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‘Encanto’: How Disney Made the Magical Madrigal House an Important Character

The design and animation of the family's Casita was a standout, requiring special rigging for movable objects.

Encanto Disney

“Encanto”

Disney

Animation

Disney’s Colombian-based animated musical “Encanto” is gaining momentum at just the right time: After winning the Golden Globe for animated feature, it led the VES animation-related VFX nominations January 18 with six (including the modeling of the magical Casa Madrigal). Indeed, the design and animation of the family’s Casita was a standout both for its narrative importance and technical complexity.

Gifted to the family via a magical candle, the enchanted and colorful house functions as an important character (director Byron Howard likens it to the family dog), providing an atmosphere of joy, but also signaling darker undercurrents of unhappiness that eventually rip the house apart as the family loses its magical powers. That is, until Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) — the only ungifted member — summons the strength to unify the family and rebuild the house.

“We did Zoom presentations with Colombian architectural consultants about methods of construction,” said Disney production designer Ian Gooding (“Moana”). “The inspiration was multi-fold because initially we were going more for fantasy type things that were very unlikely and weird, like water wheels and windmills. But after a while, when the story became more grounded and [they embraced magical realism], it became obvious to make it more traditionally Colombian.

“And one of the towns the directors visited was Barichara [known for its colonial architecture],” he added. “That provided a distinctive construction method. We took a lot of the colorful and complex window and door inspiration from Salento, and the color palette came from Guatapé and Cartagena, which have colorful buildings. But we wanted it all to fit together.”

ENCANTO – Visual Development art by Matthias Lechner. © 2022 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Encanto” visual development art

Disney/Matthias Lechner

The art department landed on the ancient construction method called “tapia pisada” (rammed earth): a technique for building walls using raw materials of earth, chalk, lime, and gravel. “It’s not like adobe, where you make a multi-purpose, standardized brick size,” Gooding continued. You set up these large molds and you pass a big piece of a wall in place by packing earth taken from the construction site, usually mixed with different stabilizers that they used. Some of them are weird things like animal blood, which has been replaced by cement.”

The trick, though, was deciding on the interior design. That’s where the magic came in, with moving and manipulating staircases, doors, windows, and shutters. “So there were many tests of staircases created on screen and even walls being extended,” Gooding said, “and at one point the courtyard would get bigger to accommodate a party. None of this is literally possible so we wanted to see what we can get away with. We had to create a lot of multi-purpose areas where tiles, floorboards, and windows were the chief ways of how the house could manipulate things.”

Story requirements dictated the needs of design, but there were time constraints. The kitchen had one large stretch of counter with animatable tiles, and layout worked around that limited space. The construction and choreography of movement was like playing an instrument, which was fitting for the musical (with songs composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the score by Germain Franco).

Encanto

“Encanto”

Disney

The greatest challenge was constructing the courtyard staircase with moving pieces as part of a platform and hydraulic-like system. This required many iterations with banisters coming down or coming up in blocks with the tiles from the courtyard. “But those ended up being too restrictive because you’d have to have a block of tiles in the right size and position for it to work as hydraulic lifts,” said Gooding. “And then you wouldn’t be able to walk under the stairs after that because it would be solid rock or earth. It came down to how we wanted the final stairs to look, and how we could make the tiles lift up and aim away from the camera so you couldn’t see the pieces of new wood that would come out from under that and starting making things.”

That’s where the VFX came in under the supervision of Scott Kersavage (“Zootopia”). They conducted nearly 100 tests with 78 variants of the house to figure out how to make the magical objects convincingly move with the aid of adhoc rigging controls for the animators to manipulate. “We had to think outside the box to control the house,” he said. “We wanted to have the tiles move characters from place to place, move chairs around, shutters. And we needed to have the tiles pass underneath the floor to allow us to have a moving escalator or walkway. The harder things for us were figuring out the magic that happens in nearly each shot [including vegetation growing out of the house as an effects simulation, which also got a VES nomination]. We were able to put some kind of controls, constraints, simple joint chains in objects to be able to move around where we hadn’t accounted for it in advance.”

For the staircase in the courtyard, the VFX team made the tiles flip down, pivot, and rotate, creating a smooth surface. “You saw that in an early shot in the movie where Mirabel slides down the staircase,” Kersavage continued. “We didn’t want to warp the tiles, so a mechanism was built. The directors said imagine if we had to build this with a stage prop and we wanted this to really work.”

Encanto

“Encanto” visual development art

Disney

The other major challenge was figuring out how make the house crack. “Obviously you can crack tiles and earth and walls pretty easily, but how would that apply to the doors and other wooden parts?” Gooding said. “Effects tried to see how it would work and did lots of tests. They initially had the cracks moving as if there were rectangular stones behind it, and I pointed out to them there would be no reason for it to crack in rectangular patterns. So they fixed it so the cracks could go anywhere. They also made it a sudden action to hide the compression of dust and debris being produced by it. They stuck to the truth in materials philosophy so the house didn’t feel flexible, ever.”

For VFX, that entailed upping the software for the cracking. “The request came in artistically to see more into the grooves of the cracks and reveal the depth,” Kersavage added. “This led to enhancements from effects and rendering to use [a higher-res] algorithm [for the fracturing] and a lighter weight version of topology everywhere else. That was a new advancement. In the past, we had to up-res full geometry everywhere for the surface that we’re cracking and substitute things into it. That was a huge lift for us.”

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