The Magician’s Elephant is the first animated feature film released with our new partners at Netflix Animation. Based on the classic novel by Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo, the film follows Peter’s search for his long-lost sister after a fortune teller reveals that he must follow a mysterious elephant to find her. This sets Peter off on a remarkable journey to complete three seemingly impossible tasks that will magically change his town forever.
Directed by Wendy Rogers and produced by Julia Pistor, the film is a whimsical tale of hope and an important reminder to never give up on your dreams.
Production on the film started during the pandemic, and at one point, the crew were spread around the globe in at least 10 countries…proving that what was once considered impossible is possible after all! Pandemic production meant innovative filmmaking and one memorable moment was recording Benedict Wong nestled in a pillow fort in a hotel room. The film was an incredible achievement for the animators, with a total of 10,153 days spent animating the film, which translates to 27.8 years or more than twice Peter’s age.
Rogers wanted the world and animation style to be very physically grounded and for the fable and magical realism elements to be juxtaposed against each other. “We were really inspired by the soft diffuse light under our surreal clouds and the gouache texturing and art style of Rebecca Dautremer,” said Rogers. “Animal Logic outdid themselves by creating these textural and lighting qualities. We wanted the film to feel really grounded but not specific to any one place or era.”
The film’s overall look was for the artist’s hand to be visible in everything, from the characters and creatures to the world they existed in.
“We wanted everything we created to feel like it had been handmade,” said VFX Supervisor Greg Jowle. “Lines were never straight, and bevels were never consistent; nothing was entirely flat, round, or symmetrical. These stylistic choices carried into everything we created; the movement of cloth and hair was stylised to fit with the look while still grounded in physics, allowing these elements to enhance without becoming distracting. The painterly quality was also present in all the real-world effects we created for the film,” added Jowle. “Water, explosions, smoke, and fire, were all broken down and compared in look to that of an artist’s interpretation in paintings.”
There are 280 buildings in the City of Baltese, where the story takes place, which were created through “a combination of procedural and manual tools, as well as a ‘system’ of buildings. Each was designed and built to fit a ‘footprint’ that could be stamped around the town according to the street map established in the art model,” said Felicity Coonan, the Supervising Art Director. To create variety throughout the city, Carl Prudhomme, the Look Development Supervisor, oversaw the workflow of the interchangeable buildings and developed a “system that enabled us to vary the colours of these parts in a procedural manner.” Inspired by the old cities of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, Baltese combined these locations “together to make beautiful, eclectic town you feel you want to visit,” added Coonan.
Clouds covered the sky and were inspired by mammatus clouds, which looked like floating tapioca balls when stylised for the film, thus earning them the appropriate term, ‘boba’ clouds. The total number of shots featuring ‘boba’ clouds is 1,290. “The surrealistically stylised Mammatus clouds were also our primary light source and forced us to reimagine much of our previous lighting approaches,” explained Jowle. “Most of the film’s lighting was overcast, which would make it grey and flat, but we needed it to have depth and beauty. The various time-of-day colour choices for the clouds informed our lighting, always balancing warm tones against cool to create soft shapes and enhance colours. We started referring to our lighting approach as ‘painting with light’. For example, darker areas might fall into cooler, more saturated colours; in contrast, brighter areas would be warmer and softer. We always needed to ensure we emphasised the characters’ shapes and enhanced the world’s depth without strong key light direction or shadows.”
The incredible lighting in this film was a two-year journey for the Lighting Department. Lighting Supervisor Herbert Heinsche likened the lighting process in this film to the main protagonist, Peter, saying, “We faced some unexpected challenges, including the added difficulty of working remotely due to the ongoing pandemic. Despite these challenges, the talent and dedication of the lighting team shone through, as we were able to continue producing beautiful images while working from home or in different time zones.”
To adhere to the handmade style, which was internally coined ‘Lost and Found’ approach to those in the Asset Department, our Modelling Supervisor, Stephanie Pocklington, worked closely with the Art Department, Boas and Rogers, to ensure “the style translated well from 2D to 3D”. The Modelling Department “primarily used Maya for our main modelling tasks said Pocklington, along with ZBrush for any involved sculpting work and Marvellous Designer for clothing creation. Houdini was used for some procedural modelling and distribution tasks, particularly for building out the European-style city of Baltese.” The main software our Look Development Supervisor, Carl Prudhomme, used in this production were SideFX, Mari and Houdini, with exclusive Houdini tools created for the film. Prudhomme says “Using our grooming tool, Alfro, we created the hair for all the characters and the grass. The fabric-based items and the character’s clothing were made using Weave. To enhance the city street’s appearance, we utilised Spawn, our point instancer, to incorporate pebbles and litter.”
“The characters were also pushed stylistically while still having a believability,” said Animation Producer, Amber Naismith. “They belong in the physically grounded world yet are infused with the same magical realist quality as the environment – long legs, big eyes and angular structures, which also fed into how we animated the characters in a restrained, almost stop motion style.”
There are 133 unique characters in the film, and Animation Supervisor, Simon Pickard, is most proud of Vilna (voiced by Mandy Patinkin), the tough old soldier who raised Peter. “Vilna was a very complex character to crack due to his dark back story and how the events in his life have shaped his mind and actions,” said Pickard. “The voice from Mandy Patinkin was so captivating and gave us so much room to express his character through the acting. We had recordings of all the voice actors, which was a huge help for the animators as a starting point. Vilna is a very layered character saying one thing in a raw way, then scanning his memory as new thoughts take him off track. He was a joy to create as a character, and the animators did an amazing job capturing the many layers of his personality. He’s the character I’m most proud of creating from my whole career, and I already miss him dearly.” Fun fact, Vilna’s beard contains 316,224 individual hairs!
The elephant was intentionally designed to look more photoreal, even in her movements and the physics of her muscles; this was to help enhance the feeling that she was somewhere she didn’t belong.
The FX Supervisor, Luke Gravett, said that the crowd performance was the biggest challenge, as the crowd characters were required to come close to the camera and would therefore need to interact with the main character’s performance. To deal with this, a new pipeline was produced to “create crowds that worked close up and could blend in with the hero animation, which included a whole new USD pipeline for facials, performance and surfacing variations.”
To bring the filmmaker’s vision to life, Pickard and his team started “gathering references from other films, both animated and live-action, to narrow in on what Wendy had in mind for the animation style. The film is very emotionally driven rather than your typical big poses with broad movements on comedy-based animated features, so we had to be grounded in reality but always push the acting so we felt what the characters were feeling. We then created digital ‘auditions’ of the main characters from temp lines in the film to quickly see and tweak their animation before we started the film as a whole.”
When exploration into the cinematography for the film started, “lots of crazy reference material, from Saving Private Ryan to real footage from the International Space Station” was used by Ned Walker, the Layout Supervisor and his team. When working in a 3D space where the camera can be anywhere, he found the most challenging part of the layout was “getting the continuity right and refining the depth of field to bring our hero characters to the forefront in the frame”.
“Along with creating a truly beautiful and unique-looking film with nuanced character performances, I am most proud of the teams we built and the relationships we forged”, said Naismith. “I think partially because we were all experiencing the strange isolation of lockdown during the pandemic, we recognised how important it was to support each other across departments to solve issues and find solutions. We created such a strong team and maintained compassion and a sense of humour through it all – we laughed and cried from happiness a lot in reviews!”
After 3 years of production, our team is excited to share the film with the world. Jowle says, “From the first time I read the script and set my eyes on the concept art, the film reminded me of a classic fairy tale in the style and timelessness of the story; if we are lucky, that is what it will become.”