We chat to special effects wizard Mike Kelt as he tells Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens how his team helped bring to life Paul King’s Paddington 2…
In a movie-making world seemingly built upon the make-believe created inside a computer, you’d be forgiven for thinking very few special effects are filmed in-camera anymore. But as much as the delightful Paddington 2 finds our adventure centred on a titular CGI hero, Paul King’s film draws much of its magic from physical effects. And that’s where Mike Kelt and his team at Artem come in.
Kelt help create Artem, a special effects firm producing a wide variety of props and sets for film and TV. Boasting three decades of experience, its extensive portfolio has also seen it work in live events, exhibitions and visitor attractions. Kelt, Artem’s CEO, started his career as a designer and production manager in the theatre before progressing into TV.In 2012 he oversaw the creation of over 20 major physical special effects in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics and has recently worked on films such as Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting and The Foreigner starring Jackie Chan.
For Paul King’s imaginative follow-up to Paddington, Artem worked alongside Framestore to provide the physical action on set. Framestore would then add the computer-generated Paddington in post-production.
“Our task was to work with the live environment,” says Kelt. “Where Paddington is struggling with his telescopic ladder, for instance, we had to design and build the ladder (which had to fit in Paddington’s case!) and operate it on location. Or when the end chase sequence on the train was being shot we had to build the electrically powered train chassis to ensure safe control on the backlot at Leavesden studios, with actors climbing over the train, and Paddington being added in Post.”
Getting it all to work seamlessly is mainly a matter of communication and discussion, notes Kelt. This can throw up opportunities to enhance shots as ideas bounce back and forth. It is, of course, tough when the main character doesn’t exist on set. “When lining up shots he might be represented by a stand-in actor, or a photo cut out, but when filming a scene there was generally only a space left where he would be fitted in afterwards.”
For the actors’ eye-lines, to ensure authenticity in performance, various devices were used to help them “see” their furry hero. But when Paddington engages directly with the physical world, like touching a real object, a little more ingenuity was required to make it work.
“That object had to be built or manipulated, so there was a weird and wonderful collection of rods, clamps, and gadgets to attach to various props that could then ‘float’ through shot, and have Paddington be added later.”
A great deal is added or manipulated in Post by Framestore. “They tie all the CGI together with live action and background plates, and create some incredible scenes. The train chase was shot on the backlot at Leavesden, not on any railway line! So all the backgrounds were added in Post.
“The physical effects in that sequence include the train chassis that had to move relative to a real, but static, steam train, as well as various mechanical props, like connecting pins that had to be removed, or breakaway sections of the carriages, and all the wind that was needed to make it appear the trains were moving at speed.”
It’s this scene that stands out for Kelt and the team at Artem because it was so technically challenging. And it meant building their own full-size train set. “But other aspects were great fun, such as the spiral chute in the prison escape sequence that had to be practical and safely take three people hurtling down it. The Artem crew had a good time putting it under test in the workshop!
“Another aspect we were proud of was the replica steam organ, that some people thought could not be done in the time if at all, but we managed it within two weeks, and over Christmas! Another was the hot air balloon rig, where we had to make a safe willow basket (with a steel frame woven within it) that could hold three actors and be suspended from various rigs including a crane on location in East London, at about 80ft off the ground, and swing down to land.”
It was great fun working with director Paul King but a test of Artem’s talents at the same time. That’s because the director’s imagination would always be in overdrive, prompting the special effects company to constantly be on its toes.
“Paul is an interesting character – he almost becomes Paddington – and his imagination would fizz with ideas and changes of direction as the story built and new possibilities cropped up.
“This of course presented all sorts of challenges to the crew as they had to incorporate changes and although at the time you felt you were tearing your hair out when the final edit hit the big screen there was a sort of epiphany of realisation at why the changes were necessary. There are some incredibly clever nuances, probably missed by most viewers, that are incorporated. It’s a film that can take more than one viewing.”
The special effects wizard says the vital bit is ensuring audiences are convinced what they’re seeing is real. That important obstacle is what makes the job satisfying when Kelt and his team get it right.
“It is when striving for reality that I get the biggest kick out of the challenges thrown at us. This means carefully analysing the brief and in discussion with the client defining what the story wants.
“We recently built a 1:4 scale miniature of a US timber clad house that had to be destroyed by a hurricane – it had to look real. Designing that shot was not straightforward, especially when you only get one take at it! But equally one can get a kick out of doing a one-off rain effect that looks completely convincing.
“Another memorable moment was blowing up a London bus on Lambeth bridge for The Foreigner. Such a stunt demands to be realistic, but at the same time completely safe – there were 12 people downstairs on the bus who had to stagger out afterwards!”
I press for a highlight but Kelt says the varying challenges of each project present their own pieces of job satisfaction. “Macbeth’s biggest challenge was being able to control vast areas of mist on location, covering whole hillsides on occasion, and it was great to make that work, and look realistic, while not holding up the production if the wind changed!
“Trainspotting 2 was great to work on, partly as the production were all such nice people, and having worked on the Olympic ceremonies with Danny Boyle it was good to get to work with him on a film, and such an iconic series at that.
“Paddington was a more complicated film; technically demanding and hugely varied, where the challenge was often the scenic props required, rather than the straight floor special effects, from making huge prison washing machines to multiple fake marmalade sandwiches that had to be indistinguishable from the real thing, even at close inspection.”
Artem is currently working on a number of projects including a new BBC drama called Bodyguard and discussions about a new feature film in 2018. To discover more about Mike and his team, head on over the official Artem website here.
Paddington 2 is in UK cinemas now.