How Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Betty Boop-Inspired Blossom Became the Breakout of ‘IF’

John Krasinski’s “IF” presents a menagerie of celebrity-voiced imaginary friends (including Emily Blunt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Bradley Cooper) who are in search of existential purpose after their kids grow up and forget them. Enter Ryan Reynolds, who runs a matchmaking service for the “IFs,” who live in a secluded retirement home at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park in Coney Island.

Framestore handled the audacious fusion of live-action and CG animation and VFX (800 shots) spread across their London, Montreal, and Mumbai studios. Led by animation director Arslan Elver and VFX supervisor Chris Lawrence, the team worked closely with director-actor Krasinski to get believable performances out of the IFs on set or in post. Krasinski saw them as visceral, hyper-real puppets. The techniques included stand-ins to help the voice actors deliver full performances, placing the animated characters in the shot with VR, or the use of home-shot reference footage from the animators.

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There are three hero characters: Blue (Steve Carell), a sweet, furry, purple monster, Lewis (the late Louis Gossett Jr.), a wise elderly teddy bear, and standout Blossom (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), an excitable humanoid butterfly. Heavily influenced by the Fleischer Studios iconic 2D look (think Betty Boop), she’s smart and sassy and keeps the matchmaking service under control.

“We had these sketches, but it was a very detailed process to bring them together,” Lawrence told IndieWire. “And then we brought it a great 2D artist, Gary Dunn, who did these amazing turnarounds and 2D illustrations to sort of develop a model sheet. Then we turned that into a [rapid prototyping, digital] sculpt, which we did with our visual development team.

'IF,' Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Blossom)
‘IF’Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Blossom was a really [tough] character,” Lawrence continued, “because a lot of the early 2D stuff is very difficult to realize in three dimensions and to make sculpturally look good from all angles. And we had to do that because of the way John shoots with roaming cameras and [Steadicam]. But we got these great sculpts, and then Arslan’s animation team took over turning 2D drawings into 3D.”

With Dunn’s 2D help, they found the character’s general shape, overcoming the obstacle of having such a large head and managing to make the eyes and mouth believably expressive. “But then, like a 2D drawing, we went to a model sheet expression sheet where Blossom would be sad, pissed, or happy from different angles,” Elver told IndieWire. And we did that in 3D. And we looked at it with a 360 turntable and realized what works and what doesn’t work. Having worked on ‘Tom and Jerry’ as well, with 2D characters, you cheat a lot. You will draw the character in a three-quarter, in a different way to a profile. But if you take one of them into a completely 3D world, it won’t work from the other angle.

“So we had to come up with a rigging system where we can shape her muzzle or eyes, and she was quite sensitive to very slight changes in proportions of her facial structure. So, for example, if there is this hair fringe that you put too much up, then there was so much forehead visible that she looked too bald. So the animation team really got into keeping her on model.”

Then there was the task of finding Blossom’s performance through Waller-Bridge, including the way she breaks the fourth wall in “Fleabag.” “It was very much like we did with [Bradley Cooper’s] Rocket in ADR sessions, to pick up little things to combine in one big performance,” Elver added.

'IF,' Paramount Picturers
‘IF’Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Two important sequences with Blossom include a Busby Berkeley-esque swimming sequence with multiples of herself and a ballet dance with Fiona Shaw. She plays the grandmother of Bea (Cailey Fleming), the 12-year-old who assists the IFs while her prankster dad (Krasinski) awaits an operation in the hospital.

“We were doing the previs for this huge swimming number [with scans shot at a pool in Greenbrier, West Virginia], and John described this moment of crazy stuff that’s happening in the pool, and we both talked about paying homage to Esther Williams,” Lawrence said. “And one of the things John told us from the very beginning was tangibility. So, for us, one of the key challenges was always making [the IFs] feel real when they move and act, particularly with Blossom and not making her look weird. But underwater, you can bend physics. But what was important and challenging was the camera work and choreography to make it look nice.”

Krasinski, meanwhile, was especially helpful in providing direction for the sublime moment when Blossom observes Shaw dancing to “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia,” which makes her glow. He knew the emotional arc of the scene and described it in great detail. “We animated that early in production because John really felt that scene on the day of the shoot, and the dance was so beautiful,” said Elver.

“We literally followed the reference of the actual dancer in terms of how we can translate that into the language of Blossom, and she had these lovely, huge wings that open up completely when the dance starts. And I remember that there was a moment where the camera literally goes behind Blossom while they’re dancing, it just goes through those two huge wings and the antennas. And even when she starts to glow, Blossom looks at her heart first. And John loved it so much. It was like we were [entering] a new stage in her life.”

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