Interview: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ VFX Supervisor Matt Johnson Talks Mary Poppins, Cartoon Penguins and More
Matt Johnson is a visual effects artist and supervisor who has worked on a plethora of films including Space Jam, World War Z, and most recently, Mary Poppins Returns. He was able to take time to answer a few of our questions about the sequel to the Disney classic.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you get involved with Mary Poppins Returns?
Matt Johnson: I worked with Rob Marshall, the director, before on Into The Woods and I got a call from Disney very early on in the process asking if I was interested in doing it and it’s one of those things where if somebody says, “Hey, do you want to do a Mary Poppins movie?” it’s something you don’t take lightly. It was a bit of a trepidation, but it was too good of an offer to turn down. It was an interesting challenge.
Nerds and Beyond: That sounds amazing. Did any of the older Disney films inspire your work on Mary Poppins Returns?
Matt Johnson: Yes! Like many people, the first Mary Poppins film is a part of my childhood. It’s a precious childhood memory, so I was certainly interested in movie magic and visual effects, which I decided I was going to do when I was about six. That was about the time I saw the original Mary Poppins film, so as a kid I used to try to work out and wonder how they danced with penguins or climbed up smoke staircases and tidied the bedroom. When it came time for me to actually be doing that myself, it was certainly like “Oh! This will be an interesting challenge!” I grew up with Disney movies and Disney cartoons, so it was nice to honor the legacy of Peter Ellenshaw, the original Mary Poppins (visual effects) supervisor and the amazing work that his team did back in the ‘60’s.
Nerds and Beyond: Did you have a favorite scene that you worked on?
Matt Johnson: I’ve got two favorite scenes, I’m going to cheat. I very much like the animated sequence because it’s so much part of what makes Mary Poppins special to so many people and working with the cartoon penguins and things like that, I’m lucky because I really enjoy the cartoon penguins, so that was a big treat for me, that was great fun to do. And also the magical ocean sequence, it was just fun to put Mary Poppins in this fantastical underwater world, it was really exciting to do.
Nerds and Beyond: So what do you think is special about combining animation and real life action?
Matt Johnson: There’s always been sort of a combination of cartoon and live action, but we’re really taking it to the bang up to date. The first film was very – the way they shot it was quite sort of static and Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews would stand there and the characters would kind of dance around them. In Mary Poppins Returns, Rob Marshall the director, has a really sort of fluid camera style. He likes to move and move around the action, so we really needed to take the technology further to allow this 2D world to come to life and work from all angles. So it was an interesting technical challenge using the latest CG technology and combining that with the traditional style of animation and really fusing those together in a contemporary way while still being respectful to everyone’s memories of the original movie.
Nerds and Beyond: Would you say that that’s the biggest change in your industry, with regards to the technology?
Matt Johnson: The technology in visual effects is always constantly changing. I always say to be in this business is like being a shark, you have to keep moving forward otherwise you’ll die. The technology evolves all the time and we were really able to tap into some of the latest CG techniques and use them in Mary Poppins Returns. For example, each one of those bubble bath foams was just millions and millions and millions of little spheres of bath foam in each one of those shots, which took each one about four days to render. It was very advanced technology at the time, used in a very simple and magical way. It was great fun to do, it was really, again, combining the latest in technology and Rob (Marshall), Rob likes to do everything camera as much as possible, so we were working out ways to allow Rob have the freedom to work with the actors and the dancers and do the movie magic on top of it
Nerds and Beyond: Can you talk a little bit about my favorite scene, the end with the balloons? I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process with that scene, how was that created?
Matt Johnson: Yeah, of course! That was a fun sequence to do. The way that we designed that sequence, it was pretty much visual effects from start to finish. Initially, Rob had done some story boards, with little steps of how he wanted the sequence to be. Then in visual effects, we did something called previews, which is like a little cartoon of the sequence. We had the song and we made a little CG cartoon of the sequence, and we designed the shots in the way it moves and showed it to Rob and worked with him to get a sense of the look of the sequence. Rob wanted it to be like an aerial ballet, he always wanted it to be moving and very fluid. So once we had that, we then needed to shoot the actors on green screen, which allowed us to add the background in later. They’re all basically hanging on wires, we had a very elaborate rig built on the stage, almost like train tracks on the top of the stage with wires hanging off of it, so the actors could be pulled along these tracks and move and spin. We then shot it with moving cameras, to give it a sense of the way that they were moving. Then in the computer we created a five-mile stretch of London completely in CG. It was the park, it was Cherry Tree Lane and kind of distant London landmarks. And then to combine that, we had to work out what the cameras were doing on set and then combine all of it with this CG version of London and go in and create lighting to make it all come together, so it was a very very elaborate visual effects sequence. Rob was so precise about every dancer and every movement, so everything was very much laid out by Rob so the dances and the back of the frame spinning was precisely what Rob wanted to do, so it was all set up by him. So we just went in and added CG London and the CG park and CG trees. Every CG tree was blowing in the wind, so it was an incredibly elaborate sequence to pull off, but we knew we had something because when we showed people the preview cartoon version of it, we made people cry. I thought if we can make people cry in the previews, this would be some good stuff for the movie.
Nerds and Beyond: One more question: your previous projects tend to be a little bit darker and geared toward an older audience. What was different about working on Mary Poppins Returns as opposed to something like World War Z?
Matt Johnson: Mary Poppins Returns was great because I could see the world through my childhood self again, and also make something for my kids as well. So it was nice to just look at something with an innocent gaze, and just go back to how it was watching movies when I was a kid. It was nice to do something that was little bit more innocent and fun and magical, not necessarily scary, just make people laugh rather than terrified, so it was good fun.
Nerds and Beyond: That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for all of your work and thank you for answering our questions!
Matt Johnson: My pleasure! Have a great day!
Mary Poppins Returns is available for digital download on March 12 and on Blu-ray and DVD March 19.