Bringing Barbie Land to life

“Barbie presented the Framestore team with a wide range of exciting creative challenges,” says Production VFX Supervisor Glen Pratt. “While the tools and techniques we used were cutting edge, we also had to make sure that everything was in keeping with the unique ‘look and feel’ that Greta had envisaged. This meant seamlessly integrating CG props, buildings and vistas with the physical production design and ensuring our VFX spoke the same visual language - that of a film steeped in the same exquisitely-crafted look, mood and atmosphere of classic films from the 40s, 50s and 60s.”

Early visdev work by Head Of Visual Development Owen Jackson effectively set the standard, with two key scenes - Barbie waving down on a picture-perfect Barbie Land, and the film’s now-iconic beach environment - being crafted in advance to give the film’s creative team a steer as to how Barbie Land would look once Framestore’s artists had expanded it outwards. “If you look at the visdev shots side by side with the final frames it’s uncanny,” says Glen. “It’s like a spot the difference puzzle - some of the landmarks might have been moved or switched, but that early work effectively set the tone for everything that followed.” 

Pre-production proved vital for helping solve early puzzles and help Greta Gerwig realise the vivid, highly distinctive world she envisioned. Framestore’s Farsight suite of proprietary virtual scouting tools were used to establish key environments as they would appear once shot, albeit with the caveat that Barbie Land shouldn’t extend indefinitely into the distance a la ‘real life’ but to halt at a set point in order to match the film’s heightened, matte painted aesthetic. Virtually building and scouting key locations allowed Gerwig, DOP Rodrigo Prieto and other members of the team to explore, iterate and make core creative decisions early on.

From one icon to another

The film’s opening ‘Dawn Of Woman’ sequence saw the VFX team work in close collaboration with the film’s art department and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. After mapping the craggy environment out in Unreal - with an eye to evoking the sense of drama conjured by Stanley Kubrick for his peerless 2001: A Space Odyssey - VFX previs artists sculpted and modelled digital terrain, crafting a de facto matte painted environment for Leavesden’s LED volume stage. This, in turn, informed the art department build of the sequence’s physical elements and allowed for virtual scouting of the shots themselves once projected onto the volume wall. “The sequence obviously pays visual homage to Kubrick but there’s a thematic nod there as well,” explains Visualisation Supervisor Kaya Jabar. “Greta thought Kubrick would seek out and experiment with the most up-to-date tools and technologies at his disposal, so making use of Leavesden’s LED stage made perfect sense. Though most people wouldn’t know it, everything ties together nicely in terms of past, present and future - there’s a seamless blend of in-camera VFX, full CG and real-world foreground props.” 

It's got to be perfect

Somewhat ironically for an industry that prides itself on photoreal perfection, the hyperreal perfection of Barbie Land presented Framestore’s VFX artists with some unique challenges. if Gerwig’s ‘artificial authenticity’ was to be achieved. “Barbie Land itself demanded a careful balance between the slightly uncanny perfection of mass-produced plastic toys and the artisanal, handcrafted look of a vintage dolls house,” says VFX Supervisor François Dumoulin. “The surfaces, materials and lighting choices meant we had to adapt certain ways of working, but the rules governing Barbie Land also meant we had to unlearn a whole slew of established VFX principles. After all, in Barbie’s world we see no dust, scuffs, rust or blemishes - nothing has that lived-in patina of dirt that we’re so used to seeing on screen or in the world around us. The world she inhabits is, quite literally, perfect.”