Come along with Australian Cinematographer Magazine as we visit the magical world of Mary Poppins Returns with the film’s Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe ACS ASC.
By Dante Pragier.
Fifty-four years ago, Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), based on P.L. Travers’ series of books, transported audiences to an Edwardian London as seen through the eyes and imagination of the Banks children.
In many respects, capturing this duality was crucial to the production, perfectly balancing the smog and gloom of its setting with rich animation and bombastic musical numbers. Despite Travers famously disapproving of the whimsical style of these elements, the film proved an enormous critical and commercial success, receiving thirteen Academy Award nominations and becoming the only of Walt Disney’s films to be nominated for Best Picture in his lifetime.
After over five decades away, one of the longest gaps between sequels in history, the world’s most beloved nanny is slated to return, now starring Emily Blunt as the titular character and the Banks children all grown up in 1930s London.
Academy Award-wining cinematographer Dion Beebe ACS ASC (Memoirs of a Geisha, Collateral, Chicago) in his fifth collaboration with director Rob Marshall, was highly conscious of the task ahead in contributing to such a beloved film. “Everyone involved in this project, from Marshall to Disney and the entire creative team, were very aware of the expectations surrounding the film,” says Beebe. “The first film was ground-breaking, won five Academy Awards and achieved an iconic status in film history, as well as a special place in so many childhoods.”
With an idea that began from Travers’ third novel, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Beebe and Marshall discussed the project from a very early stage. “In our approach, we really wanted to respect the traditions of the original, while exceeding the audience expectations,” the cinematographer explains. “Stylistically, we also needed to engage a whole new audience of kids with a very sophisticated visual language. Fifty-four years covers an incredibly wide audience demographic.”
To Beebe, finding the right visual tone is one of a cinematographer’s most important tasks. “In my discussions and collaboration with Marshall, production designer John Meyer and costume designer Sandy Powell, the goal was to capture a modern sense of nostalgia. This required careful consideration across every aspect of production. For me, the use of lighting, colour and camera movement helped us create our own style yet keep one foot in the world of the original.”
A distinctive example of this blend of traditional and modern techniques can be seen in Mary Poppins Returns’ use of hand-drawn animation. Beebe describes the process as experimental, “This was not something I imagined myself having the opportunity to do in the digital era. It is both instant, like a quick sketch on paper, and incredibly labour and time-intensive.”
Similar to the style of Mary Poppins, the production team decided to combine the hand-drawn animation with live performances. Finding the right balance was difficult, requiring precise synchronisation. First, the cast would rehearse a scene and it would be shot and edited. Then, the animation team would sketch characters into the cut footage. Only after viewing the finished sequence could a discussion take place in order to change it. Any alterations would therefore require both re-shoots and then re-sketches of the animation. In this manner, the sequence moved back and forth from the set to the animation studio until it looked just right.
“Hand-drawn animation requires more lead time than computer-generated animation,” Beebe explains. “Changes to these sequences take longer, so it was essential for us to start this process early. It was such an amazing journey. The sequence is fun, exciting and captures an intrinsic sense of nostalgia. It perfectly describes what we sought to capture.”
Beebe carefully considered the right equipment for the job, opting to use Panavision’s G-Series Anamorphic lenses and spherical primes. “The Alexa sensor was my reason for shooting Panavision,” says Beebe. “It has a softer curve and slightly more subdued colour space which can be pushed towards more vivid colour when required.”
Beebe needed dynamic equipment in order to best emphasise the shifting visual tones. “The movie contrasts two very different worlds,” Beebe explains. “London during a 1930s depression, and the fantastic, magical world that Mary Poppins introduces to the children.”
“We are constantly moving between these worlds so creating a visual distinction was important. Often the visual shift is very apparent in the fantastic places we visit, but at other times the fantasy develops more gradually throughout the scene. We tested and developed these looks prior to principal photography and the Alexa SXT gave me the range I needed.”
Mary Poppins Returns was shot predominantly at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England, with additional location shooting in and around central London. “This was the third movie Rob and I have shot at Shepperton, after Nine (2009) and Into the Woods (2014).”
Beebe notes that the studio has a lot of history, with epic productions like A Passage to India (1984), and The African Queen (1951) being filmed there. It is, however, a first for the Mary Poppins series. The first film was shot in California with painted London backdrops. “We took over most of the stages for our sets,” Beebe explains. “The challenge with these studio-based movies is planning set construction, pre-production and pre-lighting while continuing to shoot on completed sets. This is a process that continues throughout production.”
Working with Marshall, to shooting carefully-rehearsed scenes amidst a tight schedule of set construction and preparation, is no new task for Beebe. The pair’s working relationship covers over sixteen years and five major projects, beginning with 2002’s Chicago.
“He and I first met over the phone,” Beebe says. “I was on a project in London and he was prepping in New York. It must have been a real gut instinct on Rob and [producer and choreographer] John de Luca’s part. I had not been working in the United States long and did not have many American titles on my CV. They had seen an old five-minute showreel of mine. It may have even been on VHS! When we spoke on the phone, Marshall seemed convinced.”
Beebe recalls the first time he met Marshall face-to-face. “He was under a lot of pressure to collaborate with a more experienced cinematographer at the time, as this was to be his first theatrical feature,” says Beebe. “We arranged to meet in New York to discuss the project further. It was two weeks after the 9/11 attacks and I remember entering this classic New York building, walking up the wide staircase, past dancers stretching and prepping for auditions. It was surreal, like stepping into a scene from A Chorus Line. I was instantly hooked.”
Across his career, Beebe’s work has covered a range of genres and styles; from extravagant musicals like Chicago, to period epics, Memoirs of a Geisha, through to crime and action pieces, Collateral and Gangster Squad. “In my approach, I try very hard not to repeat myself or become too identified with a specific style or genre. I think every cinematographer prefers to work across a wide spectrum of styles and storylines,” he says. Perhaps due to this, Beebe’s work is lauded for its experimental style, for example with colour saturation or high-speed digital.
“I think every time we make a movie, it is in some way an experiment.” Beebe says, “As much as studios would love to have a formula that just works, the reality is every time we begin a project there is no guarantee of success. That makes the work exciting and a little terrifying when so many millions are being spent.”
Beebe is also clear that emergent technology isn’t of itself the driving-force of his creative choices. “I have always had a healthy disrespect for technology,” he says. “By this, I mean that the technology is there to serve the story. We must not be ‘in service’ of the technology. When I take on a new project, particularly when utilising new technology, my approach is, ‘how can this serve the story and how hard can we push it to create something that helps the audience engage with our story?’”
For Beebe, one of the advantages of working across such a vast range of genres is the opportunity to learn from each film and apply those lessons to future projects. “Something I really came to understand working with Marshall and De Luca is that shooting a movie is like a dance,” Beebe says. “It’s always about movement and choreography. When a character enters a room, the camera interacts with them, moving towards or away, with strong dynamic energy or an imperceptible motion. We make choices around camera movement that inform us about the scene and about the emotional state of our actors.”
The parallels of working with intense motion apply equally to action. “Often, in action or big dance numbers, there will be a lot to consider in the frame,” he says. “This is when we have to pay close attention to camera movement as it can help us understand the dynamics between characters and help us understand intention within a seemingly chaotic space. Marshall understands how to direct an audience’s attention towards a dancer on a crowded stage or an actor in a crowded room.”
Beebe recalls working with Michael Mann on Collateral, where the same principles relevant to a musical production could be found, for example, in shooting the Korean nightclub scene. “Here was a complex sequence that involved every major character in the movie converging on a space filled with four-hundred raging nightclubbers,” Beebe says. “Working with Mann as he dissected the space, made sense of the geography, created visual cues for the audience, and used movement to help clarify intention, gave incredible insight into how to manage a motion-heavy sequence.”
With an ever-busy schedule of work and having recently completed filming Ang Lee’s upcoming Gemini Man, Beebe stresses the importance of staying involved with a production through post and digitisation. “It’s always challenging for the cinematographer as we are most likely working on-set in another part of the world,” he offers. “It is, however, really important to find a way to be involved as the digital intermediate is the final stage and cements together all the months of work everyone has done. Technology now can help and I have been able to do live grades between London, Los Angeles, and New York over the years. On this film, I was able to join Marshall and Colourist Michael Hatzer in New York. It’s always more fun being in the room with everyone.”
Continuing the legacy of a film like Mary Poppins was a momentous task across all stages of production. “I know going into this that Rob really felt the pressure of attempting a sequel to such a beloved movie and to do it almost sixty years after the original,” Beebe says. In many respects, Mary Poppins Returns is a film of dualities; from 1964 to 2018, from 1910 to 1930, from the mundane Depression-era London to the magical world of Mary Poppins. To achieve their vision, the production team had to find a balance between old and new, somehow capturing a sense of nostalgia while simultaneously appealing to a modern, film-literate audience. Looking back across the shoot, Beebe believes this balance has been struck, capturing the magic of the original film along with it.
“One of my favourite scenes in the film is the number ‘Cover is Not the Book’,” Beebe says. “This song makes up part of the live-action, hand-animated sequence. This particular section of the movie involves Mary Poppins and Jack on stage singing to an audience of real kids and crazy, animated animals. We approached the live-action work like we would an actual musical number on stage. The entire number was pre-lit and every lighting cue was worked out with an extensive grid of theatrical moving lights. All the live-action performance was shot against green screen but with all these interactive light cues captured. The animators were then able to take our lighting plans and incorporate all the light and colour cues into the animation. The result is a very fun, magical, and seamlessly-integrated musical number.”
Dante Pragier is a writer based in UK.