A Mary Poppins Masterpiece Monday

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I decided to do something a little different for today’s Masterpiece Monday post and take a look at some concept art from a live action Disney film. Today’s piece of concept art depicts Mary Poppins and Bert in the “Jolly Holiday” sequence of Mary Poppins. Not everybody realizes that Disney creates concept art for their live action films almost as frequently as they do for their animated films. Although the characters in the film are played by real  people, the costumes, props,  sets, etc all still need to be designed. This is where concept art comes into play. Just like in animated films, concept art for live action films explores the different stylistic  and thematic possibilities for the film. Concept art can also display in a very tangible way the tone the director intends to set for a particular sequence. It helps guide the decisions of the cinematographers, lighting designers,and even editors towards a collective style and tone. Concept art is especially useful for the creation of live action films that move away from realism like Mary Poppins. That is why I find this piece of impressionistic concept art for the film so fascinating, especially since it depicts a scene that would combine live action with animation.

Mary Poppins was intended to be an impressionistic picture-book  depiction of London in the 1910s. The concept art made for the film reflected this goal, as the artists used mainly pastels and crayons as their medium. This technique appeared most frequently in concept art for the “Jolly Holiday”, as the director wanted to keep a chalk drawing quality throughout the sequence. The illustrated version of England was then transferred over into the live action production. The sets were built by Broadway set designers to look like they were meant for the stage. Most of the  backgrounds were then added in later with matte paintings created by Peter Ellenshaw, who again stuck to an impressionistic style for his London streets and skylines.The costumes were made artificially bright and colourful for the era, and the lighting was designed to be anti-naturalistic, reflecting the mood of the scene more than any real life natural lighting sources. All of these elements within the live-action film took their cue from impressionistic pastel concept drawings like this one, just as any animated film would.

The pure fantasy of the film was  furthered with its use of whimsical special effects, especially in its use of animation, both stop-motion and hand-drawn. The stop motion effects were done by Xavier Atencia and Bill Justice. The hand-drawn animation for the “Jolly Holiday” sequence took a lot more people and a lot more work. Using concept art like this  as a guide, bits of live action props and sets were built and then painted to match the chalk-drawing style of the animation. Anything that Mary, Bert, and the children would interact with directly had to be made in real life to look animated. This included big things like the carousel and less noticeable things like the garden gate Mary and Burt walk through. Platforms for Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke to dance on were built and painted to look like a hand-drawn country road. All of these props and platforms were then set up in front of an orange sodium vapour screen, which would not show up on film. The sequence was filmed in front of this set-up, and then later Peter Ellenshaw would add his matte paintings to the footage to create the backgrounds, again guided by the concept art. Finally, the animation would be added in. The animation unit was headed by the Disney veteran Hamilton Luske, while most of the penguin animation was done by one of the “Nine Old Men” Frank Thomas.  When all of this footage was put together, you got a wonderful fantasy sequence that perfectly matches the picture-book style of the original concept art.

So as you can see, when it comes to Disney live-action films, the concept art isn’t just gorgeous to look at, but also as integral to the production process as it is for animated films.  Hope you enjoyed this look at the “Jolly Holiday” sequence of Mary Poppins. Keep an eye out in the coming days, I’m hoping to announce the theme of my next full-length article very soon.

Image Credit: The Walt Disney Film Archives. The Animated Movies 1921–1968
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