The legendary kingdom of Mandala from “Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver” is not as far away as you may think. You don’t have to take a plane and fly to China to get there. Instead, just take a look behind the scenes of Mackevision.
Not that we invented the city, of course. That was master storyteller Michael Ende in his first Jim Button story. Now, 58 years after the book was originally published, a team of film makers have dared to bring the story to life using real-life actors. And we were involved to bring the beautiful city of Mandala to life.
The secret garden of Mandala (before and after)
It was an ambitious and above all complex project. The Morrowland sequences was recreated at Filmpark Babelsberg, the desert shots were filmed in Cape Town, while the scenes in Mandala were captured in a hall against a green backdrop or ‘green screen’, as it’s known in the trade. The rest was digitally created.
For more than a year, a team of almost 20 people at Mackevision worked on the project. Most of them had read the book at some point. And everyone had their own mental image of Mandala, a place of which only a single illustration exists.
The splendid houses with their colorful flags and lanterns, the palace and even the tiny great-grandchildren. “It was a labor of love for every one of us,” says Jan Burda, VFX Lead Compositor.
Emma is approaching the palace of Ping (before and after)
The challenge was to breathe life into a fantasy kingdom. And we found ourselves facing a problem: Designing every house separately would have taken up too much time. So we came up with a modular system including everything you need to build a house: pillars, balconies, roofs.
But creating animated sequences on a computer screen is one thing. Blending in the actors is quite another. In the past, they would film a scene against the backdrop of a green screen, insert it into the animation, then hurry round to the nearest church and pray that it would somehow fit.
Today we can skip this final step, thanks to our partnership with nCam Technologies. Armed with an nCam, directors can merge the virtual world with the scene being filmed in real time on set. This way they can see at a glance how the actors need to move and behave.
Then came the refinements, those little details that make the film so adorable: the mini ear-cleaners, for example; the homes of the great-grandchildren; the imaginative inscriptions above the entrance to the store; the pair of turtle doves on the roof – or the impressive ornamental dragon in the window.
True, these little things are not always easy to spot. But it’s well worth trying.
The crowded avenue of Ping (before and after)
Visual Effects Supervisor Juri Stanossek talks about turtle doves on the rooftops and a project that was very close to his heart.
Juri, what would you say it takes to make a good Jim Button film?
First and foremost: courage.
You wouldn’t say it takes a great idea and the very best actors?
That too, of course. But I’d say that, at the outset, courage is the decisive factor.
What makes you say that?
Did you ever read Jim Button when you were a child or have it read to you?
Sure, like countless other kids…
And that’s just it: This is important material that many people have already visualized in their own minds. Some read the book, others watched the legendary puppet shows of the Augsburger Puppenkiste. So taking that material now and saying: OK, let’s make this a real big thing and shoot a movie with real actors – that takes courage. And passion. A whole lot of passion.
How did you feel about it?
For everyone involved here this was a labor of love. Actually, there’s no other way to make a project like this work. But we also had some superb support, not least from MFG Filmförderung, the film promotion company of our home state of Baden-Württemberg.
And what part did we play exactly?
We worked closely with the director, the set designer Matthias Müsse, and our customer‘s VFX supervisor Frank Schlegel on the representation of the kingdom of Mandala – the houses, the palace and its gardens.
What was the biggest challenge we faced?
Living up to people’s trust. We were given incredible freedom in terms of design and implementation. Which we were delighted to have.
Do I hear a ‘but’?
But of course that implies a lot more responsibility than if you have to stick very closely to given specifications. The amount of trust invested in us was massive, and we didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
Were there technical challenges too?
Sure. The biggest question we asked ourselves was: how can we build a large number of different houses without having to design each building separately? Because we could never have done that in time.
How did we resolve that?
We used a modular system with everything you need to build a house: pillars, balconies, roofs… That way we were able to create very different-looking houses from prefabricated parts. It was a bit like Lego. And there was another big advantage in that if we modified a module, it was automatically corrected in all the existing houses. That kept us really flexible and saved masses of time.
When you look closely, you can see countless details: a pair of turtle doves on the roof, artistic inscriptions, the great-grandchildren at play, even dust on the streets.
That was something we all had a huge amount of fun with. And it’s the little details that make this film so adorable.
But surely that took up lots of time. And the little things don’t really stand out that much…
Not when they’re there, maybe, but you’d notice if they weren’t there. These are the things that you perceive at a more subconscious level. The fact is, reality is complex. And if you dispense with all the little details, the scenery soon looks cold and dead.
How did we know what it looks like in Mandala? Illustrations are few and far between.
Of course the film production company and set designer provided us with sketches and concepts up front, but in many respects we had a free hand.
So we let your imagination run wild?
Yes and no. Of course we did our research and found some inspiration. After all, we were out to imitate reality. So before we started, two of us spent five days in Beijing, studying the architecture from various periods and taking photos.
We were also on set when the film was made.
Yes, I was. It was great the way we all worked together with the Rat Pack production crew, including Producer Christian Becker, Director Dennis Gansel, Visual Effects Supervisor Frank Schlegel and cameraman Torsten Breuer, to name just a few.
How were we able to help on set?
To give you just one example, we had the nCam in operation for the first time ever. That allows the director to impose the virtual world directly onto the filmed scene in real time. That way he can tell at once what it will look like in the finished item. And that’s a great help.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
Superb. Without exception, everyone really put their heart into it – producer, make-up artists, actors, whoever. I think you get a sense of that, when you see the film.
When did you get to see it for the first time?
At the premiere in Berlin on March 18.
And how was it?
Superb. Of course we were all really keen to see how it all came together in the finished item and how it went down with the audience.
How did the audience react?
Great. Although I must admit that I soon stopped noticing how people were responding.
Why was that?
Because I was so caught up in the film. Which at the end of the day is what really counts.
Screenplay: Dirk Ahner, Andrew Birkin. From the book by Michael Ende
Director: Dennis Gansel
Camera: Torsten Breuer
Set Design: Matthias Müsse
Music: Ralf Wengenmayr
Sound: Dirk ‘Teo’ Schäfer
Costumes: Ute Paffendorf
Editing: Ueli Christen
VFX Supervisor: Frank Schlegel
VFX: Scanline, Mackevision, Trixter, Rise FX, Chimney
Production: Rat Pack Filmproduktion GmbH
Co-production: Malao Film Inc., Warner Bros. Entertainment GmbH