Pinocchio: Back to its roots

Posted on Jul 24, 2020 by Chelsea Fearnley

VFX supervisor Theo Demiris talks about creating the visuals for the latest Pinocchio feature, which draws upon Carlo Collodi’s original story

Pictures / One of us

Matteo Garrone’s film adaptation of Pinocchio combines the sentimentality and surreality of Carlo Collodi’s original story and rescues the puppet from its saccharine Disney rendition. With a script pricked by themes of suffering, exploitation and death, it offers much more than the animation of a boy whose nose grew too big when he told a lie – something that only happens twice.

In an interview with Theo Demiris, VFX supervisor at the studio One of Us, he recalls meeting with Garrone early on to discuss how it would look. “Like the script, we drew inspiration from the original material and Carlo Chiostri’s illustrations. We also studied etchings by Francisco Goya, whose compositions of the bleak social, economic and political levels of 19th-century Italy permeated Collodi’s story.”

Demiris adds that the film is a homage to Italy in those times, and that an emotional understanding of how that might have felt was incredibly important to its Roman auteur. “Garrone had longed to film Pinocchio ever since he was a little boy, when he drew his first storyboard. He is like a human lie detector when it comes to emotion; he instinctively knows what feels right and what doesn’t,” says Demiris.


Early involvement

Through pre-production and a three-month shoot in Italy, Demiris built a relationship of trust with Garrone, developing an understanding of his aesthetic intentions. “Being involved in the project early on was so important: I was able to witness the organic evolution of the script and characters, and in doing so I developed a deeper understanding of the film’s tone, which gave me more autonomy over the visuals,” he explains.

This style of working is also unique to One of Us; the boutique studio has built a reputation in recent years around its attention to immense collaboration. “We like to offer the filmmaker a journey; where we facilitate their vision on-set and bring it to life in post-production,” says Demiris.

Being on-set was also an opportunity for Demiris to have an ongoing dialogue with Mark Coulier and Pietro Scola. Coulier is a double Oscar-winning prosthetic and makeup artist known for his work on the Harry Potter films, and Scola is Garrone’s friend and character concept artist.

They’re not supposed to look 100% real, they’re a mix between human and animal

“It was technically useful for me to see how the characters were being formed – even to the point of discussing casting with Garrone, because it fed into our joint goal of wanting to achieve something that looked seamless; where viewers wouldn’t be able to tell what is digital and what is in-camera effects,” he says.


Hybrid characters

The characters in Garrone’s world are created with an artisanal approach, blending prosthetics, makeup and VFX. The digital effects are blended with the makeup and layered over facial prosthetics, making the characters appear extraordinarily real. “The design of the characters is based on old paintings; they’re not supposed to look 100% real, they’re a mix between human and animal,” explains Demiris.

Pinocchio is played by child actor Federico Ielapi. His woodified face really is very strange. It doesn’t look like that of any sort of boy, but rather a man or woman or cyborg in early middle age. “It’s why it didn’t matter if he was cast male or female,” explains Demiris.

The talking tuna, who befriends Geppetto and Pinocchio after he rescues them, closely resembles The Moon from The Mighty Boosh (or the French film, A Trip to the Moon, depending on your knowledge of cultural references), but is wonderful in its fairytale bizarreness. “Maurizio Lombardi, who was cast as the tuna, had makeup and prosthetics on his face, but his body was submerged deep into the water so it wasn’t visible. Then on his back he wore a prop that resembled the shape of a tuna, and this gave me the interaction I needed from the water to create the digital body.”


Other zoomorphic characters include the snail, who acts as the maid to Pinocchio’s blue-haired fairy protector, and Grillo, the grasshopper mentor that Disney reimagined as Jiminy Cricket. With the exception of CG antennae, both wore makeup and prosthetics to aid their performance. “Coulier and I discussed which parts of these characters needed to be moving – and if they could be moved practically. The snail was designed to be huge, so we needed to be mindful of what she [Maria Pia Timo] would be experiencing and how the surrounding actors would be reacting,” explains Demiris.


Maurizio Lombardi, who played the Tuna, wearing the prosthetics for his performance

Digital donkey

The donkey that Pinocchio transforms into – as all naughty boys do – is composed of real and digital shots. “The transformation is digitally driven; with hands and arms morphing into hooves and legs. Then there’s a section which includes a real donkey, but he becomes completely CG when he is thrown into the ocean,” says Demiris. “I took a lot of photographs of the real donkey, depicting its different angles, to ensure the CG one was a perfect match. I then applied all the usual steps for creating a realistic creature, which involves building it from the ground up; starting with bones and muscle, then adding skin and fur before finally animating it.”

Federico Ielapi was transformed into Pinocchio using prosthetics, makeup and VFX

He reveals that this was less complicated than working on half-prosthetic, half-digital characters, because with those there is no clear connection point. “You shouldn’t be able to tell where prosthetics end and CG begins. They need to blend into one and move as one. Lombardi, who played the tuna, for example, he wouldn’t move like a fish, he would move like a human. My job was to take his performance and add a moving fish behind him and somehow make the whole thing work as one character,” he explains.

You shouldn’t be able to tell where prosthetics end and CG begins. They need to blend into one and move as one

Lens data

Demiris trusted Cooke’s /i Technology lens metadata, which was supplied by DOP Nicolai Brüel throughout the shoot, for creating these hybrid characters. “We have had similar metadata delivered to us with image sequences before, but this was the first time we were fully in control of the workflow from start to finish and were able to properly integrate the technology into our pipeline,” he says. “It all comes down to recreating the exact movement and properties of the camera in the digital world, and having access to all of that information meant that we could quickly solve the camera and recreate it with precision.”


Demiris found that the most useful lens data elements were focal length, focal distance, lens model and lens serial number. “The benefit of having all that data is that it never lies. Any other way is prone to error. You can rely on handwritten data sheets taken on set, but people are often tired and make mistakes and, of course, it takes time. Time to write them down, time to dig them up and log them, time to access them and then use them. Knowing there is an entire database automatically recorded and easily accessible meant less time organising and more time making beautiful images.”

When creating the young puppet’s nose as it grew in response to his lies, Demiris used lens metadata to ensure a seamless image. He explains: “We had to perfectly track the camera movements as well as Pinocchio’s head and torso in order to then replace the nose and parts of the head. The result is a mixture of prosthetics and VFX that is so well-integrated it’s very difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.” Pinocchio’s long wooden conk is charmingly done here, with little CG woodpeckers sitting serenely on top of it.


Beautiful Italy

Trusting the working-class settings and sympathies of his source material, Garrone crafted a fable set in feudal Tuscany, where much of the film was shot. “I think that’s also why it looks so nice, there’s authenticity to the visuals,” enthuses Demiris. “Some other scenes were shot in Puglia and Rome, but it is all Italy-based. It’s Italian in its soul. There is also the exception of the breaching of the whale that swallows Pinocchio, and the 40-second shot of the drowning donkey being enveloped by fish. Those had to be CG, of course.”


Pinocchio has been nominated for Italy’s David di Donatello VFX Award and will hopefully translate into a solid box office hit outside of its home territory.

This article first featured in the June 2020 issue of Definition Magazine.

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