Linda Romanello
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2017)


This beloved fairy tale with a familiar theme – true beauty comes from within – dates back to 18th century France, with the first published version of “Beauty and the Beast” (“La Belle et la Bête”), by author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Countless iterations and interpretations eventually led to one of the most memorable and best-loved versions, Disney’s 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, with its inspiring message and memorable songs. 

The film, which was released around the same time as Disney blockbusters The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Aladdin, was not only critically acclaimed, but was the first animated feature to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and won two Oscars, for Best Original Score and Best Song.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when Disney was looking for a live-action, big-screen adaptation of the fairy tale. When the studio approached Oscar-winning Director/Writer Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I and 2, Mr. Holmes, and Kinsey), he initially “did not want to go near it.” 

Condon explains, “I consider the 1991 film to be a perfect movie. When the film was released, it was groundbreaking in the way the story was told and with that incredible score from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.”

But then Condon gave it more thought. “It is 25 years later, and technology has caught up to the ideas that were introduced in the animated movie. Now, it is possible, for the first time, to create a photoreal version of a talking teacup on a practical set in a completely realistic live-action format,” he says. 

Condon, in the director’s chair, began with script development and working with the art department on initial ideas for the look of the film in 2014, with active prep starting on the first day of 2015, such as storyboards, previs, set illustrations, and so forth. He also brought on his creative team, including Editor Virginia “Ginny” Katz and DP Tobias A. Schliessler, both of whom worked with Condon on Dreamgirls, The Fifth Estate, and Mr. Holmes, and Katz on the Twilight sagas.

Principal photography on the new film took place at Shepperton Studios outside London and on several exterior locations in the UK from May to August 2015, where multiple, large-scale practical sets were built – 27 in total. And while the story itself was to be told in a live-action format, there was still a good amount of CG and animation required to create many of the film’s characters, including a believable Beast, as well as a talking teapot, candlestick, and more. 

Four-time Oscar-nominated Production Designer Sarah Greenwood (Hanna, Atonement) was brought on for the sets and Steve Gaub ( Unbroken, Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) as visual effects producer. 

The Third Floor completed the previs. Two and a half years later, there is a finished, live-action film and an all-star ensemble cast, including Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Audra McDonald, and Stanley Tucci.

Just prior to the film’s release, Condon, Schliessler, and Katz spoke about each of their roles and taking on such a beloved Disney classic.

Take One:
Director Bill Condon

What type of film did you set out to make?
I set out to make what I hope is a very emotional live-action musical film. To make a film that not only lived up to the animated film, but also the beauty of the score and the kind of richness of the story.

I didn’t think of it for any one audience, but to make it so it could go as deep as
it could.

What were some of the biggest challenges for you?
That everything fit within everything else. So here, making sure the broadness of Le Fou lived in the same movie as the delicacy of what Kevin Kline was doing as Belle’s father. Making sure that it was all part of
the same movie.

How many VFX shots are there?
Around 1,800.

What is your comfort level with visual effects?
Once you go through a big movie and do them, you realize just how intensive the postproduction period is. I’ve done movies with post that went longer than a year. This actually had fewer visual effects than my last movie, although very complicated ones. Then you start to live in that world and understand it.

You tried to do as much in-camera as possible?
Yes, starting with the huge sets. And, lighting, too. Lighting certain numbers, such as the ‘Be Our Guest’ scene, with the light reflecting off the dishware and glasses. We did that practically so that the CG elements would be surrounded as much as possible by real things because I think the audience can still spot the difference.

What does the live-action feature offer that’s different from the animated film ?
Once you change drawn characters into human beings, everything changes… they have to behave as recognizable human beings. For example, in the animated film, they fall in love overnight. In a live-action movie, you have to watch that happen and understand it in order to believe it and feel it. Another example: How do you change Gaston from that wonderful comic creation in the animated film to someone who is equally superficial and narcissistic, but in a way that we believe he walks around in the real world?

Is there one part of the filmmaking process you enjoy more than another?
Yes, the postproduction. I’m in a room with [Editor Virginia Katz] and, especially on a movie like this where so much of it does happen in post, the shaping of the movie really takes place. 

Beauty and the Beast

What is it like for you to see a scene over and over, and then, finally, the finished CG character is added?
It’s not just when it’s dropped in, because it happens across stages. Each time is a step. But there’s inevitably one big step that takes us to where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, now I’ve forgotten that it’s CG and now it feels real.’ And that is thrilling.

Take Two:
DP Tobias Schliessler, ASC

How long did you work on the film?
I started in late February 2015 for preproduction and finished in August. It was 12 weeks of prep and then we shot for about another 70 days. This kind of movie takes a lot of preproduction, storyboarding, previs, music rehearsals … everything. It takes more preparation than your usual film.

Any particular shooting style for this film that either you or Director Bill Condon wanted?
It’s definitely a collaboration, and Bill has a very strong sense of what he wants his movies to look like and how he wants them to feel. He also spent a lot of time with [Production Designer] Sarah Greenwood and her illustrations, so when I got there, I had a good sense of what this movie was supposed to look like in terms of the illustrations and the lighting. Also, the tone and tempo of the music dictates the style of the movie in a sense, too. 

We start with storyboarding together in [Condon’s] office and talk about the scenes. We bring in the storyboard artist and it goes into previs, and that sets the feel for the camera work and the framing. But once we’re on set and if a scene feels better with how an actor moves, it can easily change on that day. But this movie was planned out, especially with the musical scenes; we went in and shot rehearsal video and created moves. We brought the footage to the editor and she started cutting already with the rehearsal footage, and that gave us an idea of how and how fast to move the camera.

What was the overall look you were going for?
It’s a period piece and it’s a fairy tale, but we did want to give a modern feel to it, too. So, for the first time, I embraced LED lighting. About 90 percent of the movie was done with LED lighting. We were able to control every light through an iPad, and we were able to change temperature in the shot. There’s one scene where Belle, Emma Watson, cleans a window in a ballroom and the sunlight comes through. When it comes through, I wanted to make the room become warmer and brighter, and I could do that with the control of the LED light. I could change the color temperature and intensity all by dimmers, without having to change gels or bulbs. So I was able to really play with color temperature a lot during a shot. 

Beauty and the Beast

I know there was a lot going on with the production of this movie – not necessarily an easy film to shoot and a lot of visual effects.
People say there were so much visual effects, and in a sense, yes, it was visual
effects driven, but Sarah Greenwood built all these sets, and there were set extensions. We did a lot of things in-camera. It wasn’t a bluescreen movie. We hardly
used bluescreen.

What were some of the biggest challenges for you?
Just the scope of the sets and lighting them. The sets were enormous.

Knowing there would be visual effects in a scene that you’re shooting, is it harder to shoot?
We had props that would simulate the characters on set that we would then move, and I would light them for reference for visual effects. Do I prefer having actors right there? Of course! It was pretty simple, though, because Bill had everything well thought out, and we had the previs done. It’s a different type of work because you need a little more imagination sometimes. Once you get into the shooting, it becomes pretty straightforward. With Beast, even though it’s a CG Beast, we had Dan Stevens acting on set. We had a mock-up of his fur, so I could light it for reference. 

Overall thoughts about the final product?
When I saw the final film, I was just blown away with how beautiful it is, the combination of the production design, the costumes, the makeup, and the craftsmanship. It all came together. 

Take Three: Editor 
Virginia (Ginny) Katz, ACE

When did you get involved in the film?
[Tobias] started in February, and I came in April, about six weeks before they started shooting, to look at previs so I could put in my two cents in terms of whether I thought a close-up should be inserted somewhere or if something was missing. 

How do you describe the editing style?
My style is always dictated by the film. The opening of the movie has this beautiful ballroom scene, and all the women are in these gorgeous white dresses, so it’s this very fluid, beautiful waltz. I felt that fluidity, and I cut it in that way. Then, when you have a dance scene with Gaston, that’s a totally different taste, because it’s more raucous and calls for a more robust kind of editing. So I let the film, whatever it may be, dictate what the rhythm is, and then I go with it for that scene. It’s always about telling the story and getting the emotion out of it. 

How different was this film compared to other films you had worked on?
It had many more visual effects – I haven’t worked on a movie with this many visual effects, even though we worked on Twilight. This really was a different animal. There was previs for the scenes that were mainly CG, like ‘Be Our Guest,’ but there were scenes that when the film comes in, it’s not always the same as the way the previs was. For instance, in the wolf chase, if I say I want a close-up of a wolf (which we didn’t have with the previs), because it’s CG, I can build a close-up from somewhere and, eventually, visual effects can work it in where I put it. It allowed me to create new footage when I needed to because of the visual effects. It really gave us great freedom.

They were still working on the visual effects when you were editing?
Yes, because I start when they start basically, and I came early to look at the previs, so the only thing I really had when I was cutting was the previs. And we would give up a scene early, even if we knew there were going to be few changes, because then we could turn it over to the visual effects team and they would start. Otherwise, if we waited until we were locked completely, then the film would never have released. As we get things in, we can see how things are working. With the Beast, I cut when Dan Stevens was in the [motion-capture suit]. The main concern for me and I think for all was how the Beast was going to be visualized. If the Beast didn’t work, then the film wouldn’t work. 

It’s a lot of work to start with Dan and then see the various steps, the kind of rough visual effects as they’re being built. And then you get to one of the first shots where you see the Beast – I mean, the first time we saw it really formed – it was spectacular. A Beast that’s scary and angry, and lovable and sweet. Those kinds of challenges were unusual for me.

You’re cutting these scenes over and over, and at some point, you finally see them with the final CG character. That has to be somewhat mind-blowing.
It is. It’s done step by step. Let’s say you have Lumière when he releases Belle from the cell. I have the real Belle (Emma), so she’s in there, but I put in the previs piece of Lumière because I don’t have anything else. Then, as we start getting in the visual effect, all of a sudden he has a face and then a body that’s maybe not quite right but becoming more three-dimensional. We had the prerecorded voice, so I have the previs with him talking. Then his mouth starts to move, and you start to see his face. 

Although the step by step by step can be tedious, eventually you get this amazing 3D character that’s alive, from a flat, little previs to this three-dimensional candlestick who can move and dance and sing – and has eyes. 

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment on this film?
We got what we were hoping to get, all of us, in terms of the Beast and the excitement of telling this story in a different way than the animated version. Belle is independent, she’s strong, she’s like a role model today. And the characters are able to sing and dance and become real. We came a long way.

Beauty and the Beast

Building a Believable Beast and CG Cast

To create a realistic-looking Beast in a real-world environment, while maintaining actor Dan Stevens’ performance, a combination of physical performance capture and Mova facial capture technology was used.

Stevens also participated in separate Mova facial capture sessions, which took place in an off-site studio. At these sessions, phosphorescent makeup was applied to Stevens’ face, which appeared blue under ultraviolet light, and he was then filmed by multiple cameras that surrounded him and tracked every pore in his face. The Mova customized hardware and software then converted the performance into data.

As for the household objects that magically come to life, each one has human-grounded characteristics and a specific personality. The objects are in close proximity with the human actors and are often shown interacting, but it was a laborious and significantly time-consuming process.

The final footage audiences see on screen is real and filmed in-camera and then augmented by the visual effects team during postproduction. In order to create flawless assimilation with the CG characters on practical sets, a solid hero model of each object – everything from a beautiful hand-painted teapot to a Rococo gilded candlestick – was created. Duplicate copies were also made, as were rubber versions for use in scenes involving stunt work. Once Director Bill Condon and the visual effects team were pleased with the appearances and proportions, the objects were then placed on set and filmed as part of principal photography.

The candlestick, Lumière (Ewan McGregor), is one of the few household objects that could open up and become a moving character with what are essentially arms, legs, and hands, and the filmmakers wanted to bring as much of McGregor’s personality to the character as possible. McGregor was filmed dancing and moving the way he envisioned Lumière would move, via performance capture technology.

“Lumière was difficult to concept because we wanted him to be able to move, but at the end of the day he’s still a gilded candlestick,” says Visual Effects Producer Steve Gaub. “Once we had a 3D computer model of him that everyone was happy with, he was constructed from rapid prototyping, so you can physically see and feel it.”

The same process was used for the teapot, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson): She was designed via computer, prototyped, and then molded. To bring Garderobe (Audra McDonald) to life, a real version of the beautiful – and enormous – wardrobe was created and rigged to make her move. Additional special effects elements, like those in the scene where Garderobe creates Belle’s gown and dresses her, were then added in postproduction. 

Linda Romanello ( is the managing editor of Post, CGW’s sister publication.