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The surprising connections fueling the CG bear boom

Paddington, Pooh, and a surprising connection to The Golden Compass

From the pure-spirited Paddington in Paddington 2 to Annihilation’s mutated monstrosity, and the oddball Baloo in Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle to the ever huggable (and now Oscar-nominated) Pooh in Christopher Robin, 2018 saw an impressive range of digital bears. How these CG bears came to life on the big screen actually holds a behind-the-screen connection: their history branches back, at least in part, to the Oscar-winning, and polar bear-featuring, 2007 film The Golden Compass.

At least 25 artists in the visual effects department of The Golden Compass, from CG and pre-visualization supervisors to lead riggers and animators, went on to work on one of the year’s major, bear-led studio films, but a handful of artists worked on even two or three, having honed their furry carnivore skills for years.

Animator Laurent Laban is one of the major connections between the films. He was an animator on The Golden Compass and would later work as a lead animator on Paddington. In 2018, he served as an animation supervisor on both Paddington 2 and Christopher Robin — the latter of which became an Oscar nominee, while the former made the Academy’s shortlist for the award. He, himself, was nominated this year for two Annie Awards and one Visual Effects Society Award. There is such thing as having “bear skills,” and without artists like Laban , we may not have had the CG bear boom we see today.

Paddington 2 - Paddington and Knuckles in prison Warner Bros. Pictures

CG bears can look a bit silly on set (if there’s any stand in at all) and it takes a monstrous process to bring them to life. Laban calls this the “adaptation phase,” where he and his team do research that spans from referencing real dolls from the art team in order to develop a CG version to referencing videos or even other films that feature the animal at hand. When a shot requires something more out of a bear, the team can reference humans, such as the mime artist, Javier Marzan, who performed comical scenes for Paddington. But for photorealistic illusion, since a real bear can’t be on set, Laban says that the animators dive into motion and anatomy studies, for even the subtlest of nuance.

Laban worked with the team at Framestore VFX to create The Golden Compass sequence in which Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) meets the King of the Bears, Ragnar (Ian McShane). “As an animator, it was a dream come true because ‘bad’ characters are very interesting to animate,” Laban tells Polygon. He and the team created menacing facial expression to augment McShane’s voice performance, and animated in keyframe to render the heavy bear movements of the massive Ragnar.

Laban’s next bear was the diametric opposite of a villain. While the CG Paddington was built in Framestore’s London house, Laban, who works out of the Montreal house, assisted his team and animation director Pablo Grillo (also an alumnus of The Golden Compass) on much of Paddington’s animation throughout both films. Inspired by “physically-comic actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton,” Laban tells Polygon, Paddington proved to be a tough character to nail. “[The challenges] could vary from a very subtle performance to a piece of very challenging action with a complex body mechanic.”

On top of referencing those inspirations, as well as Ben Whishaw’s performance, the animators even had to become Paddington themselves. “They acted out the shot as if they were Paddington, bringing together all the different ingredients,” Laban added.

As animation supervisor on Christopher Robin, working with 44 animators across 270 shots, Laban encountered a different kind of challenge with the iconic Winnie the Pooh. “Winnie the Pooh is a bear, but he is first and foremost a toy, so we didn’t really approach the animation in the usual way,” Laban said. “The eyes of toys are much less detailed and complex than a realistic creature or character that we usually animate in films.”

The blankness of the Pooh toy model made conveying emotion more difficult, especially in syncing the voice performance to how the CG character’s jaw moved. Laban says director Marc Forster resisted pronounced facial expressions. “It is actually very challenging to communicate emotion with those limitations,” he says. “A lot comes from the posture, playing with the angle of the camera and direction of the light, with subtle motion.”

Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin Disney

The depth of that work has clearly been recognized, as Christopher Robin beat out heavyweight contenders like Black Panther, Mary Poppins Returns, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to score an Oscar nomination. Of the four names that the Academy singled out in that recognition, two have distinct bear connections: Visual effects supervisor Theo Jones also worked on Paddington 2 in additional CG supervision, and Michael Eames, Framestore’s global director of animation, was head of animation on The Golden Compass.

But not all bears are created equal — or even like bears — forcing teams to find different artists for different intentions. Laban says that animators are hired primarily on skill and that artists are tasked with both action and performance-based shots. “We have to adapt to the character or creature. As an animator we have one mission, which is to give life to the film we are assigned to.” But Laban notes that artists often do have creature specialties, from quadrupeds (like bears) to birds or snakes. “As a supervisor, we take that in the equation when casting shots to the animators in our team.”

In fact, other alumnus of The Golden Compass also moved on to work on pre-2018 films that feature bears, such as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Yogi Bear, the first Paddington, and 2016’s The Jungle Book. Perhaps the most notable artist, though, is Matt Shumway, who supervised animation on The Golden Compass before working on the frightening bear in The Revenant, which won him an Annie and Visual Effects Society Award and earned him an Oscar nomination.

Laban has two explanations for why bears resonate with the modern film fan, and are at the heart of major motion pictures of the moment. The first is nostalgia: “We have all grown up with a lot of children books featuring bears,” Laban said. “From ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ Paddington, Winnie the Pooh, these books accompany us during our childhood.”

The second is how film can bring us closer to reality. “On the other hand, realistic bears are fascinating,” Laban explained. “They can be huge and very impressive. You can feel how powerful and dangerous they are.”

With examples of each this year, it’s easy to see why audiences have latched onto bears so tightly.

“There is a rich palette of representation around a bear,” Laban said. “From a stuffed toy to a real grizzly, I believe that has quite an impact on our imagination.”

Kyle Kizu is a freelance film writer from Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.