When Rob Marshall was rallying his cast and crew to work on Mary Poppins Returns, the key for him was to find unity in a mutual love of the original. Everyone I’ve spoken to on the film shares fond memories of seeing the film in the theater for the first time or recalling fond memories of watching the film as a child.
Editor Wyatt Smith recalls the animated sequence and dancing penguins, so when he was brought in to work on the highly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns, everyone asked about the dancing penguins. If you’ve seen Mary Poppins Returns you’ll know they do indeed make an appearance. Smith discusses the animated sequence and the importance of giving animators room in the film.
Smith talks about his process of editing the film, working with Rob Marshall and why it was important to the film to have an Overture at the beginning. He also talks about the one “action scene” sequence in the movie. Read our chat below:
Let’s go back and talk about your first memory of the original film?
I saw it as a child. Of course, I remember the animated world. It’s jumping into a chalk painting. It’s dancing around with penguins. It is funny even if you mention this film in the earliest days well before shooting, the first thing everyone asked was, “Are there penguins?” It’s amazing that it’s that image that sticks with everyone.
From my childhood, I remember the bank sequences with the children running around the bank and storming into the offices. I don’t know why.
Coming into this, editing a Rob Marshall original, did you revisit the 1964 film and read the books?
I joined the film a month before they started shooting. So, before I went to London, I read a bunch of the books. I thought it was interesting to see that they were just random stories strung together. They were all magical and incredible, but as a book, they don’t really take you from A to B. It’s just vignettes and that helped me understand how the first film was created and to see where they installed the vignettes and made the story and how then, Rob and David McGee did that with this one.
How did you set your tone and pacing for this?
It’s about getting the story and the best performances. For this, it was about watching this film through the eyes of a child because the film is told through the eyes of children. It’s usually from the perspective of Georgie, Annabel and John. There are very few scenes that they are not in. It’s about viewing life at home and the tragedy of their mother, viewing the arrival of Mary, you’re viewing the fantasies and then the loss of the home. You have to watch it as how children would watch it and that’s how we approached it.
You also have to realize the audience is made of children and adults. It’s not strictly a kid’s film, it’s very much a family film and trying to make sure it operates on the different levels. The child’s eyes was what was different about the film.
How do you cut a scene like Royal Doulton Music Hall which features animation?
Working with the animation and VFX team was amazing and how they merged the worlds. It was interesting because you had the green screens and stand in actors performing for our coachmen and people know where to look and how to time their lines. That was not unfamiliar because I’ve worked in that capacity before. It’s what the performances of those animated characters were going to become was a bit scary. We shoot the scenes, there’s a design starting with storyboards, we augment and we film the scene. We recorded our actor’s voices and we’d pick those performances. The music and timing felt right, but it’s completely empty. Normally I’d fill in that emptiness and put in temp backgrounds, but because it’s hand-drawn animation, anytime you put something on the screen that is not created by the animators, you are taking their creativity away. You’re pushing them into what they have to do and it hurts their work. The interesting thing with this was lining up everything possible but never really getting to see it before we have to hand it over, knowing that it’s hard to change stuff. They would literally have to fold up the paper, take out a new pile and start drawing again.
That process is daunting, but the result of it is something so special.
I loved the scenes at the beginning with Jack riding through London. Then you have the credits and cut to the house and the sheer chaos as you cut, cut, cut from the children to Michael, to the bankers.
You’re introducing your characters very quickly. Thankfully there’s some great camera movement like when Ellen comes out and it reveals Michael and Jane who are now adults. Earlier you’d seen two children in the window, thinking it took place later, but you realize Michael and Jane are adults. You see John and Annabel come down the stairs and Georgie comes down. Most of that happens in one shot, just getting the initial introductions.
There was a time when we scored that with music but it almost became too chaotic. You’re introducing a house and that it’s falling apart. You’re introducing Ellen, the lawyers repossessing the house and it’s a lot to do at once. You have to make sure you keep the pace moving quickly but you have to make sure you don’t rush it.
Trip The Light Fantastic was the longest sequence at eight minutes long.
It’s around nine minutes depending on how you look at it. I love the introduction of the number because you keep getting to jump locations. Once the kids are lost and Jack arrives, you have to look at it as the marathon it is because if you start cutting it too quickly too soon, you just won’t have the stamina to get through it. Also, trying to keep enough freshness because once we are in the abandoned park to keep enough freshness to the angles. We’re getting the good angles, but once the bicycles appear and the guys flip, there are fire sticks, it feels like a fresh beat. Thankfully because John and Rob are such great choreographers we didn’t have to worry about how that would unfold.
There’s Nowhere To Go But Up is a great number too to watch because everyone comes flying in.
That’s one of my favorite pieces in the film not just because it’s Angela Lansbury, I got so excited. The song is so beautiful and so joyful, but it’s nice to reprise all the characters in the film and see how everyone has grown, but it’s Michael’s turn. It’s what we’ve been waiting for the whole film. Everybody has come around, Michael Banks still hasn’t opened the door and that number has to function so that when he lands and says, “I can’t remember the last time I felt so much joy, I thought that door was closed to me forever.” That’s the door that opens so Mary can leave. We have a physical door opening because children need to understand. It’ll be interesting for them to grow up and see that part again because they’ll realize, that’s the door.
Planning the number, we started with storyboards and our stunt team figured out the harnesses based on the storyboards. They’d test and figure out how the actors could dance in the air. We used our pre-vis team to visualize that further and that became a roadmap for shooting, but it was only a loose template. Once the actors were on wires, we knew how the cameras and wires would work, but the actors could do whatever they wanted. The real key to that sequence is that when they’re in the air, they’re up against a green screen, but everything prior to that, everyone’s initial takeoff, that was all done practically with huge cranes, in a park. Those are real shots of them as opposed to computer-generated graphics. No offense to them, but it had a real organicness that Rob brings to everything. I think that’s why you feel it even more.
Dick Van Dyke doing that tap dance was incredible to see him just leap up there.
We all didn’t know how that was going to go. He was 91 years old when he shot that. He did it brilliantly and multiple takes of it. What blew my mind was when he goes to get up on the desk, he does it all on his own. He had chairs and everything, but he just did it all. He’s so wonderful.
As an editor, how was the collaboration with Rob and ensuring his vision is met but also meeting your tone and voice?
It’s a team that has worked together many times. I’ve worked with Rob and John before. I’m able to see things through their eyes and able to get in with that rhythm and getting into a ribbon with Rob is the most important part. At this point, thankfully it’s there. For me, it’s keeping a close eye on that perspective. He’s always had a clear vision of what the film would be.
I’m always trying to watch it as an audience. I serve the writing, the directors and producers of course, but first and foremost, I serve the audience and the people who are watching this film. So that includes, making sure something doesn’t move too quickly for them. If there is a movement, it’s making sure the audience can see what they need to see. From a performance standpoint, thankfully we had Emily Blunt who is absolutely flawless, as is Ben. It’s about the whole Banks family, but he has the longest journey. We’d be watching his dailies and Rob and I would watch and then turn to each other and we’d be in tears. Then it was, “Did we cry as much on this take as we did on the last take?”
This time you’re doing something that so original what was that like to be a part of this journey with Rob creating something from the ground up.
I’m so proud of him. There’s DNA of the original film, but it’s an original story. Normally, we have to spend so much of our time trying to make sure the songs are perfectly paced and that you’re not cutting back and you’re not putting ballads next to each other or that you’re not going too long between songs. Because this was created with that mindset from the start. The musical journey of the film was very sound. We were able to make sure the emotional ends were tied.
Another thrilling scene is the kite scene at the beginning with Georgie being pulled by that.
It’s an action sequence, that’s how we approached that. Big action music. It starts with enchantment and wonder, but there’s a big storm and Georgie is so great in it. He’s fighting with the kite and I loved that scene, watching him grit his teeth and fighting the storm.
How did you work with Marc Shaiman and collaborating with him?
It was a big back and forth about figuring out when we were crowding performances. We were fortunate to have Marc very early on in the film. Once Rob and I started cutting it and the director’s cut was taking shape before the studio even saw the film or anybody, Marc was able to start creating the score. We took the pre-records and we’d sometimes temp but it’s so hard to temp a musical with other films because your songs are your themes. We need to start hearing ideas for music so that they ultimately pay off when a song comes.
One of the things that is key that Marc created first was the overture in the title sequence which Rob was very adamant about having in the film. Not just because of the nostalgia, but the important thing an overture does is that you hear these songs and themes and the movie begins. In this case, you’ve heard Jack sing Under The Lovely London Sky and then you come into the big huge Overture. We studied tons of overtures to see if they did songs and that’s where we settled. You hear bits of Trip, you hear bits of Lost Things, and you hear all these songs and when suddenly the song comes up, it’s not hearing things for the first time. It’s familiar. Having that with Marc writing with us the whole time we were cutting was such an incredible luxury. That overture, you gain so much mileage from it.
It’s such a true musical. Going from there, because that’s what we hear in musicals, the overture, the teaser.
It totally is.
Are you a huge musical fan now that you’ve collaborated with Rob a few times?
I never formally studied acting or music, but my father is a musician so I grew up in a musical household and knew musical theater well. Not in the way Rob knows, but I did my best.
And who else could do this but Rob?
It’s his favorite film. It’s the first movie he ever saw in a movie theater. I remember having this conversation with him over ten years ago when he told me Mary Poppins was his favorite film.