DP Dion Beebe’s looks knit together fantasy sequences with reality-based moments

By Valentina Valentini

“Mary Poppins Returns” proved an unusual challenge for Rob Marshall’s longtime cinematographer Dion Beebe. “It’s such an eclectic mix of Depression-era, 1930s London and fantastical journeys with Mary,” Beebe says.

With the film set during hard times in London, the real-world sequences mostly eschew theatricality; colors are muted and the city feels sad. The fantasy numbers, however, look bolder and more colorful.

“Rob and I devised a rhythm and a movement that could distinguish each of these songs while stylistically containing it all,” says Beebe.

Marshall wanted to emphasize P.L. Travers’ recurring theme that adulthood makes one cynical and that as we age we lose the ability to look at life through a child’s eyes. Beebe’s goal was to show this idea through his lens.

He shot in 2.40:1 aspect ratio in order to “give Mary a large canvas,” using anamorphic optics. “They have a certain nostalgia in how they capture the image,” he adds. “We wanted to tip our hats to the first [“Mary Poppins”] film in a few subtle ways, and this was one of them.”

Cinematographer Dion Beebe never expected to shoot musicals, but his first Oscar nomination came on Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” in 2002.

Marshall and Beebe have a process on musicals that includes extensive rehearsals, which Beebe shoots, then reviews footage with Marshall, working out camera movement and placement before real shooting begins.

“With Rob, prior to production we essentially could take the show on the road; it’s that well worked-out,” Beebe says.

In any film, transitions from reality to fantasy can be tricky; the audience shouldn’t feel like they’ve stepped into another movie. Such segues are especially difficult when the flights of fancy combine live actors with traditional Disney-style animation.

Hand-drawn animated characters run across three sequences in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Beebe had worked with animators but having Disney artists with him in rehearsal, planning the sequence, was a new experience.

“The concept artists are sketching up characters and helping you understand this penguin is only a foot and a half tall,” he says. “Everything had to be choreographed and worked out so the animators could work with us, because now you’re effectively working in a 2D plane.

“It’s why I love doing what I do,” says Beebe, “[being] in a new environment, trying things out you’ve not done before.”

Dick Van Dyke may be over 90 but he didn’t look old enough to satisfy Peter Swords King’s team.


Glam artists devoured 1930s fashion mags to mine Depression-era looks

By Karen Idelson

At 92, Dick Van Dyke didn’t expect to need old-age makeup.

He thought he’d only need a powder for his turn as an elderly man in “Mary Poppins Returns.” He quips, “I’ve grown into the part.”

Not enough for the film’s hair and makeup team.

“They put on mustaches and wigs and mutton chops and everything,” says Van Dyke. “I said, ‘You guys realize you’re making up a 90-year-old to look like a 90-year-old!’”

Van Dyke’s age treatment may be the most unexpected makeover on the film, but there are plenty of subtle challenges for the HMU department: strong red and orange lips, pale faces and, for Mary Poppins, a delicately defined finger wave.

If the team has done its job, the audience should be able to read the time and place, Depression-era London, on the characters’ faces.

Hair and makeup designer Peter Swords King planned from the start to pull from fashion magazine covers from the 1930s to create looks that showed people’s struggles of that decade, along with their hopes that things would soon be better. Even impoverished background characters were made to look as though they still took pride in how they presented themselves.

“Emily Blunt almost looked too glamorous for a nanny,” says King of the initial hair and makeup tests. “We had to rein it in and make her look more nanny-fied.”

That meant tighter hair and the character presenting herself in a more “proper” way. In the climactic Spring Fair, it was especially important that Mary not overshadow Jane Banks, who needed to be more alluring.

With Londoners out to celebrate spring, Jane’s wasn’t the only fresh face on the screen.

“It’s such a great number,” says King. “A lot of it looks like it’s off the cover of a Vogue book. We’ve stuck true to the period, but we’ve heightened it slightly so it all looks slightly magical.”