Blend of live-action performers with hand-drawn animation and digital VFX invokes classic Disney legacy

By Ellen Wolff

Like the first “Mary Poppins” movie from 1964, “Mary Poppins Returns” features animated figures performing alongside human actors. Walt Disney himself was a pioneer of this “blended cinema” technique and it’s been a part of the studio’s creative DNA from the beginning.

Thanks to 21st century digital tools, though, “Mary Poppins Returns” audiences will see hand-crafted animation and live actors interact in new ways.

Modern films often blend digital animation with live action, but director Rob Marshall wanted to harken back to the classic Disney style.

“Every frame [of the 2D animation sequences] is hand drawn,” says director Rob Marshall. “That’s something I really wanted to do. I felt it was important to the lineage of this beautiful piece. I feel like [hand-drawn animation] is a piece of art as opposed to computer-generated images.

“But it was tricky to find the animators at first,” says Marshall, “because that style’s sort of out of fashion.”

Jim Capobianco, who supervised the animation for “Mary Poppins Returns,” needed an extensive search to find artists with the expertise to create hand-drawn characters with the sophistication that this film required.

Capobianco, an Academy Award nominee for co-writing Disney/Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” (which won the trophy for best animated feature), along with animation producer Alonzo Ruvalcaba, brought in artists who had worked on previous hand-drawn Disney animation titles, including “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King.” Some even came out of retirement.

To allow time for the animation, filming started with the extended sequence that would combine Mary and the Banks kids with animated characters, including an elaborate dance number for Mary. “It’s still a huge challenge to bring the worlds of live action and animation together,” says Capobianco. That challenge starts on the set.

The cast filmed Mary and Jack’s big dance number against greenscreen, keeping in mind that “in a year, there will be elephants behind you,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda remembers.

After the sequence was shot, Capobianco says, “We took [the live-action] footage and printed out individual sheets, so we knew where the actors were within any image. We’d animate characters on paper to match where the actors were.”

Ruvalcaba observes that because of Marshall’s background in theater and movie musicals, “Everything in ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is alive and in motion. The hand-drawn animation in this movie is much more fanciful than audiences are used to seeing.”

But not all of Mary’s adventures are classic Disney style.

Mary’s first deep dive into imagination is a digitally animated ocean adventure, entered via the bathtub.

She brings the children into a fantasy ocean through a bathtub filled with bubbles, where they are chased by animated characters through a CG world.

This sequence, while still quite fanciful, is more in the realm of modern visual effects than traditional animation.

That and Mary’s other moments of magic fell to the visual effects team, under VFX supervisor Matt Johnson, who had worked with Marshall on Disney’s “Into the Woods.” Johnson and the VFX team also worked closely with production designer John Myhre to create 1930s London. Modern skyscrapers were painted out and fog banks added to accentuate the gloomy world into which Mary Poppins arrives.

On the other hand, VFX were also used to add lightness to the Banks home on Cherry Tree Lane — especially when spring arrives.

“A key thing we did was to enhance the magic by creating digital cherry blossoms that have a little extra twirl and flurry,” Johnson says.

“Even the children’s kites fly around and dance in a more magical way. We used cutting-edge technology to make Mary Poppins live for audiences today.”

He concludes: “The feeling is as if something from your imagination suddenly became real.”