Framestore’s Nathan McConnel discusses the challenges and rewards of delivering new creatures for the Fantastic Beasts sequel.
Those who crave more wizardry from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling can turn their attention once again to the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his suitcase filled with mythical, magical creatures. In the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, filmmaker David Yates reunites with visual effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz, and vfx house Framestore, which was tasked with delivering 15 different creatures for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Familiar and fantastical elements needed to be properly balanced to achieve a sense of believability for the creatures. “The remit of this film was, ‘How can we make it better from the first?’” notes Framestore Animation Supervisor Nathan McConnel. “‘How fantastical can we go?’ You’re always trying to find an anchor point so someone will believe that this thing is real.”
To assist with the creature development, the Framestore team began its work early on “They had five or six concepts for this Chinese dragon character known as the Zouwu,” recalls McConnel. “They asked us, ‘Which one do you think we should go with?’ What drives the stuff that we can provide is a functional design. You can have a concept that looks good as a static image but then maybe it doesn’t have the same intention of design once you start rigging and animating.”
Motion capture was not an option for the Zouwu, which originates from Chinese folklore. “We looked at Chinese dragon festival dances and decided to have that kind of quality going on in the head of our Zouwu while the tail is ribbon-like in its movement,” explains McConnel. “She’s a four-legged creature that moves like a lizard. You’re not going to get many people who can do that!”
A Dragon in Close-Up
In the early stages, the team had to flesh out the idea rather than produce a highly detailed and polished creature. “As we hone in on the performance, then we can start thinking about the muscles and dynamics of the fur,” says McConnel. “The eyes are the windows to the soul, and were critical in selling the believability of the Zouwu in close-up shots. In the beginning we played them like bug eyes but they didn’t feel grounded enough. The big eyes needed to be supported by muscle, structure and cheekbones.”
The Zouwu needed to feel like a cohesive creature. “You have this lizard-like quality, a mane, and a ribbon-like tail, so what actually is it?” notes McConnel. “Rather than changing everything and redesigning the proportions, we found that texturing the Zuowu like a cat helped to blend all of those different design elements. She had been held captive in this magical circus and all of the creatures found there are poor examples of their kind.”
—Framestore vfx supervisor Nathan McConnel
As usual, the process involved some tricky moments of marrying the CG with the live-action plates. “We had some shots where Newt rides the Zouwu like a jockey and one when she picks Newt up and affectionately plays with him like a toy. Puppeteers were on set covered in green pretending to be this larger-than-life creature. We also had an assortment of props such as a head that was the correct size, and a softer sponge version that Eddie could touch. We were constrained by the performance of Eddie in the plate. When Newt was riding on her back we would retain as much as of his performance all the way through to replacing him entirely.”
Size and scale were also an issue for the Chinese dragon. “We realized that she didn’t fit in the actual set for the [Ministère des Affaires Magiques] where a great escape takes place,” remarks McConnel. “You can imagine how long Zouwu is and her long tail could easily start intercepting with all of the background. We scaled it down so she could be able to fit in that set.”
McConnel says he recalls being on set when they were shooting a sequence where Newt befriends the dragon. “He gets a toy to distract the Zouwu from what she’s doing so to get her out of harm’s way. David Yates was saying, ‘You need to fill the frame.’ Luckily with the tail that long we’re able to use it as a device to give us depth.”
That scene turned out to be a personal favorite. “She’s this big fearsome creature that is scared herself. Everybody is running away from her, cars are crashing, she is unintentionally causing havoc, but then there’s this person who stands in front of her and pulls out this fluffy toy that absolutely mesmerizes her. The Zouwu is like a little kitten in the way that she follows the toy into Newt’s suitcase. It’s quite comical and embodies the qualities of Newt.”
Feline Parisian Guards
Ethereal cat-like creatures known as Matagots serve as security guards for the French Ministry of Magic. “They’re quite mysterious, gaunt, angular and aggressive looking,” states McConnel. “The Matagots have these gnarly finger poses and unusual eyes. They’re based on a Sphinx reference. We looked at cat runs and walks. The quality that we were looking for was a stalking predator-like quality. If you try to hit them with a spell they’ll multiply. We use their ears to make them feel slightly different but they’re almost like clones. They’ve got a pack mentality like wolves, and the way they hunt is to distract from the front while attacking from the back at the same time.”
Several other new characters are also introduced as part of the circus. “The Oni is like a huge Japanese sumo wrestler gladiator gorilla with delicate claws,” remarks McConnel. “In the same tent is an amphibious creature called a Kappa that lives in a bath that has cup-shaped head full of water, and in a cage are the Firedrakes which are these little sparking dragons. David Yates was keen to have a social structure feeling. We came up with a fun beat where the Firedrakes are mischievously trying to antagonise the Kappa, the Kappa is taking it like this is happening to him all of the time, and the Oni rattles the cage or grabs one of the Firedrakes. It has a nice family quality.”
Another big vfx task involved replacing the practical set for the Ministère des Affaires Magiques with many digital shots. “Sometimes it was easier because we were filling the set with shelves,” states McConnel. “We had a series of domes that are connected. Depending on the angle you can see into multiple domes. We had some key concepts that came from the client that they wanted us to achieve. Things are slowly shifting in the background to make sure that environment has a magical quality.”
Paris and London in the 1920s are the principal settings. “The big thing with London was the smog and mist,” says McConnel. “There was a lot of compositing work. We added quite a lot of pigeons in there from an animation perspective. They’re hard to see when you’re viewing them in a lower resolution. We did do one render where we saw this pigeon making a break for it!”
Looking back, McConnel believes the Zouwu to be the biggest challenge. “It’s one of the few creatures that has a narrative arc across the film. Our relationship to her as well as with Newt keeps changing throughout the film. Making sure that we got the Zouwu right was a challenge for every department.”
Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is currently playing in theaters in most territories.