Making musical magic for Matilda
In this article, we’ll be finding out more about how Cinesite created epic crowds, CG creatures, and pigtail-swinging action for Netflix’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl-inspired musical.
Netflix’s Matilda is a glorious, show-tunes-filled adaptation of the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical of the same name, featuring the original songs (and some new ones!) composed by multi-talented musician, writer, actor and comedian, Tim Minchin.
The film’s events will be familiar to anyone who grew up reading Roald Dahl’s book. The brilliantly minded Matilda (Alisha Weir) must use her sharp intellect and vivid imagination to overcome the hardships imposed by her vulgar family and the tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). However, what makes the story different this time around is the music, the production values, and the sheer spectacle of the experience. Matilda is a beautiful, vibrant, joy-filled extravaganza, conjuring up the most colourful and glorious rendition of Roald Dahl’s imagination.
Dreaming up a vision of Matilda on this scale required a host of visual effects. Cinesite came on board to help bring the film to life, ultimately delivering 350 VFX shots out of 1,100. Read on to learn how the studio created a larger-than-life circus, a being constructed entirely of chains, and a new take on classic Matilda scenes.
Cinesite’s Simon Stanley-Clamp took the helm on Matilda as Production VFX Supervisor and was responsible for all aspects of VFX supervision, preparation, planning, shooting, and overseeing the work of the show’s eight other VFX vendors.
“I carried out 12 weeks of pre-production prep on Matilda, based mainly out of Shepperton Studios, during which I worked closely with the show’s art department and heads of department in set decoration, lighting, photography and camera,” begins Stanley-Clamp. “Those 12 weeks included scouting southern England for locations and historic houses, which included the venue we used for Crunchem Hall Primary School. Also, as Matilda is a musical and there’s a lot of dance choreography, I worked closely with the film’s choreographer on planning the dance sequences: VFX magic had to turn 50 dancing kids into 200!”
Following those 12 weeks, Stanley-Clamp worked as Matilda’s on-set VFX Supervisor. Principal photography lasted 110 days – a longer-than-usual shoot owing to the challenges of COVID-19.
“It was a fantastic shoot, regardless of the lockdown challenges,” says Stanley-Clamp. “Many of the principal people from the stage show were involved in this film; for example, the director, Matthew Warchus, and writer, Dennis Kelly, were also the director and writer of the stage show. As such, the crew had encyclopaedic knowledge about the show, like knowing in detail how they created Amanda Thripp’s throwing from the stage. All of that knowledge, inspiration, and passion translated into the experience of shooting the film.”
Building Matilda’s world
Once the shoot was complete, it was time to dive into a 10-month post-production process.
Environment work comprised a significant component of Cinesite’s work on Matilda. One of the core environments worked on by the Cinesite team was the Crunchem Hall Primary School, along with its surrounding grounds and assault course.
“Brams Hill in Hampshire stood in for the school; we shot there for about nine weeks,” says Stanley-Clamp. “It’s a beautiful, stately building with surrounding grounds and modern buildings and accommodation attached, which we used for our VFX offices. We filmed in and around the house, in the surrounding woods and on the football pitch for the hammer-throwing sequence. We also shot at locations surrounding Brams Hill, like little country lanes and the nearby Denham village, where the Wormwoods live.”
One of the issues that required Cinesite’s attention in Brams Hill was, ironically for England, caused by good weather. “The scenes we shot were meant to be rainy and stormy, but we were shooting in the middle of a sunny and bright summer,” remembers Stanley-Clamp. “Ultimately, we performed around 300 sky replacements featuring cloudy skies and added rain into the environments.”
Roll up! Roll up!
Cinesite’s most significant environment work centred around Matilda’s final act – a three-part sequence in a fairground and circus.
Cinesite CG Supervisor Gee Tatchell and her team played a large part in bringing the sequence’s assets to life. “The circus interior was our largest asset across the entire show,” she explains. “Matthew, Matilda’s director, wanted the tent to appear limitless and its back wall hidden in shadow. The physical set only had the first two tiers of the audience – the rest was greenscreen – so we built out the tent’s interior and lighting, giving it a dark look and fading everything off to blackness and darkness.
“We added a ton of other things into the sequence. For instance, we built spotlights into the scene. On set, they shot with blue or clear spotlights and floodlights; we changed the colour to orange for the final sequence. We also added sharks in the shark tank, extended the crowd, and more across 170 shots. Finally, we made sure all these separate elements played well together and that there was a natural balance between the CG work and the on-set plates. The sequence came out well!”
Cinesite’s FX team also helped add detail and atmosphere to the circus sequence, as Stanley-Clamp reveals. “There is 3D water in the shark tank, for example. I also wanted the scene to be dusty, so we added lots of little CG dust motes into the floodlight beams and dirtied up the sequence so it didn’t look too clean and digital. These additions added a lot of atmosphere.”
Another standout element in the circus scene features two trapezists performing acrobatic manoeuvres 25 feet from the ground. This sequence required a great deal of green screen for its environmental augmentations, explains Stanley-Clamp. “When trapezists perform, they cover a lot of ground, so you need a lot of green screen height. You also need green screen on the ceiling and, when filming down, green screen on the floor. Also, the stunt actors required a safety net beneath them, which also had to be green. There was green everywhere! We replaced it all with the circus background.”
“The trapezists wore costumes of a wonderful velvety crushed red colour, a vibrant red, which showed up well,” adds Stanley-Clamp. “The whole sequence felt really circus-like, partly due to the costumes, which were fabulous.”
Tatchell notes that the trust given to Cinesite in deciding on the circus scene’s overall look and feel was a great help. “Although the production team gave us lots of helpful direction, they were also confident in our ability and gave us the freedom to explore an aesthetic that would work,” says Tatchell. “We carried out an extensive look dev process, tweaking the circus’s look so it felt just right while ensuring the production was happy. And they were: the result came out really pretty!”
50 is (not) a crowd
Matilda’s circus is a large venue packed to the rafters with spectators – or, at least, it was once Cinesite had performed its crowd works.
Matilda’s shoot took place during COVID-19 lockdown and its associated restrictions, meaning only a fixed number of people were allowed on set at any one time. It was up to Cinesite to digitally enhance that number into packed, huge crowds.
“We were only allowed to use 50 extras for the inside of the circus, and we needed to populate it with 14,000 people!” says Stanley-Clamp. “As such, in post-production, we performed a lot of crowd replication, with several different approaches utilised depending on what would work best.”
“For example, for some shots, we bunched our groups of 50 people together, filmed them in sections, and then dropped those sections back into shots in post,” he continues. “We used motion control to repeat camera moves with the crowd in different positions. For instance, there’s an exterior establishing shot of the circus for which we filmed 14 passes of the same crowd in different positions. We then took each section of the crowd and dropped it back into a master plate along with the CG circus.”
Stanley-Clamp and team also created crowds by filming individual sprites on greenscreen. Cinesite captured the same people performing a series of repeated actions, then created full 3D crowds based on scans of extras. “They’d be standing up, clapping, cheering; that sort of thing. We could then transpose these actions onto cards and drop them back into the audience, randomised so as to make it look like reactions from a range of people rather than big clumps of individuals performing the same action. We used these approaches for some of the more distant crowds.”
Cinesite also used digi-double techniques for the full-CG fairground exterior shots. “40 kids shot from 200 feet in the air by a drone doesn’t look like many people,” says Stanley-Clamp. “We added around 300 kids in uniform into the fairground to make it look busy. That’s a lot of digi-doubles!”
One of the biggest challenges in creating large digital crowds is establishing aesthetic variety. “Often, when we create crowds like a football crowd, everybody’s wearing the same top, so they’re all on the same team. That similarity makes things easier,” explains Stanley-Clamp. “However, in Matilda, our crowd members had very individual 1950s outfits and unique hairstyles. We had to ensure everyone felt completely different in the crowd.
“Ultimately, we delivered a varied and colourful audience, and that’s what comes across: the vibrant, bright colours and lots of lovely movement.”
Matilda features a small bestiary of animals, including a lion, giraffe, crows, a butterfly, and the newt, Isaac. It was up to Cinesite to leverage its creature creations expertise – a skill set previously seen in Cinesite productions like The Witcher and Skyfall – to deliver these animals, large and small.
“We had quite a few shots featuring the newt Isaac,” says Tatchell. “It was fun to do creative animations on a few shots with him, especially in some of the more iconic moments. The animators loved working on him!”
Stanley-Clamp remembers working on Matilda’s lion, which required a combination of real-world photography and CG augmentation. “The lion appears in three shots, two of which are digital,” he explains. “For the third shot, we filmed two lions at Amazing Animals in Oxfordshire. We captured things like them roaring close to the camera, which the production used in the film.”
At London Zoo, Stanley-Clamp and the team also captured footage of giraffes for another tricky shot. “The shot required filmed footage from a close, low perspective, looking up from behind a giraffe. We got what we needed on those trips!”
Creating the Chain Man
Another CG being featured in Matilda isn’t an animal but a creature conjured up in Matilda’s imagination: a fantastical humanoid comprised almost entirely of chains, appearing in 27 shots. In one of the film’s more menacing sequences, the Chain Man takes on the guise of an escapologist and proceeds to roam around a room, throwing items.
“The Chain Man doesn’t feature in the stage show, so we came up with a variety of concepts for the creature, some of which were quite dark. One concept had a big cowl and looked like a sinister Harry Potter Dementor,” says Stanley-Clamp. “However, we ultimately went with something a little more fantastical, befitting the film’s lighter tone.”
The production provided Cinesite with storyboard beats for the Chain Man sequence but left things open-ended; it was up to Cinesite to add detail. “I created a more precise storyboard, which we took into a brief, two-day shoot,” says Stanley-Clamp. “Once we’d cut the edit, we launched into post-vis to ensure we could block the character and its movement would work inside the scene.”
Tatchell remembers building up the asset and planning its movement within the scene. “The Chain Man was a cool asset. We had the opportunity to build it up from almost nothing. The post-vis process was great to work through as we defined a movement that would work for the character. After a few iterations, we nailed a look the production loved.”
The Chain Man’s undulating chains were created using Houdini, with the simulations based on a basic skeletal frame upon which the chains hang. “When the Chain Man first appears, the audience sees the chains converging, moving into position, forming something – they just don’t know what it is until the final reveal,” says Stanley-Clamp. “We animated the character standing up and coming into position as the chains drop from him. We also added a lot of FX passes like dust, debris, and explosions, which make the sequence more impactful and give the feeling of threat.”
“The final sequence worked out well and was blocked nicely,” adds Tatchell. “Every Cinesite department came together to make it work.”
One of the most memorable sequences from the original Matilda movie (1996) is when Miss Trunchbull reprimands the student Amanda Thripp for wearing pigtails. To make matters worse, Miss Turnchbull picks Amanda up by those very pigtails and swings her out of the school grounds like an Olympic hammer.
This sequence occurs again in the new Netflix adaption, with a bit of extra VFX magic from Cinesite. “When we shot the scene on the day, Emma Thompson’s double was a male hammer thrower dressed in drag as Miss Trunchbull,” says Stanley-Clamp. “Using hidden straps, the actors picked up the stunt actress playing Amanda, then flung her around. In post, we performed clean-up and rig removal to hide the straps. Then, when Trunchbull lets go of Amanda, we did a full CG takeover of the actress using a full CG digi-double for Amanda. Audiences will only see the digi-double for a short 70 frames, but it definitely adds to the comedy.”
Tatchell adds that on-set photography provided excellent reference for the sequence. “We had some excellent stunt reference for things like the spinning shots and Amanda,” she says. “We were able to take the plates, replace and clean up what we needed, and build our CG Amanda. As Simon mentions, it was all for a couple of shots only, but they turned out great!”
There’s another pigtails sequence in Matilda that Cinesite worked on, in which Miss Trunchbull is thrown from the school canteen by her own hair. “That was a hard shot!” says Tatchell. “We concepted a few ideas of how we wanted the pigtails to form, but it took a few goes to get it just right. Eventually, we stripped the idea back and tried again with a looser overall feel. Doing so helped us to create a better feel for the braids and how the braiding came together. The final shot works well, and the production was pleased with what we delivered.”
Matilda is a fun-filled, explosive film bursting with unforgettable musical moments and VFX spectacle. What drives the experience, however, is the magic and imagination that made Roald Dahl’s original book such a hit with children. It courses beneath every element of the eye-popping visual extravaganza.
Maintaining that core simplicity while delivering the story at a new scale was truly a multidisciplinary team effort – which is just the kind of thing at which Cinesite excels.
“I worked with different people at all different stages of the production,” remembers Stanley-Clamp. “I worked closely with the art department, the director of photography, the director and many more people. There was a lot of crossover with different departments, too. For example, with hair and makeup, as we had to create some CG hair, or with the costume department, as we needed to scan everyone and make sure we had samples of the cloth to recreate it. I also worked closely with choreography, which was a huge consideration.
“VFX touched almost every element of the production. Our job at Cinesite was to ensure it would all melt into the background and serve Roald Dahl’s narrative, rather than detract from it.”
Tatchell feels that close collaboration and the intermix of CG disciplines were vital in the creation of Matilda. “Matilda was a huge show; every sequence required a different technical speciality. It wasn’t the same thing over and over – each shot had its unique challenge to consider. It’s a testament to the Cinesite team that everything came together so well despite all these different moving parts and unique requirements.
“The Cinesite team is so multi-talented and collaborates so seamlessly. Everyone took on the jobs they had to do and got them over the finish line. The result is a moving experience that, I think, puts the heart and soul of Matilda right up there on the screen.”
- Release date: 25.11.2022 (UK), 25.12.2022 (ROW)
- Studio: Working Title Films, Netflix, Sony
- Director: Matthew Warchus