Written and directed by David E. Talbert, produced (and featuring music by) John Legend and featuring a star-studded cast which includes Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin and Hugh Bonneville, the film called for a deft mix of storybook wonder, intricately-crafted CG characters and touching emotional resonance - needs that made Framestore the perfect creative partner.
The magical tale follows the escapades of toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Whitaker), and saw Framestore collaborating closely with director David E. Talbert from early concept art through to final VFX and the film’s distinctive credits and segue sequences. The team was also tasked with orchestrating a whimsical choreography and creating a fully digital 18th century and CG-snow filled town, complete with a factory, and toy store. "Framestore came on board early on. They helped me develop the two fully CG characters and flesh out the ideas so I could see them on screen - the movement, the mechanics and the theory behind how they would come to life." says director David E. Talbert.
Working under overall VFX Supervisor Brad Parker, VFX Supervisor Carlos Monzon (Paddington) led Framestore’s 350+ VFX shots, key to which were two magical toys: charismatic yet nefarious matador Don Juan Diego and the ultra-cute Buddy 3000. “Getting the chance to work on these characters from initial drawings to their walking, talking final iterations really spoke to the toymaking theme of the film,” says Monzon. “Because we wanted Buddy and Don Juan to be living, breathing toys the design work was painstaking and incredibly intricate, with the team labouring over the characters’ inner workings and how the materials with which they were engineered would interact and operate if they magically came to life. In a way it’s funny: working on a fantastical, magical film like this means you have to really double down on your logic and your engineering prowess because you want to ensure the audience is going to be fully immersed in David’s wonderful world.”
Framestore’s highly-skilled art department was in the unique position of conceptualizing the characters for the film, which have remained true to their original designs and then handed over to the VFX teams. “Their craft became an indispensable guide for our artists; they created some incredibly complex, detailed assets and developed hundreds of mechanical gears for both characters,” says Monzon. The story lives within two worlds - reality and a stunning miniature storybook, imagined and designed by Framestore’s team in London.
The Matador : Don Juan Diego
Don Juan Diego, a devious 12-inch matador (voiced by Ricky Martin) embarks on a mission to halt a plan that would see him mass produced. “Don Juan is an extravagant extrovert whose emotions ping-pong between arrogance, fear and frustration,” explains Animation Supervisor Eric Guaglione. “We needed to convey his melodramatic, larger-than-life personality in a way that would complement the live-action cast and plate footage. David gave a good deal of latitude when it came to developing the character, especially when it came to working with him to make Don Juan a more ‘likeable’ villain - I had the chance to fly out to LA and be with David while he worked on the script, teasing out a more comedic and vulnerable side to Don Juan.”
In order to perfectly bring to life their miniature marionette, the Framestore team immersed themselves in reference footage, both of real-life matadors and models depicting them. “We became experts in matadors and flamenco dancing; closely studying how interrelated their theatrical performances in the bullring and dance poses were,” says Guaglione. Based on those studies, Guaglione and his team created a reference library of movements that were crucial when animating Don Juan’s complex, minituarised movements. “Our team of animators filmed themselves acting out the roles, to really get into the heads of our characters and understand the emotional journeys they were taking," says Guaglione. The team was also tasked with acting out the complex, 100-shot choreography for the film’s opening sequence, which sees Don Juan Diego come to life and experience a rollercoaster of emotions. “David entrusted us with devising the character’s performance and personality throughout the sequence,” says Guaglione. “It was a huge task, both in terms of the trust he’d placed in us and the need to deliver a polished, note-perfect musical sequence.”
The Robot : Buddy 3000
‘Buddy 3000’ is Jeronicus Jangle’s most beloved creation - a playful, childlike invention whose heart magically lights up when he feels warm and fuzzy. “Our brief was to create a toy that was innocent, with a child’s demeanour,” says CG Supervisor Britton Plewes. “We had to find ways to convey joy, excitement and surprise solely through his eyes, so we paid a lot of attention to reflections, lens elements and subtle eye movements to forge a sense of emotional connection between Buddy and the other characters.”
“Animating a hardbody character and projecting human-like aspects onto him was quite challenging,” adds Monzon. “It meant we had to make some design changes that would allow us to achieve the full-range in motion required. For example, Buddy's heart required an extensive amount of rigging so that it looked mechanically correct when it moved and rotated. Also, he’s a squat, bulky character but he needed realistic joints and bends so he could achieve that seamless performance.” One of Buddy’s traits is that his energy is fueled when those around him believe in magic; that’s when he comes alive and levitates. “We found a way to explain the levitation and movement by introducing an out-of-balance wobble during key moments and showing that something mechanical was happening, which created a scene full of magic yet grounded in scientific and mechanical reasoning,” concludes Guaglione.
Worldbuilding through VFX
The magic of Christmas doesn’t stop there. Both Jeronicus and his bright granddaughter have the power to visualize their inventions through a floating chalkboard. Working from mathematical equations (created by a real-life scientist), Framestore’s VisDev artists designed a distinct, fantastical look which guided the compositing and FX teams to recreate glowing 3D elements and effects. One of the more complex sequences involved a tunnel escape from a massive explosion, and the team was tasked with recreating a fully-CG environment as well as fully digital kids. “One of the tools we refined for this tunnel sequence was the rigged environment; we were able to create a fully-deformed asset which truly allowed our creatives to put their artistry to work and really focus on nailing the thrilling escape,” explains Plewes.
With such creative input on a wide variety of VFX needed for the show, the result is a distinct world that helps drive this magical tale, “Working with the mechanical aesthetic of the film, our artists created a distinct vocabulary and movement of our craftsmanship; from the enchanting toys to the fairytale background in which the story takes place,” concludes Monzon.
Framestore also delivered several animated storybook sequences for Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey which were comprised of nearly eight minutes of full CG.