Mary Poppins:The Peculiar Challenge of Animating Her World
“Mary Poppins” was the first film director Rob Marshall saw as a boy, so when Disney approached him about directing a sequel, the prospect was exciting — and intimidating.
“It was daunting because the film means so much to me,” Marshall said in a recent interview. “But I felt, if anyone’s going to do a sequel, I would like it to be me, so I could protect the spirit of the first film.
I asked myself what would I want to see in a sequel. I knew I’d want an animation/live-action sequence: It’s in the DNA of ‘Mary Poppins.’ And I felt it was vital to hold on to the classic hand-drawn animation from the first film.”
Although Marshall has won many awards for direction and choreography for feature films and television specials, he had never worked in animation. He built a team under the leadership of veteran Disney/Pixar writer Jim Capobianco. Working with a small group of artists in the Bay Area, Capobianco prepared preliminary storyboards for the sequence.
He presented them to Marshall, writers David Magee and John DeLuca, composer Marc Shaiman and others in the Hyperion Bungalow, a relic of the 1930s Disney studio that had been moved to company’s Burbank headquarters. As everyone wanted to recapture the feeling of the original film, it felt right to begin planning the sequence using actual drawings rather than computer images.
“We pulled together a storyboard — pinning sheets of paper onto corkboards, the old Disney way,” Capobianco said. “We met in the bungalow and pitched the boards using an umbrella as a pointer.
Rob would say, ‘I love that idea, but we need a little more time.’ Marc would get on the piano and rewrite the music; we’d redraw stuff and re-pin it. I felt as close as I could get to being with Walt and the Sherman Brothers making the original ‘Mary Poppins.'”
Combining the media was a technique Walt Disney used when he first came to national prominence in the mid-1920s with his short “Alice” comedies, which placed a live-action little girl within an animated setting.
Although film technology has advanced enormously since then, the crew of the new film, “Mary Poppins Returns,” still faced problems integrating the media seamlessly.
The animators strive to create convincing performances for their characters — who have to react to the live actors’ actions. For example, engineering a scene so an actor and an animated character touch requires almost microscopic precision: If anything is out of place, the drawn and live elements will seem to slide over each other, spoiling the illusion that they’re sharing a space.