes with Ryan Reynolds, to be replaced by the animated character. Krasinski served as director, writer, producer and had a starring role in the film.

Director John Krasinski ready on set with the Unicorn model for positioning purposes with Ryan Reynolds, to be replaced by the animated character. Krasinski served as director, writer, producer and had a starring role in the film.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis) interview Jon Stewart (Robot). Framestore, Cadence, One of Us and Untold split the workload, which consisted of more than 1,200 visual effects shots and 700 animation shots.

Ryan Reynolds (Cal), Cailey Fleming (Bea) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Lewis) interview Jon Stewart (Robot). Framestore, Cadence, One of Us and Untold split the workload, which consisted of more than 1,200 visual effects shots and 700 animation shots.

The Framestore team in Montreal was responsible for the dance sequence. “Framestore did a fantastic recreation of the theater environment,” Lawrence says. “Completely invisible work where they recreated the whole thing. It intercuts live-action, then it’s completely CG theater replacements next to live-action again. The lights are all moving. It was quite an amazing thing when we first saw that all projected with all the renders in. It’s an amazing body of work that Framestore did, and the animation of the dancing is just joyous. On top of that, it’s a real high point of the film for me. It’s a celebration of imagination set to a beloved Tina Turner song. It exemplified our philosophy of what we were trying to do and why. It’s where visual effects can become this unsung hero, enabling amazing live-action filmmaking.”

IF Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher) interacts with Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming. Kasinski chose to go with his orginal idea for IF, rather than take on an existing franchise or toy.

IF Richard Jenkins (Art Teacher) interacts with Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming. Kasinski chose to go with his orginal idea for IF, rather than take on an existing franchise or toy.

Framestore, Cadence, One of Us and Untold served as the vendors on the film, splitting the workload, which consisted of over 1,200 visual effects shots and more than 700 animation shots. There were more than 40 IFs created for the film. “You don’t always work on a movie with such an enthusiastic and creative director, with characters who are so much joy to work with. That experience from start to finish was just pure joy for me because you don’t often work on a show that is so animation-orientated, and it’s really fun animation on top of that,” Elver says.

When they first met, Steve Carell donned Blue's costume and hugged Cailey Fleming. Production Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Lawrence and Director Kasinski shared an affinity for making a movie their young children could go to watch in the theater.

When they first met, Steve Carell donned Blue’s costume and hugged Cailey Fleming. Production Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Lawrence and Director Kasinski shared an affinity for making a movie their young children could go to watch in the theater.

Lawrence concludes, “I think the development period and the problem-solving around the creation and ideation of these characters was very special. It’s so rare that you get to work on something that’s a completely original idea. I want to applaud John’s bravery for pushing to do that, rather than taking an existing franchise or toy. He completely put it out there with his own ideation. John was tearfully happy to see these ideas he had visually represented. Previs always evolves, but it completely informed what we were going to do, and John’s emotional reaction to seeing that we were getting it and onboard and were able to service him in the making of this film was, for me, the true pleasure.”



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