'Beauty and the Beast' Visual Effects Producer Shares Inside Dish on 'Be Our Guest'

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Creating the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital HD) required some of Disney’s most labor-intensive digital magic — and Steve Gaub was the man overseeing it all. One of ten producers working on the musical blockbuster, Gaub led visual effects and post-production. He supervised every character and scene involving computer graphics, from Lumiere the candlestick to the Beast himself. And with director Bill Condon wanting the dancing dishes and enchanted castle to look as realistic as humanly possible, the producer had his work cut out for him. As Gaub told Yahoo Movies, the “Be Our Guest” number alone took months, the designs for deceptively simple characters like Mrs. Potts went through countless changes, and the Beast’s solo number was almost left on the cutting-room floor for fear that a motion-capture character couldn’t pull off a romantic ballad. Read on for Gaub’s behind-the-curtain perspective on bringing Beauty and the Beast to life.

When you started working on Beauty and the Beast, what did you think was going to be the biggest challenge? And what did it actually turn out to be?
Many people would probably think it was the Beast, but going in, I knew there were people I could talk to who had cracked [how to render] photo-real fur and those types of things. Not that it wasn’t daunting! But quite honestly, what I was most intimidated by was the castle staff, because I knew that Bill was adamant about really nailing that live-action feel, that they not feel like cartoon characters. And just knowing the vast variety of objects, from a teapot to a mantle clock to a coatrack, it just felt so overwhelming in the beginning. Every single castle staff member was a unique set of challenges.

When you describe them like that, those objects are different sizes, functions, shapes — how did you go about making those into a cohesive cast?
A bit of trial and error. We played around in concept phase looking at different sizes and how they relate to each other. Even in a scene when they’re moving through space: Can the mantle clock keep up with the candelabra when they’re walking across the floor? So we had to think on a broad array of levels how to nail them down. And then the next thing was determining their materiality: What are they made of, and then what are the rules that we’re going to set for how much that material can do before it starts feeling fake and cartoony? So we played around with materials on the characters, we played around with their size. And then we had different devices that could help us move easily from scene to scene — they’re probably invisible to the audience but helped us be cohesive. For example, Plumette [the feather duster] was able to fly through space, and Mrs. Potts had her tea cart. So there were those kinds of tricks as well.

But the most important thing that we did was actually build physical models of all of the castle staff, so the artists who had to do the work could walk around the actual object and see what it looks like and pick it up and see what it feels like.

And to some extent was the cast interacting with the real objects?
Yeah, we always had them on set in any shot they appeared in. We wanted to see what they looked like in that set. And then of course the cast took great interest in them, and certainly the cast who were playing those specific roles were highly interested.

And that was another huge component. We all loved the cast. We brought them to London in the very early days and recorded on camera all of them running through their dialogue and their songs, so the artists had those references right from the beginning, to really see the personality of the actor, what sort of quirks and personality traits of the actors do we want to find ways to incorporate into the castle staff.

Lumiere prepares dinner in a clip from ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Was it helpful to start with the characters from the animated movie or at some point did those get in the way of making realistic-looking objects?
They did get in the way. We didn’t really reference them much other than the personality traits, the things that made them popular in 1991 [in the original animated film], that we wanted to focus on. But their actual physical beings, it was just too different. You know, there’s so much freedom in 2D animation to do whatever you feel like doing, and we just didn’t have that freedom. So it was better just to start from scratch in that regard.

Any particular character whose design changed dramatically over the course of the process?
Strangely, probably the one that people think would be the least likely, Mrs. Potts. I mean, how much can you do to a teapot? But she doesn’t have arms and legs, and so what does the spout represent, what does the handle represent, how do you put a face on porcelain? We wanted all the designs to feel like they could go back to a frozen state and look just like an object, because they do that little trick in the battle. So we had to play with the designs of the paintings, and how that can turn into a very motherly, warm, lovable face. We kept finding things like, she looks angry now, she’s not supposed to look angry, but the shapes we were playing with, we couldn’t get around it. So we had to mess with those shapes, we had to change the way her mouth moves, the way her eyes looked and moved. Strangely, I think she took the longest time to completely nail down.

I want to talk about the “Be Our Guest” scene. In the animated film it’s pretty much a big Busby Berkeley homage, and we see a lot of that in the live-action film, but there are other movie callbacks like “Singin’ in the Rain.” Tell me about your role in putting that scene together.
Lead wrangler? [Laughs] There were so many components. It started in early days with just what you mentioned: Bill Condon and Anthony Van Laast, our choreographer, going through a lot of actual video references of different dances, different moments in different movies, different iconic dances on the musical stage, and starting with conversations about how to translate those to our little scene.

And then Bill really wanted to shoot everything practical in a set versus it being 100% CG, which a lot of people initially thought it would be. Part of that process that was hugely important to Bill was bringing in real theatrical lighting. So we brought in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, two Tony-award-winning Broadway lighting designers, to actually do all of the lighting for that musical number. So the number of lights we had in that small dining room was extraordinary, and all timed out precisely to the music and to hit the cues. And then we had to tech this with our camera, so all the camera moves were pre-programmed into the specialized camera that we used. So the camera was hitting precisely on the beat marks with the music. It was just a massive affair to coordinate.

What physically was actually there on the set? You’ve got the lighting, camera, dining room…
Lighting, camera, dining room, Emma when Emma appears, the table, the walls, the ceiling. A lot of the background. Everything that you see at one point or another was made physically. And there are certain little parts of it where the plates, and the silverware, and the napkins, are still. And in that moment, we would actually photograph real objects, which were really important for the visual effects team to see what they actually looked like in that space in that lighting, which then helped them bring them to life. Even the cakes were made practically.

Those were real cakes?
Yeah. We had a film photo reference of everything that went on camera, and then it was just a matter of, Okay, that moves at that beat, so we can keep it in for this shot, but it has to be removed for that shot, but make sure it’s standing by so we can get it in front of camera for that shot because the lighting just changed, so we need to see how it is in that lighting. It was intense!

So how long did that whole sequence take to put together?
Months and months and months if you include pre-production. But shooting-wise, we ended up near to three weeks shooting all the components of that.

When you saw the movie, was there one moment that you found the most satisfying to watch — like, “Ah, that came together!”
The “Evermore” song with the Beast. Just because in early days there were a lot of people questioning, first of all, whether or not that was a song people would enjoy, but more importantly, could we really pull off the Beast to the extent that people would buy him singing solo, tight to camera, and very emotive over the departing Belle? We had to fight for it to stay in, and we had to ask Disney to give us a lot of patience in letting those shots develop, knowing that [the audience] really wouldn’t connect with the scene until every shot of the Beast was done, because it’s so easy to get pulled out of a very emotional moment like that. And [Disney] played along. They gave us the leeway to prove we could pull it off. So seeing that on screen and hearing audience’s reactions to that, [realizing] that it was a scene where many people first developed an absolute rock-solid connection with the Beast as the romantic character he was — that was incredibly rewarding.

Watch a deleted Emma Watson scene from ‘Beauty and the Beast’:

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