You won’t find any dancing CGI penguins or horses in the new movie “Mary Poppins Returns.” For the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 classic Julie Andrews film, director Rob Marshall and his team decided to go retro. Every frame featuring cartoons is hand-drawn in the traditional style Walt Disney pioneered.
“Rob wanted it to look like the original,” says animation sequence supervisor Jim Capobianco. “As close as we could.”
But it wasn’t easy. The effort took assembling a team who still knew the old techniques that yielded everything from 1937’s “Snow White” to 1992’s “Aladdin.” Ever since the rise of Pixar, most animated major family films, such as “Toy Story 3” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” have been created using CGI. The last Disney film to be fully hand-drawn was “Winnie the Pooh” in 2011. (Disney bought Pixar in 2006.)
“Unfortunately, none of those guys who originally made ‘Mary Poppins’ are around today,” says Capobianco, who also worked on “The Lion King” movie. “But there is a sort of generation between that. Some people, like Glen Keane, studied under them [and] are still around. So we were able to tap into some of that knowledge from some of those old-timers.
“They wouldn’t like that I said they’re old-timers!” he quickly adds.
Sixty-four-year-old Keane, who was a character animator on 1977’s “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Rescuers,” among others, advised the “Mary Poppins Returns” team early in the process — especially on the look of the Royal Doulton bowl scene in the new film, with a pastoral carriage ride through green hills leading to a raucous kaleidoscope-colored dance hall.
“We decided that if we were gonna do it, it had to feel in the same vibe,” says production designer Jeff Turley. “We did a lot of work — studying, nerding out, looking at all the old backgrounds.”
Capobianco and Turley referred, of course, to the original film for guidance, but they also turned to 1970’s “The Aristocats” and 1961’s “101 Dalmatians.” The pair pored over drawings by British satirical cartoonist Ronald Searle, who inspired the 1964 animators.
They even stared at fine china.
In the new film, paintings on a Victorian-era bowl come to life, and Mary, Jack and the Banks kids get sucked into its 2-D world.
“In the original ‘Mary Poppins,’ their technique was to mimic a chalk painting that was drawn on the ground. That drove the look of that entire animated sequence,” Turley says of the “Jolly Holiday” scene. He and the animators tried to evoke the same feeling from the Royal Doulton bowl.
“We’d sit there and study these bowls, and order some online and we’d just kind of look at them for days,” he says of the design process.
Once the aesthetic was locked down for the magical land that Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack would venture to, the creative team began a year of production work at one of the last 2-D animation studios in the US: Duncan Studio in Pasadena, Calif.
About 85 percent of the final film was drawn on paper — by more than 160 animators — then scanned into a computer and colored.
The final challenge was combining this analog medium with the digital world of the live-action film — “like oil and water,” Capobianco says. The last time, he reckons, audiences watched flesh-and-blood actors immersed in a 2-D world to this extent was in “Mary Poppins” and 1971’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
One impressive moment during the Royal Doulton sequence features more than 200 individual animated characters — one of the highest numbers for any film — interacting with human actors. It’s one of Capobianco’s proudest achievements.
“It’s an honor to follow in Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston’s] footsteps and [Disney’s] Nine Old Men’s footsteps,” he says of the original geniuses behind the studio’s greatest hits. “I think it was in our DNA.”
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