The talents of two of the world’s greatest storytellers – Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg – unite for the first time to bring Dahl’s beloved classic “The BFG” to life on screen. Directed by Spielberg, “The BFG” tells the imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country. THE STORY In the middle of the night, when every child and every grown-up is in a deep, deep sleep, all the dark things come out from hiding and have the world to themselves. That’s what Sophie, a precocious 10-year-old, has been told, and that’s what she believes as she lies sleepless in her own bed at her London orphanage. While all the other girls in the dormitory dream their dreams, Sophie risks breaking one of Mrs. Clonkers’s many rules to climb out of her bed, slip on her glasses, lean out the window and see what the world looks like in the moonlit silence of the witching hour. Outside, in the ghostly, silvery light, her familiar street looks more like a fairy tale village than the one she knows, and out of the darkness comes something long and tall…very, very, tall. That something is a giant who takes Sophie and whisks her away to his home in a land far, far away. Fortunately for Sophie, he is the big friendly giant and nothing like the other inhabitants of Giant Country. Standing 24-feet-tall with enormous ears and a keen sense of smell, the BFG is endearingly dim-witted and keeps to himself for the most part. His brothers are twice as big and at least twice as scary, and have been known to eat humans, but the BFG is a vegetarian and makes do with a disgusting vegetable called Snozzcumber.
Upon her arrival in Giant Country, Sophie is initially frightened of the mysterious giant, but soon comes to realize that the BFG is actually quite gentle and charming, and since she has never met a giant before, is full of questions. The BFG brings Sophie to Dream Country where he collects dreams and sends them to children, teaching her all about the magic and mystery of dreams. Having both been on their own in the world up until now, an unexpected friendship blossoms. But Sophie’s presence in Giant Country has attracted the unwanted attention of the other giants, who have become increasingly more bothersome. Sophie and the BFG soon depart for London to see the Queen and warn her of the precarious giant situation, but they must first convince her that giants do indeed exist. Together, they come up with a plan to get rid of the giants once and for all.
Metropolitan Films, Amblin Entertainment and Reliance Entertainment, in association with Walden Media, present the fantasy adventure film “The BFG,” the first-ever motion picture adaptation of Roald Dahl’s resonant tale of childhood, the magic of dreams and the extraordinary friendship between a young girl and a big friendly giant. Directed by threetime Academy Award® winner Steven Spielberg, the film reunites the director with his Oscar-nominated collaborator on “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” Melissa Mathison, who
adapted the childrens author’s timeless adventure for the big screen. “The BFG” is produced by Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer with Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Michael Siegel serving as executive producers.
The film stars three-time Tony Award®, two-time Olivier Award and Oscar® winner Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant; newcomer Ruby Barnhill as Sophie, the orphan who befriends him and is swept into a world of rampaging giants; Penelope Wilton as the Queen; Jemaine Clement as Fleshlumpeater, the most fearsome giant from Giant Country; Rebecca Hall as Mary, the Queen’s handmaid; Rafe Spall as Mr. Tibbs, the Queen’s butler; and Bill Hader as Bloodbottler, another unruly giant from Giant Country.
The creative team is comprised of some of Spielberg’s longtime collaborators, including: two-time Oscar®-winning director of photography Janusz Kaminski; two-time Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter; three time Oscar-winning editor Michael Kahn, ACE; and Oscar-nominated costume designer Joanna Johnston, with legendary five-time Oscar winner John Williams composing his 24th score for a Spielberg-directed film.
Joining them is two-time Oscar® winner Robert Stromberg as production designer and fourtime Oscar winner Joe Letteri from Weta Digital, the visual effects company founded by Peter Jackson, as senior visual effects supervisor.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
For more than 40 years, Steven Spielberg has been sharing his stories with audiences across the world, introducing an array of extraordinary characters into the culture and sweeping generations into worlds that are at once wondrous, frightening, charming and palpably real. Roald Dahl’s seminal tale of the friendship between a young girl and a mysterious giant seemed perfectly aligned with the filmmaker’s own body of work, and while it may have seemed destined that Sophie and the BFG would one day find their way into Spielberg’s care, it would be decades following the book’s publication before the journey would actually begin.
Dahl’s “The BFG” was first published in 1982, the same year Spielberg’s own story about an unusual and transformative friendship, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” captured the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. The British author is one of the world’s most creative, mischievous and successful storytellers, someone who understands the inner lives of children and has a knack for creating characters that kids could relate to and storylines which kept them involved.
His ability to combine the fantastical with the frightening and place children as the heroes of his innovative stories, and adults as the villains, is unrivaled in the literary world. While Dahl’s stories recognize that life can be difficult and sometimes scary, that there is good with the bad, he never patronizes his readers.
Producer Frank Marshall (“Jurassic World,” the “Bourne” films) says, “Dahl’s stories are not just happy-go-lucky fantasies. There’s a lot of humor to them, but there’s also a little bit of a dark side. He walks on the edge. They’re a little scary, and I think that’s what appeals to people.”
Spielberg agrees, saying, “It was very brave of him to introduce that combination of darkness and light, which was so much Walt Disney’s original signature in a lot of his earlier works like ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella.’ Being able to be scary and redemptive at the same time, and teach a lesson, an enduring lesson, to everyone—it was a wonderful thing for Dahl to have done, and it was one of the things that attracted me to want to direct this Dahl book.”
“The BFG” is the story of the two lonely souls who, in finding one another, create their own home in the world, which is a consistent thread in Spielberg’s rich body of work. “Steven has always gravitated towards stories about families, which is one of the reasons his films have resonated with so many people,” says executive producer Kathleen Kennedy (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the “Indiana Jones” films).
Kennedy and Marshall were familiar with many of Dahl’s other books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda” which have sold over 200 million copies worldwide, but neither had read “The BFG.” It wasn’t until a chance encounter on the set of “Milk Money” in 1993 that Kennedy read it for herself and realized that Spielberg, their longtime friend, colleague and collaborator, was just the person to appreciate the scope, playfulness and sheer invention of Dahl’s book.
Spielberg has been a fan of Dahl’s for years, and in fact had read the book to his own children when they were younger. “It’s a story about friendship, it’s a story about loyalty and protecting your friends and it’s a story that shows that even a little girl can help a big giant solve his biggest problems,” he says.
Dahl created stories to tell his children and grandchildren, but was always hesitant to write any of them down, something with which the director could relate. “When I told my kids stories that they were especially fond of, they would beg me to make a movie about it,” Spielberg says. “Fortunately Dahl did eventually agree to share his stories with the world, and we’re all the better because of it.”
“The BFG” is enormously popular around the world, and to date has been published in 41 languages. It was also Dahl’s own favorite of all his stories. While the author passed away in 1990 at the age of 74, the producers forged a relationship with his widow and had many conversations about how important the book was to Dahl and whether or not a movie was even realistic. “We talked a lot about whether it would be better as animation or live action, because at the time, none of the technology that we were talking about using even existed,” explains Kennedy.
But first, the producers needed a screenwriter to spin Dahl’s delightfully simple book into a full-length screenplay—someone with a special skill and instinct for children’s stories, and for that they turned to friend and colleague Melissa Mathison (“The Black Stallion,” “The Indian in the Cupboard”). “Melissa was the first and only writer we thought of,” says Kennedy. “Her gifts as a writer and her particular sensibility were essential to bringing Dahl’s visionary tale to life.”
When reading Dahl’s book, the screenwriter was drawn to the bond between Sophie and the BFG. “It is a very sweet relationship,” she said, “But they actually start off a little combative and are suspicious of one another and even have their own little power struggles. But from the moment they have a plan and move forward as partners, there’s just so much love between them. It’s a wonderful little love story.”
Mathison visited Gipsy House, Dahl’s home in Buckinghamshire, England, on numerous occasions, where she was given access to the author’s library and study. There, she explored the life and works of this extraordinary writer so as to chart her own path into the wild, funny and rich landscape of his imagination, which provided her with a foundation for capturing the spirit of Dahl’s adventure, further honing its sense of place and capturing the relationship at its heart in ways that would both build upon and honor “The BFG.”
Of utmost importance to the filmmakers was remaining faithful to Dahl’s voice, keeping consistent with the author’s rhythm, language and interaction between his characters, all of which were uniquely his. “I tried to use Dahl’s dialogue verbatim as much as possible,” Mathison said. “We didn’t want to tamper with the tone.”
The script did present numerous challenges for the writer, however. “In a strange way, not much happens in the book because it really is about their relationship,” said Mathison. “There’s no dramatic drive to it. Their decision to try and get rid of the giants happens pretty easily and quickly, and there was an episodic quality to the chapters. It wasn’t as story-driven, so we needed to create a narrative.”
Just as the filmmakers anticipated, Mathison took a personal approach to the material, maintaining the relationship between the scrappy orphan and the word-jumbly giant as they took on their big adventure. “My imagination was invested in the two of them,” she said. “Everything needed to be centered on their relationship.”
“Melissa took Dahl’s book and did the most extraordinary but faithful translation, with a magic only Melissa possesses,” says Spielberg.
Once the script was completed, Mathison would remain involved with the film throughout principal photography. Spielberg occasionally needs to make changes to the script while filming and wants the writer’s voice there to bring the characters alive. “Melissa was there on the ‘E.T.’ set every day, and every day on ‘The BFG,’” says Spielberg. “So I’ve been very fortunate to bookend our relationship with two stories that came from her heart.”
He continues, “I have not had a chance to mourn Melissa, because she's been so vibrant and real to me, in the cutting room, on the scoring stage, in the dubbing room—she's just always been there with me, so because of that, it's going to be hard when I have to let ‘The BFG’ go, because then I have to let Melissa go, too.”
A DISNEY CONNECTION
“The BFG” marked somewhat of a departure for Steven Spielberg. He explains, “I've been very blessed to have had all kinds of beautiful experiences telling stories. I'm hesitant to emphasize one story over the other because they have all had tremendous value to me. But I think the number of historical movies that I've been making—films like ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Bridge of Spies’ and then going further back to films like ‘Amistad’ and ‘Schindler’s List’—have kept me fettered to the accuracy of telling a historical story.”
“So being able to escape into the world of dreams and imaginations has been a dream in itself,” he continues. “That makes ‘The BFG’ special, because it was my escape into what I think I kind of do best, which is just let my imagination run away with itself.”
According to Spielberg, he was raised on Grimm fairytales and they were very dark and very frightening with no redeeming social value, whatsoever. “They were almost object lessons for kids, but Dahl and Disney both subscribed to the precepts of children's folklore and embraced the darkness, because what is a fairytale without a dark center?” he says. “Without that dark center, where is the redemption, and how do you bring all of us out from the bowels of a nightmare into the most beautiful, enchanting dream we'd ever seen?”
The fact that Dahl chose a young girl as his protagonist in “The BFG” was something the director appreciated as well. Sophie is a strong girl who does not take no for an answer and is not intimidated by someone who is six-times bigger than her, and the character is similar to strong females who are at the center of many Walt Disney films.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has always been Spielberg’s favorite Disney film. “I saw it in a movie theater during its ninth revival when I was only seven or eight years old and it really stuck with me. I can still remember being so frightened and terrified, but at the same time, so satisfied with that amazing ending.”
Roald Dahl and Walt Disney actually met in April of 1943 to discuss a number of projects, one of which was “The Gremlins,” one of Dahl’s first stories. The film was eventually shelved, but was later released as a book by Disney and Random House with all proceeds going to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The book did go on however, to serve as inspiration for the 1984 film “Gremlins,” which, coincidentally, was produced by Spielberg.
The filmmakers were all in agreement that “The BFG” felt like a hybrid between a classic Disney film and a movie from Amblin Entertainment (the production company Spielberg, Kennedy and Marshall founded in 1981), so they were thrilled when the studio green lit the film in the spring of 2015, making “The BFG” the first Walt Disney film to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
“There’s a level of expectation that fans and audiences of Walt Disney movies expect,” says Kennedy, “And we’re proud to have the film attached to such a studio.”
CASTING THE BIG FRIENDLY GIANT
It was on the first day of filming “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s dramatic Cold War thriller, that the director realized he had found his BFG. Renowned stage actor Mark Rylance, whose credits include TV’s “Wolf Hall” and the acclaimed stage productions “Twelfth Night” and “Jerusalem,” among others, was playing convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, a character far removed from that of the sweet, but simple giant depicted in “The BFG.” While the director was aware of Rylance’s profound range as an actor, and in fact had been following his career for some time, something else clicked that day.
“Mark would go into complete character transformation when the camera was rolling,” says Spielberg, “And while he is one of the greatest stage actors ever, it was the Mark in between takes that really touched my heart. It was then that I knew he could do anything.”
Spielberg continues, “I could have made ‘The BFG’ with actors on oversized sets using a digital blend, but I wanted the giants to look beyond human. The only way I could capture magic with the giants was to animate them based on the performances of the actors I was casting and have the animation be super-photorealistic.”
At 24-feet-tall the BFG is the smallest of the giants in Giant Country (his brothers range in size from 39-feet to 52-feet), but he is also the kindest. He speaks Gobblefunk, reads “Nicholas Nickleby” by Dahl’s Chickens and catches dreams which he shares with children as they sleep. “The BFG is a vegetable-eating, peaceful giant,” said screenwriter Melissa Mathison. “Even though he detests Snozzcumber, he eats it, almost as if contrition for the fact that his fellow giants eat children.”
Rylance was immediately inspired by Mathison’s script, and says, “Melissa added some twists and turns and made Dahl’s original story much more dramatic, in a way that gives you more of a chance to see the friendship develop.”
“He is just misunderstood,” Rylance continues. “The BFG and Sophie are both isolated beings, and they find a friend who understands them, maybe better than they do, and those are the best kind of friends. That's part of the great love and friendship they have for each other.”
The central heartbeat of the story is the relationship between the BFG and Sophie. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, the curious and compassionate young orphan who is whisked out of her bed and taken to Giant Country, but finding a young actress to play such a significant role was a daunting prospect.
The character of Sophie, who was named after Dahl’s first granddaughter, can't be pushed around. “She is one of the strongest female characters I think I have ever had in one of my films,” says Steven Spielberg. “She gives so much hope and encouragement to the BFG.”
For six months the filmmakers looked at thousands of girls varying in age and experience, but when the director saw 9-year old Barnhill, a school girl from Knutsford in Cheshire, England, her audition stopped him dead in his tracks. “There was just something about her,” Spielberg says. “She is fascinating and incredibly talented, and just perfect for this role.”
The filmmakers set up a meeting between Barnhill and Mark Rylance where they spent an hour and a half improvising, and they knew they had found their Sophie. “They immediately hit it off and have amazing chemistry together,” executive producer Kathleen Kennedy says “They would play table tennis and basketball between shots, and were basically inseparable.”
According to Barnhill, “I did about five auditions in London and Berlin where I pretended to be Sophie, so it was just so incredible when I heard I got the part. I could hardly breathe.”
The young actress was drawn to the relationship between her character and the big friendly giant. She explains, “The BFG has had his heart broken, and he’s actually quite sad most of the time. And obviously his brothers are horrible to him and they bully him around all the time and call him a runt. Sophie is lonely and alone in the world just like the BFG…they are actually both orphans in a sense.”
Producer Frank Marshall agrees, saying, “The BFG doesn't really have anybody and doesn't think he needs anybody, and Sophie feels very much the same way. And it's not until the two come together that they both realize that they actually really do need other people.”
“Ruby is a very imaginative young woman and just a complete natural actress,” says Rylance. “I learned from her really, as you do from all the young people. Her ability to take very complicated technical notes from Steven and make them natural is just miraculous, just remarkable.”
And the feeling was mutual. “Working with Mark was really lovely. He’s always got a smile on his face and he’s kind to me all of the time,” Barnhill says. “And, I think we have quite a good relationship, almost like Sophie and the BFG.”
“Ruby is fantastic,” adds Kennedy, “But that's always been one of Steven’s gifts: his ability to cast children and to recognize those qualities that audiences will find captivating.”
The director creates an atmosphere of safety, comfort and security for the child. He explains, “I don't talk to them like I'm the principal of their school, or a strict parent, we just basically engage in conversation. We just talk, not about the work at hand, but about how they are feeling or what they are doing at that time. It makes them feel like they are someplace very familiar. And that is the best way to get truth and authenticity from a child actor.”
THE HUMAN BEANS
The first and only person Steven Spielberg pictured as the Queen in “The BFG” was British actress Penelope Wilton (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Pride & Prejudice”). He was taken with her performance as Isobel Crawley in the hit PBS television series “Downton Abbey,” and knew she would be perfect.
Wilton was honored to even be considered for the role. “I was a bit amazed, because I didn’t even know Steven Spielberg knew who I was,” laughs Wilton, “But I would love to work with him any time. Steven leaves you alone to do your work…he doesn’t tell you what to do, he sort of tempers what you do. He nudges you when he sees you doing something he likes and if you’re doing something too much, he’ll nudge you back.”
It is the Queen who is the crucial component to Sophie’s plan, which is to enlist the majester’s support and permanently get rid of the disruptive giants so that the BFG can lead a peaceful life. Wilton was especially impressed with Mathison’s screenplay, saying, “The emotional content between the characters is so real. And it’s terribly witty.”
Actress Rebecca Hall (“The Gift,” “Iron Man 3”), who was cast as Mary, the Queen’s handmaid, agrees, saying “I loved how Melissa managed to remain completely faithful to the spirit of ‘The BFG’ while also adding a lot of little personal touches.”
Hall has a very personal connection to Roald Dahl’s book. “As a child it was the first book I was able to read by myself. Around that same time I also did a TV program in London where I played a character named Sophie, and even though it had nothing to do with the book I have distinct memories of fantasizing that I was actually the Sophie from ‘The BFG.’”
In the role of Mr. Tibbs, the Queen’s butler, the filmmakers cast British actor Rafe Spall (“The Big Short”). Mr. Tibbs, who is married to the Queen’s handmaid Mary, makes the BFG feel at home in Buckingham Palace, fashioning a chair for him out of clocks, a piano and a ping pong table. Coincidentally, the actor had worked with both Wilton and Hall in the past on two separate projects, which made for a comfortable vibe on set. Plus, the Buckingham Palace scenes were shot towards the end of principal photography, so the three actors were working with a very established crew.
Spall explains, “It’s been really nice to come in towards the end of production. There’s a really lovely energy on set and it works extraordinarily efficiently, which is also due to the fact that the department heads on Steven’s crew work with him a lot.”
THE CANNYBULL AND MURDERFUL GIANTS
From the BFG’s cave in Giant Country, Sophie catches her first glimpse of the nine fearsome giants. The cannybull and murderful motley group of mythical beasts who roam the earth gobbling up human beans provided all kinds of opportunities for invention, creativity and frightening fun for Steven Spielberg, his actors and his creative team.
Of all the evil giants who inhabit Giant Country, the BFG’s nine brothers are the worst. Substantially larger in size, they treat the BFG with cruelty and disdain, but in typical Roald Dahl fashion, they are also there to make us laugh. Dahl was somewhat of a giant in real life himself, standing 6-feet, 6-inches-tall.
Fleshlumpeater, who is played by the multi-talented actor, comedian and musical artist Jemaine Clement (“The Flight of the Conchords”), is 52-feet-tall with a big ego and a very small head. While he is the leader of the pack, the alpha male, in truth he is just a bully and a coward and not the brightest of the bunch. “My character is just a pile of muscles,” says Clement. “The BFG describes him as a cannibal, which is pretty accurate as he finds humans – especially children – delicious.”
Actor and comedian Bill Hader (“Trainwreck,” “Inside Out”) is Bloodbottler, the real brains of the pack. He is 43-feet-tall with a big beard and can always be found at Fleshlumpeater’s side telling him what to do. “In reality, Bloodbottler wants nothing to do with any of the other giants…he just wants to be left alone,” says Hader. “He does not like the BFG and he has created his own set of rules that the BFG is somehow breaking by just being himself.”
British actor Adam Godley (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is Manhugger, the thin and slowest moving giant. He does the least of anyone and thinks only of himself. At 39-feet-tall, Gizzardgulper is the shortest of the nine giants. As played by Chris Gibbs (TV’s “Reign”), he is also the peacekeeper of the group and idolizes Fleshlumpeater. Bonecruncher is played by Michael David Adamthwaite (“Final Destination 5”) and is the youngest of the group and a troublemaker who often puts the others in danger.
Meatdripper, who is played by Canadian actor Paul Moniz de Sa (TV’s “The Flash”), is the jokester of the group and loves to go hunting for children. Jonathan Holmes (TV’s “Descendants”) plays Childchewer, Meatdripper’s best friend. He is the best looking of the group, and as a result, is always concerned with his appearance. Icelandic actor Ólafur Ólafsson (“The Last Witch Hunter”) is Maidmasher, who is the most stylish of the group. While masculine in his demeanor and appearance, he is also very in touch with his feminine side.
Butcherboy, who is played by Daniel Bacon (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”), walks with a limp, the result of a fight with Meatdripper which left him partially paralyzed. He would love to someday be top dog but knows it will never happen, and he has a chip on his shoulder as a result.
To help assimilate the nine actors into one unruly but cohesive tribe, the production brought on former Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary as the film’s movement choreographer. As enormous giants, they move differently, and Notary used a combination of weights and bungee cords to build the strength and flexibility of the actors and help make them feel grounded and heavy, like they were moving through thick space, to help impart a sense of scale to their performances.
“The process I use gives the actors the freedom to put their own spin on their character and helps fine-tune their performances,” Notary explains. The actors’ performances were filmed via performance-capture technology so they could be created digitally later on in production.
As the actors worked out their characters’ physicalities, the giants’ personalities and group dynamics emerged organically. “We all talked about making sure each giant was funny, but at the same time they had to be scary and threatening too,” says Hader. “We worked hard to find that balance, developing our characters so they each became incredibly distinct, and after weeks of training, each actor had found his own gait, signature trait and way of moving.”
At the same time, costume designer Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln,” “War Horse”) was working with seven foot maquettes modeled after the giants, dressing them to get a sense of how the costumes should be physically constructed and how they would behave. Even though the giants would all be created digitally, Johnston designed costumes for each one. These costumes would end up both inspiring and guiding the actors’ performances and would then provide the animators who would be bringing the giants to life with a detailed, real world template with which they could follow.
“Joanna outdid herself with the costumes for the giants,” says Steven Spielberg. “They were so creative and were just beautiful.”
In addition to shaping the looks of the virtual characters, Johnston’s creativity and attention to detail helped provide the actors portraying live-action characters with a foundation upon which to further hone their performances. “Joanna’s costumes helped enormously,” explains Hall. “She’s truly one of the most detailed and brilliant costume designers I’ve ever worked with. She has such precision, everything down to the slip I was wearing.”
Spall agrees, saying, “The first time I put on Joanna’s costume, I immediately knew what I was going to do because it had been made perfectly for me…you could just feel the part.”
“What I found so interesting is that I started to walk like the Queen once I was in my costume,” adds Wilton.
When designing the Queen’s wardrobe, Johnston sought out small details which would help articulate the subtle line between a child’s fantasy and the royal palace. Says Wilton, “Because these characters exist in another world, my character wears necklaces, earrings and diadems that are just slightly larger than those that would be worn in real life.”
The costume designer fitted Wilton with a wig that was an exact replica of the one worn by the current Queen of England and gloves that were made by the Queen’s glove maker and a bag by the Queen’s bag maker. “The details were just extraordinary,” Wilton raves.
“All these things were very important for us,” says producer Frank Marshall, “As they helped to provide a sense of the reality to contrast with the fantasy world.”
With the cast in place, the filmmakers began to focus on translating the scope of the book onto the big screen, which was a technological challenge that sparked the director’s imagination. On its surface, the logistical puzzle presented by the story is barely evident. But “The BFG” required something much more than new worlds synthesized in the computer. This special story about the friendship between two very different characters, one small, the other very big, one real, one fantastical, would inspire the creation of an entirely new way of fusing the elements of fantasy and reality.
PRE-VISUALIZING “THE BFG”
Steven Spielberg has long occupied a singular place at the intersection of storytelling and technology. He has been both a conservationist of traditional filmmaking practices as well as one of the chief drivers of new film technologies, shaping and mastering the tools which have brought the storytelling imagination alive for generations of cinema audiences.
To help determine the best way to film both live-action and performance-capture elements simultaneously throughout the film and have them seamlessly integrated, the filmmakers created a pre-visualized version of the entire film before shooting even began.
Spielberg gathered several members of his creative team and a handful of production assistants in the garage of his summer home back east and choreographed, blocked and filmed each scene within the digital world. Using a small, handheld virtual camera device, PAs in performance-capture suits, and crude animation, the low-res footage was then rendered in 3D so it could be broken down and analyzed once completed.
“It became my prototype for the film and helped me to realize the story and determine the best way to tell the story,” Spielberg says. “It was one of the most valuable rehearsal exercises I have ever put myself through, and it helped me to understand the deepest, deepest DNA of the story.”
THE GROUND-BREAKING TECHNOLOGY
Principal photography on “The BFG” commenced in the Spring of 2015 on the outskirts of Vancouver in an old warehouse where the huge, dark spaces became stages on which to construct the sets.
With “The BFG,” the filmmakers envisioned an entirely new approach to expand the horizons of storytelling by bridging the gap between the fullness and life of live action and the limitless possibilities of contemporary digital technologies. It was a process that would be engineered solely through the lens of exactly what Spielberg needed to tell the story.
Rather than capturing the bones of the performances separately and then merging the human and digital performances in post-production, they chose to enlist the support of Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri and his talented team of artists to devise an entirely new process that would be as close to live-action shooting as possible.
As a result, production on “The BFG” was a hybrid style of filmmaking using a blend of liveaction and performance-capture techniques to bring the story’s fantastical characters to life, all on real sets that were built specifically for the film.
According to Letteri (“Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Avatar”), whose relationship with Spielberg dates back to 1993 and “Jurassic Park” when he worked as a computer graphics artist, “We wanted to allow Steven to be able to work as Steven, to utilize all the elements he brings to the process: his creative team, live action sets, lighting and costumes, while simultaneously creating a virtual world.”
He continues, “For much of the film, Sophie is a little girl in this land of fantasy which is inhabited by giants, but we gave Steven the ability to shoot the movie as if the whole thing was live-action so as to bridge the gap between the virtual worlds and the digital worlds.” Previous films featuring performance-capture technology like “Avatar” or “The Adventures of Tin Tin” were shot on a very sparse set where the actors had to imagine their surroundings.
The director also relied on Simulcam, an idea originally created by director James Cameron on “Avatar.” Simulcam is the process of combining real world actors and sets with actors and sets that are computer-generated. Letteri explains, “With Simulcam, we can pre-record a performance and then play it back through the camera monitor so that the camera operators could actually see the virtual performance unfolding in real time as they're photographing the live-action scene. By combining the two, they're able to make decisions and frame and actually even cue actions based on what's happening in the virtual world.”
This new process afforded the director the opportunity to film actors in performancecapture suits acting on the same set with the film’s human characters, and it was especially important to Spielberg that Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance have interaction with one another.
ESTABLISHING HUMAN CONTACT BETWEEN THE REAL AND VIRTUAL CHARACTERS
Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has shown a deft touch in creating conditions for performances to flourish, even amidst the most challenging of circumstances. Setting the stage for the friendship between a 24-foot giant and a 4-foot 6-inch girl required a shared vision and years’ worth of imagination and innovation. “Actors need each other to act together,” the director says. “It all comes down to the actors being able to look each other in the eye.”
Adds Mark Rylance, “It’s why we look in other people’s eyes when we're speaking with them. If you're speaking with someone you can’t see, it's much more difficult to know how to phrase it or how to express it.”
At the center of the production’s challenge to enable the characters to act within the same environment, was veteran production designer Rick Carter (“Avatar,” “Forrest Gump”). “The goal was to create as intimate a space where Steven could work with the actors and the actors could relate to one another, so that technology would not be an obstruction to Steven’s direction or take any authenticity away from the performances,” he says.
As a result, Carter and his co-production designer Rob Stromberg (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Golden Compass”) went to great lengths to accommodate three different worlds for three different-sized beings, in some cases duplicating sets three times over. There was a set for the 50-foot tall giants, for the 24-foot tall BFG and a huge, overscale set with big overscale props for Sophie to make her look small.
Fortunately Rylance has a tremendous amount of faith in the story and Ruby Barnhill, a tremendous amount of faith in her imagination. “Between Mark's belief in story and how to perform the story, and Ruby's belief that everything is possible, both of those actors made this world of evolved technology disappear so that they could give each other the most authentic performances.”
For scenes on the overscale set featuring both Sophie and the BFG in the same shot, the filmmakers built a two-story scaffolding structure on which Rylance would stand with a performance-capture camera floating in front of his face to allow eye contact and true rapport.
Even the performance-capture sets were constructed to accommodate the difference in size between the BFG and his bullying brothers, so that Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader and their gang of goliaths crouched and squeezed themselves into the grey-scale model of the BFG’s cave, acting to a rag doll-sized BFG while Rylance performed off camera (or, if space allowed, made himself small enough to crouch and provide his fellow actors with eye contact).
As a result, Spielberg was constantly moving from set to set, deftly balancing a variety of filmmaking techniques on different stages in a space that encompassed more than 3,000 square feet. In between set-ups, he could slip into one of two small tents on the stages where a dozen display screens fanned out. Here, the filmmaker could design, construct and reframe his shots using the small handheld virtual camera. Originally set up as a means for the director to view coverage of his performance-capture footage, the director’s skill and enthusiasm soon rendered the tents into a hub of discovery that further bridged the gaps between traditional filmmaking and the 21st century digital processes.
The environments created on the vast stages of the warehouse needed to do much more than solely accommodate the vastly different scales of the characters. Production designer Rick Carter and his team worked especially hard to ensure that the environments in which the performances unfolded were as beautiful, frightening and rich as possible. Joe Letteri explains, “When Mark Rylance is on set and performing, he’s performing in a facsimile of his real world, in his cave with his fireplace and table, his chair and the boat in which he sleeps.”
According to executive producer Kristie Macosko Krieger (“Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln”), “The thing that was most important to Steven was that the actors believed where they were and that they could exclude from their peripheral vision everything going on around them.”
One of the roles of production design is to create environments and places that evoke something about, not only the storyline and the characters, but the themes of the film as well. As such, the production crafted worlds within worlds where Spielberg could create his vision for Dahl’s story. “Steven started off with a very intimate process, just a computer and a few people in a room,” explains Carter, “And then we came to a big space and expanded it while still trying to keep it as intimate as possible.”
Included in the expansive traditional sets were the high ceilings and royal reds and golds of Buckingham Palace; the quaint Scandinavian home where Sophie and the BFG travel to deliver good dreams to a small boy and his family; the dark and forgotten orphanage on a cobblestone London street lined with small shops and gas street lamps; and the lonely interior of the dormitory where Sophie’s adventure with the BFG begins. And these sets were all within footsteps of one another. “It was like having access to your own little Disneyland,” says Macosko Krieger.
For executive producer Kathleen Kennedy, the sets conveyed a sense of timelessness, which was very much in synch with Roald Dahl’s original story. “Dahl was telling a universal story, and, one of the key reasons that we built these sets is to give the film that slightly other worldly quality,” she says. “You might recognize a street corner or a building or notice an architectural style that feel familiar, but you can’t quite pinpoint it, and that's what allows you to escape into this kind of fairytale world.”
“Rick Carter did an amazing job,” says Spielberg. “He designed everything from the most amazing, Dickensian cobblestone streets to a grand ballroom in Buckingham Palace, which we built practically.”
Adds Penelope Wilton, “It is an absolute replica of the actual ballroom with the same carpet and paintings that are in the palace itself. But they also designed the Queen’s bedroom which had this incredible woodwork and gold filling in the plasterwork and looks absolutely marvelous.”
Rylance too, appreciated the great care and detail that went into these sets, some of which were created exclusively to give the actors and the filmmakers a tactile feel for the worlds they were exploring. “A lot of what was created will never be seen by the audience,” Rylance muses. “It was just there to encourage a sense of playfulness for us, and for Steven as well.”
Equally as impressive were all the magical and inventive props adorning each set, some of which existed in two and sometimes three different scales. Included on some of these sets were items that the BFG and the other giants had repurposed for their own use. Things like: a bench made from the wings of a fighter plane; a sword for use as a needle; a pitchfork and shovel as a fork and a spoon; a bathtub for a bowl; a fire hose as a belt; a ship’s porthole as a magnifying glass; a broom handle as a fountain pen and many others.
“There was so much love put into every prop,” says Spielberg, “So much thought put into something as simple as the BFG's bag, which Rick created to resemble a big doctor's bag. Of course the bag carries his dreams, but the dreams are kind of like medicine for the kids who are in need of them, and the bag was stitched together in a Frankenstein-ian way to almost resemble a patchwork quilt.”
Alongside the traditional sets, sets the audience would see exactly as they were shot and lit, were the partially-real sets. These were the spaces Sophie would inhabit with the BFG, which would then be enhanced and completed later on in the post-production process. These included: the mist-covered magical land known as Dream Country where Sophie and the BFG go dream-catching; a vast hilly landscape with knotted tree roots covered in mossy greens; and the bleak and terrifying Giant Country, desolate, barren and strewn with the remains of the plunder from the Giants’ lethal treks into the world of human beans.
“Even though we created a virtual world, there's a live action counterpart to everything that we do as well,” says Joe Letteri. “And so it’s great to be able to work with people like Rick
Carter who can take that skill set of knowing how to design a fantastic world and get it to work in a physical sense and still be able to apply it to the virtual set.”
THE MAGICAL LIGHTING EFFECTS
Had the filmmakers tried to make “The BFG” when Roald Dahl’s book came out in 1982, it would have been a completely different film. But with today’s performance-capture technology and digital photography, the director was able to create the special relationship between the young orphan Sophie and the big friendly giant the way it deserved to be made.
It was partially due to the extraordinary contributions of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (“Bridge of Spies,” “Saving Private Ryan”) that the magic on screen looks as beautiful as it does. Kaminski was instrumental in lighting all the practical sets where the live-action scenes were shot and the virtual sets being used to shoot scenes with performance-capture technology so they were seamlessly integrated.
“Working with Janusz has been great because there’s a real richness to his photography, and that really comes out in what you see on screen,” says producer Frank Marshall. “He helped guide a lot of what we were doing to create this world and to really marry the two so it becomes one world as you photographically move between the two.”
“Janusz is someone who sees light in a way that is unlike anybody I have ever encountered, and in a way that I certainly don't fully understand,” adds Joe Letteri. “Our conversations as to what to bring to this movie are on levels that allow him to see into the darkness, and then to see its relationship to light and to then find the nuances between the two as to where the light and shadows truly interact with one another.”
He continues, “Janusz really paints with light, and once everyone saw the sets fully lit, it was truly magical. They were better than we could have ever imagined.”
INTRODUCING THE BFG TO THE WORLD
When we read a book by Roald Dahl, it speaks to us profoundly as adults and touches the child in all of us. And with Steven Spielberg at the helm of “The BFG,” the film will undoubtedly capture the minds of children and adults alike, just as Dahl's stories have done for decades.
“I think everyone dreams of having an adventure like the one Sophie goes on in ‘The BFG,’” says producer Frank Marshall. “It’s a story that will appeal to all ages, and you can’t help but be captivated by the magical story and the fantastical characters.”
“With ‘The BFG,’ Steven is able to return to the innocence he had explored earlier in his career,” says production designer Rick Carter. “He’s a grandfather now…he’s both the BFG and the innocent young person. But this is a story that taps into everybody’s childhood experience of things that come out of the dark and what those things are about.”
For Bill Hader, watching the director at work was a dream come true. “Steven is so calm and friendly on set, and he makes something incredibly complicated look incredibly simple.”
As for the director himself, it was one of the most beautiful and curious experiences in his career. “Curious because when I first walked onto the stages and I saw the different levels of complexity and the technology that was required to realize even a single shot, I was, for the first time since ‘Jaws,’ completely overwhelmed,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure exactly how to pull it off, but I’m so grateful for the artistry and generosity of the extraordinary people whose creativity, precision and spirit of invention made it possible.”
The icing on the cake for the filmmakers was being able to partner with Walt Disney Studios on the film. “I have directed films at every studio except Disney,” says Spielberg, “So this was the first time that I got to make a picture that has Sleeping Beauty's castle and Disney embossed on the beginning and the end of the picture, and I'm really proud of that.”
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