Framestore’s head of rigging bears visual effects in Paddington

5 Dec 2014

Laurie Brugger, head of rigging at visual effects and computer animation studio Framestore

Laurie Brugger’s visual-effects work on major feature films has seen her get up close to interesting characters, including actor George Clooney and Paddington Bear, she tells Claire O’Connell.

Those deep, expressive eyes, that endearing, asymmetric half-smile – it’s a face Brugger knows well. No, it’s not Clooney (but stay tuned, more on him later), it’s Paddington Bear.

Brugger, who was in Dublin last weekend for the VFX (visual effects) Summit at the Science Gallery, was ‘lead rigger’ on the newly released feature film Paddington.

The movie follows the eponymous bear as he leaves darkest Peru for London in search of a mysterious explorer, and ends up being taken under the wing of the Brown family. Marmalade-loving Paddington gets to grips with city and human life but ends up in plenty of sticky situations along the way.

Paddington – a beloved character

It was a key to get the animated bear’s look right, according to Brugger, who was well aware that many older viewers would have had memories of Paddington from books, programmes and toys in their childhood.

“The character is really beloved, innocent and interesting,” she says. “The illustrations of Paddington were embedded in people’s hearts growing up, and people have different visions of Paddington as they remember him, so we spent a lot of time coming up with the overall concept for this character.”

Rigging the bear

Brugger is head of rigging at London-based visual effects and computer animation studio Framestore, and explains that rigging enables movement in the animated 3D-character.

“If you think of it like a marionette puppet, the modeller will sculpt the limbs and the face and the rigger will put the joints and the strings and the controls,” she says. “That is what rigging does for animated characters, which we build on the computer.”

The animated Paddington needed to be rigged so he could move in all sorts of ways, because the bear was going to be getting into scrapes of many kinds.

“We had to put lots of detail into everything we did to cover all bases,” says Brugger, who describes how they developed muscles and skin for the computerised character before fur was added, and how they compared bear and human anatomy to get the right mix.

The muzzle puzzle

One of the most challenging aspects of the face was the muzzle.

“Bears have big muzzles but we wanted Paddington to have a small muzzle, which is less threatening, and we spent a lot of time on getting the muzzle to the correct looseness,” she says. “Also the lips are quite small and this caused a lot of problems for his smile, because the lack of muscle connection meant it was hard to make the smile look natural.”

At a few points in the movie, Paddington speaks in his native ‘bear’ and the changes in his face immediately show the difference between the gentler ‘humanised’ face and the fiercer bear look. “I watch kids’ reactions when this happens, and they crack up, they get the joke,” says Brugger.

The VFX Summit (which was sponsored by Screen Training Ireland, Animation Skillnet and Enterprise Ireland) held a screening of Paddington at the IMC Screen Cinema in Dublin last Saturday. It was Brugger’s second time seeing the movie in its entirety.

“I’m pleased that I quickly forgot Paddington was an animated character, and blended in with the actors,” she says.

Gravity: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Brugger spent about 18 months working on Paddington, and during this period was also lead rigger on Guardians of the Galaxy. Before that, she and the Framestore team worked on the Oscar-winning Gravity, developing visual effects for spacesuits and some physical features of the characters played by Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

“I did Sandra Bullock’s digital legs,” says Brugger. “And I did a motion-capture session with George Clooney – I was in front of him, basically asking him to pull faces at me: I would tell him to make a certain expression and then give him an example by doing it myself and he would mirror it.”

From Florida to Framestore

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, Brugger developed an interest in art and animation at an early age.

“I would get inspiration for paintings watching cartoons on mute,” she says. “And Toy Story had just been released, it was an exciting time.”

She studied computer animation at Full Sail University and got work with animation studios in Los Angeles, where one of her tasks was to build an animated owl from scratch.

“I got to model it, rig it and animate it, it was a great exercise and opportunity,” she says.

In 2003, she got an offer to work on London.

“A bit like Paddington, I grew up thinking London was this mythical, wonderful place,” she says. “So I jumped at the opportunity.”

Since then, she has worked on several big-name movies, including the Harry Potter series (she rigged the face of Dobby) and as head of rigging in Framestore she is managing teams on upcoming titles.

Though she still likes to dive deep into rigging, too.

“It’s a great job – you sit at your computer, put on your headphones and study anatomy and come up with new ideas and inspirations and you can apply them really quickly,” she says. “It’s a nice mix of the technical and the creative.”

And she has good news for anyone with talent in visual effects: “We are hiring like crazy at the moment,” she says.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication