Framestore Brings Greece to Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! is a joint British and American film adaptation of the long running West End musical of the same name, based around the enduring pop songs of ABBA. Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, the film was directed by Phyllida Lloyd and produced by Judy Craymer and Gary Goetzman.

The Littlestar Productions and Playtone release opens in the UK on 10th July 2008 and in the US on 18th July. Digital VFX for the film were created by Framestore.

An independent, single mother who owns a small hotel on an idyllic Greek island, Donna (Meryl Streep) is about to let go of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the spirited daughter she’s raised alone, who is about to get married. On a quest to find the identity of her father to walk her down the aisle, Sophie has secretly invited three guests. She brings back to the Mediterranean paradise they visited 20 years earlier three men from Donna’s past: Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), an American architect; Harry Bright (Colin Firth), a British banker; and Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsg??rd), a Swedish novelist.

Inspired by the storytelling magic of ABBA’s songs from ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘S.O.S.’ to ‘Money, Money, Money’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’, Mamma Mia! is a celebration of mothers and daughters, old friends and new family found.

The movie was filmed in several different locations in three Greek islands over five weeks between August and September 2007. Production offices for the film were based at Pinewood Studios and ten further weeks of filming then took place on the Bond stage there.

Framestore worked on over 960 shots for Mamma Mia!, though the strictures of editing, previewing and testing led to an eventual delivered shot count of 752. Under the leadership of VFX Supervisor Mark Nelmes, a small team worked incredibly hard between November 2007 and the end of May 2008 to deliver the work.

Key to the work carried out by Nelmes and his team were the elements -sky, sea, horizon – with which they enhanced the material shot on Pinewood’s Bond stage. Donna’s villa had been built in its entirety, and Production Designer Maria Djurkovic had planned on using a simple painted blue backing. Doing so on a set that went from ground level to the top of the soundstage would have created some problems, not least with maintaining the correct placement of the horizon. Djurkovic talked with Mark Nelmes and a number of solutions were considered.

“What we eventually settled on,” says Nelmes, “Involved using a soft blank bluish background, combined with rear projection from powerful lamps (the sort of half lights, half projectors that are used at some gigs). They had a whole bank of these laid out, and they could be set to aim clouds, or the horizon line, or shapes of water, or various other things anywhere on the backing, and there were enough of them to cover it. And then they had the rest of the backing covered in lots of sort of fluorescent type lights that could be set to red, green or blue, so that they could change the whole colour of the backing at any time.”

“When this idea was first mooted as a solution to the painted backing problem, Haris Zambarloukos, the Cinematographer, was very enthused by it, because it meant that he could pump lots of light onto the stage from all around and you could play very clever tricks, giving a feeling of that great wash of sunlight you get on Greek location. It must have been a scary lighting budget from the producers’ point of view, but well worth it for the feeling of light and heat it provided.”

Director Phyllida Lloyd had also directed the stage version of Mamma Mia!, but this production was her film debut. Framestore’s producer for the project, Tim Keene, says, “Phyllida was very honest about needing guidance through some of the minutiae of VFX work – what we could and couldn’t easily do, what techniques at our disposal might best serve the film. For instance, Mark (Nelmes) helped her develop the ‘Money, Money, Money’ montage sequence – also known as the Monte Carlo sequence. In it we follow Meryl from her impoverished villa to a luxury yacht – not just via a series of dissolves, but with some clever transitions created using casino elements – chips, roulette wheels – all of which were filmed over the last couple of days of shooting.”

Recalls Nelmes, “Both Phyllida and (Producer) Judy Craymer were determined that this should be a film in its own right, and not just a filmed recording of the stage show, and to this end they were always looking for ideas to bring it up off the stage. One problem, for instance, is that it’s very hard to get people to dance en masse if they’re not on stage. To dance effectively you need a flat surface and the ability to interact with your co-dancers. So in effect we created a lot of stages around the buildings. ‘Dancing Queen’ starts on a small set inside of the big stage, comes out onto the main set, goes to the bottom courtyard of that set, and then ‘arrives’ in a village in Damouchari and carries on down to the sea where they jump in the water. So it was a real mix and match, and my role was to put in backgrounds – placing the horizon correctly, getting the sky right, and inserting the sea at which the audience seems to be looking down on out of a window.”

A Littlestar Productions and Playtone production.

DIRECTOR: Phyllida Lloyd
PRODUCERS: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman
VFX: Framestore

“Framestore brought Greece into the studio brilliantly and seamlessly, but working with them was not just about computers and deadlines – it was a true creative collaboration that fed into every aspect of the filmmaking process.”
Phyllida Lloyd, Director

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