Cinematographer Dion Beebe Breaks Down Scenes from 'Mary Poppins Returns' And Talks Michael Mann

We chat about blending live-action and animation and how to earn a musical number.

Mary Poppins Returns

Filmmaker Rob Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe go way back. Bebee, who won an Academy Award for Memoirs of a Geisha, has been collaborating with Marshall for over 15 years, starting with their smashing adaptation of the Broadway show, Chicago. Keeping a good thing going, the duo went on to make three other musicals — NineInto the Woods, and now their most colorful and vibrant one yet, Mary Poppins Returns.

There’s a warmth and liveliness to their new Disney musical that’s fitting for the magical nanny and the sequel to the classic 1964 film. Each frame screams the name Mary Poppins. Marshall and Beebe don’t rely too much on the original, but instead, evoke its sense of joyfulness and visual playfulness. Recently, during a phone interview, Beebe told us about not straying too far away from the pace and style of the original film, shooting both big and small musical sequences and his digital work with director Michael Mann.

I was curious how Rob Marshall was going to modernize Mary Poppins, but it’s a very old-fashioned movie. 

Exactly. You know, I think we set out to try and do that. There are a lot of ways to modernize, and we have a lot more techniques than they had 54 years ago. I think particularly for Rob this movie holds such a place in his heart that he really was the protector of that. He felt very strongly that we had to keep one foot firmly in the world the original, and for us to sort of overly try and bring it into the realm of modern cinema, particularly in the day of the superheroes, it just felt wrong, even though Mary Poppins is sort of a superhero in her own way [Laughs]. We certainly didn’t want to spoil a purity to Mary and how she goes about bringing about the changes that she does. So, yes I think I think it is by choice sort of old-fashioned.

What were some techniques you and Rob Marshall used that they would’ve used 54 years ago?

I think the most obvious one of those was our big animated sequence. You know, we had the choice of creating, as we do today with most animated sequences, that hyper-real animation or current classic Disney-Pixar sort of approach, or reaching back to the original classic hand-drawn animation, much like what they used in the original Poppins. Rob was taken by this idea of utilizing live-action with this hand-drawn animation, and even though we did update that, we use special tools in our sort of rendering of the animation that they wouldn’t have had or they couldn’t have done back then. I think even with the tools that we’ve brought to it and the animators brought, what we kept the essence of this hand-drawn animation, you know, alive in our telling of it.

Looking back on it now, it was such a pleasurable experience and something I really never imagined I would get the opportunity to do. To work with animators on set literally with a pad and a pencil, sketching characters and discussing ideas, that back-and-forth you could imagine would have happened back in the day when Disney himself was strolling about peering over people’s shoulders. So much of this felt like a trip back into a moviemaking tradition.

I think we were also very sort of cognizant of the fact that we had a young audience as well, who are used to superheroes, watching Cartoon Network, and, you know, things happen much quicker now. I think audiences today and younger audiences have a sophisticated visual language, that they’re able to interpret images and process imagery incredibly fast, at the risk of getting bored by old movies. We really went into it trying to protect this nostalgia and this tradition of making movies, but also, aware that it needed to have some sense of pace and excitement and visual interest to bring that younger audience to the theaters.

The pace of the movie is very similar to the original’s, so what was maybe a sequence or two where it was very satisfying letting a scene breathe as long as it needed?

I think particularly with the big dance numbers, like our biggest dance “Trip A Little Light Fantastic,” and with that stuff you really can’t… Yes, you can always cut fast and move quickly, but when you do that you often lose what people are doing and the sheer physical abilities of these dancers and the choreography. Again, Rob and I, this being our fourth musical together, really understand when you set a stage like that, you really want to have a moment to let it play and see it, like, “Oh my God, they actually did that, they leapt up in unison.” The pacing of a sequence like that is a combination of keeping the excitement of a sequence, but also appreciating the physicality of what these dancers are doing.

Also, in terms of storytelling, often with big marquee projects, you’re on a thrills-per-minute meter, where you have to deliver a certain amount of spectacle within the time. With Poppins and how we approached it, we were able to let it breathe a little and settle and not feel like we were chasing that thrills-per-minute ratio. When we switched into our fantasy world, we could play with rhythm and pace and the vividness of the color.

How does filming 50 or 60 dancers, like with “Trip A Little Light Fantastic,” compare to shooting a scene where Michael is in the attic and singing to himself? That’s much more complicated than it looks, right?

Ben Whishaw was phenomenal. There’s Michael’s song in the attic, and Mary does her song with the kids in the bedroom, and these are essentially simple sequences and songs that take place within the story world, not the fantasy world. So, I think the hardest part of these songs often is the transition into the song. As Rob and I have always said with musicals, you really need to earn the song. People just breaking spontaneously into song, it’s not really satisfying if it doesn’t feel like you’ve earned that moment. The way I think, for an actor to express themselves, there’s no better way than to sing. I think if we all sang to each other more, we might be a better world. When an actor sings, it’s very powerful, but you have to earn that moment.

For Rob and I, it’s very much about the transition into the song, so with Michael’s song, it’s through the music box. You let the real world allow you an entry into the song. Emotionally, that’s what has to work. It’s funny, because I remember my very first conversation with Rob when he first called me to talk about Chicago, and I was in London, and he was in New York. We spent most of the conversation talking about transitions, and how important it was how you get into a scene. That’s typically not how you talk about musicals; it’s usually how you bridge from scene to scene. Of course, more specifically, how you bridge from a story sequence in a movie to a musical number. These are things we always try to consider very carefully when we’re making musicals or telling any story.

Once you’re then shooting a number like that, it’s essentially about creating a world. You’re in a real world with those songs, so it has to have some visual emotional impact as well as give the actor the stage and platform to perform. They’re wonderful to shoot, but incredibly intricate, those sort of songs. To watch a performer like Ben or Emily perform those songs, for me, is such a privilege and an amazing thing to watch as these actors deliver these songs on set.

Mary Poppins

Some directors say transitioning from live-action to animated sequences, visually, can be tough because you don’t want it to be jarring. How do you transition seamlessly from live-action to animation?

I think you’re trying to look for story elements that will weave and combine these worlds. Our transition into “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” animated sequence, we very simply used the device of the bowl spinning and the pedals and leaves of the bowl leaving the bowl, and as they leave the bowl, they’re hand-drawn animated and fill the room. We were able to introduce these animated elements gradually, creating that transition for us inside the bowl and the animated role.

We go from being on the carriage with the kids to the nighttime sequence of the music hall, and I remember one of the animators drawing the umbrella spinning and turning into the tent, so it really becomes a team utilizing… This idea of the spinning umbrella transitioning us into night and the music hall tent, then we move into the next sequence and it’s always an ongoing process.

With some of these transitions, we were very clear about and pulled out of the script itself, but others come from choreography or through dance and movement that’ll then become a suggestion for how to make those transitions as seamless as possible. Yes, it can be abrupt, but what was interesting with Poppins, they’re simple devices, like the kids jumping into the bathtub and literally going through a getaway into another world. You have a character like Poppins who will, as long as you set the world up, allow you to bridge it in an abrupt but magical way.

There are two previous projects of yours I wanted to ask you about, starting with Collateral. I remember Michael Mann saying not a lot of theaters could project that movie properly when it came out. How’d you feel about how it was shown at the time, and with how much digital filmmaking has evolved since 2004, how do you look at that movie now?

In terms of the evolution, I’ll tell you, I go out and take pictures at night on my iPhone and see the LA night sky, and I’m like, “We worked so bloody hard to see this at night. Now, here I am on my bloody iPhone, and I can see it.” Look, Michael experimented with digital briefly on Ali with some very low-light sequences with Will Smith, and I think he saw this opportunity being able to shoot in incredibly low-light. Essentially, the exciting part of it was photographing the night sky, and we had not been able to do that on film, not unless we were doing time-lapse or some sort of special technique. To be able to shoot a scene and see palm trees silhouetted against a night sky, it just couldn’t be done.

I think Michael really had that vision, and he did go through a lengthy process because the tools were just not available back then. Digital was reserved for broadcast television, that was pretty much it. People were not really seriously considering the digital format for cinema. The cameras we used were broadcast cameras, Thomson Viper cameras, and it was a formula worked out to stretch out that image as far as it could literally go before it fell apart, so we could photograph the night sky [Laughs]. I don’t know if you live in LA or how well you know the city, but we were very reliant on those nights and shot in the winter where the marine layer would come in and the night sky would glow. For us, that was what we prayed for every night because suddenly, the sky became alive and we were able to capture it.

Look, I have to be honest, I haven’t actually sat in a theater and watched it for a long time, but I remember it was a technical challenge every single day, in terms of calibrating monitors to keeping cameras at their optimum to balancing cameras, because everything had to be done on set. We worked it out so that what we captured at night, we captured and weren’t shooting raw. We were capturing as close to the final images as possible because that’s really the choice we had. It was incredibly stressful, as you can imagine, but an amazing journey. [Laughs] It was so fraught with danger.

I live in LA, and I don’t think another movie has captured its nighttime atmosphere as Collateral did.

Yeah, when it came out, I’m not sure people quite knew what to make of it. People were still very skeptical of digital. Right now, I’m heading down another path of skepticism, because late last year, I just completed [Ang Lee’s] Gemini Man, which is all 120fps. In a way, it’s a whole new format.

Another experience I wanted to ask about — shooting Rihanna’s “Pour it Up” music video, which is just a great piece of art. What was unique about that job?

[Laughs] It’s funny, there’s a discovery to music videos. So much of it is the music that drives it. It’s an amazing format, because the combination of music and imagery, it’s quite pure, and funny enough, going back to Michael Mann, something he’s always understood, this idea of music and imagery. I’d even relate it back to us talking about musicals — there’s something pure about singing and visuals. Music videos are a quite pure way of expressing that.

So often with music videos, there’s this process of discovering and uncovering what lies beneath the song. They’re always fraught with elements of madness and confusion, but when the elements come together, it’s funny how they click. Some of them are very worked out and much more tactical, but so often, they’re exploratory. You’re taking the essence of an idea, and then you’re in an environment and the music is playing and… With “Pour it Up,” we had these incredible dancers. It’s really an amazing experience when all of those elements come together. [The video’s director] Vincent Haycock — I don’t know how many of his videos you’ve seen — but he’s a genius as well.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.